To Change the World

This is a reprint from the summer of 2007. Some recent meanderings have brought up yet again the subject of “social progress” as a Christian goal. Our cultural metaphor is deeply indebted to 19th century Liberal Protestant theology (Rauschenbusch, et al). I think the utilitarian approach (we need to be “practical”) can be very alluring – and also a vm354contradiction of the Christian faith. I believe no one has changed the world at all in comparison to Christ. And yet, I think many social historians might argue that Christ had very little impact on the world. It all depends on what you see when you turn on the light. Thus, these musings…

In a recent exchange on one of my postings I was congratulated for my advocacy of attention to small things, and told that thereby we will change the world. I wrote a light-hearted response in which I demurred from such a lofty goal – but have thought much of it since – and have decided to post on the present topic – why changing the world is not the agenda of the Christian life. I will quickly say that I do not mean by such an assertion that we are not to care about justice nor to correct wrongs that are done or any other such thing. But I want to think aloud on the subject – particularly in the light of Scripture.

First it must be noted that Scripture itself never speaks of a charge to the Church to change the world. It is not a Scriptural notion in itself and I hope to show why this is so.

There is certainly a change prophesied for the world:

But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. (2 Peter 3:8-13)

And this:

And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. Rev. 11:15

A much larger list could be assembled with quite the same effect. The New Testament vision of the world and “its kingdoms,” is not very sanguine. The general tenor of prophecy in the New Testament is not only to recognize the difficulty of the times in which the saints are living at that time, but warns that times will grow much worse before all is done.

It became the fashion in 19th century Protestant thought – and has continued to the present to some degree – to treat such warnings as mistaken notions of the early Church. It was a common assumption by liberal Biblical scholars that Christ had expected to see the Kingdom ushered in quite soon (an idea shared by the disciples) and that things just did not happen that way. Nineteenth Century liberal thought both in Europe and in America began to substitute “progress” for the coming of the Kingdom. Instead of a cataclysmic end to history, mankind would work towards the justice and peace of God’s Kingdom. “Working for the coming of the Kingdom” became a common notion (I can recall having said such things in prayers and the like prior to my conversion to Orthodoxy).

It is easy to mistake material progress for a change in the nature of things. Of course, material progress is change of a sort. Most of us would not vote to rid ourselves of such conveniences as plumbing and electricity, antibiotics, etc. But these conveniences have not apparently changed the world towards the coming of the Kingdom – only made it a bit more comfortable – and not for all.

There are important social changes that have occurred, as well. Human rights have been extended though they remain embattled in many places. And, of course, they seem to be redefined almost at will depending upon who’s in charge of the largest and most numerous guns at any one time.

So what are Christians doing? If we are not changing the world, what is our life about?

First, it’s useful to think of the nature of the Church compared to the nature of the world. The Church, the Body of Christ, transcends the world. It is in the world but not of the world. Receiving communion, we take into ourselves the very Body and Blood of God. The world cannot contain Him and yet we receive Him into ourselves.

Thus to a certain extent, changing the world would be a diminution of the Church’s role. The Church is larger than the world in which it dwells.

Another important consideration is a principle that has been articulated by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on any number of occasions. He says that so soon as we agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence. His contention is that the outcome of history has already been determined (and in some sense completed) in the death and resurrection of Christ. Efforts to make things turn in a certain direction inevitably mean that we take up the sword in order to accomplish that goal.

Doubtless there is a role within the world for the kingdoms of this world, and there has always been the need for the voice of the Church to be directed to those kingdoms, calling them to repentance and to do justice.

But we cannot measure the Church and its life by its effect on the Kingdoms of this world. Sometimes we seem to have a great effect, sometimes we get martyred. In all times we are subject to the mercy of Christ and the workings of His salvation within the life of the world.

Some years back I pastored a parish that had entered into a joint agreement with the local school board to provide a location for a daycare program for the children of young mothers at the local high school (which was next door). When the agreement was drawn up, I had insisted that there be mutual veto power for the parties involved. I did not want the school setting the agenda for my parish, nor did they want me setting the agenda for the school.

The board had school administration representatives, parish representatives and members from the community at large. Of great interest to me was how driven some of the board members were to “change” the young women. There was a parenting program included with the daycare that offered opportunities for young women (and young men if we could get them to be involved) to learn better parenting skills. But there were repeated efforts to include rules that would “punish” (usually by expelling them from the program) any young woman who became pregnant while involved. I saw in this simply another incentive for young women to have abortions – and I vetoed it. I stated then a single goal that the board adopted: for young women to graduate high school.

Change, particularly change within a person, requires their assent and their freedom. My own belief in that case was that the problem of teen pregnancy was fairly complex – at least it included a number of factors – not all of them the same for each individual involved. I believed then and now that every young mother who had a high school degree had a gift of greater freedom – more possibilities and choices were available to her than would have been the case as a high-school drop out. I do not know how the program fared after I left that parish. But I do know a number of young women whose possibility for change was improved by the care we gave their children and the support we gave them as parents. I also know that while I was involved, attempts by others to control, reward and punish young women was thwarted. And I think this was a proper Christian action.

Love of others, as commanded by Christ, would bid us do many things on behalf of others. But the nature of our actions has to finally be judged simply by the measure of goodness. Utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) has been a great temptation for Christians in the modern world. In its name, much evil can be justified. On the other hand, doing something good simply because it is good frees us from the delusions of moral calculus. Is it good to help someone finish school? I think so. Is it good to set up rules so that the only easy option for a young pregnant woman is to abort her child? Absolutely not. The Kingdoms of this world have already conspired against such a young woman and her child. The Church and the Christian have no need to add their support to such evil efforts.

In this life we have no measure of success. Faithfulness to Christ, perservance in the faith – these are perhaps the only things that approach such a measure – but only God can judge the truth of these. Judgment is in His hands. There will come a day when everything will be revealed. On that Day, the world will have changed, and no one can delay or hasten its advent.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.






14 responses to “To Change the World”

  1. Death Bredon Avatar


    Even if every Christian loves his immediate neighbors — feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, visiting the prisoners — all the things that Christ commands, no fundamental change of the kind of existence we experience pending the Adventus (parousia) will occur on in these last days — though it might perhaps make the quality of our existence bearable for some or many, probably as much because of the feeling of belovedness extended by true Christians than by any material good achieved by such charity.

    BUT, what I believe to be most crucial about Christ’s command of charity, echoed so eloquently by St. Paul, is that, by it, the Christian witness is made palpable by good works flowing from faith and love. And in the process, those who otherwise do not yet know the love of Christ might experience it sooner rather than later, or at least see it, approve it, long for it.

    Indeed, the victory is already won, and the Kingdom is already prepared — it is coming. In the meantime, our job is not to build its structures but to populate them — to go out into the highways and byways and invite the ones not previously chosen to the banquet. And what better way of making our invitation truly inviting than to be witnesses of God’s love of all mankind (philanthropos) by embodying the quality of Christian charity.

    No, we are not secular utopians. We ourselves cannot bring about paradise on earth. But we nevertheless try to do good where we can out of true charity and compassion for our neighbors — not out of some utopian ideal — even though we know that, in an earthly sense that good is futile. I have in mind here the work of Mother Teresa. She was not trying to solve the problems of the poor but through her love palpably extend to them God’s love.

    We have no illusions of actually achieving complete social justice, ending of poverty, or establishing a New Deal, a Great Society, or a New World Order. No, only God can do that, and already has, his Kingdom is coming like a thief in the night, though Christians already experience it by anticipation, as it were. In the meantime (metaxy), simply by loving our neighbors, treating them as we would like to be treated, we Christians may be examples of what the Kingdom Come will be, providing the fallen world an inviting foretaste, and populating the guest list so to speak, so that Christ’s Great Commission given to us might be fulfilled.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would stop short of the conclusions you draw. We are to preach the gospel, Baptize and make disciples, though even the success of all those efforts will be known to God alone. We keep the commandments in order to be faithful to Christ. God alone is in charge of the outcome of anything. Thus it is not social gospel versus evangelism (which can be as utilitarian as anything else), but simply obedience to Christ. It is not given to us to determine results. It is given to us to be faithful to Christ and obey His commandments. Only God adds to the Church daily such as are being saved. We cannot populate the Kingdom. Indeed, great evil has been done in the name of evangelism from time to time just as has been done by those who are utilitarian about social issues.

    The most important thing to know about God – we’re not Him.

  3. Joseph Hromy Avatar
    Joseph Hromy

    I think this constant need to help people can play down our attention on our own heart and proper worship of God. How many western Christians I know spend a hour in church every week, but then try to preach about being saved. Worship is everything! I get looked at when I tell fellow Christians how long the Liturgy is! Sometimes, I think the monks get it all right about life, in that their whole focus is on God constantly. Just thought I would reveal my thoughts, Christ is Risen!

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Oddly, I don’t think there is a competition between caring for other people and caring for God. My experience is generally that if you don’t care for God, you don’t care for other people. I would even say that it will be better for those who have shown love for others on Judgment Day than for those who have shown religious devotion to God but not shown love for others.

    But I think all love comes from God whether it is known or not.

    I simply know that for myself, my wretched heart needs to be healed in order to love God or my neighbor and that without God I don’t stand a chance at either.

    Father Stephen +

  5. Death Bredon Avatar

    “ONLY God adds to the Church daily such as are being saved. We cannot populate the Kingdom.”

    Sound like Jean Chauvin.

    Do you deny the synergistic nature of grace? Is the Great Commission really a call to passive receptivity?

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    You take my words further than I did. That ONLY God does not mean the same thing as “God without the cooperation of man.” I noted in comments that I not only believe in evangelism but practice evangelism. But the mystery of how the grace of God acts in the heart of another, and the mystery of how another cooperates with that grace are both mysteries. I do not know nor does anyone else. I am commanded to preach the gospel, so I do. In season and out. But I cannot determine the outcome of preaching nor would I want to misinterpret the Scriptures and “compel” them to come in (taking a phrase from a parable and applying as a justification for forced conversions as was once done in the West). Nor should we engage in the manipulation of emotion to bring about “conversions” in the manner of the teaching of Finney. Either there is a God or there is not. If there is, then my task is to be obedient and not act as though I was commanded to do what God alone can do. I preach, I teach, I share the good news in anyway that God makes possible – but the adding of souls to the Church (and kingdom) is a mystery beyond me. I’ve baptized many – but God brought them to the font (obviously in a synergistic mystery in which they cooperated). Evangelism is not a technique.

  7. Joseph Hromy Avatar
    Joseph Hromy

    Thanks for the insight Father.

  8. Margaret Evans Avatar

    Father, what you’re saying reminds me of the parable of the sower. As Christians, it is our job to faithfully scatter the seeds, but only God can prepare the soil. Am I right? Am I making it too simple?

  9. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, I’m so thankful for your careful statements and clarification for Death Bredon. There is a mystery in our synergy with Christ and each other where I am finding personally that it is so very easy to be tempted out of an active trusting posture oriented solely on Christ (which is far different from spiritual passivity) into focussing on what I think Christ wants for me or another (as an external and abstract standard or rule or behavior) and trying in “obedience” to make it happen. I have been in a situation with an Orthodox emphasizing the importance of “synergy” in a different, but analogous, context, where he thought he was deriding passivity and neglect and I was fairly sure what he really understood by synergy (given the concrete situation he was addressing) was more of man doing God’s job for Him in the flesh in the name of synergy because, in this case, he wanted what he perceived as justice sooner rather than later, The quote in my comments at your newest post on humility also touch on this discussion in the context of judgment of others (and self).

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Something like that though even the preparation of soil can be mysterious.

  11. Mark Basil Avatar

    Christ is in our midst!

    Dear Father Stephen;
    I am currently reading “Let the Trumpet Sound,” a biography of M.L.King Jr.
    I am struggling again with the Orthodox Christian relationship to the world- how we participate without being part of it? I was raised a-typically Evangelical (of Anabaptist persuasion); in my home “private piety and personal spirituality and prayer” was suspect; the true test of Christian fidelity was in works of justice (care for the least of these).
    Orthodoxy taught me that there is a mystical connection between all life (I think of this in terms of Adam as one and all- how one man’s sin affected all, and a second one man’s righteousness redeemed all.). I see how evil is internal not external; I have access to my own wounded heart and in receiving Christ’s healing I can become humbled and purified in such a way that I am receptive to God’s grace and made “usable” to God.
    Following this understanding I slowly left my “social justice and political action” groups and leanings. I thank God for healing I’ve received! Yet, I still have questions about how I should respond to injustice– especially systemic injustice that requires organized and political response.

    I am struggling right now with the difference between this Orthodox concern with my own salvation (because I am the cause of the world’s evils- I need look no further than my own heart for the “social action” that will change the world). And the political and social action and participation that resists ‘institutional’ evils.

    I would be grateful to hear from you some “thinking out loud” about how Orthodox Christianity and the civil rights movement would fit together? How would M.L. King Jr. have ‘turned out differently’ if he had been Orthodox?
    I ask sincerely.

    I feel a concern that Orthodox concern with “my own salvation” can and perhaps often- even usually- has a ‘deadening effect’ on Orthodox Christians’ participation in social and political change.
    What is the difference between the sort of “trying to change the world” that we must avoid, and the sort of “trying to change the world” that M.L. King, and Gandhi before him, attempted and accomplished– without “agreeing to do violence”?
    On the other hand, what is the difference between an Orthodox “concern with my own salvation” and the sort of “personal and private” ‘spirituality’ that would have us accept structural and systemic injustice because this is not really of “spiritual concern”?
    I am confused by the sort of persuasion and rallying that Dr. King engaged in- rooted in nonviolence love of enemies, non-participation in evil, and actively seeking justice- to mobilize a mass movement- a unified civil rights movement… Please help me to understand in what way(s) this sort of action is (and is not) consistent with Orthodox humility, “concern for my own salvation,” focus on the darkness in my own heart, and the right sort of avoidance of efforts to affect the course of history?

    A passage in “Let the Trumpet Sound” that I read today crystallized some of the questions and concerns I’ve brought up. Here it is:
    (During a meeting with the Mayor and other officials during the Bus Boycott in 1955):

    “Then Reverend Frazier began speaking, and King listened with morbid fascination. Frazier was one of the most outspoken segregationists in the Methodist Church, “a tall, distinguished looking man,” King thought, “the quintessence of dignity.” He was lecturing Negroes on the frailties of human nature and the error of their ways. They had strayed from the path of righteousness, he said, led into darkness by ministers of the gospel. The task of Christian preachers was to lead mens’ souls to God, not to sow confusion by getting enmeshed in social problems. With the Christmas season approaching, all of them- whites and Negroes alike- must focus their attention on the Babe of Bethlehem. This the Negro preachers must tell their flocks. They must tell them to end the boycott and guide them “to a glorious experience of the Christan faith.”…
    [King replied]… I can see no conflict between our devotion to Jesus Christ and our present action. In fact, I can see a necessary relationship. If one is truly devoted to the religion of Jesus he will seek to rid the earth of social evils. The gospel is social as well as personal…”

    As you well know King failed to persuade white politicians and white ministers alike. He believed oppressors would never surrender their power willingly and thus had to be actively resisted.

    Please help me to understand where this sort of political and social action is consistent and inconsistent with the Orthodox Way. Of course you have advocated active love and you have never suggested that it’s all “personal” or ‘in my head’. — But I am most confused with the place for the sort of “political movement” that Dr. King advocated (unlike almost all such leaders through time, he constantly acted from a position of love and nonviolence). He was himself deeply influenced by Rauschenbusch; etc.

    Thank you for any help in clarifying these things.
    -Mark Basil

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mark Basil,
    Of note. Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Archdiocese, was among one of the earliest supporters of Dr. King and famously marched with him in the South. Orthodoxy has no problem at all in pursuing social justice. There were many groups (often not mentioned in the Western press) that were Orthodox-Christian, who organized within the Communist regimes – often under persecution. The Western media tends to do a very bad job of its news (extremely bad). In the mid-70’s I was surprised when I ordered and read a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s essays to find that he was a devout Orthodox Christian and that his faith had much to do with his political position. Eventually, when in his Harvard address his faith became clear, the Western press turned on him (not surprisingly). The popular media today still under reports just how profoundly religious Dr. King’s work was. I studied under Stanley Hauerwas at Duke, whose theology always had a “political” application – not in the sense of “let’s organize and go vote,” but in the sense that the Kingdom of God properly challenges the powers that be always and everywhere. I think he is correct. In Greece, there a number of profound social thinkers who are also Orthodox theologians/philosophers. Christos Yannaras is a name with which I am familiar – but there are others as well.
    The social critique of European Orthodox thinkers is much stronger than in America. The criticism of “globalism” is one element that I encounter a lot.
    It is important, within Orthodoxy, to steer clear of the American tendency towards utopianism. The struggle for justice should not (I think) ever be seen under a general heading of “building a better world.” I know nothing of better worlds – and such idealism becomes a cover for much evil in the long run (I think). Instead, we should pursue justice, or mercy, etc., for its own sake – let God take care of the larger picture – most of which is always beyond our control.
    I think it is very specific things we can address. I am not an economics person – I just don’t know enough. But, for instance, I wonder why, in one of the wealthiest nations, someone working a 40 hour week cannot make a living wage. I’m not inviting explanations – or arguments. But I do wonder about it. Social justice in America has often been coopted by political parties who invoke the various causes in order to seem like they care, but do not actually do anything that makes a difference. “Caring” is pretty worthless.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. I have some training in economics and I have long pondered the question you raise. The is quite a bit of writing about it. Still, no explanation is very satisfactory.

  14. Mark Basil Avatar

    Very helpful thoughts and observations.
    Thank you Father.

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