I have often wondered about the use of Matt. 5:13-16 by some Christians who seem to think that Jesus had social or political causes in mind when he uttered the words, “you are the salt of the earth.” For some reason, we have concluded that Jesus was talking about salt as a preservative and that this means Jesus was teaching that the church is responsible for preserving for the moral fiber of a culture against moral decadence, rottenness if you will.
Dave Miller, over at SBC voices has recently used this verse to proclaim that the SBC has in fact been the “salt of the earth” by passing the Alt-Right resolution which is apparently a step toward healing racism in the SBC. Anti-Abortion activists, such as AHA also use this verse to indict anyone in the church does not oppose abortion following their prescriptive methodology alone. Their message seems to be, if you do not oppose abortion like AHA, then you are not opposing abortion and if you are not opposing abortion, you are not being the salt of the earth. Therefore, church, repent. But I have to ask if Jesus really is teaching that being salt and light is engaging in social and political activism, slap the Christian banner on it, and call it salt and light.
The Baptist Faith and Message states in Article XV, All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society. I believe the framers had gospel-proclamation in mind when they used this language. But the Alt-Right resolution along with groups like AHA take this far afield. They believe that Christians ought to integrate their ethics, their principles, into the government, into society as a whole. The basis for this sort of thinking is a specific interpretation of Matt. 5:13-16 and if that interpretation is faulty, then the ground for these sorts of actions are faulty as well. The argument proceeds along the line that Christians ought to find ways to weave their ethic into law and into social practice. This is how the church preserves society from moral decay, or so it goes.
In their excellent book, Let the Reader Understand, Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton note,
When we read an ordinary text, we unconsciously use a variety of methods to discern meaning, and with works of our own age and culture this ordinarily presents no problems at all. These unconscious methods are a floating repertoire of facilitating devices that are applied unreflectively in the process of perceiving meaning.
They go on to point out that with a text as remote geographically, culturally, and socially as the Bible, this practice can be spiritually fatal. For years, in fact, ever since I can remember, we have all thought of the preservative feature of salt. And it is true that ANE cultures used salt as a preservative. That was one use for salt. But that was not the only use for it and it seems to me that if one will just pay closer attention to Jesus in the immediate context, that they will discover that he was not thinking of the preservative use of salt. He was thinking of the use of salt to spice up food. He used the word ‘taste’. If the salt has lost its taste, it is good for nothing! One interpretation of this passage goes like this: Christianity is the moral preservative of the earth. If it were not for Christianity, the moral values of the culture would decay to a point where the earth would be worthless in every way. Therefore, Christians should be actively engaged in social causes, in political activism, with an eye on attempting to get society to adopt the moral principles of Christianity and thereby honor God and preserve that culture. But this interpretation is terribly flawed and far removed from Jesus’ actual setting.
The morals of the world are not deteriorating and in danger of rot. They are already rotten, useless, and good for nothing. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t believe Paul in Rom. 3:12 where he said, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” There is nothing for the church to preserve. God restrains evil by his means but this is not that. Men are not as evil as they could be, but that is not because of the church. It is because God providentially has restrained evil from the very beginning of the fall and will do so until he doesn’t any longer.
The church was already the salt of the earth in Matthew 5 when it was so infinitesimally small that hardly anyone knew it existed. Yet, it was salt and light. The modern understanding of this text is very often used to gain influence in government by way of the legislative process, and society through social activism and political activism so that the church can promulgate its principles and teachings. Christians become politicians in order to take Christian ethics and translate them into civil law. This is precisely what frightens non-Christians the most about the church and causes some of them, perhaps many of them to think of Christianity the same way many of them think of radical Islam. Christians, if they have their way, will outlaw adultery and fornication and every other evil that God prohibits, or so the fear goes. And in this line of reasoning, that is indeed the logical end. To stop at racism or abortion would be to play the hypocrite. This thinking, if applied consistently, is Theonomy repackaged for all intents and purposes. Its end is dominion theology. Why would it be anything else? How could it be anything else? How dare we win the racism war and the abortion war and not immediately turn our attention to the gender war, the gay marriage war, and from there, the divorce war, and the sexual immorality war, and the lying war, and finally to the tithe war. Where does it stop? Logically, it cannot. If it does, we play the arbitrary hypocrite, picking and choosing the sins we don’t like the most and giving the others a pass. Those who do not study history are bound to repeat it.
The culture’s values are rotten, useless, vile, pagan, God-hating top to bottom. They always have been and they always will be. The salt Jesus had in mind was not the function of preservation that some interpreters have in mind. It was the function of salt as flavor. In this light we think of God as consuming the earth and as the church is that seasoning that makes the earth delightful to God’s taste. We are that. But if we become just like the culture around us, losing our distinction as righteous, as holy, as pure, as separate from this culture, then we are good for nothing just like salt that is not salty. Imagine salting your popcorn and the salt having no taste. Why bother? The focus of Christ is not the world, nor is it the moral decay of the culture around him. That is reading far too much into the text. The focus is me. The focus is you. The focus is the church. How are we the seasoning? How are we different from the culture, from the world.
The church is to engage in good works for all to see. What are good works? Is political activism good works? What does the world see when you engage in political activism? What does the world see when you engage in social activism? I believe the world sees you caring about a cause. The cause of racism, life, marriage, etc. But do you care about them? What was Jesus’ cause? He most certainly had one. What was it? Think about it. God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” (Acts 3:26) Jesus came to save his people from their sin. (Matt. 1:21) That was his cause. The apostles had little to say about their pagan culture and the government in terms of getting either to adopt Christian ethics. What they did say was quite different from others. They talked about the worthless mindset of the culture. They described the culture as enemies of God, hostile to the gospel, operating with darkened understanding. They instructed Christians to submit to the civil authorities, not to attempt to overthrow them and impose Christian values on them or to manipulate them to such an end. Instead, as far as the Christian was concerned, it was about simple and straightforward submission to the emperor or king as God’s civil leader. What was the focus of the apostles? That is the easiest question of all: But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4) And lest one forget, all the cultures in which the early church found itself were racist, pro-death, and as decadent as anything we see in our own. The government was corrupted and, it was led by corrupt men just as our own governments are today. This was clearly not a focus for the NT church. The apostles were focused on making disciples and living out the Christian ethic situation by situation. In these situations, there were pagans watching and there were pagans listening. And God was adding to the church as many as had been ordained to eternal life. When we encounter racism as a Christian, we act in the moment, in that situation. When we see a woman struggling with life question, we reach out and get involved. We offer our help, our love, our assistance in whatever ways we can. Of course, we speak the truth in love. But it is about loving the woman, not the impersonal cause. The care for the person has to always overshadow the impersonal cause and I am afraid that most of the time, it does not. Abortion is a sin because the child is created in God’s image and so to is the murderer. Love them both as best you can. But make sure the external cause (method) doesn’t seem more important than the real cause (person).
Some continue to beat the racism drum much like what is going on in the culture. I am convinced that there will always be racists as long as there are sinners. If you are a Christian who is in a minority group, you should be convinced of that too. Humans are wicked sinners and to focus on eliminating something that is not possible to eliminate is an exercise in futility. Why would we focus our attention on eliminating racism but not abortion or abortion but not homosexuality, or homosexuality but not divorce or divorce but not sex slavery, or sex slavery but not prostitution, or adultery, or fornication, or drunkenness or drugs? Why? Is the church really called to turn its respective culture into a culture that adopts Christian ethics? Is that the calling of the Christian? It seems to me that the SBC resolution places this burden squarely on the shoulders of all Christians. This is a serious problem. If God has not clearly called us in his word to end racism or to integrate Christian ethics into civil laws, then the resolution has engaged in a serious breach of biblical fidelity. We are all not responsible for working to end racism in society. I don’t see that addressed anywhere in the NT where the opportunity to address it was far greater than the one in most of our cultures. And if that is true, the SBC may have just allowed the race card to be played as a bullying tactic to place a burden on the shoulders of Christians that God himself does not place on them. Someone should be very ashamed and embarrassed.
The attempt to match leadership demographics to racial demographics is racism. Just as Paul pointed out that prohibitions against consuming certain foods are of no benefit in curbing the appetites of the flesh, I think adopting new rules such as the Alt Right resolution fits this bill as well: These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. Paul was not interested in appearances. Paul was interested in true righteousness, not external, outward, shallow appearances of righteousness. The matching of leadership racial demographics to overall racial membership demographics is a form of racism in either direction. If you are a minority group Christian in the SBC and find yourself thinking this way, you are thinking exactly as the pagan culture thinks about this issue. It is not an issue. If you are white and you think there are too many black leaders in the SBC, you are thinking exactly wrong about the matter. Your thinking is racist and you may not even realize it. Why does it matter what ethnic group is represented in leadership? The NT Church never thought this way. This corrective is not coming from Scripture, but from the culture in which we find ourselves. What we need are godly leaders with biblical convictions and passion. Nowhere does Scripture imply that what we need is an even number of godly leaders with biblical convictions and passion across ethnic groups. The danger here is that you achieve a racially diverse demographic but you may be lacking in the sort of biblical traits required for those leaders. It should be mentioned that one of the men at the forefront leading this effort is Pentecostal and as such, subscribes to some significantly problematic theology. Such an individual would be precluded from any leadership position in the SBC. If most of those following McKissic’s lead are also from the same theological vein, we then run the serious risk of installing leaders with questionable theology into positions of leadership with the goal of the appearance of racial equality all the while taking steps in a very tenuous theological direction at best. Such thinking will not only spell significant problems for the SBC sooner than later, I believe it will spell the end of the organization as it is known today.
If you are a leader in any church, to include the SBC, and you want to help people avoid the sin of racism, I have a suggestion. Stop uncritically giving pagan, cultural thinking about racism a pass. The us-them thinking is where racism necessary condition of racism. If you want to help people overcome racism, you must begin there. The white and the black man have to stop looking at each other through the bars of us-them. The culture thinks this way. Unregenerate men think this way. If you are regenerate, you must put this kind of thinking away from you immediately. You must recognize it, acknowledge that it is sinful, and pray for grace to remove it from you. You should confess this sin to someone close to you, your accountability partner, and ask them to help you purge this sinful thinking. Pay little attention to men in the spotlight on high platforms who can’t stop talking about this issue. First, you don’t need them or what they have to say. Second, they very likely have an agenda that is really different at its core or one that extends far beyond the issue of racism. As for you, it’s called the Bible and it is there that you will find your strength to overcome your racism regardless of the direction it moves – white to black or black to white or whatever else you can think of. If your love for Christ isn’t enough to make you want to overcome the temptation to racism in your life, then there remains no reason good enough for you to want to overcome it.
[Guest Post by Ed Dingess]
Ed Dingess blogs and teaches at ReformedReasons.com.