Talking Past Each Other on Transformationalism

The Church has a limited mandate; if she is to be all that she should, God's word determines her agenda

The real debate is between those who strongly support the development of genuine Christian vocation but who want to preserve the Church from becoming a mere means to an end and those who see the Church as a way to make this world “a better place for us all.” For that is what cultural transformation theology taken to its logical conclusion does; it ends up viewing the Church as a tool for doing something rather than as an inherently valuable thing in itself- a divinely ordained institution, the ark of salvation and an outpost of the Kingdom of God in earth to which men may flee for refuge.


Fast and furious indeed have been the responses to Dr. Carl Trueman’s short piece titled ‘Cigar Smoke and Mirrors and Transformation‘ which questioned the historical veracity as well as the long-term goals of a theology of cultural transformation. My own foray into the subject, something of a response to responses, is framed contra Dr. David Wallover’s essay ‘Smoke and Light: Being Faithful to the Sovereign God (Who Sometimes Transforms)‘ and Dr. William B Evans’ ‘Let’s Give Credit Where Credit Is Due‘ because I find these essays to be neither too fast nor especially furious but frustratingly exemplary of the kind of easy thinking that leaves readers nodding but, on closer examination, proves to be a little more on the sloppy side than one would expect from well-educated leaders of the Church.

I find that Dr. Wallover and Dr. Evans’ essays are problematic both in what they say and in what they don’t.

In Dr. Wallover’s essay, throughout the first two paragraphs in particular, cultural transformation is portrayed as fidelity to God’s call. “The Lord commands us to build culture…” he says. This is a bold statement which deserves fleshing-out. Unfortunately, there is neither philosophical explanation nor Scripture reference attached. It may be that Dr. Wallover’s congregation are familiar with his reasoning but I venture to suggest that many otherwise orthodox Christians would find such a claim puzzling and would wish for clarification. Additionally, failing to provide proper support makes the claim seem like a prima facie conclusion and implies that all who see things differently are being disobedient to God’s (obvious) call and desire. I do not believe I misunderstand on this point as following a discourse on past moments of cultural transformation he writes, “failure to be faithful is simply unrepentant and disobedient.”

This alone would be problematic but the examples Wallover presents in support of his claim that transformational theology is right and good are more complex than he makes them appear. It deserves noting that in framing his argument around specific faithful men Wallover is arguing from personal example rather than biblical precept even after stating that the issue at hand is fulfilling God’s call, a statement for which he provides no supporting evidence. This is typical of the story-based, testimony-laden thinking which dominates today’s theological discourse. It is no bad thing to take certain faithful people as personal examples of peity. It is, however, bad thinking to suggest that because one pious person chose to do something, it is axiomatic that all Christians do the same.

In any case, William Wilberforce and Thomas Chalmers did unquestionably great things and shaped society in their time for the better. But they did so as individual Christians in the context of their secular vocation. Wilberforce was a politician and used his political influence to bring an end to the English slave trade. Chalmers, in addition to being a minister, was a professor and member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He used his academic influence to speak in support of economic reform, particularly as it related to poverty. The case of Chalmers is made more complex by the fact that he was a minister in the Church of Scotland and as such he was legally required to care for all who lived in his parish not merely those who attended services. His reforms must be understood in a semi-erastian context. The facts of these two men’s lives are of the utmost importance for the argument that cultural transformation is a response to a divine command. In their distinct spheres they worked to see that the principles they found in scripture were applied.

The above may seem obvious but in observing the faithfulness of Wilberforce and Chalmers in their day-to-day living and working lies the crux of the matter when it comes to the question of cultural transformation. What is seldom clearly articulated is the necessity of recognizing the distinction between the calling of individual Christians and the calling of the Church as institution. It would be very easy to run through a long list of past saints who had a positive impact on their culture. Undoubtedly, this would be uplifting and of great encouragement. But it would not serve to prove that the Church’s mission is to transform culture.

In his essay, Dr. Evans also attempts to ground transformational theology in individual contributions to society while opposing the proposition made by Dr. Trueman that history itself defies transformationalist assumptions about the viability of widespread societal change. However, he makes the same mistake as Dr. Wallover in not clarifying whether such influence on society is a manifestation of the Church’s mission or merely the result of individual Christians living out their vocation. To give credit where it is due is to embrace the contributions of individuals living in a fallen world. Yet this does not mean we must embrace the predominant theology of transformation abounding today which does not primarily center on individual Christian faithfulness but on making the institutional Church an organ of change.

Dr. Trueman’s great point, if I read him correctly, is that while it is absolutely right and good for individual Christians to pursue their secular vocation with holy boldness, it is not right to overlay onto the institutional Church the rhetoric of culture transformation when there is no clear Biblical call for the Church as institution to transform culture. Matthew 28 does not say, “Therefore go into all the world baptizing and transforming culture, renewing unjust social structures, etc., etc.” Hence the claim from anti-tranformationalists that those who support a theology of cultural transformation are being theologically innovative (read: making things up).

Dr. Peter Naylor makes the following observation which I think key to clarifying the discussion about transformation. “As we consider the church’s mission, we must bear these five principles in mind. (1) The church cannot act without a mandate from God. (2) The God-given boundaries between the three spheres of family, nation, and church must be respected. (3) The distinction between the body and its members must be clearly observed. (4) The distinction between the office bearers and the members must be respected. (5) Jesus’ commission from his Father was unique and the church cannot assume that Jesus’ commission is its own mission.”

Here is the most significant point at issue, and it is this point that Wallover and Evans and many others fail to speak to in a clear way. In Scripture the history of redemption is presented and the three spheres of godly, ecclesiastical, and individual responsibility are articulated. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. The Church is to be an ordered assembly of saved sinners, the primary function of which is to worship God. Individual Christians are to go out from the Church and live Christianly in the world. Sometimes this will generate great change and maybe even widespread cultural transformation. Yet the mission of the Church as an institution is to ensure that acceptable worship is offered, the gospel is presented, and believers (old and new) are edified. The results of such worship, witness, and edification may be transformation. And it may not. The distinction between the Church and the Christian is essential to the preservation of a proper biblical hierarchy with the work of God being left up to God. The Spirit moves mysteriously. We do our duty and God does His work. Both the means and the end are providentially determined.

At the end of the day the debate about transformation is not between those who want Christians to be effective witnesses to the Gospel in every situation and those who want a privatized religion. Such a perspective is gross oversimplification. The real debate is between those who strongly support the development of genuine Christian vocation but who want to preserve the Church from becoming a mere means to an end and those who see the Church as a way to make this world “a better place for us all.” For that is what cultural transformation theology taken to its logical conclusion does; it ends up viewing the Church as a tool for doing something rather than as an inherently valuable thing in itself- a divinely ordained institution, the ark of salvation and an outpost of the Kingdom of God in earth to which men may flee for refuge.

It is a shame that so many words are being thrown around in what is essentially a great moment of faithful men talking-past one another. I have no doubt that Drs. Wallover and Evans are right that God uses people to accomplish great things. I’m sure Dr. Trueman would agree. The issue at hand is not whether God uses people or even whether individuals are called to express their Christianity publicly. It is whether this is the call of the institutional Church. More work needs to be done in this area for the stakes are great. In churches where the language and theology of cultural transformation have come to the fore, the result has been a downplaying of Christian vocation and the enlargement of church bureaucracy with the consequent watering-down of doctrine necessary for the institution to engage on friendly terms with secular power structures.

That such consequences are inevitable can be proved by an appeal to any of the denominations influenced by the old social gospel, of which transformationalism is merely a new manifestation. We must be wary for as Dr. Schweitzer reminds us, “Preaching the cross is laughable and offensive to the world whereas social action is respectable and attractive. If both these activities are equally understood to constitute obedience to the Great Commission, which of the two is likely to flourish, and which is likely to atrophy? Moreover, even if the church somehow maintains a perfect balance between the two, that still means that her missions resources are being divided between that which the church alone can do (preach the gospel for the salvation of eternal souls) and that which the secular government and false religions can do (social action).”

Our obedience to God’s call as Christians living out our vocation before God in the world may be used mightily. It may seem to make no impact. Nevertheless faithfulness is the call. But never must we make the Church’s call into a mirror of our own. As a divinely ordained institution, the Church has a limited mandate. If she is to be all that she should, we must let God’s word determine her agenda. Just as we trust that God will use us to accomplish our end, we must trust and pray that He will use His Church to accomplish hers – in God’s way, in God’s time.

Evan McWilliams is a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Lakeland, Fla., is an architectural historian, and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of York in the UK. This article appeared in his blog and is used with permission.


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