The great ends of the Church are... the promotion of social righteousness.
The story is told of a country pastor who preached zealously one morning on the topic of sin. Seated in the front pew, right beneath him, was one of church's leading elders. "This church is going to the Devil with all its gossiping!" the preacher proclaimed. The elder nodded in agreement and said quietly, "Great preaching, Reverend."
"This church is going to the Devil with all its pettiness and greed!" the preacher continued. At this the elder looked over his shoulder, and then spoke in agreement, "That's right, preacher. That's good teaching." Then the preacher added, "And this church is going to the Devil with all its drinking!" With this, the elder rose to his feet and said in a loud voice. "Well! Now you've gone and taken to meddlin'!"
In this column, I am returning to the six "great ends" or purposes of the Church. The great ends of the church are among "the foundations of Presbyterian polity" in our Book of Order - cornerstone affirmations of what it means to be Presbyterian. So far, we have considered "the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind," "the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God," "the maintenance of divine worship," and "the preservation of the truth." These are all important - but largely non-controversial - purposes. With the fifth great end - "the promotion of social righteousness" - many believe the church "has taken to meddlin'."
We live in a politically polarized society. Recent studies show that people are more likely to marry a person of a different faith than a person of a different political party. We resent people who challenge our political convictions. What is more, there is a strong tradition of pietism in American religion - the belief that sin consists only of personal vices and behaviors, and that religion is a private matter not appropriate for the public arena.
That is directly at odds with both biblical faith and the Reformed tradition. The core event of the Old Testament - the exodus from Egypt - is the story of Moses' protest and God's intervention against the most powerful government on earth. The prophets, from Elijah to Malachi, proclaimed God's judgment on unjust rulers and systems. And the New Testament - from Mary's Magnificat to God's final victory in Revelation - affirms that God is Lord of all, including the political powers of the earth.
Reformed Christianity - the family of faith that includes Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and others - believes that the church is called not to withdraw from the world, but to transform the world to a more faithful reflection of God's will. In our own society, this put Presbyterians among the leaders of the American Revolution. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton - the principal framers of our Constitution - both were strongly influenced by Reformed and Presbyterian theories of government.
But that also has led to disagreements and even divisions over what constitutes "social righteousness." The deepest and longest lasting division in American Presbyterianism was over the issue of whether chattel slavery was consistent with God's will. More recently, the civil rights movements, the war in Vietnam, women's rights, gay rights, climate change, and Middle East policy have all generated intense debate, and sometimes division, within the church as we seek to determine and pursue God's call to promote social righteousness.
But the same principle that informs our desire for social righteousness - that God alone is God - also shapes our conviction that "God alone is Lord of the conscience." So, when, often after intense debate, the church bears prophetic social witness, it only speaks to the church, not for the church. That is, we continue to respect that people of good faith may differ on these matters, and our fellowship as Presbyterians and Christians does not depend on uniformity of opinion. In fact, we recognize that we may even at times be mistaken in our witness, and we need the ongoing voices of faithful dissenters to bring us to repentance and correction.
Can we conduct our debates with greater respect, prayerfulness, wisdom, and love? Certainly. But the alternative - not "meddlin'" at all - is not acceptable for those of us who believe in a God of justice who reigns over the kings of the earth. To say "Jesus is Lord" is to say he is Lord of politics, too. And imperfect as we might be in honoring his Lordship, our faith compels us to do so in all areas of life.