Sunday, January 28, 2024

Out of this World

“We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.”

No matter how public our profile in life may be, and no matter how good our intentions, one of the things we cannot take out of the world with us is any rock-solid evidence that we have reformed its institutions or brought light to the darkness of the culture around us in any lasting, positive way. Unlike the changes that Christ brings to the individual human heart, the effect of any changes we introduce into the system will always be fleeting at best.

Slavery as an Illustration

Let’s take the example of slavery as an apt illustration. Critics complain that the Bible’s advice to Christians about this incendiary issue is insipid and cowardly. Surely, with their great influence on the early church, the apostles could easily have mobilized tens of thousands of fervent first century believers in widespread public resistance to the institution of slavery. Why risk inadvertently affirming its evils by capitulating to it? As a tactic, submission to slavery initially appears wholly inadequate, a passive, unambitious response, often wrongly interpreted as an active endorsement of wickedness.

Yet Paul writes to Timothy, “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor.” Peter said precisely the same thing, even linking suffering in this manner to the example of Christ himself. There was no division in the early church on this subject.

One possible reason is that they always kept in mind that Christ had assigned them a far more important task, one that was always paramount. Preaching the gospel was literally a matter of life and death, joy and heavenly glory set against eternal damnation. No secondary issue could compete with the gospel in importance, and nothing could be allowed to divert their attention from spreading it.

Oceans and Teacups

Another reason might be that the apostles knew any reforms Christianity might make to political or social institutions couldn’t possibly last. Apart from Christ, people are far too wicked for that.

William Wilberforce is widely credited with initiating the political and social movement that led to the legal abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, positively affecting the lives of several million blacks spread throughout the western world at the time and for generations to come. Today, experts estimate 49.6 million people live in slavery worldwide. A quarter of these are children. The number of women enslaved in the sex trade alone is twice the estimated number of slaves in the West in 1807. Even factoring in world population growth of 800% since the early 1800s, slavery remains one of the world’s most prevalent evils and its impact as pervasive as it ever was.

Were Wilberforce’s efforts a waste of his time? To the extent that they helped specific individuals, not at all. If you had been one of those freed slaves in the years following 1807, you would probably agree. But to the extent that he succeeded at permanently reforming an evil, global institution, Wilberforce was tilting at world’s biggest windmill.

Well, no, that would be ending poverty. But he might as well have tried to empty the Pacific Ocean with a teacup.

Submission and the Non-Negotiables

The apostle Paul didn’t have these statistics in front of him when he wrote 1 Timothy, but not only does Paul tell Timothy not to bother “fighting the power”, he promptly adds this admonition:

“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”

Here, of course, Paul is not simply referring to the previous instruction to first century slaves about honoring their masters, saved or unsaved, but to every instruction he has written prior in his letter.

The Primary Task

Nevertheless, Paul’s instructions to slaves are included among the doctrinal non-negotiables has passed on. He says submission to unjust authority is consistent with the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. His teaching “agrees” with the Master’s sound words. Not only that, but he adds that anyone who contended with Timothy about any of these issues — the appropriate response to slavery included — was a fractious, problem Christian looking for immediate satisfaction of some strong personal desire, rather than a servant of Christ striving to further the spiritual goals of the Lord and his apostles.

Now, I am not saying the efforts of William Wilberforce many centuries later were the product of an unhealthy craving for controversy, or that he was misguided in what he accomplished. The slavery of the first century Roman Empire and the particular species of evil fought by Wilberforce differed in many respects, not least that slaves in the New World never entered into bondage voluntarily, and, unlike the slavery of the first century, there was no way out. I have no idea if that difference motivated Wilberforce. He may well have been a genuine altruist acting in good conscience before God, and I suspect he was. But we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of it, including any proof that our efforts at reforming the world around us have accomplished anything lasting or significant. Fighting temporal wickedness is not the primary task Christ left to his redeemed brethren when he ascended, and there was never any hope of them eliminating or significantly reducing it in his physical absence.

Something You Might Not Know About William Wilberforce

Here’s something interesting about William Wilberforce, especially so because it comes from the leftist propagandists of Wikipedia, not from the pen of an evangelical hagiographer.

First, Wilberforce’s devotion to his wife Barbara was legendary. Their marriage was by all accounts a happy union and an example to all. Second, Wilberforce was an “adoring father who revelled in his time at home and at play with his [six] children”. Of these, William Jr. became a convert and well-known Member of Parliament. Robert became a clergyman, as did his youngest brother Henry. Samuel, also a believer, was one of the greatest public speakers of his day, standing against the views of Darwin in the 1860 Oxford evolution debate. Their sister Elizabeth was a philanthropist who turned down a marriage proposal from affluent slaver Charles Pinney, and eventually married a poor clergyman and died at age 31 after giving birth to one daughter. All the second generation Wilberforces about whom we know anything were men and women of principle. (Little has been written about a second sister, Barbara, who died at age 22.)

Institutions vs. People

William Wilberforce may not have succeeded in permanently reforming a wicked institution, but he passed on his Christian faith to his children, who passed it on to others. That is no small accomplishment, and Christians who make that goal their aim will never be disappointed when they stand before their Lord to hear his assessment of their works.

We may not be able to take the long-term influence of our Christian faith with us when we exit this world, but we can certainly leave it behind.

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