21 September 2017

Christian influence in a secular world

The motto of The Christian Institute is “Christian influence in a secular world”; a statement which reflects the call of the Lord Jesus Christ to His followers to act as salt and light for Him in a fallen and decaying world. The Institute works to encourage Christians to exercise a faithful, Biblical influence on their society.

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have always declared God’s truth to the culture around them. From the moment the gospel began to spread throughout the ancient Roman Empire, Christians were an influence on the culture. Some early Christians suffered terrible persecution because they refused to worship the Roman Emperor. They knew that God’s truth clashed (in many ways) with the Roman culture they were living in. Nonetheless those faithful Christians used whatever freedoms they had to influence the world around them.

For example, in Ancient Rome, the lives of women were improved. Because of Christian campaigning, rape became a crime with severe punishment. The right of a husband to put his wife to death was abolished. The divorce laws were tightened so that husbands could no longer throw their wives on the street for any-old reason. Because of this moral influence, women were elevated to a status they had never enjoyed under the previous religious and political system.

Also the lives of children were improved. In Ancient Rome unwanted children were simply killed in the womb or tossed on the streets to die. If they didn’t die of exposure, they were picked up by baby-merchants who would sell them into appalling situations. It was Christian campaigning which eventually persuaded the Emperor Justinian to outlaw this practice in AD 529.

Early theologians such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Jerome, all challenged the Roman Empire about the evils of abortion and infanticide. And the early Christians in Ancient Rome had other successes too. They abolished the blood-thirsty gladiatorial shows and they improved the conditions of the poor and of slaves. None of this happened overnight. It took many, many years, indeed centuries, of faithful work.

The Bible provides an example of someone who sought to be a Christian influence in a secular world. Acts 19:22 mentions Erastus and in Romans 16:23 he is identified as the ‘chamberlain of the city’ or city treasurer. Historians tell us that Erastus personally financed the upkeep of public property1. In II Timothy 4:20 we learn that the Apostle Paul left Erastus behind at Corinth. Archaeologists have discovered a pavement there which bears the name Erastus and which may have been another example of the Christian civic mindedness of this man.

Down through the ages, whether cultures have been sympathetic to Christianity or antagonistic towards it, Christians have always been an influence.

William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was British MP who dedicated most of his time in politics to the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill which became an Act of Parliament in 1807. Wilberforce was motivated by his evangelical faith. His campaigning work was not restricted to the issue of slavery. He was heavily involved in Bible distribution, evangelism and campaigned to protect Gospel freedom.

Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885), another evangelical politician, campaigned for legislation to stop boys being forced to climb chimneys and stopped children working down the mines. He used the law to limit the working hours in factories and secure better care for the mentally ill. But Lord Shaftesbury faced bitter opposition and criticism. When he stopped postal deliveries on Sundays he was savaged in the newspapers as a “bigot”, “fanatic”, and “puritan”. Those were some of the milder terms used. Christians today are sometimes accused of the same things.

The great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892) once said that “every member who joins my church is expected to do something for his fellow creatures”. During the 1860s Spurgeon founded a school for needy children, almshouses for the elderly, and Stockwell orphanages.

F B Meyer (1847-1929) was a gifted evangelist and pastor of Melbourne Hall in Leicester. He also had a heart for social concern, setting up social programmes to reclaim drunkards and provide help to the unemployed. He established a business “F B Meyer Firewood Merchant” in order to employ ex-offenders leaving prison. Meyer claimed that many ex-prisoners were converted through this scheme.

Meyer’s social concern had a tough moral edge. His temperance work in Leicester caused damage to the drink trade. During his tenure as pastor of Christ Church, Lambeth, he organised teams of Christians to gather evidence on the local brothels and submit it to the Police. In this way over 700 brothels were closed down.2

Down through the ages Christians have been an influence for good on the culture around them. These changes have often been resisted and mocked, but they have always been motivated by love – love for the honour of Christ’s name, love for His truth, and love our neighbour. It is this love for God and our neighbour which is the great motivation behind being a Christian influence in a secular world.

Callum Webster

1. Winter, B W, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens,  The Paternoster Press, 1994, page 180-197

2. Wolffe, J (Ed), Evangelical Faith and Public Zeal: Evangelicals and Society in Britain 1780-1980 , SPCK, 1995, pages 156-71