Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

The Role of the Church in an Unjust Society

Those who have been reading my blog regularly will know that I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. As was the case with most Afrikaans-speaking people of my parents’ age, they also supported the policy of Apartheid, not because they were intentionally racist, but because they believed, as so many others, that Apartheid was the only workable solution in a multi-racist country like South Africa. Although I never considered myself to be racist, it was only while busy with my PhD that I really looked at the system in a critical way and realised how absolutely bad and sinful this policy was. My PhD promoter and I spent hours in discussing these issues. He was a supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) while the party was still banned and Nelson Mandela was still in prison.
One of the issues we often discussed was the role of the church in an unjust society. Was the church allowed to support an armed struggle? (We differed on that issue.) Was the church supposed to speak prophetically against injustice? (We agreed on this.)
One of the people he often referred to was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was imprisoned during the Second World War and accused of being part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. And the question was raised: If a person or system is so corrupt that millions are suffering or dying because of one person or one system, does the church have the right to keep quiet? Many clergy, including such prominent people as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Dr Beyers Naudé put their lives and their occupations on the line because they believed that they could not refrain from doing something to change the situation in South Africa.
Yesterday I received an email from a friend in Florida, FL, in which he asked, on the grounds of the atrocities taking place in Zimbabwe at the moment – of which you can read more on http://www.sokwanele.com“It’s such a shame. Why can’t anyone just take Mugabe out? I guess they said the same about Hitler.” This morning I received a message on my mobile phone from a Christian: “Robert Mugabe has challenged God by saying that only God can take him out of office. Please pray that God will do this.”
There is, of course, another side to the argument. In my research on the book of Revelation, it is accepted by most New Testament scholars that John, the author of the book, wrote the book in the time when Domitianus was the emperor of Rome. He not only challenged God. He openly declared that he is God! Although Revelation is full of promises that the Roman government will eventually come to a fall, the church is nowhere called to bring about this fall.
The specific task of the church within an unjust society is still not quite clear to me. Perhaps someone would like to add to this discussion. What is the task of the church when confronted with injustice, such as that experienced by the people in Zimbabwe? What can we do to bring about change?


Friday, June 27, 2008 - Posted by | Church, Eschatology, Hope, Mission, Partnership, Theology


  1. I honestly believe the one thing that is preventing the end of Mugabe’s reign is the fear/belief that whoever is next will be worse. Assassination or a coup would throw the country fully into chaos, and I don’t think it’s at the point yet where that would be an improvement. If a new leader is ushered in through violent upheaval, the fracture in structure, in power and in order will be total. (Having said that, I’m not so sure that that fracture isn’t inevitable at this point…or hasn’t already started.)

    Ultimately the role of the church is to channel people toward hope. Obviously we have a great Hope. But we also need to be responsible for providing hope on Earth too. Offering people good reasons to unite, to find the ties that bind. We should not be agents of destruction.

    The church should be vocal and active. It should be protesting the injustice as a collective body at every turn. But I don’t think that extends to inflicting violence on leaders or perpetrators. While there’s still room to work within the system (recognising the existence of a ‘system’ is becoming debatable), I think that the role the church should take.

    That’s all easy for me to say from where I am now. If I was living there still, I’m sure I’d feel differently.

    Comment by brad | Friday, June 27, 2008 | Reply

  2. Are Christians forbidden to lead regime changes? What would we say about the American Revolution and the Chinese Revolution of 1911? Maybe we are. The role of the church has never been to depose leaders.

    On the other hand, I’ve never seen a good definition of state that specified when a state was no longer a state that a Christian was obliged to obey.

    Comment by Lue-Yee Tsang | Monday, June 30, 2008 | Reply

  3. Brad, thanks for your comment. Listening to what Bishop Desmond Tutu recently said on TV made me thin that he might agree with you.

    Lue-Yee, this is also my question. In what way should the church be instrumental in bringing about change. One thing is clear to me and this is that the way of the church is not the way of the world.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Thursday, July 3, 2008 | Reply

  4. I think it’s certainly not the place of the church as the church to take up arms, but how closely tied are the church’s actions and its members’ actions, and can the church explicitly give or withhold recognition of particular entities as legitimate governments? Certainly it must decide whether to act as if a claimant to the title is legitimate, since the church in a certain area doesn’t submit to every single rebellion challenging a government when it takes control of the area. Perhaps we need principles identified as to what constitutes an authority to be obeyed.

    Comment by Lue-Yee Tsang | Friday, July 4, 2008 | Reply

  5. Lue-Yee, you have to realise that I grew up in South Africa when many churches mandated the policy of Apartheid. On the other hand, many other churches opposed this policy and supported so-called freedom fighters and in the end churches were fighting each other because of political views. Your last sentence is probably the answer we’re looking for, but what indeed constitutes an authority to be obeyed? Or should all authority be obeyed?

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Friday, July 4, 2008 | Reply

  6. An authority to be disobeyed isn’t an authority. At the root, though, churches fighting each other seems to be a question of disagreement on theology and assessment of the real-life situation: yes, political views would affect that, and heavily, but theology and interpretation of reality would be the real issues.

    Aquinas’ philosophy was unequivocally that nothing in contradiction to natural law had to be obeyed. I tend to agree, and Mencian thought agrees as well. On the other hand, most Chinese people who are not Taiwanese no longer believe in such notions.

    Comment by Lue-Yee Tsang | Thursday, July 10, 2008 | Reply

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