The Christian ethic is testimonial in nature. We engage in social action not because we believe it is the church's mission to fix society but in order to serve as a preview of the gospel transformation that happens within the church and as a preview of the coming kingdom.
The New Testament speaks often concerning Christian conduct in an unbelieving world. The overwhelming evidence declares the reason for this conduct to be witness. Jesus declares, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16b). Peter gives the same advice to readers of his first epistle. Peter summarizes, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet 2:12). Christians are to be above reproach, resembling the ethic of the kingdom, because it serves as testimony to the truth of the claims made in the gospel.
It is important to note the testimonial nature of our ethic in order to avoid potential overreach. Christ calls his church to be witnesses to the restoration that he brings, both now in its inaugurated sense in the church and later in the total restoration of all things when he returns. Transformation is the work of Christ, not the work of the church. Robert Webber writes,
The mission of the church is not to accomplish God’s eschatological reign. The church does not bring in the kingdom. It does not establish God’s reign over society. God has already accomplished his goals for humanity and for the cosmos in Jesus Christ. The church in this period of history between the cross and the return of Christ witnesses to an accomplished fact. It witnesses to the reign of Jesus Christ over all creation and lives in the hope of its final realization in the second coming of Jesus Christ.Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2003), 154.
While the ethic of the kingdom works its way into every facet of life, the purpose of the church’s participation in society is not to “fix it.”
Rightly understanding the aim of social engagement aligns the church’s purpose with their given mission. A misunderstanding at this foundational level will inevitably direct one’s course in mission practice. Goheen rightly claims, “such endeavors for peace and justice will always be proximate and penultimate… Ultimately, a faithful witness to Christ and sharing in his love for the world remain the mission of the church.”Goheen, Introducing Christian Mission Today, 253.::
When the ultimate purpose of Christian conduct and engagement in social action is gospel witness for the sake of gospel proclamation, then it sets the parameters for our social engagement. If engagement in social and cultural issues becomes untethered from its ultimate grounding in gospel proclamation and becomes an end in itself, the gospel mission can easily be replaced with a anthropocentric goal of fixing society through social action instead of hoping in Christ to restore all things. Social action absent of gospel witness then becomes acceptable.