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?
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.
WORLD: You argue that Christians should stop reacting possessively to the crumbling of America's Christian heritage and start working to make "evangelical Christian" a synonym for "good people who do good things to make our suffering world a better place to live." Did Social Gospel leaders a century ago have a similar goal in regard to the word "Christian"? How do we avoid repeating the mistakes they made?
PARKINSON: Yes, I suspect they did have similar goals, but those goals were not their problem. Their problem involved dismissing biblical authority. Social Gospel leaders tried to spread truth into all of life, but they lost hold of what the truth is.
A worse problem, however, arose from the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. That was the tacit decision of fundamentalists to defend biblical truth by protecting it within the enclave of Christian religion only, leaving education, entertainment, law, science, literature, art, diplomacy, journalism, and just about everything else to the Social Gospel movement. A truly biblical worldview does not force us to ignore our culture; we should be in the business of enriching it.
WORLD: You criticize "tokenizing our religion," and after describing the courage of Daniel in the Bible you write that his example "does not encourage us to make a big deal out of wearing religious jewelry, or putting a religious plaque on the wall at work." You note that he accepted a Babylonian name and worked alongside astrologers and sorcerers: "Daniel is just as instructive for the issues he wasn't willing to go to the wall for, as much as for the ones he was." Which ones today do you think Daniel would consider crucial, and which not?
PARKINSON: The point is that as we do good, we will be recognized as Christian largely by practicing our religion publicly, without embarrassment or apology. Tokenism practices religion publicly just to be seen doing it. I'm talking instead about personal scruples, matters of individual conscience that illustrate that our behavior has spiritual roots. (Daniel risked his life to pray three times a day toward Jerusalem-a scruple of conscience, not a biblical command.)
Publicly expressed scruples come from thoughtfully integrating our religion with daily life. We might honor the Sabbath by ruling out school sports, or engage in quiet prayer before beginning dangerous work, or refuse to celebrate Halloween. Such behaviors flag that our actions have a spiritual root.
WORLD: You state that "a chief reason that the church has lost its moral influence in America" is that "part of the church preaches forgiveness without repentance" and "another part preaches repentance without forgiveness." Please expand on that.
PARKINSON: We proclaim the gospel for God's glory and human redemption. But when the biblical gospel message leads to the conversion of many, society naturally prospers. Therefore, we also have a social reason to keep the gospel clear and balanced.
The mainline church has lost its general moral influence by ignoring repentance when reaching out to neighbors pursuing unbiblical lifestyles. But evangelicals have lost influence just as badly by ignoring redemptive grace in our public discourse, calling for repentance in the public arena without simultaneously lifting up the grace of Christ. The fact is, people simply cannot change without grace. To change society, we must always proclaim the balanced gospel message of human repentance and divine grace.