Let’s keep going with Chapter 1 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, because by God, I want to finish it.
In the last post — well, let’s see if I can summarize Ellul thus far (and please correct me where I’m wrong):
- Christians should live fully in the sinful world, understanding that we can neither make it less sinful, nor accept it as it is.
- Societal problems — economic, social, political — are all caused solely by the underlying spiritual problem of sin.
- Therefore, our role as Christians is to point other people toward the only solution to that spiritual problem, Jesus Christ.
- One way we do this is by how we act (and react) in daily life.
- Our actions should be tailored to specific situations, informed by a living, ever-deepening, individual faith in God, and consistent with the broad guidance of Christian ethics.
- Christian ethics are not a “moral system,” or rules that must be followed in every circumstance. Instead, they are broad, general outlines to be considered.
- Christian ethics are also subject to ongoing review and change by the broader church community.
Does this mean that a Christian can do, willy-nilly, whatever she claims that her faith is leading her to do? No; she still must objectively consider the implications of her actions, and that’s where ethics come in. Ethics are what we use to evaluate our actions before deciding what to do in a specific circumstance.
Now remember, this whole question of Christian ethics came up when Ellul was talking about how laypeople need to live in the world as salt (manifest God’s covenant), light (bear witness to salvation), and sheep (reflect ongoing sacrifice).
Ellul is not talking about being nice, or doing those good things that everyone would recognize as good. In fact, he says that, when we live and act in accordance with our faith and true Christian ethics, our works won’t even make any sense to the world. Everything we do should point directly to God, should only make sense “in the light of Jesus Christ.”
In other words: if your church is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving money to the poor, these are certainly good things, but are they specifically pointing people toward Jesus Christ? Do those you serve understand the difference between you and every other nonprofit, non-sectarian, community service organization? Is there a difference?
Ellul says that everything we do must be oriented toward the “combat of faith” with the world, and should result in glory to God. If we simply do what the world already thinks it would be good for us to do, then the world will have no reason to look to God.
This is a difficult concept. Most of us think that “being Christians in the world” means, for example, running a food bank, donating clothing, or, perhaps, advocating for certain legislation or political outcomes. Ellul says that none of these activities matter in and of themselves. If the world already thinks that your actions are “good,” or at least understandable, then there’s no reason to look past those actions toward God. (Your political advocacy, even dressed up in Christian language, keeps people focused on the world, not God, and won’t make the world any less sinful, or save your society from collapse, in any event.)
Now, I don’t think that Ellul is saying that we shouldn’t be feeding the hungry or fighting oppression. I think he is saying that our goal is not to solve the world’s problems, because we cannot, but to bear witness to the only one who can solve those problems.
It’s easy to volunteer at a soup kitchen, or drop off a bag of canned goods, and then just go about the rest of our day. Instead, about everything that we do, before we do it, we should be asking: is this pointing the world toward Christ? And I don’t mean in some abstract, “Maybe If I’m Nice Someone Will Ask Me Why and Then I’ll Be Sure to Mention God” kind of way.
Finally, remember that when we treat ethics as absolute guidelines or specific moral instructions, we are actually rejecting the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives.
Are we done with Chapter 1 yet? Ha, hardly. Up next: Praying for Hitler!