The biblical worldview is not a fairy-tale, or romantic perfectionism,
but a realistic appraisal of men with their sins and shortcomings.
David Chilton, Productive Christians (1981)
The true Romantic always assumes his own innocence. He believes his heart and will are naturally good. What’s more, he sets up his goodness as a standard for all men and naturally assumes that everyone can reach that standard with little or no effort. He thinks only the corruptions inherent within our social institutions prevent such universal goodness. And so… the true Romantic can’t understand why all societal evils can’t be remedied in an instant — by an act of Congress, for example, or a simple executive order.
This is because buried deeply in Romanticism is a very real belief in magic. The idealistic love that can transform a beast into a prince or a street girl into a princess can surely transform society and its institutions in the blink of an eye. The Romantic believes the will to do good should be instantaneous in its effects. And so, those who plead for patience, time for transition, time for planning or for growth in maturity … are obviously enemies of all that is good. But there can be no compromise with such “evil” they say … all change for good must be total and immediate. Idealistic “goodness” demands it.
The true Romantic is forced then to look at the biblical doctrine of social change with not just contempt and scorn … but to actually see it as evil and something to be rebelled against.
Christianity and Social Change
But let’s get something straight: Jesus did not believe in the goodness of the human heart. In fact, He said that, “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:19). “All these evil things,” He said, “come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:23). In other words, Jesus insisted that man’s life and society are corrupted by that which arises from his own heart … from his own innermost self. So radically corrupt is man’s heart that Jesus rejected any hope in man’s natural abilities. Rather, He spoke of a new birth: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). The Bible also calls this “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).
Regeneration is the creation of a new ethical nature. The resurrection of a spiritually dead soul to newness of life (Eph. 2:1). It is a “definitive” and life-transforming divine act. But it is not the fullness and consummation of that life. Rather, regeneration is merely the beginning. The Christian life is a process, after all. It’s a life of growth in grace that matures in obedience (2 Pet. 3:18; Phil. 3:13-14). Theologians speak of sanctification as progressive. (1 Pet. 1:2; 1 Thes. 5:23).
Which means that for Christianity, social change must ultimately be supernatural and therefore often slow and even imperfect at times. Here’s the reason … “regenerative” change is not going to touch all men and women in the same way and at the same time. Some things the Church may not see clearly for centuries, and when it does, it may not have the kind of leverage necessary within the culture of the day to affect a peaceable change. We can see this played out in how the New Testament addresses slavery.
The New Testament and Slavery
Neither Christ nor His apostles called for an immediate abolition of slavery. In fact, the apostles repeatedly told slaves to submit to their masters, although they also told masters to treat their slaves with kindness and equity (Eph. 6:5-7; Col 3:22-25; 1 Tim. 6:1-2; 2 Pet. 2:18-19). The Apostle Paul even told one escaped slave that he ought to return to his master. (This is in the Book of Philemon, which we’ll look at in a moment.)
But there are parallels with regard to other social issues. For example, the apostles didn’t call for an immediate end to polygamy, either. And they had good reasons. Women in the Roman Empire were rarely self-supporting. If a new convert were to divorce his extra wives, he would, for all practical purposes, be consigning them to live as beggars, thieves or prostitutes.
Paul, however, was careful to insist that every church officer be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:1, 12; Titus 1:6). And so: Christian leaders were to model monogamy for their congregations. Paul, like Jesus, insisted that from the beginning of creation God had intended marriage to be the union of one man and one woman for life … “two shall be one flesh” (Eph. 5:31; Matt. 19:5).
An immediate abolition of slavery would also have had harsh and chaotic consequences for all involved. (Haiti is a great example!) Though some slaves were literate or skilled in a trade, many were not. Many lacked the education, self-discipline, or capital to survive, let alone thrive, as independent craftsmen or merchants. For a master to expel such slaves from his household would actually have been quite cruel if examined in its true historical context.
And yet Paul told converted slaves to choose freedom over slavery if a lawful opportunity presented itself (1 Cor. 7:21): “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” He wrote this in a letter that was to be read and preached to the whole congregation … to all congregations everywhere. In other words, Paul told slaves that they should pursue God-given opportunities for freedom, knowing full well that in many cases their masters would be sitting nearby listening to the same divine proclamation. Here’s the thing: Paul held up responsible freedom as a godly goal without advocating immediate culture-wide abolition. Let’s look at the case of Onesimus.
The Case of Onesimus
Onesimus was a runaway slave. He ran from Asia Minor all the way to Rome. There he found Paul, and through Paul’s preaching, he found Christ. Now Paul happened to know Onesimus’s master, Philemon. So, in obedience to the laws of the Empire, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. And Onesimus went willingly. In his hand he carried a letter directed to Philemon and his church. We call that letter “Philemon.”
In this epistle Paul explains what has happened to Onesimus. He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not merely as a slave or even as a “brother in the flesh,” but as a brother beloved in Christ (v.16). Paul promises to pay anything Onesimus might owe Philemon. Then Paul says something terribly important: “Having confidence in thy obedience I wrote unto thee, knowing that thou wilt also do more than I say” (v. 21). “More than I say.” More than receive him as “a brother beloved”? That sounds like freedom, or perhaps adoption back into the family. Paul assumes that this is how a godly man will treat a slave who is also a brother in the Lord, even though Paul does not directly command it. Paul didn’t feel he had to start an abolition campaign … he was content to bring men to Christ and point out the logic and grace of the Gospel, which ultimately meant progressive freedom over time for slaves.
Conclusion: Responsible Freedom
It is important to remember the underlying issue here is our sinful nature. Jesus said that those who commit sin are slaves to sin (John 8:34). Similarly, Paul told the Roman Christians that they had been the slaves of sin that the wages of such slavery was death (Rom. 6:16-23). Man is by nature a slave to his own sins, to his own wicked heart, and he will inevitably prefer slavery to freedom. That makes freedom hard!
He will choose immaturity over responsibility, license over morality, addiction over moderation, and a sugar-daddy state over individual freedom. External changes will not set us free in any true or substantial way. But there is freedom in Christ … freedom from sin and guilt, from lust and pride, from addiction and fear. Only Jesus has the power to change hearts.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has as its end spiritual and ethical maturity. It works through regeneration and sanctification, not through revolution, anarchy or bloodshed. The Gospel works to change men from the inside out. It transforms the hearts of men and women, illumines their minds, and so progressively transforms and liberates cultures.
The focus of the Gospel is the freedom of the heart, and so government begins with individuals. That means political and civil liberty must follow spiritual liberty. If it does, it will be deeply rooted and lasting, providing more freedom, more liberty than anything a Romantic or Progressive revolution could ever produce.
For the true Romantic, the true Progressive … this is intolerable. Freedom, with all its perks and benefits … must come instantly. This is the essence of magic, instant power from below. But Scripture teaches that real freedom, responsible freedom, is the fruit of submission to the Gospel. It is a matter of discipline and discipleship. Jesus said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).