Strangers & pilgrims

Interview | Presbyterian pastor Glenn Parkinson on how Christians can be a blessing to America

Issue: "Terri Schiavo: In memoriam," April 9, 2005

In America, how can the church concentrate on being "the best blessing it can possibly be for the wounded and sick societies we live in?" Glenn Parkinson argues in Like the Stars (iUniverse, 2004) that "responding to the moral decline of America with resentment and hostility does not inspire righteousness; it only alienates our neighbors further from us and from the gospel."

Mr. Parkinson, pastor of Severna Park Evangelical Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Maryland since 1981, completed an undergraduate degree in physics and studied at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary, where he received a Doctor of Ministry degree.

WORLD: You distinguish between Jesus' indignant critique of self-righteous Pharisees and His gentle honesty when speaking with sinners generally. Which opponents of Christianity are the equivalent of the Pharisees today?

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PARKINSON: None of them. The Pharisees were not external opponents of God's people, but an internal faction. The only ones in danger of relating to the Pharisees are us (evangelicals), when we tie burdens of morality upon American society that we, according to so many statistics, refuse to carry ourselves.

My point is that we must stop thinking of opponents to Christianity as people we are fighting. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Against Satan, we are an army; to the unbelieving world, we are heralds of good news, healers, and trophies of Christ's grace. Others may count us their enemies, but Jesus commands us to only love and bless them in return.

WORLD: You write that when Christians "earn a reputation among unbelievers as a people who do them good . . . then the antagonism of the world to Christ diminishes, and it is easier to get a hearing for our gospel-the only means of salvation. That's the way the Holy Spirit works; that's the way Christ is glorified." What do you think are the most important activities for Christians who desire to earn such a reputation?

PARKINSON: Perhaps the first activity to develop is listening. While evangelicals tend to have special insight and concern about a handful of social ills, our society has a lot more on its plate than abortion and homosexuality. The world cannot reveal to us God's mind or character, but it can tell us where it hurts, if we will listen.

Personally, this has led me on a quest to meet with local government leaders, letting them tell me what they feel are the most serious problems facing our community. My goal is to simply pray for them as they address those needs as God's servants, and also ask God to raise up His church to bring His grace to bear.

WORLD: You note that America was shaped by the Bible but "by other forces, too. America is also a child of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment did not believe in sin, or trust God's law. So there has, from the very beginning, been a cultural tug-of-war in America." How has that cultural tug-of-war played out? What difference does that make now?

PARKINSON: America was founded on a tug-of-war between Enlightenment-generated pluralism and a biblical worldview. When the church was the most positive influence in society, the Christian worldview naturally dominated. Today, the reverse is true. The church must once again become the most positive force in our culture if the biblical worldview is to gain ground.

Trying to stem the tide antagonistically through legislation alone is futile. Consider the family, for example. The family did not erode because the Constitution failed to define marriage as heterosexual, and while amending the Constitution may well slow cultural decline, doing so will not make marriages any stronger. Healing the American family depends upon attracting the broken and disillusioned through healthy (Christian) relationships.

WORLD: You write, quoting James and Peter, that "New Testament authors think of the church as the new Israel in exile. [They] do not think of the church in terms of Israel's conquest, when God's people were in political control, defeating their enemies and keeping the nations out. Rather, the church today is more like Israel as it was being called back from exile." How should that understanding affect our political thinking?

PARKINSON: It would mean that once and for all we must stop thinking of America-or any other nation after Old Testament Israel-as God's holy nation, or a Christian nation. God's people are strangers and pilgrims, an international kingdom without any borders, and without any civil government.

Of course, we will reflect biblical wisdom in whatever leadership opportunities God gives us. But until Christ returns, Christian citizens have been given no divine right to civil rule. Instead of straining to coerce biblical behavior upon society, the bulk of our effort should focus on blessing the nation in which we are resident aliens. Doing so will cause the church to "enjoy favor with all the people" and expand our influence yet further.


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