The new Pope is enjoying surprising popularity with the media in the United States. Apparently journalists see in him a reformer willing to challenge traditional conservative positions on social and economic issues.
Pope Francis is giving the secular media a vehicle for defining the mission of the Church in ways that agree with their political predispositions. Of course, Roman Catholicism and The Church are not the same. Nevertheless, the question is raised: Is social reform the main mission of Christianity?
In the Bible, the Apostle Paul describes the mission of the Church. “We proclaim Christ,” he wrote (Colossians 1:28). The heart and soul of the Early Church’s work was a proclamation, an authoritative announcement.
The Church’s proclamation was not merely disseminating certain information, or promoting a philosophy, or even advancing a system of belief. The gospel proclamation is an announcement about a person: Jesus, who is the Christ.
The title “Christ,” reminds us that Jesus is God’s Anointed. The Church’s mission today, like that of the Early Church, is centered on proclamation. That proclamation is to be focused on Jesus Christ, his life and ministry.
Paul proclaimed Christ by “warning everyone.” The presence of God’s Son in the world was a warning about how terribly broken our world really is, so broken that we need nothing less than God’s personal intervention.
The problem in our world is more than hateful and oppressive relations between different groups of people. The root problem is a broken relationship between every person and God.
Next, Paul writes, “and teaching everyone with all wisdom.” The message of Christ comes not just as a warning about sin, death and eternal condemnation because Christ is the hope of glory. The proclamation of Christ includes teaching about the Good News that personal faith in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection opens access to God and to a new life in Christ.
Paul finished his thought by revealing the purpose for proclaiming Christ. “We proclaim Christ,” he wrote, “so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” The ultimate goal is not temporal or political. The ultimate goal is to present people “mature in Christ” to God on the Day of Judgment.
The Bible assures us that believers will give an account of their life’s work before the bema seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). The crowns we will present to our Lord on that day will be the lives of people whom we helped to grow in Christ (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
What about the Pope’s reform? One sign of authentic gospel ministry is genuine concern for the poor, the poor in spirit as well as the poor in money and power.
Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church all made efforts to alleviate suffering and injustice, but they focused primarily on proclaiming a message that encompassed far more than political and economic equality.
Does Pope Francis see social reform as the primary focus of Roman Catholicism? Time and patience will reveal his beliefs with greater clarity than Western journalists who can barely conceal their own political agendas.
Meanwhile, the Church must not be distracted from the true gospel mission; and the gospel mission is clearly revealed in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus proclaimed freedom for the captives, not just those held captive by unfair political and economic systems, but captive to sin and to Satan.
The Church must remember that any justice gained for the downtrodden is illusory apart from true spiritual freedom. And only Christ Jesus can break all the chains that bind us. So we proclaim Christ.
Richard Foster, Grace Baptist Camden, Arkansas, March 2014
Published in Arkansas Baptist News, March 18, 2014