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-1The Church as a Social Ethic

There is an old cliché that states “Opinions are like feet. Everyone has them and

they all stink.” While this statement is made tongue-in-cheek, it is very easy to see

differing opinions on current social issues. For instance, go to an internet forum about

homosexual marriages and you will find differing opinions on why people agree or

disagree with homosexual marriage. The sad thing is that contemporary moral discussion

has been reduced to mere opinion. Advocates of one side of an issue will quickly dismiss

the opponents argument saying that “that’s just his opinion.” In light of this moral

relativism, how does one who claims to be a follower of Christ navigate not only the

pressing issues of society, but also the everyday events of his life?

It is a common assumption that Christian morality is based on rules or principles

of right conduct. Decisions are made by applying the appropriate principles enabling one

to make the right decision. This approach tends to value doing “the right thing”.

However, there are some very serious problems with this view. What happens when

principles conflict? For example, in the 2002 movie “John Q”, the protagonist takes an

emergency room hostage when he cannot afford a life-saving heart transplant for his son.

On the one hand, it is heroic because he is saving his son’s life which is considered a

good thing. On the other hand, he is breaking the law and endangering others by

threatening violence. Based on these principles, would the protagonist be right or


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wrong?

What people need is not a set of principles, but a truthful narrative in order to

make sense of their lives. Principles or rules make no sense outside of a narrative. For

instance, growing up in church I was told a story about a church that had a longstanding

rule to always leave the back light on. One night at a business meeting, someone

suggested that they turn the light off in order to save electricity. A big argument erupted

because the church had always left the light on, but most people weren’t sure why.

Finally, one of the members who had been there since the beginning of the church stood

up. He told the congregation that the light had been left on because years ago, the

cleaning lady came at nights. The argument was quickly solved and they turned the light

off. The rule that the light needed to be left on made no sense without the story of the

cleaning lady.

A narrative gives people a role in the story and can tell them who they are in

relation to others and who they are in relation to the world. A narrative also integrates a

person’s past, present, and future whereas morality based on principles is only concerned

with the present decision that needs to be made. Since principles are concerned with the

present decision, it serves to sever one from ties to one’s past, but also makes each one of

us an autonomous agent and gives us the illusion that morally, we are our own creation

because we are the ones applying the principles and making the decisions. However,
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theologian Stanley Hauerwas states that “a narrative helps us understand that morally we

are not our own creation, but rather our life is fundamentally a gift.”1 From the narrative

approach, you did not create the narrative, it has been given to you. Also, your role in the

narrative was not something that you have chosen, but something you were born into. I

did not choose to be born a white, middle-class American in the late twentieth, however

those things contribute to who I am and significantly impact my role in the narrative I am

a part of. What if I had been born in Jerusalem in the early first century? My role in the

narrative would be drastically different than it is now. All of this emphasizes that I did

not create who I am, but rather who I am is a gift.

In his book After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre states that “I can only answer the

question ’What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ’Of what story or stories do

I find myself a part.’”2 As Christians, we find ourselves a part of God’s story of

redemption through Israel and Jesus Christ as recorded in Scripture. In order to identify

our part in this story, we must identify some key components of the story. These

components are the Kingdom of God, the world, and the church.

The Kingdom of God is a difficult thing to define because Jesus himself never

defines it, but merely describes it. It may be easier to identify what the Kingdom of God

1 Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader, Duke University Press. Durham and London
2001. p. 233
2 Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition, Univeristy of Notre Dame. Notre
Dame, IN. 1984. p. 216.
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is not. In God So Loved the World, Jonathan Wilson states that “In Jesus’ words and

deeds, the kingdom is not an ideal for which we are to strive; it is not an ideology by

which we are to live; nor is it a promise for which we are to hope. Rather, in Jesus’

words and deeds the kingdom of God is a reality in which we are to live.”3 Also, the

Kingdom of God is not the church, which I will explain later.

Employing concepts from Wilson , I will give a description of what the Kingdom

of God is. The Kingdom of God is God’s active rule in the world, redeeming creation,

which is enacted and embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Wilson

describes five characteristics of the Kingdom: the reality, actuality, perfection, openness,

and value of the Kingdom. The reality of the Kingdom refers to the presence of the

kingdom “here and now…here- in the human community, not apart from it- and it is

present now- at this time, not some future time.”4 The actuality of the Kingdom refers to

it as the activity of God. “The actuality of the kingdom calls us to recognize that the

kingdom of God refers not to place, but to power- to God’s rule or reign.”5 The

perfection of the Kingdom refers to the restoration of creation to the way God intended it.

This is evidenced by Jesus’ miracles. The openness of the Kingdom refers to the fact that

all have the opportunity to partake in the Kingdom. The value of the Kingdom is not hard

3 Jonathan R. Wilson, God So Loved the World, Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, MI.
2001. pp. 25-26
4 Ibid., 26.
5 Ibid., 27.
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to see when one understands the other characteristics of the Kingdom for it is truly good

news.

The Kingdom of God is also eschatological for it will find its full expression in

the age to come. In Revelation 21-22, we are given a picture of the full fruition of the

Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is present, but not fully present. The best

illustration of this point is in Matthew 13:31-33 with the parable of the mustard seed.

The next aspect of the story that we need to look at is the world. The world is

everything in rebellion against God. Wilson points out that the world attempts to provide

an account of life without God. It lives under the illusion that there is no God.6 The

world is so far separated from God, that it doesn’t even know that it is separated. The

world is described in Colossians 1:13 as “the dominion of darkness” (NIV). According to

Wilson, “Jesus comes to disillusion the world.”7

This brings us to the focal point of the essay, which is the church. The church is

the community called out of the world, created by Jesus Christ to be the witness of the

Kingdom, to the world. It is important to realize that the church is not the Kingdom of

God. Equating the church to the Kingdom is problematic due to the perfection of the

Kingdom and the shortcomings of the church. The church is a people called to live in the

reality of the Kingdom of God. Stanley Hauerwas states, “His life (Jesus) is the life of

6 Ibid., 161.
7 Ibid., 162.
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the end- this is the way the world was meant to be- and those who follow him become a

people of the last times, the people of the new age.”8 The church doesn’t exist for itself,

but rather it exists to let the world know that it’s not the Kingdom and to bear witness to

that Kingdom.. Hauerwas writes, “for the world has no way of knowing it is the world

without the church pointing to the reality of God’s Kingdom.“9 Therefore, the world

needs the church to expose the illusions the world clings to and the church needs the

world in order to fulfill its purpose.

In light of the mission of the church, “The first social ethical task of the church is

to be the church”, states Hauerwas. He goes on to argue that the church “does not have a

social ethic; the church is a social ethic.”10 There is a strong temptation, however, to

misconstrue our task as trying to overtake the world or rule the world. Hauerwas

counters this by stating “The church must learn time and time again that its task is not to

make the world the kingdom, but to be faithful to the kingdom by showing to the world a

community of peace.”11

How then does the church learn to be the people of the new age? We need to

cultivate certain virtues, or characteristics, that enable us to embody our story. Among

these virtues are patience, fidelity, peacefulness. We need patience and fidelity in order

8 Hauerwas, Hauerwas Reader, 132 italics mine


9 Ibid.,375.
10 Ibid., 374.
11 Ibid., 379.
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to live as forgiven, peaceful, people in the midst of a violent world. Also, we need

patience to learn to live, as Hauerwas calls, “out of control.“12 What he means by this is

that we must realize that God is in control and He is faithful, so we do not need to be in

control. We need peacefulness because the Kingdom of God is the reconciliation of all

creation to God. In that Kingdom, there can be no animosity or violence, so we must be

people of reconciliation. Such virtues are to be developed in the context of the

community. Hauerwas argues “Internal to the story itself is the claim that we cannot

know the story simply by hearing it, but only by learning to imitate those who now are

the continuation of that story.“13 Virtues must be acquired and demonstrated in

community activities called practices. Among these practices are Eucharist, baptism, and

preaching. Hauerwas writes,

In the sacraments, we enact the story of Jesus and in so doing form a


community in his image. We could not be the church without them. For the story
of Jesus is not simply one that is told; it must be enacted. The sacraments are
means crucial to shaping and preparing us to tell and hear that story. Thus
baptism is that rite of initiation necessary for us to become part of Jesus’ death
and resurrection. Through baptism we do not simply learn the story, but we
become part of that story. The eucharist is the eschatological meal of God’s
continuing presence that makes possible a peaceable people. At that meal we
become part of Christ’s kingdom, as we learn there that death could not contain
him. His presence, his peace is a living reality in the world. As we partake we
become part of his sacrifice, God’s sacrifice, so that the world might be saved
from sin and death.”14

12 Ibid., 380.
13 Ibid., 254.
14 Ibid., 383-384 This quote is not advocating a works salvation where the sacraments
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He goes on to argue that, “If the church is rather than has a social ethic, these actions are

our most important social witness. In Baptism and Eucharist, we see most clearly the

marks of God‘s kingdom in the world.”15 As stated earlier, these actions prepare us to tell

and hear the story. In baptism, we learn peacefulness because we are reminded that have

been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Christ and are initiated into

the community of the reconciled. We learn fidelity through baptism because in this act

we publicly renounce our citizenship of the world and accept our citizenship in the

Kingdom. However, it is not just a mere renouncement of our allegiance to the world, for

it is much stronger than that. In the act of baptism we symbolically “kill” our allegiance

to the world and are “raised to walk in newness of life.” We learn patience through

baptism because we are reminded that the Kingdom is present now, and that we can

presently live in that reality while we await the consummation of that Kindgom. In the

Eucharist, we learn peacefulness as we share a meal with our present Savior (Matt 18:20).

Such a communion can only be possible because we have been reconciled with God. As

we gather as a community of the reconciled, we cannot help but to be a peaceable people.

The Lord’s Supper teaches us patience because it is a sign of the age to come as we await

impart grace, for without the narrative of Christ, the sacraments would be pointless.
However, this quote emphasizes that the sacraments are tools that help us identify with
and act out the story of Christ.
15 Ibid, 384.
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the full scope of God‘s reign. It teaches us fidelity, because as we receive food from our

Lord, we take part in his abundance. Because of His abundance, we need not look

elsewhere to be fulfilled. Preaching is the practice where we tell and hear our story not

only within the church, but outside the church as well.

These practices are incomplete if they do not affect our lives outside of worship.

Hauerwas argues that we need to “seek out the other because it is from the other that we

learn how well or how poorly we have made the story of Jesus our story.”16 There should

be no separation between our practices within worship and our lives outside of worship.

It would seem that in a country were “religious freedom” is encouraged, being the

church would not be too difficult. However, this “religious freedom” has lead to the

church getting too comfortable with America. This has lead to two major threats to the

church in America, individualism and Constantinianism17.

America is founded upon individualism. Simply looking at the Declaration of

Independence can verify this claim. “America is the only country that has the misfortune

of being founded on a philosophical mistake-namely the notion of individual rights.”18

American culture is permeated by the desire for autonomy and independence. Our lives

16Ibid., 385.
17 Ichose to place this argument here rather than at the beginning of the essay because I
wanted to first develop what the task of the church is before I discussed hindrances to that
task.
18 Ibid., 608.
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are so privatized. This individualism has crept into the churches of America. In quoting

William Everett, Hauerwas declares, “The ecclesiology of most of the more liberal sexual

ethics assumes that the church is a voluntary association that exists for the spiritual

enrichment of the individuals composing it.”19 Many people seem to believe that being a

follower of Christ is just “Jesus and I” and the only reason to go to church is for my own

benefit. Hauerwas’ remark accurately describes the thought pattern of many American

Christians, by seeing the church as optional. With the church’s increasing awareness of

our postmodern culture, worship seems to be about “my own experience.” He also

asserts, “Modernity and it’s bastard offspring, postmodernity are but reflections of the

Christian attempt to make God a god available without the mediation of the church.”20

This is deeply antithetical to the narrative which we are a part of. As mentioned earlier,

we are not autonomous because we have not created our identity, it was assigned to us by

God as we became a part of His story. Our life is a gift and not an achievement.21

Furthermore, the idea of Kingdom indicates more than just one person. Jesus Christ

created a community to bear witness to the Kingdom, not just a group of individuals who

are only concerned with their own personal growth and fulfillment. Personal growth

should never be an end in itself, but rather growth should be something that helps one

19 Ibid., 496.
20 Ibid., 661.
21 Ibid., 224.
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fulfill his role in the church22. Also, in order to be a Kingdom of peace, there has to be

other people to be at peace with. As partakers of the Kingdom of God, we have no right

to keep things private. One of the characteristics of the Kingdom is peace and

privatization takes away from that peace because it erects barriers within the community.

Where there are barriers, there can be no reconciliation and where there is no

reconciliation, there can be no community of peace.

Another trap that the church in America falls into is the idea of trying to make

America a “Christian nation”. What I referred to earlier as Constantinianism comes from

when Emperor Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century A.D. and declared

Christianity as the religion of the state. Hauerwas argues that this created a major shift in

the moral argument of the church because the church ceased to be a minority within the

Roman Empire. Furthermore, “With Constantine the idea that providence is no longer an

object of faith for God‘s governance of the world was now thought to be empirically

evident in the person of the Christian ruler.23 What happened is that the church looked at

the government to provide God’s rule on earth. In America, the church has tried to make

“American democracy as close as possible to the manifestation of God’s Kingdom.”24

22 This statement does not exclude private prayer and individual Bible study as these
activities are vital in fulfilling our role in the church and up building the community. We
have to be careful that in these activities we are not solely focusing on our own growth,
but in the up building of the church so that it can faithfully perform its task
23 Ibid., 474.
24 Ibid, 473.
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However, hypothetically speaking, if this goal is achieved, then what point is there in

being the church? There would be no reason to be the church if the state was the

manifestation of the Kingdom for that is the task belongs to the church. The last time I

checked, Jesus didn’t overthrow the Roman government, but was crucified by it. What

makes the church think that today that it should rule the government? The truth is that no

form of government and no nation is given the task of manifesting the Kingdom of God,

but rather the task of the government is to manage the world by putting at least some

restraint on the evil in it. The privilege of manifesting the Kingdom is given exclusively

to the church. Our destiny is not determined by our government, but by the Kingdom of

God. “God’s Kingdom is not established only where other rulers have been overthrown;

rather God’s power erupts in the midst of oppression, forgiving and healing, and

wherever that power is, there is cause for rejoicing.”25 The church has no stake in

maintaining the government, but to testify to the Kingdom of God. Wilson writes, “In this

task, we are not called to manage the world according to the God’s standards, but to

witness to another way of life that calls people out of the world and into the kingdom.”26

It stands as an alternative to every institution on Earth. “We are the church, we do not

just have an alternative, we are the alternative. We do not have a story to tell but in the

25 Ibid.,
132.
26 Wilson, God So Loved the World, 168.
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telling we are the story being told.”27

In conclusion, the church is the society created by Jesus Christ in order to bear

witness to the Kingdom which he enacted. Such a task does not come easily and with

that task requires that we be changed and initiated into a whole new way of life. We are

not meant to do it alone, but in a community. Such a community is radically different

than anything the world has known. As Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If

it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now, my kingdom

is from another place.”

27 Hauerwas, Hauerwas Reader, 150.