Microsoft Word Format:
By Stephen Green
First Published in Christian Voice June 2008
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, (Matt. 21:12)
I was challenged recently to set out the Biblical precedents for activism.
Now, I suppose we have to say what we mean by 'activism' first. Wordweb defines it as 'A policy of taking direct and militant action to achieve a political or social goal.'
'Direct' means 'lacking compromise', 'straightforward' 'without deviation' and 'militant' is 'showing a fighting disposition' or 'disposed to warfare', according to the same dictionary.
Well, there is no doubt we are in a spiritual war and we certainly want to be uncompromising with the truth, but I do not understand 'activism' quite like that definition. Perhaps I should. But 'militant' conjures up pictures of pickets and braziers and 'they shall not pass' which is not quite how we go about it. Even during the theatre tour of Jerry Springer the Opera, we did not so much 'picket' theatres as pray and evangelise at them. The managers still did not like it, of course, as God was in it and it put the fear of God into them.
DEFINING CHRISTIAN ACTIVISM
So how widely can we define 'Christian activism'? Christian Aid describe their poverty relief as 'Christian activism'. Praying for the persecuted church is described in places as 'Christian activism'. The American Civil Rights movement had many Christians involved in it, following Christian principles. On his website, the Labour MP Stephen Timms describes numerous Christian social projects he knows as 'Christian Activism.' Evangelism can be 'Christian activism' and pavement counselling outside abortion clinics definitely is.
But writing about the latter, Dave Hunt says on his website sound-doctrine.co.uk : 'No matter how commendable the goal of such tactics, there is not one example in the entire Bible (his emphasis) of political or social activism ever being advocated or used by God's people.' He goes on: 'There are numerous cases of civil disobedience in Scripture, but it was never engaged in for the purpose of forcing an ungodly society to obey Biblical principles.'
So that's that then? Well, Dave Hunt actually commends Operation Rescue for saving lives, but he says it should be about that alone, not about overturning Roe v Wade. I rather think one would be content with the first objective, but we must surely take issue with Hunt when the latter says: 'the abolition of slavery ... (has) not made society any more godly.'
CHRISTIAN ACTIVISM 'JUSTIFIED'
Last year, giving the William Wilberforce lecture in Hull, the birthplace of the Christian reformer, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, supported Christian activism as he attacked the "moral relativism" that he said is now eroding Christian values in society and Government.
He told Christians we are justified in mounting vigorous campaigns against the State if it is eroding Christian morality. 'If the State perpetuates in the corporate life of the nation what is directly contrary to the Christian understanding of God's purpose, then Christian activism in respect of changing the law is justified, primarily when the State is responsible for ‑ so to speak ‑ compromising the morality of all its citizens.'
Wilberforce would have agreed. He saw that slavery degraded and compromised the morality of
as a whole. Whether individuals or society would become more godly as a result of abolition was not the point. A national sin was being committed, and it would have national consequences.
Actually, Dave Hunt is closer to us than one might think. He goes on to accuse Christian activism of being 'too narrow and selective'. He says, 'We must not only rescue the unborn, but the children in public schools who are being perverted through the teaching of immorality, witchcraft and occultism.' Amen. And then: 'We must denounce sin, call for national repentance, and preach the gospel in convicting power.'
Amen again. He is talking about exercising the prophetic function of the church, which is what we do, and encourage the Church to do, in Christian Voice. But does that make us 'activists'? Perhaps we should look at the roots of the word 'activism' itself. Activ-ism is to do with being active, which itself is to do with taking action of some kind. So I see activism as the adding of actions to prayer and prophetic witness. I speak of 'prophetic witness' instead of just 'the prophetic' in order to emphasise that we are proclaiming the word of God rather than predicting the future; forthtelling rather than foretelling.
That means we have to look at the example of the Prophets to see if they added actions to their witness. We must also ask if the Lord Jesus said anything positive or negative on this topic and see what the Apostles had to say.
I am taking it as axiomatic that it is our Christian duty to proclaim God's word against wickedness, to pray for our leaders (and specifically to pray that they will do right) and to seek the peace of the nation in which we find ourselves (Jer 29:7). It is the 'activism' bit which is the consideration here.
WAITING ON THE LORD
I now raise an objection, which is that many psalms speak of 'waiting' on the Lord. But most of the psalms, including Psalm 37, where the word occurs three times in the KJV, were written by a certain military commander, a king and a man of war. An army waits for its orders, then it fights. In our prayer we place our petitions before the Lord. I have a vision of a people seeking the Lord and waiting on the Lord for their orders. They are not so much, 'Lord, Do Something!' as 'Lord, what can we do?' And when the Lord hears prayers like that, He reveals what they should do, and it could be something really obvious or something they hadn’t thought of. At that point the waiting is over and the army sets forth.
The most basic activism will be lobbying, which is witnessing to our rulers and elders in the land by post, by email, by visit, by letters and articles in the press. All the prophets, from Moses to John the Baptist, did the equivalent of these things in their day, and I shall return to that. I was going to say 'from Abraham' but Abraham, described as a prophet in Gen 20:7, was an equal with kings. (And if we take him as a prophet, he took direct and militant action in forming the first Hebrew expeditionary force - see Gen 14:12-16.)
Activism can also include creative visual protest, also known as 'photo opportunities' or 'media stunts'. A good recent example of one of those was the pro-life people dressing up as 'buuny-girls' and 'cow-boys' to protest at hybrid embryos. In fact, I struggle to think of any others Christians have done - we need to be more creative like that.
But the prophets did dozens of them. Few were as personal as Hosea marrying a prostitute to show how He would take back
after that nation’s idolatry which God likened to adultery. Few were as dramatic as Ezekiel in Chapter 4 building a model of
in seige and lying on his left side for forty days then on his right side for forty days.
In 1Sam 11:7 we read that Samuel took a yoke (a pair) of oxen, cut then in pieces and sent them all through
to gather them to stand against the Ammonites. That got them thinking. Talking of yokes, there is much about actual yokes and the making and breaking of them in Jeremiah, chapter 28, for instance. The prophets knew how to do something dramatic to catch people's attention.
THE EXAMPLE OF THE LORD
There can be few examples of activism as dramatic as that of the Lord throwing the money changers out of the temple. Despite what Dave Hunt says, this righteous action of the Lord was precisely to effect a social or political change. A cartel was operating in the temple, with the full connivance of the priests. The traders who set exorbitant prices for sacrificial animals and the dishonest money changers were licensed by the temple authorities.
I hope none of us should ever do something remotely as violent, but this example is an answer to the more passive folk who equate doing nothing at all with being 'Christ-like'. Being 'Christ-like' might actually involve taking a course in whip-making, if we follow John's Gospel account of this incident (John 2:13-16). Our modern-day response to such a situation, leafleting those going in to the temple, looks decidedly wimpish in comparison to the Lord's intervention. 'Gentle Jesus meek and mild' is clearly only part of the story of our gracious Lord's character.
In a sense, it is unfair to expect to see examples of activism from the Apostles. As their title suggests, their function was to advance the faith by setting up and equipping churches. The Lord Jesus was and is Prophet, High Priest and King. The Apostles were only the first of those, and then mainly in a foretelling capacity. In a sense, we should not be expecting any examples of activism in the New Testament at all, which is to do with Christ's work of redemption, which itself is dramatic enough.
It could be argued that Peter and John's defiance of the Sanhedrin was Christian activism, although it is possible to describe it as simple evangelism, against which there can be no law. And yet, the fact is, a law had been made against preaching the Gospel, and the Apostles defied it. They broke the law without a second thought. It is left to James to urge us to take the prophets 'for an example of suffering affliction and of patience' (Jas 5:10). The Lord Himself blesses those who 'hunger and thirst after righteousness' (Matt 5:6) and not the peacekeepers but 'the peacemakers' (vs 9)
The book of Hebrews casts the prophets as heroes of faith, who 'through faith subdued kingdoms' and 'wrought righteousness' (Heb 11:33). Paul tells us to pray for rulers to do righteousness (Rom 13, 1Tim 2) and surely if we pray for them we can witness to them with the truth of God's word, using a media-stunt if we can think of one. James commends the prophets because they 'have spoken in the name of the Lord'.
BACK WITH THE PROPHETS
So we are back with the prophets and we must be under no illusions that their situation was any different from ours. Even though God ruled in the affairs of nations then as now, they were operating in societies which had overturned God's laws. They practised injustice, child sacrifice, sexual immorality and corruption. They were societies very like our own.
Activism for Jeremiah included the photo-opportunities with yokes, but it also involved writing to the king and then writing again when the king ripped up and burnt his first letter (Jer 36:21-24, 28). He also wrote lobbying the exiles in
(Jer 29:1). Writing to your MP and to elders in the land such as peers in the House of Lords, councillors and captains of culture, industry and banking receives divine sanction from Jeremiah's example. Witnessing to leaders was practised by all the prophets, dramatically so by Nathan to David (2Sam 12:7), Elijah to Ahab (1Kings 18:18) and Isaiah to Hezekiah (2Kings 20:14-18).
The kind of witness typified by pavement counselling or the distribution of evangelistic tracts for a purpose, or any way of showing people their sins is not just allowed by scripture, it is mandated by Ezekiel 33. We simply have to warn the people, our rulers, our neighbours. It is a dereliction of duty and an absence of love and care not to do so.
Whether that includes rallies, protests, street witness, outdoor prayer, media stunts, or whatever the Lord gives us to do as we seek His face, it needs to be done, and I hope I have shown it has sound Biblical precedent.
Personally, I have found it impossible to proclaim the word of God to the world without it making an impact in my own far-from-perfect life. I hope that is a universal experience, but having said that, I have met hypocrites along the way, men whose own lives were a negation of their profession of Christ. I hope they are rare; they must need hearts of stone or the hide of a rhinoceros not to be impacted by a chapter like Matthew 7.
For you, dear reader, with your repentant, humble heart, your own walk is bound to be strengthened by looking at what God says about contemporary issues, so long as you keep well in mind the Biblical principle of prophesying or witnessing with clean hands and a clear conscience (Matt 7:1-5; John 8:7). So a life of prophetic activism is faith-building, a journey through the strait gate and along the narrow way which leads to life (Matt 7:14). May God bless you through it.