Note: What follows was published earlier on the LTI blog. However, because the blog was accidently deleted on December 22, we are reposting important entries that are foundational for future posts.
Evangelical Christians committed to sound doctrine must distinguish themselves theologically from those who reject fundamental truths of the Protestant Reformation. Theological unity must never come at the expense of those truths.
However, cultural reform efforts like the pro-life movement are not primarily about doctrine, but social justice. To work, they must be broad and inclusive. Historically, for example, social reform efforts designed to abolish slavery and establish civil rights for all Americans were led by large ecumenical coalitions that, despite their theological differences, committed themselves to one goal: establishing a more just society. The same is true of abortion. While rejecting religious pluralism (the belief that all religions are equally valid), we must work closely with those who oppose the destruction of innocent human life, regardless of their religious persuasion.
Steve Camp, a gifted Christian musician, not only thinks such cooperation is wrongheaded, he’s convinced that Evangelicals are spending way too much time trying to reform culture, thus distracting themselves from the mission of the church as outlined in the Great Commission. (See his extended remarks here and here.) He’s coined a phrase to describe Evangelicals who work with Catholics opposing moral evils like abortion: They are guilty of "co-belligerence." Camp insists "there can be no real cultural impact apart from the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Lord." Hence, we are told, Christians should focus on preaching the gospel, not cultural reform. Changing laws will not change an immoral culture; only personal conversion to Christ will do that.
"It is dangerous, brothers, to play politics with God and even unwittingly deny Sola Scriptura for the pragmatic purpose of cultural impact, political reform, or trying to claim a "Christianized" new morality to push back the depraved actions of unregenerate people—and once again, absent of the gospel (Eph. 2:1-5). Evangelical Co-Belligerence is culturally impotent in dealing with the depraved hearts, minds and souls of a pagan world. Satan is pleased when any discourse designed for Christ and His gospel is turned into a political rally to pacify unsaved people in their sin while at the same time creating a superficial morality that is not based upon the salvific work of Christ alone! The tragic result is unredeemed people are left to feel comfortable and safe in a "Christian morality"—yet, they are still lost, still dead in their sins, still sons of disobedience, still drowning in their depravity, and still left hopelessly incarcerated under the eternal punishment of God’s holy wrath (John 3:36)."Later, he adds:
"The problem for believers in adopting this kind of political strategy in fighting cultural moral slippage, is that it forces the church to reprioritize its mission from "go into all the world and make disciples" to "go into all the world and strong arm politicians so that we can create through the legislative process a surface only pseudo-moral righteousness absent of the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ to stay off the tide of moral decay in our nation."Finally, Camp posts this on his June 9 (2005) web log:
"Political remedies for moral maladies is an effort in futility. Regeneration (through the proclamation of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ by genuine believers) not legislation, is what transforms the life, changes the heart, reforms behavior, and impacts our neighborhoods."So much is mistaken here, as Camp fails to make a number of important distinctions. First, how does it follow that because cultural reformers cannot make America blameless before God we shouldn’t try to make her better for the weak and oppressed? Not one pro-life leader that I know is arguing that politics can save souls eternally. Camp is correct: Only the gospel does that. However, the fact that cultural reform cannot get a man to heaven does not mean that it cannot save him from being butchered here on earth. Scripture is clear: The purpose of government is not to save people eternally, but to restrain evil acts (Romans 13: 1-4). The primary purpose of the church, meanwhile, is to preach the gospel of Christ, but if Christians, collectively, do not also challenge government to fulfill its duty to protect the weak and defenseless, who will, Ted Turner? Camp never tells us.
In short, pro-life advocates like myself do not work to influence culture to save the world from hell, but to create a more just society for the most vulnerable members of the human family, the unborn. We don’t necessarily want a "Christianized morality" or even a Christian king; what we want is a more just society. Anyone who thinks that God’s people are wasting their time pursuing justice may want to take a look at the following Scriptures: Jeremiah 5: 26-8, 9:24, Isa. 1: 15-17,21-23, 58: 1-10, 59: 1-4, 9, 14-19, 61: 8, Psalm 94: 1-23, Prov. 24: 1-12, Matthew 25: 41-46, 28: 18-20, to name a few.
Second, the purpose of cultural reform is not to change the hearts of unregenerate man, but to restrain evil acts by heartless individuals. Martin Luther King Jr. put it well: "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important." King’s overall point is worth seeing in context:
"Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. So there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government."Moreover, history often demonstrates that just laws function as a moral teacher that helps change hearts for the better. As Hadley Arkes points out in "First Things," prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, popular opinion in southern states overwhelmingly opposed desegregation and other anti-discrimination efforts. Within five years of passage, however, public opinion had shifted dramatically, with better than sixty percent favoring the new laws. Clearly, the law served as a moral teacher that helped mold public opinion. True, moral improvement brought on by good laws cannot mitigate man’s judicial guilt before God(Camp is correct: Our good deeds can never atone for our bad ones; only Christ’s finished work on the cross can do that), but it can limit evil behavior that results in the destruction of innocent human lives and that's reason enough to justify Christians engaging the political process.
Third, Camp is just plain wrong that "there can be no real cultural impact apart from the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Lord." Why should anyone believe that? Let’s be fair here: The moral evil of slavery did not end because of mass conversions to Christ. It ended when believers and non-believers joined forces to stand against it to the tune of 360,000 Union dead! Was the ending of slavery not a "real" cultural improvement? True, it did not make people right with God, but it did take the whips off the backs of oppressed people. That is moral and cultural improvement by any reasonable standard. (What Camp might reasonably say at this point is that non-believers have difficulty grounding their moral claims ontologically without borrowing from the very theistic worldview they reject. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t recognize right and wrong at the epistemic level, but it does mean that apart from theism, it’s hard to say why anyone should be a moral realist.)
Fourth, why should anyone suppose that it’s spiritually unacceptable for Christians to mobilize for any other cause than preaching the gospel? If a group of Christian doctors fails to rid a third-world country of AIDS or malnutrition, does that mean they wasted their time and should have devoted themselves to preaching or evangelizing? Christian pro-life activists are no more selling out their faith than are Christian doctors who devote their lives to treating the sick. Prior to the Civil War, Protestant clergy worked with non-Christians organizing the Underground Railroad to free Black slaves. Later, Dr. King’s followers marched directly from the church to the streets in their quest for racial equality. Were both these examples ill-advised attempts to usher in a false sense of Christian morality?
Fifth, why should anyone suppose that pro-life advocacy detracts from the discipling responsibilities of the local church as outlined in The Great Commission (Matthew 28)? Simply put, the answer to a lack of evangelical fervor for the Gospel is not to withdraw our political advocacy for the weak and vulnerable; it's to encourage Christians to do a better job presenting the gospel. We don't have to stop rescuing the innocent to do that.
Pro-life advocacy, in fact, sometimes serves an important preevangelistic function because it reawakens people's moral intuitions. A skilled Christian apologist knows how to exploit this for the sake of the gospel. For example, once the guy seated next to me on the plane concedes that right and wrong on issues like abortion are real things and not just matters of personal taste, he’s now ready for me to ask, "So where do these moral rules come from?" They can’t just exist in a vacuum. If objective morals exist so does an objective moral lawgiver. Ergo, theism. At this point, it’s very easy to follow Greg Koukl’s lead and ask, "Have you ever committed moral crimes? And do you think that people who commit moral crimes deserve to be punished?" Now we are off to the races. I may not close the deal, but I will get my listener thinking about his moral culpability within the context of a Christian worldview.
But even when pro-life Christians focus primarily on saving babies, is that a moral wrong? Is the fire department "distracted" when it spends time putting out fires rather than preaching the gospel? Clearly, the purpose of the fire department is not theology, but rescue. Its job is to save lives. The same is true of the pro-life movement. Our primary goal is not to save souls, though we rejoice when it happens. Our mission is to save babies—to put out the raging inferno of abortion that consumes 4,000 lives each day. We don’t need a theological litmus test to do that. What we need is a bucket brigade of concerned Jews, Christians, Muslims, and even Atheists. We’ll take all the help we can get. When houses are burning, we don’t worry about theology. We put out the fire.
Sixth, Camp’s claim that cultural reform efforts hinder the gospel because they leave unredeemed people feeling "safe" (falsely) in "superficial Christian morality" is misguided. What are we to conclude—that God’s sovereign ability to save His elect goes down when cultural morality goes up? That’s counterintuitive and hardly consistent with Camp’s own reformed theology. Is God in charge of salvation or not? As my friend Tina Thompson points out, how does a person thinking that he’s moral and good (like Saul of Tarsus once did) limit God’s hand to save him? Don’t most sinners think they’re okay before God grants them the gift of repentance? And if an increase in cultural morality means fewer souls make it to heaven, shouldn’t Christians pray for evil to abound that more may be saved?
Nonetheless, Camp is not the only one to blame pro-life Christians for the potential loss of souls. Consider this email from a concerned critic, indicative of many inquiries of this sort: "Scott, you must know that getting a bunch of people to realize that abortion is wrong may well coerce them into living a more moral life, but without Christ, it will only serve to make them more self-righteous. It may remove a lot of the negative symptoms which they’d otherwise suffer, but it may also deaden their sense that they have sins which require forgiveness."
Yes, and I could argue with equal validity that doctors who cure people of cancer are only treating a symptom and, in reality, are making unsaved patients feel more secure (falsely) about their eternal states. Moreover, I suppose evangelical leaders in the Sudan are wrong to partner with Catholics and Jews reforming a militant Islamic culture (one bent on killing their wives and children) because their "co-belligerence" only creates "a superficial morality," one that leaves unregenerate men dead in their sins.
Greg Koukl writes,
"When someone tells me that laws can never change a fallen person's heart, I ask them if they apply that philosophy to their children. Does the moral training of our children consist merely of preaching the Gospel to them? Wouldn't we consider it unconscionable to neglect a child's moral instruction with the excuse that laws can never change a child's heart?"
Seventh, why shouldn’t evangelicals work with Catholics on abortion? Greg Cunningham of the Center for Bioethical Reform writes that many Christians are inconsistent on this point. For example, if Steve Camp had a two-year old daughter that stumbled into a swimming pool and needed medical attention, he would gladly work with Catholic paramedics to save her life. And if she needed corrective surgery, it wouldn’t matter for a moment if the surgeon were a Catholic operating out of a Catholic hospital. However, if Camp will work with Catholics to save his own child, what’s wrong with working with them to save somebody else’s (unborn) child?
Put simply, if Evangelicals will work with Catholics to sell insurance or build churches, why not work with them to save babies? As Cunningham points out, "the Good Samaritan did not preach salvation to the beating victim; he risked his own life to save a fellow traveler. Jesus used this example to illustrate our duty to love our neighbor. It is cold comfort to a dead baby that we allowed him to die to avoid working with Catholics."
Finally, I would like Camp to substantiate his claim that Evangelicals are spending too much time on cultural reform. Oh really? How does he know this? Take the pro-life issue, for example. I wonder if Camp can show me just 10 churches in the United States with 1,000 members or more that systematically train their people to persuasively defend a Biblical worldview on abortion and embryonic stem cell research in a secular culture. In fact, I’ll be thrilled if he can name five.
If he can’t, perhaps we need to spend more time on culture, not less.