As all the different forms of Christian engagement with the world have gathered on our front lawn, we see the conservatives on the right side, the progressives on the left side, and the anabaptists off in the bushes. In this next chapter, Hunter helpfully discusses the respective forms of engagement advocated by each. As Hunter breaks it down, they are “defensive against” from the conservatives, “relevance to” from the libs, and “purity from” with the anabaptists.
Hunter is not talking about a conceptual construct (like Niebuhr’s), but rather to the historically specific circumstances here in North America. And I think he gets it basically right. Missing from the list is the one I would like to see, which is “evangelization and discipleship of the nations therein,” but you can’t have everything. Not enough North Americans have signed up for that one yet, although we will address why they really ought to in just a minute.
With regard to these responses, Hunter says, “In sum, all three paradigms capture something important to the experience, life, identity, and witness of the church” (p. 223). This is quite correct, but we still have to move back a step. Each one of these engagement paradigms is driven by certain assumptions about the nature of history, and so we still need to know what the respective points of the defense, relevance, and purity are. By what standard? To what end? The church and the unbelieving culture are not two static realities that have to be balanced somehow, but are rather characters in a story. The church and culture are not two pieces of furniture that have to be permanently arranged in accordance with the laws of feng shui. Rather, the relationship between them has to be balanced through a narrative line, straight through to the conclusion. And it matters greatly what that conclusion is.
What good is it if soldiers are defending the fort, if they they don’t know what the war is over? What good is it to be relevant to the world, if you don’t know what end that relevance is supposed to achieve? And why separate from the world, if you don’t know why that separation is a good thing? In short, all these questions are teleological, and you can’t discuss teleology in history with Christians without talking about eschatology.
I believe that we in the church should defend against the world’s encroachments, because we are involved in a spiritual war. In this war, I believe also that we are to show the relevance of living in the way we do so that more and more non-Christians will hear the gospel, lay down their arms, and surrender to Jesus Christ. In order to do this in a way that is not compromised, it is necessary to stay separate from the standards of the world. We are commanded not to love the world, or the baubles found in the world. All three are true, but if they are not related to the task of discipling the nations because Jesus is now Lord of all the nations, then each of the three will get radically out of kilter.
The conservatives will wind up defending their hidebound ways, just because we always did; the progressives will wind up throwing all their virgins into the volcano of the state, just like they always do; the anabaptists will wind up confounding prophetic courage and snarky ingratitude. Defending, relating, and separating are all connected to transitive verbs, and no virtue or vice can be found in a transitive verb. Everything hinges on what you are defending and why. Everthing depends what what you are relevant to and why. Everything revolves around what you are separating from and why.
The why here needs to be the conversion of the world. All the families of the earth were promised to Abraham, and all our strategies should be tied in with advancing our ability to proclaim that glorious and conquering reality to them. The root of Jesse has been planted, and all the nations of the Gentiles will in fact trust in Him. Everything we do, all day long, should dovetail with that understanding. As we read the novel that God is writing, how the dénouement is supposed to come down is not a trifle. It should be the key to understanding the structure of the whole book.