Is there a way forward from cultural withdrawal on one hand (20th century pre-millennialism) and recurring optimism (21st century post/a millennialism) on the other? Yes, I believe that what is known as classic pre-millennialism gives us a way to meaningfully engage society. Classic pre-millennialism recognizes that conflict with society is endemic to a fallen world. The world is indeed ruled by evil principalities and powers and people not only seek their own interests but also will harm others for no reason. This mixture of demonic presence and original sin creates the cosmos, the world which John warns us against loving. This cosmos is a spiritual construction and its deconstruction can only occur by a supernatural event, namely, the resurrection of the dead. This event has occurred already in Jesus Christ, but its full manifestation awaits the Christ’s appearance at which time death – which is the spiritual lynch pin of the whole world system -- will be defeated.
Thus for God's people there is a true waiting, a true anticipation of an event yet to come, the inbreaking of God in Jesus Christ. However, while waiting Christians are not to be quiet or passive in their interaction with the world. They are instead to be agents of the Kingdom, agents of the second coming. And yes, this calls for the aggressive expansion of the church as the work of announcing this good news of the Kingdom is aggressively around the world. While doing the work of evangelism the church must also display the coming Kingdom.
What I mean by display is that the world should be able to look at the Church and see what the future kingdom will be like. The Church is the called out people of God and as such should be a mirror, so to speak, of the coming Kingdom. In the lived community of the Church we should find the old order of the world, with its lust for power and aggrandizement, in other words all the things that are driven by the fear of death, disappearing, and in its place a robust growth of all the things that grow from a belief in the resurrection.
Let me give a try at an example. An exclave is a part of a country that is surrounded by another country. And example is Ceuta, an exclave of Spain which is surrounded by the country of Morocco. Spain proper is across the Strait of Gibraltar, but this small spot of territory, surrounded by Morocco, is part of Spain. For me this is a partial picture of the church, in the world as some have said, but not part of it; a foreign country within a foreign country, with real and dynamic connections to the real country, for Ceuta - Spain, for the Church - The Kingdom of God, but in dynamic relation with the surrounding country, Morroco in the case of Ceuta, the world in the case of the Church.
So, in summary, the world is structured by sin, rooted all the way back in what we call the fall. This structure finds its operating principle in the fear of death, which the Bible shows as the primary motivation of this present age. And finally, it is evilly empowered on the supernatural level. While, as I stated above, this system can only be changed by the supernatural action of God in Jesus Christ the risen one, it can be affected, its evil can be mitigated, and by God’s grace, good can be accomplished in its midst.
I believe this is the way forward; to cross the border of our exclave and bring the grace and goodness of our God to the culture. I am not sure of Hunter’s eschatology, but I believe he has something like this in mind when he speaks of “faithful presence.” He gives this quote from the Prophet Jeremiah.
4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
5 "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.
7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
Hunter sees these instruction to the Children of Israel in exile as being instructions to Christians who are “strangers in a strange land.” Christians need to be involved as citizens, they need to have a theology of work that praises the jobs that people have, they need to live in ways that bring the grace and presence of Christ to those around them.
Not that these thoughts are new, but in the current deteriorated state of Christian thinking about the surrounding society they need to be restated and re-explored.
Hunter spends a great deal of time calling for a theology of work which includes seeing ones work as a calling, a vocation. Here he is especially concerned with what he perceives as the stance of the neo-Anabaptist movement which in his opinion denigrates work, especially work that is part of the capitalistic system – which is most work. This commitment to a vague economic model where there are neither poor nor rich means that all the business people in the church and all the ones who are working for them are simply aiding and abetting the anti-god powers of this age.
Instead we need to instruct people that they have been called to their field of work to be the presence of Christ, not only in the workplace, but in the culture.
I must say that our own movement, the Alliance, has to an extent reflected this sense that if a person goes into full time Christian work, that is golden, but what others do is not really a concern of the church. Thus our people may lack a sense of spiritual fulfillment in their work and as a result the local church frequently competes with the community and the workplace for time and attention.
Hunter uses the old categories of the true the good and the beautiful to divide up human activity. All that humans do falls into one of the three categories, or, is opposed to one of them. Those working on the true are those who, among other things, comment, write, teach, and establish laws. The good are those who care for our health, maintain our cities, houses and machines, work on public policies – it is a wide category. The beautiful is perhaps more obvious as it is those who create art and media in all of its variety.
So, the exhortation “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your heart” applies to the Christian at work, that is, we are to do all our work as a service to the Lord. This is the first response and it shapes us in the work place because we do not work to rule, we do not simply work to get by, but we seek to make our work an offering to Christ.
In this way we do not enter into a false reaction against the proper work of the Church which is to speak the good news of Christ to people, to invite them to faith, to initiate them into the church and to teach them to obey all the things that Jesus taught. I see this false reaction growing in a number of places and so I want to speak against it with some vigor. It is a betrayal of our commission to downplay evangelism, to make the mission of the Church the changing of the ills of this world, to project that somehow we can in fact obliterate disease, heal the environment and bring justice for all. No we cannot, for those things are tied to, are outgrowths of, the primary architecture of the cosmos. One day they will change, they will in fact be shattered, but not by our doing. So, to throw out the work of evangelism, of church planting, of discipleship, for these goals is to go off mission so severely that the Church itself will be in danger of being lost.
Instead of this false reaction we act as agents of the kingdom that is still yet to come. Christianity Today interviewed James Hunter and asked him for an example of “faithful presence.” He asked us to imagine if 20,000 Christians in the state of Illinois signed a petition in which they pledged that they, the undersigned, would be willing to adopt any child, regardless of race, creed or state of health, and then said, as a summary: “there are no unwanted children in Illinois.” This, Hunter said, would be a faithful presence response to the issue of abortion, and I would add that it is a response devoid of resentment, free of anger, and which abandons the will the power. It is a response that mirrors a whole new order, a new Kingdom that is yet coming.
I believe this is a way forward.
Several wonderful comments have been left and I will try to say some things in response in future posts.