Biblical balance is important in every area of our lives. It is important in our personal lives as we seek to combine prayer and action. It is central to the life of the local congregation as it combines the inward journey of worship, fellowship, and nurture with the outward journey of mission to the world. It is crucial as we seek a proper balance of evangelism and social concern in our practice of mission. And it is essential as we seek to shape political life in a way that is faithful to Christ.
Each of those points briefly.
First prayer and action. I am an activist by natural instinct. I don’t think that strategizing and acting are bad. God gave us brains to use. But surely our first move, when we sense a problem, should be to pray and seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Just as surely, all our strategizing and acting should be immersed in prayer. If Jesus needed to stop preaching and healing, in order to spend time in prayer, then surely we need to do the same.
Second we need biblical balance in the local congregation. By all means, we need vibrant worship, warm fellowship and challenging nurture of each other within the local congregation. But so many of our congregations are largely self-centered. They spend almost all their money and time on the inner life of the congregation. But mission to the world is also central to biblical faith. Would it not be more faithful to Jesus if the typical congregation spent fifty percent of its budget on the internal life of the congregation and fifty percent on mission outside the congregation?
Third we need biblical balance in the way we embrace both evangelism and social action. For a great part of the 20th century, some churches majored almost exclusively on evangelism and other churches almost entirely on social action. Fortunately, the evangelical world has made major progress in the last forty years in embracing both. In 1973, the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern called evangelicals to greater engagement with societal issues such as racism, economic justice, oppression of women and violent nationalism. In 1974, the Lausanne Covenant declared boldly that evangelism and social responsibility are both part of our Christian duty. And in the following years, more and more evangelical leaders and congregations began to combine evangelistic outreach with programs that ministered to the social needs of people. Evangelical relief and development agencies flourished.
But it is very easy to lose the balance. Again and again, Christian ministries like the YMCA started out with a great combination of evangelism and social action. And then they slowly lost the evangelism. In my lifetime, I have known younger evangelical social activists who became so upset by the failure of evangelical leaders to deal with things like racism and economic injustice that they abandoned any concern for evangelism. I sometimes worry about younger evangelicals today. They say they just assume that faithful Christians embrace both word and deed. But in practice, they actually spend most of their time and money on social action.
Jesus is our only perfect model. Jesus preached and healed. Jesus did not think he should spend all his time preaching. The Gospels show that Jesus spent a lot of potential preaching time ministering to the physical needs of people. But just as certainly, Jesus did not spend all his time caring for people’s physical needs. We must strive to live like Jesus in mission.
Finally we desperately need biblical balance in our political activity as evangelicals. I know this is a complicated, sensitive topic. Here, I will not tell you how to vote. But I would think that one of the first things evangelicals should ask when they think about faithful political engagement is this question: “What does the Bible tells us that God cares about?” When one asks that question, it becomes clear that God cares both about the sanctity of human life and about racial justice; both about marriage and justice for the poor; both about sexual integrity and care for creation. The official public policy document of the National Association of Evangelicals states that “faithful evangelical civic engagement must champion a biblically balanced agenda.” And the document goes on to make strong statements on the sanctity of human life and marriage between a man and a woman. But it also has vigorous sections on the importance of economic justice, care for creation, and opposing racism.
If one is completely pro-life (as I seek to be), then one must defend the sanctity of human life wherever it is threatened. Preventing people from dying of starvation or inadequate healthcare are also pro-life issues.
Faithful Christians will promote a political agenda that reflects biblical balance. When evangelical Christians are supportive of political movements that fail to condemn or even encourage racism, neglect economic justice for all, especially the poor, and fail to care for the environment the Creator has given us, they abandon a biblical balance and discredit Christian faith. Truth telling is as essential to following Jesus as it is to a vibrant democracy. Evangelicals who remember Jesus’ words that the truth will set us free should be the strongest advocates of truth in public life.
It is always difficult to embrace a fully biblical balance in one’s political decisions. Regularly, one politician or party will be closer to a biblically defined agenda on some issues and the other person and party will be closer on other issues. I acknowledge that political choices in this nation at this time are extremely difficult. But biblically committed evangelicals ought to be widely known as the strongest advocates for both the sanctity of human life and economic justice; for both supporting marriage and rejecting racism; for both sexual integrity and care for creation and truth telling. Biblical balance is what evangelical political voices should promote. That is what the public should think of when they think of evangelical political engagement.
So to the graduates in 2018 and to all church leaders, I say this.
As pastors and leaders in church and society, please beg the Lord to help you embrace and promote a biblical balance. Embrace both the vertical and horizontal parts of Jesus’ gospel. Everywhere share with broken people the glorious news that no matter how badly they have messed up, God stands with wide open arms eager to forgive their sins. Then with equal vigor, teach all who confess Christ to live like Jesus now so that the church is a little picture of what the completed kingdom will be like when Christ returns.
I urge you to preach, teach, and live the biblical balance of prayer and action. Shape congregations that place equal emphasis on the inner life of the church and outward mission to the world. Nurture congregations that every year lead scores of people to confess Christ for the first time and then throw their arms around the poor, broken people in society and walk with them toward wholeness. And finally, as pastors, do not tell your people how to vote. But dare to help your people embrace a biblically balanced political agenda in their civic engagement so that when the world speaks of evangelical political activity, they say: “Those evangelicals are the leaders in protecting the sanctity of human life and marriage. And they are also the leaders in rejecting racism, empowering the poor, protecting the environment, and telling the truth.
My friends I urge you: Make biblical balance your guiding star.
This is a shortened version of my commencement address at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania on January 9, 2018. You can read the full speech in my new book, GOD’S INVITATION TO PEACE AND JUSTICE; SERMONS AND ESSAYS ON SHALOM available from www.judsonpress.com and Amazon (after Sept 30).
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