In its 2,000-year history, the church has actively integrated evangelism and social action in powerful and transformative ways. Yet for many of today’s Christians, we feel as though we must choose between a life of ministry and cultural engagement, that our vocational paths are inevitably torn between “saving souls” and “serving justice.”
In the Bible, however, we see both calls woven together — “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28) and “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). They were not meant to be taken separately, pieced apart and divided up among believers based on our individual strengths or giftings.
We are called to a life of holistic discipleship, filled with a faith that’s integrated with cultural witness. We are called to be both “a pearl and a leaven,” as Jessica Driesenga puts it in The Church’s Social Responsibility, a new collection of essays on evangelicalism and social justice.
“When we survey Christians’ posture toward the world, it can seem as though there is an either-or decision to be made: either choose to be a part of the world or separate yourself from it for the sake of the gospel,” Driesenga writes. “But these tasks ought to be seen as necessary counterparts to each other.” (A partial excerpt of Driesenga’s essay is available at Letters to the Exiles blog.)
Pointing to a metaphor used by theologian Herman Bavinck, Driesenga reminds us of Jesus’ parables comparing the kingdom of heaven to a leaven (Matt. 13:33) and a pearl (Matt. 13:45–46). “These two metaphors, mixed as they may seem, are Bavinck’s way of understanding the dual tasks given to humanity: to preserve and preach the good news of Christ and to take the world that has been given to us and make something of it.”
As Bavinck puts it:
Even if Christianity had resulted in nothing more than this spiritual and holy community, even if it had not brought about any modification in earthly relationships … it would still be and remain something of everlasting worth. The significance of the gospel does not depend on its influence on culture, its usefulness for life today; it is a treasure in itself, a pearl of great value, even if it might not be a leaven.”
…The truth and value of Christianity certainly does not depend on the fruits which it has borne for civilization and culture: it has its own independent value; it is the realization of the kingdom of God on earth; and it does not make its truth depend, after a utilitarian or pragmatical fashion, on what men here have accomplished with the talents entrusted to them.… But, nevertheless, the kingdom of heaven, while a pearl of great price, is also a leaven which permeates the whole of the meal; godliness is profitable unto all things having the promise of the life which now is, and that which is to come.
Driesenga connects the dots:
The spiritual reality of the kingdom of God and the truth of the gospel is of infinite value to us. It is a pearl, something worth seeking after at any cost. The value of this spiritual reality should not be downplayed in the slightest, regardless of whether it has any tangible benefit to our world today. What Christ inaugurated on earth, the kingdom of heaven, must be understood as a heavenly treasure; God’s gift of righteousness, salvation, and eternal life, obtained by faith, has unspeakable value. It is the pearl of great price…
The gospel, as a leaven, has culture-making, culture-swaying, and culture-transforming power. This leavening, the influencing power of the gospel throughout the world, does not operate on its own. It comes from the core of the gospel, the pearl of great price. As Bavinck notes, “so from this center it influences all earthly relationships in a reforming and renewing way.” The leavening power of the gospel does not exist without the regeneration, faith, and conversion of humanity, the heavenly treasure, or pearl, gifted to humanity in Christ. But, in the restoring of one’s relationship with God through the work of Christ, the gospel can go on to have a leavening effect in the world.
As we seek to integrate both, we can have confidence in the pearl’s priority even as the gospel transforms the society and civilization around us, often in slow and complex and unforeseen ways.
As Driesenga concludes. “The gospel both creates a new community, restoring the relationship between God and his people, and has a robust influence on the present society.”
Read the full excerpt at the Letters to the Exiles blog, and read the full essay, and others, in The Church’s Social Responsibility: Reflections on Evangelicalism and Social Justice.