What is the role of pastors and theologians in bringing about cultural and social change?
Theologian Miroslav Volf, in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace, believes there is an important distinction between the role of pastors and the role of Christian laity, especially when trying to apply the gospel to our social world.
“Attending to social arrangements is essential. But it is Christian economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc. in cooperation with theologians, rather than theologians themselves, that out to address this issue because they are best equipped to do so….
“When not acting as helpmates of economists, political scientists, social philosophers, etc.—and it is part of their responsibility to act this way—theologians should concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”
His point is well made: the gospel does influence how we see culture and society, but the ones best suited for making statements about politics or economics (or, by way of extension, technology, education, and business) are Christian laity. Theologians are accurately described as “helpmates” of economists and politicians, and should not cross the line in trying to trade vocations. Instead, theologians should focus on shaping “social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies.”
At bare minimum, this means two things for pastors:
(1) Pastors have a responsibility to disciple those in their congregations who serve in the public sphere. Our public activity, namely, our work, is a matter of Christian discipleship. Work is not neutral – it is loaded with temptations, idols and opportunity for kingdom service. To never speak to the issues that affect the majority of our waking hours is irresponsible.
(2) Pastors should not confuse their distinct calling as a minister of the gospel and so try to become politicians, economists, or even philosophy professors. This is not a call to be aloof from the matters of the world. Far from it. It is a call be faithful to telling the story of the life, death, resurrection and Second Coming of the Son of God, and to walk alongside laity and shape their imaginations so thoroughly that the gospel will transform parishioners who can therefore shape society through their work.
Takeaway: if you’re a pastor, go and visit somebody at work and so hear about their high priestly ministry (1 Peter 2:9). If you’re not a pastor, go and invite your pastor to lunch and start “envisioning and creating just, truthful and peaceful societies.”
(Photo: Conversation at the Coffee Shop, Steve Hammond)