After a one-week hiatus due to a big writing deadline and the publication of another big project, we’re back with the third part of our series on the Lausanne Movement and its lessons in regard to faith, development, justice and peace. In the first two installments, we learned from René Padilla and Samuel Escobar.
Now we turn to the late Carl F.H. Henry. In North American evangelical circles he’s kind of a big deal, having helped to found both the National Association of Evangelicals and Fuller Seminary, and served as the first editor of Christianity Today. From his bio at the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals:
Henry desired to rescue conservative evangelicalism from the hands of fundamentalism, and in 1947 he published his controversial work, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, where he argued for evangelicals to develop a worldview which included social and political dimensions.
His presentation at Lausanne 74 was titled “Christian Personal and Social Ethics in Relation to Racism, Poverty, War and Other Problems.” His message, he says, is intended to move in two directions: first, to explore how contemporary understandings of personal and social ethics either hinder and further the proclamation of the gospel; and second, to look at the gospel’s ethical implications in the areas of sex, wealth, race and political power.
We live in a world that was created good but that has been corrupted by the fall. Our proper posture towards “civilization,” then, is neither complete acceptance or complete rejection, but rather faithful discernment. As soon as someone starts urging evangelicals to care about social issues, though, there are sure to be objections that doing so will inevitably lead to ignoring, or at least minimizing, the importance of individual salvation and personal holiness. In this essay Henry clearly affirms the role of the individual within the larger role of the church:
Not only are individual believers, dispersed throughout many nations, to be inwardly conformed by the Spirit to the holy image of God’s obedient Son, but also the church as a community is to exemplify that public righteousness which God desires in society.
There are some who would wish to promote their understanding of public righteousness in society through the culture wars, led by the conviction that God is on their side and that the God-ordained ends justify any means, however unsavory, unethical or un-Christian. Perhaps worst of all, these culture warriors all too often fail to embody the biblical alternative, shalom — human flourishing and restored relationships in all directions. As Henry puts it,
It will not do to confront current [radical cultural] views… with anything less than the equally radical alternative of the biblical revelation of the will of God and its definition of the good life… From the very first the Christian message has emphasized the need of totally new selfhood, has called men to love of God and fellow man, and has stressed concern for public no less than for private righteousness.
The bulk of the essay consists of Henry’s understanding of what this means in specific matters of personal and social ethics. I’d encourage you to read what he has to say about each of those areas, but for our purposes here I’ll wrap this up with a paragraph I consider to be a truly compelling vision for the connection between evangelism and ethics in all of life:
In brief, Christian evangelism must do far more than speak only to the emotional vacuums in the lives of men; it must also help shape the intellectual mood of the day, deal with cultural idolatries and national priorities, confront the problems which erode a sense of human worth and dignity, cope with the moral paralysis that emboldens multitudes to shameless vices, uncover all the subtle and alluring masks that man wears in an age which believed itself at the gates of Paradise only to discover a desolation and a waste.
Does Henry’s essay challenge your understanding of evangelism and the mission of the church? If so, how? As those who believe Christ is making all things new, but who live today in the midst of so much desolation and waste, what might it look like to articulate and embody the good news of the kingdom?
[Photo credit: wheaton.edu]