Stop trying to save the world and just do what Yahweh requires. Let Him do the saving.
If recent theologians like Peter Leithart, Stanley Haurwas and others are correct (and I believe they are) in understanding the Church to be an alternative polis, a rival city to the city of the world, an alternative community comprised of the baptized, then this has far reaching consequences for how the Church behaves in the world.
Most Christians in America today are only all-too aware that the Bible has political consequences and implications, and many pages have been written on how Christians should behave in the world. This cottage industry has mostly been framed by the question of what Christians should oppose in our culture. This has naturally led to an invisible assumption that the problems with the Church and with the culture are entirely (or mostly) external. So we close ranks, we insist more and more vehemently that Christians look or talk or dress like this and not like that, and true Christians think this and not that. The net result has been that we see those who disagree with us as our enemies, people to be “countered” and “refuted” logically and rhetorically. Bury them in footnotes and quotations and propositional analyses.
In short, all of these issues are caused by our need to save the world from itself. We’re supposed to have a “cultural impact” and straighten them out. A position which naturally allows us to believe we’ve got it all together (after all, we’re the ones helping them shape up) and that we must fix the world.
But understanding that the Church is an alternative polis, a city within the city, allows us to see the Church differently. It means, among other things, that the Church is independent from the culture. Not in a self-contained way, but in the sense of “sphere sovereignty.” A non-Christian is not under the jurisdiction of the elders of the local Church in the same way as a baptized member of the congregation. This implies that our laws are not for them. Christians spend so much of their time criticizing non-believers for not following the code of believers that it is a wonder this hasn’t occurred to any of them yet. The ethics of the Bible, and of the NT, are not for unbelievers or unbelieving culture.
But, some will counter with, doesn’t God want to see all the nations bend the knee to Christ and live that way? Of course. But those nations come into the Kingdom first. They become part of this alternative community, this rival polis before the way of life of that polis is applied to them.
What about the Old Testament? others will ask. Surely the Old Testament pictures Israel as a nation obeying God’s law and living according to His requirements. Why can’t we just apply those laws to our own cultural politics? Because, the OT polis becomes the NT polis. Those political requirements and penalties are transferred to the Church. Capital punishment in the OT becomes excommunication in the NT. The Church is Israel, a nation, a polis.
I think so many Christians get caught up in (to use Niebhur’s terms) “cultural transformation” that they develop a messianic complex. It’s down to us to save the world, to remake the world in our own image, to fight for truth, justice and the American way. This creates nervous, jumpy Christians, people who are hyper-critical, blind to their own faults and sins, and who turn unbelievers into targets. Add in an unhealthy dose of Enlightenment philosophy that focuses entirely on the life of the mind, on refutation and propositions, and you have perfectly captured the last few generations of evangelicals.
But if the Church really is a polis in any real sense, a city in its own right, then this is all wrong. If our ethical life is intended for us and not for the world, then we need to stop comparing the world to it, and stop trying to shove it down their throat without the requisite transformation by Christ. It is an odd irony that pursuit of “cultural transformation” results in the opposite, but the historical consequences of cultural transformation are fairly clear. This term means treating the Church as if she is not a polis at all, but an add-on, a nice addition to a culture that neither needs or wants it. It results in the pursuit of the levers of cultural and political power. We think we can climb aboard and drive the Mammon-mobile better than the Mammonites can. But this is all wrong. Jesus said to ignore the Mammon-mobile, and concentrate on driving the Church instead. You can’t drive a Gentile car without becoming like a Gentile.
But doesn’t this result in ignoring the world, letting it get worse and worse? Isn’t this some kind of gnostic retreat from the world and from influence? Some Christians, especially of the Reformed variety, are very fearful of this. But I don’t think so. To stop trying to save the world, to refuse to participate in the polis of Mammon in this way actually has good results. The sinner and the sick cease to be our enemies in a philosophical and worldview conflict, and instead become the wounded and the broken we are called upon to serve. It rehumanizes those people we have dehumanized. Instead of trying to fix the head alone, the Church would become a place that provides healing and care for the whole human person. It means that the Church would live like it was its own polis, a community of people living the way Jesus told us to, together in true community, practicing such radical sharing that there are many loaves and fishes left over for the broken and the hungry and the needy and the poor.
Maybe if we lived like the Church, we would be recognized as the Church by the world, as the Church once was known in her early days. Maybe the way to save the world is to stop trying to save it and just live like the Church. God will bring the nations in when He is ready.