Hereâ€™s an effort to separate the real from the faux neo-Calvinists.
Recent interactions with seminarians have made me realize how popular the notion of cultural transformation is as the best understanding of the Reformed ministry. Whether called mercy ministry, urban missions, or word and deed, a wing of the Presbyterian world believes that the church is called to apply the gospel to all of society and culture as part of the Great Commission. Cultural transformation is essential to the churchâ€™s love of neighbors and evangelism. As one prominent Presbyterian pastor puts it, â€œTo say that social concern could be done independently of evangelism is to cut mercy loose from kingdom endeavor. It must then wither. To say that evangelism can be done without also doing social concern is to forget that our goal is not individual â€˜decisions,â€™ but the bringing of all life and creation under the lordship of Christ, the kingdom of God.â€
This has an obvious appeal and appears to move the church away from irrelevance to the front lines of social activism. I have long thought that Kuyperianism of this sort is far more popular than the two-kingdom view because it is uplifting and inspiring. It gives the timid the gumption to go out and get things done. By contrast, the two-kingdom view prompts introspection and uncertainty.
But further reflection shows that the inspiration of such transformationalism may be as full of hope as Obama (and as vacuous). How exactly is a small wing of Protestantism going to transform New York City? At my home church in Glenside, Pa., we need a permit from the Virtuous Commonwealth just to remodel our auditorium. Even transforming an intersection in the Big Apple would require a herculean effort. (Can you really call it transformation if you need a permit?)
The need for permits is a reality that transformationalists do not seem to consider thanks to what seems to me a naive view of culture and society in the West (at least). Our society is remarkably complex affair that owes to legal, economic, political, and church-state developments that transpired over two millennia. The legendary sociologist, Edward Shils, for instance, explained some of this complexity when he tried to define the basic components of civil society. The first is that society is distinct from the state. Second, it protects rights to personal property. And third it involves â€œa constellation of many autonomous economic unites and business firms acting independently of the state and competing with each other.â€ The virtue of a civil society is that it allows for the diversity of objectives pursued by individuals and institutions. So one could say that civil society allows churches to try to transform society. What civil society will not allow is the conflation of society and the state. This was the mistake of Communism and why it was always the Partyâ€™s job even to throw a party.
Sometimes I think the rhetoric of transformationalism leads to a form of tyranny similar to Communism. Instead of conflating society and the state, the ideal of redeeming culture verges into conflating society and the church. If godless tyranny was a bad thing, wouldnâ€™t godly tyranny also be?
Of course, the response is usually the fist-pounding one that quotes Kuyper and says â€œevery square inch is Christâ€™s.â€ But the point of this remark is not entirely understood. Two kingdom folks agree that everything belongs to Christ, including civil society. In fact, every square inch is Christâ€™s even if the church is not transforming it. (Maybe the reason for the popularity of Tim Kellerâ€™s new book among the transformationalists is that lacking examples of the gospelâ€™s transforming power they really do need reasons to believe that God exists and is in control.)
So if we can agree that civil society as it has developed in the West is a good thing, then maybe itâ€™s possible to clarify exactly whatâ€™s at stake in the debates between Kuyperians and two-kindgomers. Kuyper himself believed in sphere sovereignty and that the institutional church should remain distinct from the spheres of the family and the state. He was also a great opponent of cultural and social homogeneity. So thereâ€™s a measure of agreement. Kuyperians and two-kingdom folk would also likely agree that the church is responsible for the gospel. Disagreements may surface over the degree to which the spheres of the family and the state depend for their legitimacy on whether or not they confess Christ. But this is a very different question from saying that the church, for the sake of neighbor love or mercy ministry, should build low-income housing.
Possibly what the soft (as opposed to hard) Kuyperians have in mind by mercy ministry and â€œword and deedâ€ is simply providing assistance for the poor and destitute. If thatâ€™s the case, then wouldnâ€™t the word charity be preferable to social justice (a phrase that eerily unites Jim Skillen and Jim Wallis)? And granted, Reformed Christians may disagree about the nature and scope of diaconal work. But do we really need the mantra of redeeming the city to engage in simple and low-profile acts of charity?