Is the Church Called to Transform Culture and Make Sheep Nations?
Should the Church be engaged in cultural transformation and politics? How, and to what extent, depends upon which era of time and in what nation you live.
In a democratic society, as found in the contemporary nations of the West, it is crucial that the Church should be involved in every aspect of life, including politics. We are commanded to be good citizens, and we have the right to vote for the best leaders and the best policies. However, in the days of the Roman empire of Jesus’s time, there was no vote for caesars or for governors. Similarly, in contemporary China, Russia, Iran, and the Middle Eastern nations (run by monarchical kings), political engagement is marginal at best. With the advent of social media, uprisings can take place by galvanizing masses of people, as we observed in Egypt, Iran, Hong Kong, and Russia. (Israel once successfully overthrew pagan leadership with the Maccabean revolt before Christ. After the birth of the Church, many Jews attempted a rebellion in 66-70 AD, eventuating in them being squashed by Roman armies. (Jesus predicted this in Luke 21:20.))
Consequently, the same methodologies utilized in America to propagate the “7 Mountain Mandate” are not easily applicable in every culture and context.
However, the one constant is that the Holy Nation of God, the Church, is the only entity that the gates of hell cannot stand against (1 Peter 2:8-9, Matthew 16:16-18). Hence, the true baptized Church thrives in any context, even when it is the persecuted minority. This is why we must always put building up the local church as front and center of our missional focus. Political engagement is only one methodology, amongst many, that we utilize in the advancement of His Kingdom.
Thirdly, I believe that an exegetical/historical misreading of the text of Matthew 28:19 has caused whole ministries to focus merely on “top-down” influence. This has caused many to mistakenly view the Bible as merely a handbook for politics and economics.
However, the primary New Testament method for community transformation is to collect disciples in strategic cities (Acts 14:22-34). The Church can set up a “kingdom community” that models the city of God by having strong, healthy, local congregations, who will put into practice “the way of Jesus” (the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7). Consequently, when we have such “Jesus communities” of disciples, the Church will automatically become a benefactor to the community at large. This will most assuredly result in cultural impact (Titus 2:14, Titus 3:8).
Thus, if we want to have a transformative missional worldview, we first need to have a strong ecclesial framework. This is similar to Israel’s nation, whose witness to the other nations was based upon their own alignment to Yahweh (1 Kings 10).
Consequently, when the Church’s primary Kingdom focus is on winning presidential elections and continually maintaining top down power (to avoid persecution), there is bound to be unnecessary psychological pressure placed on pastors. This often results in pastors feeling like a failure if their political party or policies/laws fail to win the day.
Furthermore, the Church will continue to lose its focus of making disciples and building strong local churches. It will fail to produce the systemic changes needed to model the city of God, and will fail to send believers to serve their communities (which also includes the training and sending out of Christ-followers into the political, economic, and educational arenas).
In some instances, expressions of the Church (on both the Left and the Right), almost act as a political extension of a Believer’s party affiliation. Instead, it should always be a Jesus community that transcends partisan politics because of its allegiance to the Kingdom of God.
How do we advance the Kingdom?
Fourthly, when we examine the messages of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul, they constantly refer to the Kingdom of God (Matthew 3:1-2, Matthew 4:23, Acts 28:31).
However, in the application of said Kingdom message in Paul’s epistles, there is nothing salient regarding political engagement to change society. Of course, the metanarrative of Scripture is the Lordship of Christ over all (Ephesians 1:10). Thus, as has already been mentioned, political engagement was not as easy in those days, since it was not a democratic society as we see in present-day America.
Consequently, Paul’s epistles’ obvious focus was to give instructions for the building up of the Body of Christ. Such instructions would eventuate in the filling up of all things, not just church buildings (Ephesians 4:10-16). When we examine the early, middle, and later epistles of Paul, it is clear that he is writing so that Christ-followers will know how to conduct themselves in the Church of the living God. This Church, alone, is the ground and pillar of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Hence, Paul’s message about the Kingdom (as seen in all his epistles), pertained to the Church’s proper conduct to effectively function as the ground and pillar of truth for the world.
Of course, we know that the original word for Church is “Ekklesia” (Matthew 16:18). This was taken from Greek culture (as far back as the 6th century BC) to depict citizens who came together to vote and to enact public policy. Hence, as the King of kings, Jesus was borrowing a political term from secular culture to depict the nature of His missional movement. That is to say, Christ-followers are not merely to meet in a building on Sunday for a few hours to hear sermons and sing songs. As God’s congress, we are called, as the “light of the world”, to represent His kingdom reign in every aspect of culture. However, a Believer’s generational effectiveness is commensurate to his rootedness, ontologically, in the Triune God, through His Body, which is the Church.
Fifthly, thankfully, there are many instances of cultural transformation in the Scriptures.
Hence, Matthew 28:19 is not opposed to cultural transformation. However, such transformation results from the outworking of faith. Such a level of faith is what transformed pagan collectives after Believers converted and discovered their new identity in Yeshua. Cultural transformation should not be the initial goal, but the byproduct of various “people groups” anchoring their identity in the Jesus community (the Church).
Notice, whenever cultural transformation took place in scripture, committed followers of Yahweh were in key positions, and never compromised their commitment to both the Lord and His covenant people. (In the Old Testament, we see how God used Joseph to influence Egypt, and Moses to transform Israel. Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah were used to revive Judah. Daniel influenced and transformed the Babylonian and Persian empires. Jonah’s preaching transformed the city of Nineveh. In the New Testament, we see how the apostles transformed Jerusalem. Philip changed the city of Samaria. Paul impacted the city of Ephesus.)
Thus, in every instance, the transformation of cities and nations was accomplished through Godly leaders who were never disconnected from the collective covenant that their nation had with God. (Daniel aligned with his nation while he was an exile in a foreign land (Daniel 9:1-19)). The New Testament apostles never disconnected from their new Holy Nation, the Church (1 Peter 2:8-9)).
Sixthly, what about Sheep Nations?
Jesus referred to sheep and goat nations in Matthew 25. To understand what He was referring to, we have to go back to the meaning of the word “nations.”
Matthew 25:31-33 says the following:
But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left.
Can we make a doctrine out of this by saying that whole nations can be considered sheep nations?
A few observations are needed here:
-Is it possible (as the translators of the NIV and ESV relate in this passage) that this is saying that individual people (sheep and goats) will be separated after all ethnic people groups are assembled before Him on the Day of Judgement?
Matthew 25 is referring to whole nations. We have to remember that the original Greek word refers to an ethnic people group. Therefore, we can argue that Jesus, on the last day, is going to separate the saved from the unsaved who are within each people group.
– To say that this is referring to the possibility of “sheep nations,” in the modern geopolitical construct of the word “nation,” is unlikely. This is because it is impossible for countries like the United States, China, Russia, Turkey, etc., to be completely Christian since only individuals can be born again (John 3:3-8). It is also not as common as it used to be to have a territorial boundary made up of just one ethnic people. For example, in the United States, there are many different ethnic subcultures, so how would Jesus separate the sheep from the goats in multicultural nations?
A nation can become culturally Christian but cannot be completely Christian since there are always saved and unsaved people in every nation. Only the people groups that are saved will be able to enter into the kingdom of Heaven (Revelations 21:24).
To say that Jesus is referring to nations that favor the gospel because He judges them based on their treatment of His brethren can also be a possibility. However, we are getting into heretical territory here because these same sheep nations are either saved or lost based upon their good works (Matthew 25:37-44). Taken to its logical conclusion, this is similar to saying that every citizen in a nation that favors Christianity or allows it to have freedom of religion, will automatically be saved. That takes patriotism and nationalism to a new level. (The United States often equates Americanism with the Gospel like nothing else I have seen.) This notion to me is preposterous!
A more likely meaning to this difficult passage is that each ethnic or national collective of people will stand before God one day. Jesus will then separate the people from each other, in each nation, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. This separation will be based upon the fruit of their Christian life. This means that they cannot merely say “Jesus is Lord” and be saved. Rather, they would have to have done the will of the Father to be saved (Matthew 7:21-23). Like Paul, John the Baptist also continually told people to produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8, Acts 26:20).
In closing, my prayer is that the local Church will once again be the front and center for believers who desire to see their communities reached. I also pray that pastors will understand that the Kingdom’s implications of the gospel are not just to merely give people a free pass to heaven. Still, the greater goal is that the gospel will eventually touch every aspect of life and culture.