Changed Lives, a Changed World
The Christian Right is not a monolithic movement but one with diverse expressions and voices with no one single representation. Some years ago Paul Weyrich, one of the chief architects of the Christian Right, voiced his assessment of the “culture wars.” He feared that the war was lost and that Christians should establish their own infrastructure of educational and social institutions.
Other dissenting voices have been Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, who, in their book Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t SaveAmerica, argued that the Christian Right had lost its priorities by depending on political action to effect moral and social change. But despite the cracks in some portions of the edifice, the Christian Right continues to be a powerful expression of Christian involvement in political and social causes. Its very special relationship to the current U.S. president and his administration underscores how serious the movement is about effecting social change.
But the question can still be asked: “Has the Christian Right lost focus?” Many of the causes represented by the Christian Right are shared by millions of American Christians. However, has the focus become the issues or the methods of addressing them? The dilemma that the Christian Right creates is a classic example of how the church relates to the culture and society around it. America presents a unique set of opportunities and challenges for Christians to affect society. However, the Bible teaches principles by which Christians are to relate to culture and society in every era.
A Test Case
Scripture speaks of Christian “political action” in several areas (Matthew 22:15-22; Acts 5:27-29; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; cf. Proverbs 24:21, 22). Much has been written about submission to authority (Romans 13:1-7), Christian civil disobedience (Acts 5:29), and paying taxes (Romans 13:6, 7), yet Christianity’s effect on society by conversion is another facet deserving attention. Valuable principles are revealed in Acts 19:23-41. Though relating to a culture fully paganized, this text can be applied to any largely secularized culture.
Paul’s Work in Ephesus
Paul’s stay in Ephesus was very eventful in terms of God’s miraculous power demonstrated through him (Acts 19:1-12). God’s work through Paul even prompted some unbelieving Jews to use the name of Jesus to cast out demons. The result was a thorough beating (verses 13-16). News of this event spread among the population of Ephesus (verse 17). The result was a revival of those who professed Christ, yet had not confessed their sins (verse 18). Afterward, those who had practiced sorcery brought their magic scrolls, the worth of which would be approximately $35,000 today (verse 19), and burned them in public. “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (verse 20, NIV).*
The effects of this massive revival within a city renowned for idolatry were impressive. Individuals involved in the manufacture of shrines to the goddess Artemis were rallied to action against Paul by a silversmith named Demetrius (verses 23-25). Paul’s preaching against the worship of false gods had cut significantly into the profit margin of the craftsmen (verse 26, 27).
Public outrage ensued, and the entire city turned out to protest the desecration of their religious and cultural traditions resulting from the preaching of Paul against the worship of their gods (verses 28, 29). Finally, the city administrator pointed out the Empire-wide reputation of Ephesus as the “guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and her image” (verse 35, NIV). Therefore, since this reputation was “undeniable,” calm should be maintained because the preaching of Paul and his comrades could not threaten the position of Ephesus as the guardian of true religion (verses 36, 37, NIV).
The courts of the Roman Empire could solve this outrage, especially since Paul and his party had neither “robbed temples nor blasphemed [Artemis]” verse 37, NIV). The complaints of Demetrius and the craftsmen should be settled in a Roman court; rather than expressed in an unlawful manner by rioting (verses 38-40). Finally, a charge of unwarranted rioting would result for no legitimate reason, since nothing illegal had been done by the Christians (verse 40).
Analysis of the Ephesian Incident
While the preaching and miraculous power displayed through Paul for two years resulted in the honoring of the name of Jesus in Ephesus (verses 8-12, 17), it was through the public demonstration of the changed lives of important individuals (sorcerers) that resulted in the word of the Lord growing powerfully and widely among the populace (verses 18-20).
Demetrius created an uproar only when the economic livelihood of a good many artisans was threatened by the message of Paul (verses 25, 26). Demetrius described three ways in which this would be seen (verse 27). First, the honor of their trade would be lost. Second, the institution supporting the trade and worship would herself be robbed of divinity and status. Therefore, the message of Paul affected the source of people’s religious belief, the institution which supported and expressed it, and the livelihood derived from it. All these were facets of Ephesian society and culture.
The temple cult of Artemis formed the identity of Ephesus as a city (verses 28, 35). Any other influence perceived as threatening to the cult was deemed a threat to Ephesian society. Paul’s preaching was also a threat to Artemis worship throughout the province of Asia and the world (verse 27). If the veneration of Artemis were destroyed in the guardian city of her glory (verse 35), then what would become of her reputation around the world?
When the city administrator finally calmed the crowd, his tactic was to reassure them that Ephesus’ place as the guardian of the Artemis cult was divinely signified and secure (verses 35, 36). Therefore, the entire incident was overrated and unnecessary, because there could be no legitimate threat to the temple system. The city administrator’s main concern was to make sure the city was run by law, not mob. The complaints against the Christians should be handled in a court of law.
Relevance for Christians Today
There are several relevant principles in the Ephesian incident that can help Christians today better understand their role in society and culturally.
The foundation for change in society is the preaching of the gospel (Acts 19:8, 10). Paul preached the gospel of the kingdom of God to people in the synagogue (which was often his habit), and in the “hall of Tyrannus” (verses 8, 9, NIV). He taught in the hall of Tyrannus for two years, with the result being “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (verse 10, NIV).
The power for changing society is found in God’s work in changing people (Acts 19:17, 18). After hearing the word of God (verse 10), people witnessed the work of God (verses 11, 12). The work of God was so powerful that nonbelievers sought to appropriate it without being dedicated to it (verse 13). The result was disastrous (verse 16). Evil in society will not be conquered by merely appropriating Christian principles applied through the political establishment. Rather, evil will retreat when people are changed by the power of God. Changing society by changing laws is good, but not the best means for improving society.
God’s work in changing people will produce a public witness (Acts 19:19, 20). Christianity is more than a set of propositions to which people adhere and confess to. It is also more than merely outward ritualistic conformity. True Christianity changes lives and carries demonstrable effects into society. Such changes may not be outwardly spectacular, such as the cult of Artemis, yet the changes within individuals will be witnessed without. God is typically not out to impress people with a spectacular bag of tricks. Changed lives are the greatest sign of God’s work in society.
The public witness will disturb society (Acts 19:23). The effect that changed lives make upon society might disturb some people. Acts 19:9 is a very important verse in this regard. First, Christianity is referred to as “the Way.” This name refers to Christianity as an exclusive way of life. The claims of Christ excluded all other claims upon a believer’s life. Believers shed the outward claims upon their lives because of their inward commitment to Christ. In the competition of loyalties, Christ becomes preeminent for a believer. As other loyalties fall by the wayside, this will be noticed.
Also, the exclusivity of Christianity caused a disturbance among certain people in society. The disturbance was because of the economic repercussions of people no longer contributing to and worshipping the goddess Artemis. Changed lives affected the day-to-day economic and religious functions of Ephesian society. This could not go unnoticed.
Christians will be misunderstood and falsely accused in society (Acts 19:37, 40). Christian leaders who wish to change society must be prepared to be misunderstood and falsely accused by society. Those who are too thin-skinned to take the criticism are not worthy to be leaders in the “culture wars.” Christian leaders should stand above the fray and provide an answer for the hope that is within them. Merely debating social and economic issues will not accomplish the ultimate goal—changed lives through Jesus Christ. Convincing people of the power of God in the lives of individuals is demonstrated by the lives of people, not argued for in halls of debate. Paul did not debate the ruling business leaders and political establishment in Ephesus. He addressed the people where they worshipped and gathered. He was not politically active, yet his message carried political repercussions. Christians today must realize that political power is truly gained at the grassroots level of people’s lives, not attained through elected office or court decisions. Every truly great political leader is one who grasps and harnesses the everyday lives of people. Christianity empowers people to become leaders, who in turn change society from the bottom up.
Christians affect society without overtly condemning society (Acts 19:37). Many Christian leaders today are rather quick to declare God’s judgment upon society. But Christianity is a redemptive community at its very heart. Jesus said He came not to condemn but to save humanity. Christians are to live such exemplary lives in society that, because of their good deeds, they cannot be accused of doing wrong (1 Peter 2:12). Christians are to live “self-controlled, upright and godly lives . . . eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:12-14, NIV). Christians should provide no reason for unbelievers to accuse them of the being unloving. Yes, Christians must maintain the high standard of God’s righteousness and call sin for what it is; yet do so in the spirit of love and acceptance of the sinner. Sadly, some Christian leaders in the public arena have erred in this particular area.
Christianity does not provide a mandate to change the political and legal establishment. Christians in Ephesus affected society not by trying to change it politically, but by living in obedience to God. No charges could be brought against the Christians, because they were not trying to overturn the social and political order of Ephesus. Yet how many Christians of recent years have believed they have had a mandate to change society in the name of God by changing the political system. Such efforts inevitably prove counterproductive and cast Christianity in the role of nemesis to the social order.
Nowhere in the New Testament does it command Christians not to pursue political office. Similarly, nowhere in the apostolic writings is it indicated that once a political official becomes a Christian they must resign their office. Politics is not an anti-Christian word, nor is Christianity anti-political. Christianity does affect the political process, either through Christian officials or elections. However, politics used to exert Christian “muscle” is against the principles of the gospel. Christians change society by their lives and witness to unbelievers. Christian political influence should be derived from this grassroots witness. A moral society is preserved through moral people. The more immoral a society becomes, the more laws that are passed to punish immorality. Big government results from a society that is becoming more dependent upon government than God for solving its problems. Conversely, a society that depends upon God in obedience to His will does not have need for large intrusive government.
Christians do not exist in two worlds, but in one world. In this world of sin and moral decay, Christians are to provide light and influence to beckon and preserve society. It is when society departs from that standard and Christians react wrongly that problems result. Christians are, in a certain figurative sense, “resident aliens” in this world of sin. So long as we live here, we are to provide a reason for people to come to Christ; not drive them away over a political agenda.
*Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.