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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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The Common Good | Imagining Across Our Divisions

As Christians, we’re called to join in God’s mission to see shalom fill his world. He invites us to seek the peace and prosperity of the places we’re in, helping everyone and everything around us flourish. In other words, we all have a duty to work towards ‘the common good’.

But that’s a lot easier said than done. It can feel like our world is constantly fragmenting into factions, in our personal lives as well as on the national stage. How can we counter these divisions and truly work for the good of all, not just the people we agree with?

That’s the question explored in this blog series. In four articles, four authors will have a conversation, responding to each other’s work and ‘triple listeningto wisdom from the word of God, the world, and one another. Together, they’ll give you ideas for how to live faithfully and distinctively – not as an embattled fringe, but as a ‘creative minority – right in the midst of the disagreements that plague everyday life.

The series accompanies our Wisdom Lab: The Common Good event, at which each of the authors will deliver a TED-style talk about their topic.

Having listened to what’s going on, Dr Jonathan Chaplin, Fellow of Wesley House, Cambridge, helps us imagine what – according to the biblical narrative – should be going on in our time and place as we seek the common good. In the rest of the series, we’ll learn to create a healing response, and think about how to communicate the good news in such polarising times.

Sarah’s dilemma

Matt Jolley’s story of Sarah ended with her and her Christian colleagues facing opposition to their plan to hold an evangelistic event offering a Christian perspective on accounting. When they meet to reassess the situation, different views about how to proceed begin to emerge.

Ben’s been in the firm for several years and now says he always feared that an evangelistic event would be counterproductive. Ben’s a ‘pluralist’ and worries that an exclusively Christian event might seem disrespectful to those of other faiths or none.  A few heads begin to nod. Jill, a ‘saturationist’, responds by claiming that we shouldn’t be ashamed of the gospel and should power ahead anyway. A few other heads start to nod.

Then Sarah finds another scenario forming in her mind. How about contacting leaders of the firm’s Islamic Society and the Green Accountancy group? Wouldn’t they also have a perspective on how the firm should operate? She suggests working with them to lay on a series on accountancy and the common good, exploring how firms like theirs can better contribute to a prosperous, just, and ecologically responsible economy.

Without having a name for it, Sarah has struck upon the position Matt Jolley calls ‘integration without assimilation’. Assimilation means accommodating to whatever is the prevailing secular view in your environment. Sarah’s proposal resists assimilation by allowing a distinctive Christian perspective to get an airing, but it does so within a conversation on matters that everyone has a stake in – matters of the common good. It shows that Christians can uphold a distinctive perspective while being fully integrated into society, committed to shared goals and not merely their own agenda.

Sarah’s story within the biblical story

Sarah’s story opens a window on the wider biblical narrative summed up in Dave Beldman’s article.

Creation

Accountancy is a profession intended to serve the purpose of responsibly stewarding economic goods. That’s its unique contribution to the common good of the business sector, and thus, in turn, to that of wider society and indeed the world.

This is true of all the areas of society we find ourselves in – family, neighbourhood,  education, the arts, sports, the media, politics and more. All express the amazing diversity given by God in creation. These different areas of human activity have emerged over time as humans began to respond to God’s original command to ‘work and keep’ the garden (Genesis 2:15).

This passage isn’t just about horticulture, but culture as a whole. Humans are called to develop (work) and protect (keep) every potential God has placed within creation. In each area of activity, humans are called to meet their material or social needs and creatively unfold the world God has given. And, by allowing humans to do these things, each makes a distinctive and irreplaceable contribution to the common good of all.

Corruption

However, every part of creation is also caught up in the corrupting power of sin. It tarnishes all individual human beings, but also the communities and organisations that humans construct: our institutions.

All human institutions are, to a greater or lesser extent, tainted by selfishness, greed, ambition, arrogance, deceit, exclusivity, and the desire for domination. The very first family depicted in the Bible is torn apart by violent envy. The first city, Babel, could have been an exemplar of community and diversity, but was driven by a lust for power. It was built by slaves to create an imperial state suppressing the diverse cultures of its neighbours, and faced God’s judgement as a result.

So, there is not only personal sin but also ‘structural sin’, the embedded distortions of human sin in the ongoing life of institutions. Institutions frequently, and sometimes profoundly, veer away from serving the created goods they are designed to promote. Institutions sow division and feed self-centred preoccupation with the needs of our tribe, thus inhibiting the common good.

And we are easily deformed by structural sin. We are held back from promoting the common good and may be actively, if unwittingly, promoting ‘common bads’.

Viewing society through the lens of creation and corruption, then, we will then find ourselves constantly posing two key critical questions to ourselves, and to our institutions:

  • How far are we/they actually fulfilling a calling to advance the common good? By what criteria do we measure this?
  • How have we/they become deformed by sin? Are Christians complicit in this deformation?

Covenant

God responds to this corruption through calling a particular people to display his overarching concern that all creation would thrive, in a unity-in-diversity which reflects God’s very nature. So, he enters into a covenant with biblical Israel, who were meant to pursue their many creation-based tasks faithfully, according to God’s design. That is why the Old Testament books containing law (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy) speak to so many of these dimensions of the common good. The Hebrew word for ‘law’ is torah, but this is much better translated as ‘wise instruction’, which means pathways towards peace, justice, prosperity – towards the common good.

Within that larger covenantal relationship between God and his people, there is a more specific meaning of covenant. As humans live covenantally with God, they are also called to be in ‘covenantal’ relationships with each other. They are designed to work in community to pursue their creation-based tasks, rather than striking out on their own to secure their slice of the creational cake.

Whilst the institutions humans build to pursue such tasks are stained by sin, they can also reflect such a covenantal model.

We should, then, reject an individualistic model of the firm – but also of the family, the university, neighbourhood, and the state. Each of these institutions should not be merely seen as a convenient platform for individuals seeking their own interests, but should aspire to be a ‘covenanted community’, marked by solidarity, care, and justice – promoting the common good in their own distinctive ways.

Redemption

Biblically, God’s redemption of the world through Jesus Christ seeks the healing of all things – redemption reaches as far as creation. This redemption is not the abandonment or overcoming of creation. Rather, it is creation’s recovery, purification, and liberation to serve and glorify God in ever fuller and more beautiful ways. As Swiss theologian Hans Küng put it, ‘the kingdom is creation healed’.1

Redemption addresses both personal and structural sin, offering hope for the renewal of both individuals and institutions, and indeed the non-human creation. All can be redirected towards the pursuit of the common good that God desires for all creatures.

As people find their centre in Christ, they will seek reconciliation across the divisions caused by sin. New prospects for reimagining how our lives and the institutions in which we find ourselves can promote the common good will begin to emerge. We will begin to see how we need to broaden our vision of service beyond our own lives and our immediate circle of family, friends, or colleagues towards the needs of the common good. It will, for example, include regaining a vision of our institutions – even accountancy firms – as ‘covenanted communities’.

This obviously doesn’t guarantee sweet agreement with everyone else. It involves discerning an authentically Christian vision of the common good – the common good viewed through the lens of creation-corruption-redemption. That vision will converge with other people’s vision of the common good at some points, while at others it may be at sharp variance with it.

Just as the creation/corruption part of that vision generated two critical questions about ourselves and our deformed institutions, so the redemption part of the vision generates two constructive questions about them:

  • How do we/they need to be reformed to serve the common good better, even within the limits of what is possible before the final consummation when Christ will be in all in all?
  • What traces and degrees of reformation are possible in our own lives and in our institutions and what initial steps can we take to promote such reformation, however small?

Oriented by a creation-corruption-redemption vision of all of life, then, Christians will not passively accept things as they are, but will be spurred on by a ‘holy discontent’ about the brokenness of creation. They will be constantly inspired by the vast scope of Christ’s redemption to allow his redeeming grace to release in them new possibilities and energies for realising the common good, wherever they are and whatever they are doing.

Biblically, we know that the true common good will only be fully realised in the final consummation when, once again, all will recognise that they are ‘their brother’s [and sister’s] keeper’ (Genesis 4:9). But because we also confess that, in Jesus, the kingdom has already ‘arrived among you’ (Matthew 12:28 NLT), we confidently expect in faith to see visible signs of that kingdom’s presence now, however partial and fleeting they may seem. For example, traces of ‘covenantal solidarity’ in Sarah’s accountancy firm.

And, because we confess that such a vision is none other than humans (and all of creation) being restored to what they are created to be, we rightly expect our fellow human beings to be able to recognise and desire such a vision. So, Christians in Sarah’s firm can confidently expect that their Muslim, green, and secular colleagues will have important insights of their own into how accountancy can promote the common good. This will happen before such colleagues come to faith in Christ, and it may in time be a bridge to them coming to faith.

As such, sharing in the work of restoring created goods should never be pitted against, or ranked below, evangelism. They are both integral parts of the unified task of bearing witness to Christ’s creation-wide work of redemption. For in calling people to Christ, we are also calling them to recover their full humanity.

Church

As Sarah’s example already shows, Christians don’t join in God’s work of redeeming creation alone. They can only do so through being part of the people of God, the fellowship of Christ-followers.

This is why, in the New Testament, the church is depicted not as a mere association of like-minded individuals, but as the ‘body of Christ’. It is a corporate, covenanted community of the redeemed, called to bear witness to the gospel and to serve as the vanguard of Christ’s redeeming work in the world – as a platform for the kingdom of God. The church is summoned to contribute, in a host of ways, to the work of reformation, repair, healing, in every corner of created human life, wherever the common good is undermined.

Just as we must broaden our view of creation and redemption, we also need to break out of a too narrow a view of ‘church’.

There is, first, the church ‘gathered’ into the specific community that meets at definite times and places and engages in a suite of particular activities: worship, mission, formation, pastoral care, diaconal service to its own members and those outside it, and more. This is where the work of personal deformation is undone and the work of personal reformation begins.

But, second, the church is ‘scattered’ – present wherever Christians find themselves, individually or collectively in Christian organisations, and in any and every area that humans pursue their created purposes. Sarah’s workplace fellowship is the church scattered.

In all such areas, the church, in both senses, is called to bear bold and winsome witness to the redemptive, reforming, reconciling work of Christ, and to be available to God as channels of that work. As Paul puts it, we are to be ‘ambassadors’ of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20) – not just for the sake of our own salvation but so that all will be invited to enjoy the shared created goods God desires for all.

Integration without assimilation revisited

The biblical story of creation, corruption, and redemption undergirds the model of ‘integration without assimilation’ that Sarah found herself stumbling upon. This story allows us to hold together both a frank recognition of the fragmentation of visions of the common good caused by sin, and a hopeful expectation of being able to join with others in promoting the common good across those divides.

For the arrival of the kingdom of God brings about two things simultaneously. On the one hand, it generates hope, even ‘between the times’, for a partial realisation of common goods. Such a hope inspires us to work alongside our fellow citizens in any area of society to promote restored community, solidarity, care, and justice. This is what Sarah was suggesting in proposing shared reflection on accountancy and the common good with those of other faiths or none.

On the other hand, the very same kingdom throws down a challenge to human beings to find that hope not in any human source of redemption but in Jesus Christ. This calls us to point people to Jesus Christ as our (and their) only ultimate hope, and to do so by wise and courageous words and by all kinds of deeds in any area of life.

At times, this will mean commending a vision of the common good that diverges from, or directly challenges, other people’s visions of such a common good. Sarah, for example, will avoid proposing utopian hopes for the reform of accountancy which overlook human sinfulness, or a secular libertarian understanding of economics that assumes that deregulated markets alone can secure the common good. This may not sound much like evangelism, but it could be just the sort of debate that opens up productive (probably off-site) conversations about personal faith.

There is no escaping the tension we will experience as we seek to pursue both sides of ‘integration without assimilation’. But it can be a faithful and productive tension, if we keep in mind that calling people to faith in Christ is nothing other than calling them to become more fully human.

Dr Jonathan Chaplin
Fellow at Wesley House, Cambridge


 

So far, we’ve listened to what’s going on in Sarah’s situation, and imagined what should be going on as her story is located within the mission of God. In part 3, we’ll consider how Sarah (and how we, in our particular pluralistic context) might create a new way forward, responding to conflict by seeking a truly common good as a follower of Christ in her everyday life.

 


 

[1] Hans Küng, trans by Edward Quinn, On Being a Christian (New York: Doubleday, 1976 [1966]), p231

 


 

Selected Bibliography:

Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview (SPCK 2008).

Jamie A Grant and Dewi A. Hughes, eds, Transforming the World: The Gospel and Social Responsibility (Apollos 2009).

Os Guinness, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (IVP 2013).

Michael Schluter and John Ashcroft, eds, Jubilee Manifesto: A Framework, Agenda and Strategy for Christian Social Reform (IVP 2005).

Justin Welby, Reimaging Britain: Foundations for Hope (Bloomsbury 2018).

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