Ellul on Being Christian in a Disordered World

This entry is part 14 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

In last Sunday’s gospel reading, Jesus responded to a question about taxes with his famous remark to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is his (Matthew 22).

Often when I’ve heard this gospel preached (usually around pledge time, coincidentally), it’s been framed as Jesus being clever — threading a needle so as not to offend the Romans, and risk prison, or the Jews, and risk dismissal as some sort of collaborator with the oppressing power.

I don’t think Jesus feared either of those things, and I sure don’t think he was spinning his remark like some shrewd political operator. Treating the remark in this way treats it too lightly, as does treating it as an excuse to talk about church tithing. I think it was a much deeper and more important comment than that, about the way in which Christians are to live in this world. So important that it was included in all three synoptic gospels — remember, the Virgin Birth was in only two!

This comes to mind as I move to the next section of chapter 2 in Presence in the Modern World, where Ellul says that, although it is a “well-known truth” that Christians belong to two cities,” it’s not something that is deeply understood in terms of daily living.

We are citizens of the nation where we live; we have social obligations, family obligations, governmental obligations; we must work to earn money, we participate in community and cultural activities. We’re not able to shirk these things, and importantly, we’re not called or commanded by God to shirk them. Nor are we called to “compartmentalize” and be Christians only on Sundays.

But Christians must consider their life in this world to be a temporary situation. They “belong” to a different city. They are something like foreigners temporarily residing in a country where they’re not citizens. They must play by the rules of the host country, adapt to the customs where necessary to get by, pay whatever fees or taxes are owed, conform with the laws; but still, their ultimate loyalty and allegiance lies with their own state, where they are full citizens, and to which they intend to return.

Ellul says that these Christians can be like ambassadors, defending the interests of their own city while living and working within a different city. Or he says it may be even better to think of them as spies, infiltrating the world and creating the conditions that will allow the Kingdom of God to burst forth.

No matter what a Christian’s situation in the world might be, their first loyalty must lie with God, yet they can’t abandon the world. It’s not their choice when to “return” to where they belong, so they must accept the inherent tension of belonging to two cities.

Ah, tension! Remember that from Chapter 1? There Ellul spoke of the need for Christians to embrace the tension that came from knowing that they could never make the world less sinful, but neither could they accept the world as it is.

This tension, of living in the world while not being of it, is actually the same tension, but, as Ellul writes, “transcribed into social, political, and economic reality.”

(Notice what he didn’t mention there? Cultural reality. But it’s almost always the cultural component that American Christians focus on when they talk about “being in the world, not of it.” If your argument against the prevailing culture leads to little more than the endorsement of a lucrative sub-culture, then you’re not embracing the tension, you’re just participating in the existing structures.)

This tension can’t be resolved. As Christians, though we are completely bound up in the world’s material reality, we must consider ourselves oppositional to that reality. We “must accept that the opposition between this world and the kingdom of God is total.”

But that doesn’t mean that we can sit smugly back, content that our side is “the right side,” and watch fellow humans suffer through the consequences of their bad choices. We can never forget that we are bound to our fellow humans, not only through social and economic and legal structures, but also because God has called us to be bound to them.

Christians, Ellul writes, “need to immerse themselves in social and political problems so that they can act in the world, not in the hope of making it a paradise, but only of rendering it tolerable.” (emphasis added)

It’s not our job to perfect the world (since we cannot), or to choose the right political party, or to try and create a utopia by forcing everyone else to live in accordance with our own cultural views, or even to “make the kingdom of God come.” It’s our task to try and ensure that the gospel can be both proclaimed and heard, so that “all people may hear truly the good news of salvation and resurrection.” (italics in original)

There are, Ellul says, three ways in which Christians must go here. It’s important to note that this represents a “strategic direction,” as David Gill writes in a footnote on page 29; Ellul thought it was impossible to create any sort of specific formula for Christian life and action.

  • First, understanding what God has revealed to them about humanity, they must “seek out the social and political conditions” that allow human beings to “live and develop” as God has commanded.
  • Second, they must recognize that God has placed them in “a certain setting” for God’s own reasons, and so they must accept the limitations of that setting. They are to work so that God’s desired order “might be embodied in particular, existing institutions and organizations,” without actually causing “the society that they live in to be destroyed.” (The original translated text is a bit confusing here; it sounds to me as if Ellul is saying that Christians are not called to be either docile societal sheep or “burn-it-all-down” reactionaries.)
  • Finally, the above points only mean something if everything is “oriented toward the proclamation of salvation.” This means that the top priority of Christians is to ensure that these institutions are not “closed” and that they can’t “claim to be complete, absolute.” These institutions cannot be allowed to prevent people from hearing the gospel. (This is not, I think, the same thing as requiring people to listen to the gospel, which does not lend to hearing “truly.”)

In following this strategic direction, Christians will fall victim to two fundamental errors, Ellul says. One, they will assume that constant progress will lead to the establishment of God’s kingdom. And/or two, they believe that if they achieve certain outcomes or reforms, “this order that God desires would come about.”

Nope. To repeat yet again, there is nothing that we can do in this world that will perfect it, or even meet God’s demands, which are “infinite, as is his pardon.” All solutions to economic, political or social problems are temporary. This is why Christians are in a permanent state of revolution. They are always called to “continually question” everything that is “termed progress, discoveries, facts, established results, reality, and so on.”

(I have to admire “reality” being thrown in there to be questioned right before “and so on.”)

Remember, the world has a will to suicide; no matter its current order, the world is “moving constantly toward disorder.” It’s a world in which Christians have no choice but to live, and we must accept our obligations toward that world and to our fellow human beings (which includes joyful obligations). To “render unto Caesar.” But if we forget that we belong to God, not the world, and lose ourselves in the world’s political and economic realities — or if we compartmentalize and keep separate our faith from our material life — then we will fail to “render unto God.”

Series Navigation<< Ellul on the State of Permanent Christian RevolutionEllul on Living into the Future >>

Leave a Comment