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Can we change the world?

I recently finished reading James Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, a book that deals with a perennial interest of mine, that is, whether Christians have a mandate to try to “transform” culture. Here is a summary of his central argument:

  1. Christians have long had a healthy desire to change the world for the better.
  2. Christians believe that change will occur by changing beliefs.
  3. Change only occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production.
  4. Were Christians to be in a position to exert enduring cultural influence, the result would likely be disastrous. The tragic irony is that in the name of resisting the dark nihilisms of the modern age, Christians—in their will to power and the resentiment that fuels it—perpetuate that nihilism. In so doing, Christians undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance.
  5. Common paradigms of cultural engagement: defensive against, relevance to, and purity from the world.
  6. Alternative Solution: Faithful presence within.
  7. It is essential to abandon talk of redeeming the culture, advancing the kingdom, building the kingdom, transforming the world, reclaiming the culture, reforming the culture, and changing the world. It implies conquest, take-over, or dominion, which in my view is precisely what God does not call us to pursue—at least not in any conventional, twentieth- or twenty-first-century way of understanding these terms.
  8. Will engaging the world in this way change the world? This is the wrong question; it is based on the dubious assumption that the world, and thus history, can be controlled and managed.
  9. Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world.
  10. The primary good is God himself and the primary task of worshiping him and honoring him in all we do.
  11. It is possible, just possible, that we will help to make the world a little bit better.
Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

4 Responses to Can we change the world?

  1. I don’t think the Dominion Mandate of Genesis 1:28 has ever been rescinded, especially as it was renewed by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself in Matthew 28:18-20. Note particularly, “Go … and teach all nations … teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you …” How is this not changing the culture? Also, a study of history will show that the nations who built on the foundation of Christianity have far outstripped those who built on witchcraft, animism or atheism. So, yes, I do think we have a responsibility to be salt and light in the world – and thereby to change the culture!

  2. Alison, thanks for your contribution. A couple comments.

    First, there is considerable debate about what Genesis 1:28 is. Even if it is a mandate, I would suggest that we failed that mandate in Adam, and that only Christ will fulfill the mandate in the coming kingdom. I see nothing in the Great Commission that comes anywhere close to the language of Genesis 1:28; the command for us is to make disciples, and that happens through preaching the gospel and then teaching new converts to observe everything Christ commanded. There is no mandate for the church beyond that; no mandate to “change the culture” wholesale.

    Hunter’s argument is that in order to change cultures wholesale, there has to be a unity of church and state of sorts, exactly the kind of thing that existed during the Middle Ages. However, that union is unbiblical and always leads to problems. Did it produce some good? Sure it did; but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that is was unbiblical and created a lot of nominal Christians along the way. It may have changed the culture, but it actually hindered obedience to the Great Commission.

    Instead, Hunter suggests the churches should simply make disciples, and Christians should simply live faithfully. That may, indeed, change the culture if more and more people become disciples and live faithfully. But changing the culture is never the goal, and we shouldn’t expect wholesale change.

    Wholesale change will only come when Christ establishes dominion over the world.

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