At Work & Theology 101

Is There A "Correct" Way for Christians to Engage the World?

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Christians use a lot of words, phrases, and terms for describing what Christian engagement with the world should look like. How do we make sense of it all?

After telling his disciples of his impending departure, Jesus told them,

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33). 

Later in John’s gospel we are brought into Pilate’s residence, where Jesus, now under arrest, informs the Roman governor that,

My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.

Both of these texts ring familiar to many Christians, though there is not agreement as to what these words of Jesus mean for us today as we consider what it means to participate in this world that God created.

Depending upon one’s experiences and theological influences, there are a few perspectives that can be taken on this issue. Today I’ll focus on three (though there are certainly more than the three perspectives listed here).

An Alternative Witness

The first perspective can be broadly regarded as an alternative witness approach often associated with the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition.

  • This perspective strongly emphasizes that the Christian’s primary allegiance and identity is located in the Christian community.
  • In stronger forms of this view, the Christian community itself functions as an alternative community that models an approach to life before and among the public that reveals God’s kingdom.

While this view does not forbid participation in domains outside the community, the actions performed among the world are in no way connected to God’s kingdom.

Two Kingdoms

The second view is often called a two kingdoms perspective.

  • In this perspective, Christian action in the world is not out of bounds, but all activities external to Christian worship (identified as Word and Sacrament for some) are not to be confused with God’s kingdom.
  • In part, there is a concern that if one connected the kingdom to activities outside the church, then there could be the temptation to confuse those activities with God’s saving work or with the identity of the church itself.

This approach encourages Christian engagement in the world but is careful to resist labeling such activities as ‘Christian.’

 A Glimpse of the Kingdom

The third perspective is a version of the neocalvinism associated with Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. I say ‘version’ because there are disagreements in emphasis among those influenced by Kuyper.

  • In this perspective, there is a strong emphasis on the permission common grace gives us to participate in the created order and also language that encourages Christians to sometimes create distinctly Christian institutions (such as political parties and schools in Kuyper’s era).
  • As a neocalvinist myself, my way of putting it is to say that Christians can both engage God’s world and consider their actions outside the church as having the potential to be a glimpse of kingdom reality, but only a ‘glimpse’ because these actions do not usher in the fullness of God’s reign.

This view may not always look different in practice from the two kingdoms view, though distinctions will be evident when our actions beyond Sunday are explained.

What Does This Mean for Christians?

In theory it is possible that one could hold any of these three views and enthusiastically participate in God’s world, yet in practice these views will likely lead to certain emphases in priorities for Christians. This can have great implications for the way one gives priority to our economic and work life.

We can ask ourselves two different questions:

  • What language do I use for Christian engagement in the  world?
  • What does my current practice reveal about what I believe about Christian engagement?

In my view it is important for us to have our kingdom allegiance while participating with humility in God’s world, applying great effort to leading the way in the worlds of finance, business and economics, and asking ourselves how we can help bring about glimpses of the kingdom even as we wait for Christ himself to bring the kingdom in fullness and clarity.

What language do you use for Christian engagement in the world? 

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Further readings on At Work & Theology 101

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