What should the Church do when the economy is difficult? Clearly, the church should continue to engage in diaconal ministry, helping those inside and outside the body of Christ who need assistance – pairing that assistance with the spread of the gospel. But while churches have a responsibility to aid the needy and to speak against injustice, there are pitfalls, and they are not new. The great conservative theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) fought the tendency of many churchmen to reduce their mission to a “social gospel.” Machen believed that the church was not just another charity, and that it should not be (to use a modern term) a superPAC. During the Great Depression, Machen wrote,
The function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission, which is to bring to bear upon human hearts the solemn and imperious, yet also sweet and gracious, appeal of the gospel of Christ.
Economist Shawn Ritenour’s blog “Foundations of Economics” had a post last year on Machen’s view of what the Church should do during economic hard times. As Prof. Ritenour wrote, Machen’s comments were “remarkable for its call for the Church to be the Church, meaning the Church was not to be a political lobby or primarily a society for social work. The mission of the Church is what it has been since it was ordained: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
But Machen did not believe that Christians should retreat from political affairs. The Church as an institution may not borrow the weapons of the world, but the Christian may certainly educate himself on economics and the law and then engage the culture. Machen himself wrote on matters of public policy, and testified before a congressional committee on the issue of public education. When Hoover and Roosevelt pushed massive government intervention during the Great Depression, Machen went against the tide, rejecting the “materialistic paternalism” of an expansive State. Christians should seek to carry the truth of God’s Word into every corner of human existence, including the public policy that has an effect on all of us.
For further reading, see William Hobbs’ article on Machen’s address: “The Church and Economic Recovery.” in the March 2011 issue of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s journal New Horizons. Also see Shawn Ritenour’s post on jgmachen.org, “Machen: A Forgotten Libertarian.”