Reform or redemption: must the church choose?

Many of the citizens of this world are oppressed and exploited. Should this cause the church to espouse political and social issues with ever greater fervor? Can it do so and still proclaim the gospel?

Enoch Oliveira is a general vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

As unrest and dissatisfaction continue to ferment among many of the oppressed peoples of earth, liberation theology has become one of the most current theological buzzwords. The "liberal" element of Christianity has for years been involved in social and political causes around the world. And now the "conservative, evangelical" segment of the Christian church is showing an increased willingness to espouse political and social issues it feels are important.

How should Seventh-day Adventists view such trends, and what should be our stance? This article was written in response to a question from an Adventist university student: "Why is the [Seventh-day Adventist] Church hiding behind a convenient escapism, indifferent to the sighs of the lonely and the moans of those who waste away, innocently, within the recesses of dark prisons'!" Because of the "despotism, torture, tyranny, and social injustice" he sees in the world, he urgently requests the church to give him a statement on the matter.

Seventh-day Adventists are far from indifferent to human needs (see the preceding article, "A Report to the President of the United States," by Neal C. Wilson). How ever, the church believes in a proper combination of the Christian's horizontal and vertical responsibilities. —Editors.

A crisis is now shaking Catholicism, according to Mitchel de Saint-Pierre, that is dividing the clergy into two antagonistic groups: the verticalists, who are preoccupied with revelation, and the horizontalists, engrossed in revolution. One group is known for its fervent theocentrism, and the other for its absorbing anthropocentricism. The verticalists focus their interests on divine justice, while the horizontalists center their attention on social justice.

These two positions, which apparently are dividing Catholic priests, also seem to be separating theologians and ministers who represent historical, contemporary Protestantism. Every day there is a growing number of evangelical leaders who support a temporal, nonconforming church, who participate in protest movements, and who cry aloud the need for radical changes in the present social structure. In contrast, we can also find conservative ministers, guided by an isolated verticalism, who defend the idea of a conforming, introverted church, separated from the world and indifferent to the problems caused by tyranny, poverty, and social injustice.

In the face of such dualism, where do we stand as a church? Are we verticalists or horizontalists?

Isaiah's vision

Within every human being there is an uncontrollable verticalistic nature. We come from God, and without Him we feel empty, incomplete, and disoriented. There is in every soul a longing for the eternal, a desire for a life beyond the boundaries of this earth. This mysterious inner impulse leads pious souls to a vertical experience, to an encounter with God.

When the prophet Isaiah felt himself submerged in the mystical world of the spirit, he left us a poetic description of his experience: "I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up" (Isa. 6:1). Certainly this was a unique experience in his life. It was so sublime that human words were incapable of describing it, and so he used symbolic figures. But while contemplating the majesty of God, he heard a voice saying, "Whom shall I send?" Facing that challenge, he responded without hesitation, "Here am I; send me" (verse 8). Such a willing disposition reveals he had a vision that embraced not only the transcendent God, high and lifted up, but also the entire world and its tremendous needs.

From Isaiah's vision we can conclude that genuine verticalism (worship of God) leads believing souls to a horizontal experience (action for others). These two lines, one directed toward the Most High and the other directed toward our neighbor, give us a true vision of the cross and its significance. As we contemplate the cross, we comprehend in all its greatness the challenge of a world shaken by uncertainty and covered with the wreckage of disillusionment.

But what type of action should motivate us in this horizontal experience? In the face of exacerbated and clamorous subversive movements, strikes and protest marches, many ask themselves, How should we relate as a church? Is it right for us to join forces with the activists in their struggle for a more humane and just society? Can we, in our horizontal experience, lift the banner of subversion?

The example of Christ

Much is being said today in some religious circles about "Christian violence" and "justifiable violence" as a legitimate recourse against the violation of human rights and "unjust laws." Defenders of liberation theology present Jesus as the first Christian who used violence in the name of God. The disciples, who saw Him with the scourge of cords in His hand, driving out the hucksters who profaned God's sanctuary, understood His attitude, recalling what the Scriptures prophesied: "Zeal for thy house has consumed me" (Ps. 69:9, R.S.V.). * But it was the only time Jesus used even the threat of violence. And His action was directed against the church and religious abuses, not against society and political wrongs. When Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest's servant, he heard from Christ's lips the admonition " 'All who take the sword will perish by the sword'" (Matt. 26:52, R.S.V.).

The only sure path for the church is to follow the remarkable example of Christ. He exhorted the rich that they would have difficulty entering the kingdom of God; nevertheless, He never took part in protest movements or denounced the unjust distribution of wealth. He never joined subversive groups carrying posters that read, "Down with the Romans!" Never did He deliver a speech against the tyranny and imperialistic oppression of Caesar. On the contrary, one time He said: " 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's'" (Luke 20:25, R.S.V.).

By studying His life and teaching, we can better understand what action we should take in the face of corruption and injustice. We are told by inspiration: "The government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses—extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart."—The Desire of Ages, p. 509.

The church and violence

The early Christians also refused to raise the banner of sedition against "institutionalized" violence. But by the fourth century, when Christianity had become recognized as the official religion of the empire, Saint Augustine (354-430) frankly approved the use of violence to combat injustice. In his Treatise on the Freedom of Choice, he defended the establishment of a dictatorship, under the leadership of an elite, when the people showed themselves incapable of selecting honest and competent government leaders.

The thinking of the bishop of Hippo had a great influence upon Thomas Aquinas (1225?-1274), who wrote: "When laws are unjust, the subjects are not obliged to obey them." In a legitimate cause, Aquinas maintained, "death can be inflicted upon any man," with no injustice.

These, and similar concepts proclaimed by influential religious leaders of that time, inspired the hated tribunals of the "Holy Inquisition" that were responsible for horrendous and vile crimes perpetrated "in defense of the Christian faith."

In his encyclical Populorum Progression, Pope Paul VI justifies violence against "prolonged tyranny that gravely offends human rights and threatens the common good of the country."

However, in contrast with the thinking of Pope Paul VI, we have the attitude of the apostle Paul, the apostle to the nations. He lived in a time when one of the most hated of all evils was prevalent—slavery. According to Roman laws, a slave was not a person; he was a thing, an animal. His master had complete authority over him and could torture, mutilate, and even kill him with total impunity. Nevertheless, we do not find in Paul's writings any protest against the system of slavery. On the contrary, he insisted that Christian slaves should obey their masters, even those who might be hard and cruel. In the specific case of Onesimus, a slave converted in Rome, Paul sent him back to his master. Paul did not concern himself with the systems or institutions of law enforcement, but rather with the proclamation of the gospel and its redeeming power.

"It was not the apostle's work to overturn arbitrarily or suddenly the established order of society. To attempt this would be to prevent the success of the gospel. But he taught principles which struck at the very foundation of slavery and which, if carried into effect, would surely undermine the whole system. 'Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,' he declared. 2 Corinthians 3:17. When converted, the slave became a member of the body of Christ, and as such was to be loved and treated as a brother, a fellow heir with his master to the blessings of God and the privileges of the gospel."—The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 459, 460.

Sociology or salvation

One well-known religious leader, who became famous for his participation in protest marches, made the following statement: "I see religious activity in terms of social action. Preaching and other ridiculous things that we did formerly no longer are justified in our time. We are more concerned with man than with God. God can take care of Himself. Man needs our help."

It seems clear, however, that when the church makes social action its first priority, it loses its identity as a Christ-centered, spiritual institution and transforms itself into a man-centered, political organism. It may maintain a religious appearance, but it will lack spiritual power. Under the pretext of promoting the restoration of the kingdom of God, it hastens, in reality, the establishment of the kingdom of man. In its eagerness to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the individual, it loses the vision of its prophetic mission, its spiritual responsibility.

"We are not sent to preach sociology, but salvation; not the economy, but evangelism; not reform, but redemption; not culture, but conversion; not progress, but pardon; not a new social order, but a new birth; not revolution, but regeneration; not a renovation, but a revival; not a resurgence, but a resurrection; not a new organization, but a new creation; not democracy, but evangelism; not a civilization, but a Christ. We are ambassadors, not diplomats."—Hugo Thomson Kerr, cited by Samuel M. Zwemer in Evangelism Today, p. 16.

The church and social action

We don't believe it is the function of the church to formulate casuistic programs of social action. "The church is God's appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world."—The Acts of the Apostles, p. 9. The church's task should be the proclamation of the gospel that liberates man from a self-centered life, void of ideals and meaning, and gives him a life that is abundant and full.

But the proclamation of the gospel should not be the church's only concern. The world has a right to expect the church to be more than a mere ambulance, gathering up the unhappy, wounded, destitute victims of vice, disease, and social oppression. It is fitting for the church to take the initiative in the fight against man's enemies. For that reason we spare no efforts in our fight against drug abuse, alcoholism, smoking, gambling, pornography, prostitution, ecological contamination, and other evils that weaken society. Furthermore, we are busy with an extensive benevolence program that gives social assistance to the oppressed and helpless.

By precept and example we preach a new concept of life in which the motives are not egoism, ambition, or competition, but brotherly love and respect of human dignity. As we extol the merits of love, we denounce the dialectics and systems that encourage hate and that are responsible for rebellion and war.

In the meantime, we will not allow ourselves to be deceived by the illusion that we can transform the established order of things. God must ultimately accomplish this. According to prophecy, He will soon intervene in the destiny of the world, establishing "a new heaven and a new earth," thus completely transforming the social structure.


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Enoch Oliveira is a general vice-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

September 1982

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