What Is God’s Design For Our Churches?

By: Charles W. Colson

If the church is to fulfill its role, if the church is to do anything at all useful for culture, if the church is to resist and conquer the barbarian invaders, the church must first disregard all these objectives and concentrate on being faithful to its identity in Jesus Christ. The church must be the church. That is its first duty.

If we set out to recapture culture, seeing the church as God’s instrument to save the world, we will fail, just as the conservative Christian political movement has failed; just as liberal Christian social movements have failed. The church is not a tool to rebuild society.

Our goal is to be faithful to the holy God who calls us to be the church, whether we actually make a difference in our world or whether it falls to pieces around us and dissolves into a stew of secularism. We
seek to be the church for no other reason than that it is our calling from God. We defend the independence and faith of the church because it is the body of Christ, the locus of spiritual authority, the bride preparing for the coming of the Groom.

In anticipation of our Master’s return, Christians are to be committed to biblical obedience, which means working for justice and righteousness, serving as advocates for the needy and powerless who cannot speak for themselves. When we are faithful to the challenges of Matthew 25 or the prophetic exhortations of Amos, we cannot help but make a positive impact on society.

But again, this is not why we are faithful. We are motivated not by a desire to make an impact on society but by obedience to God’s Word and a desire to please Him. When our goal becomes success rather than
faithfulness, to invert Mother Teresa’s maxim, we lose the single-minded focus of obedience and any real power to actually succeed.

For years the slogan of the National Council of Churches was “the world sets the agenda for the church.” This sounds socially relevant, but in fact it displaces God, who long ago set His own agenda for His church:

Only when the church abandons its worldly pretensions does it gain its greatest influence, says Richard John Neuhaus. “The church best serves the world when it is most distinctively and most unapologetically the church….when the church dares to be different, it models for the world what God calls the world to become. The church models what it means to be a community of caring and a community of character.”

This is not to suggest for a moment that the church should turn its back on the world or retreat to monastic outposts. I would be the first to argue that we have a duty to proclaim the truth, to act as salt and light, to hold the world to moral account. It’s all a matter of motivation. When we act out of social or political motives, we can easily become frustrated. But when we act out of pure obedience, then God may well use the church to profoundly influence social and political structures.

Christopher Dawson has traced the impact the faithful church can have, arguing that historically the church has provided the principal dynamic of social change in the West only when it has been most distinctly and unapologetically the church. He notes that the monastic communities served as a pattern that has been repeated in the history of the West. From that pattern it is clear that positive cultural change, such as the end of the Dark Ages, comes not from a synthesis of Christianity and culture but from a tension between the two. Without this stimulation from a transcendent perspective, no court of appeal stands above the existing order, providing a reason and dynamic for change.

Implicit in Dawson’s viewpoint is the assumption that culture and society are less than ultimate, less than autonomous. Cultural progress is a process of continual conflict, a series of battles that must be fought.

When the church transcends culture, it can transform culture. In the Dark Ages, reform did not arise from the state but from communities of those who remained uncompromising in a compromising age. As Dawson notes, “It is only in Western Europe that the whole pattern of culture is to be found in a continuous succession and alteration of free spiritual movements; so that every century of Western history shows a change in the balance of cultural elements, and the appearance of some new spiritual force which creates ideas and institutions.”

The lesson across the centuries is clear. The survival of Western culture is inextricably linked with the dynamic of reform arising from the independent and pure exercise of religion-from the moral impulse.
But this lesson also raises sobering questions.

Is the church ready to take on this mantle? Are we really able to be a church that transcends culture? What will it take to set us apart?


The monastic orders of the Dark Ages could not have modeled communities of character if they had looked like the troubled world about them. Today, in a new age darkened by the collapse of character and the
dissolution of faith, the church cannot model the Kingdom of God if it is conformed to the kingdoms of man.

Too often in recent years, the church has suffered from the same collapse of character that is so spread in our culture. Too often the church has been apathetic, marked by individualism, and constrained by
the love of self rather than the love of Christ.

If the church today is to be the church, it must diligently protect its spiritual integrity. This begins with what the Greeks called metanoia, which means a “change of mind” and is translated in the New Testament as “repentance.”

Repentance is commonly thought of as simply an acknowledgement and confession of sin. Surely we as individuals need to repent of our disunity, our moral laxity, our hard hearts-indeed, we need to repent of
the sins of the society of which we are a part. But the repentance God desires of us is not just contrition over particular sins; it is also a daily attitude, a perspective.

Repentance is the process by which we see ourselves, day by day, as we really are: sinful, needy, dependent people. It is the process by which we see God as He is: awesome, majestic and holy. It is the essential
manifestation of regeneration that sets us straight in our relationship to God and so radically alters our perspective that we begin to see the world through God’s eyes, not our own. Repentance is the ultimate
surrender of self.

It was not by accident, I suspect, that the first of the Ninety-five Theses Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenberg church door read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ He willed that the
entire life of believers be one of repentance.”

The call to repentance is one of the most consistent themes of the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament recounts kings falling before God, pleading for mercy, as we see most eloquently in David’s prayer of contrition in Psalm 51. Repentance was the central message of God’s prophets.

Repentance is, as J. Edwin Orr has put it, “the first word of the Gospel.” It is the centerpiece of John the Baptist’s message. “Repent and believe” were Jesus’ first words in the account of Mark, and his last words to the disciples commanded them to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins.

“The Christian needs the church to be a repenting community,” proclaims Richard Neuhaus. “The Christian needs the church to be a community in which our sin need not be disguised, but can be honestly faced and plainly confessed because we know that the worst word about us as sinners is not the last word. The last word is about us as sinners forgiven.”

Christians are to repent of sin, both individually and as a body. One of my favorite examples of the church becoming this type of repentant community comes from the Philippines and a man who has become a dear

Over the years, Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, watched with growing dismay the swelling corruption of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorial regime. He prayed long over this suppression of human liberty and the plight of his nation.

After the assassination of Benigno Aquino, the archbishop knew he had to act. But what should he do? As he studied his Bible, he saw in the Old Testament accounts of Israel’s corrupt leaders a pattern he felt applied to his own nation. When God wants to punish a people, he reasoned, he gives them unjust rulers. What the people of the Philippines needed was not a call to revolt against their unjust ruler but a call to repent of their own unjust hearts.

Archbishop Sin spent months crisscrossing his homeland, preaching repentance, conversion and obedience. He called the Filipinos to prayer and fasting; the people responded by organizing Bible studies and prayer groups. A wave of revival-of holiness and renewal-swept through the Philippines. According to some reports, hundreds of thousands began to meet in small groups to fast and pray for their nation. These Christian citizens became the foot soldiers for a non-violent revolution,

I’m not suggesting that God blessed the Philippines because people repented; it would be presumptuous to assume we could so neatly understand the mysteries of God’s dealings with modern nations. Rather, my point is simply that Jaime Cardinal Sin understood that the church’s fundamental responsibility is to renew its own integrity and to be a repentant community. The church must be the church.

A Community of Light

The church is to be a community reflecting God’s passion for righteousness, justice and mercy. When we are that holy community, we make an impact on an unholy world, no matter how desperate the

Thousands of such communities of light exist around the world in accountable fellowships where the gospel is faithfully proclaimed and where members reach out in an effort to bring God’s mercy and justice to those around them. But my most vivid impressions of the church shining forth have come from some of the darkest places on earth-from prisons around the world. In some ways these fellowships bear real similarity to the monastic outposts-believers faithfully preserving the gospel as those around them sink into depravity.

One such community of light is in Zambia. There in an old colonial-era stockade, emaciated inmates, wearing only loincloths, are crowded into primitive, filthy cells where they have to take turns sleeping, since there is not room for them to all lie on the floor at the same time. At night the prisoners are given a bucket of water; after they drink the water, the same bucket is used to carry off their waste in the morning.

When I visited this prison, I was with Rajan, a Christian brother and former inmate at that prison, now chairman of Prison Fellowship Zambia. He led me to a maximum-security compound within the main block. “Listen,” he whispered as we got closer. “They’re singing.”

Guards unlocked a pair of heavy gates, and we stepped into a dusty courtyard ringed by tiny cells. There to welcome us were 60 or 70 radiantly smiling inmates; they stood at the end of the yard before a  whitewashed wall, singing praises to God in beautiful harmony. Behind them on the wall was a huge charcoal drawing of Christ on the cross: Jesus the prisoner who shared their suffering and gave them hope and joy in this awful place, where they had come to Christ.

I’ve seen this same holy, joyous community in Latin America. There, in the midst of great political upheaval, God is building His church in the most unlikely place-the prisons.

Several years ago I visited Peru’s Lurigancho, the largest prison in the world, arriving just a few days after a riot in which several nuns had been taken hostage by the prisoners; one had been killed. The prison had
since been closed to visitors, its outer perimeter sealed by government troops. After some lively negotiations, we were given permission to go inside, although the guards refused to accompany us.

The first block was six stories high, with open sewers in the concrete floor. Angry stares followed us as we walked from cell to cell. Then, on the second tier, a man jumped up, grinned broadly, and pulled me into
his cell. It was clean and neatly swept, a vivid contrast to the mess in the cellblock. He pointed proudly to a certificate on the wall, then to his own chest, shouting, “Me, me!” It was a graduation certificate from
a Prison Fellowship seminar. I spoke no Spanish and he no English, but it didn’t matter. We grabbed one another in a fierce hug of Christian fellowship.

Prison Fellowship had conducted a seminar just a few weeks earlier. Then, when our volunteers were temporarily shut out of the prison during and after the riot, the inmates had continued the Bible study
themselves. As I toured the block I came to other cells of light in that dark place, where the smiles of Christian inmates told the story of their utter transformation. The dramatic contrast of this community of
gentle Christians, loving and encouraging one another in this hole of violence and hatred, was unforgettable. It was light shining in the darkness.

That light shines in U.S. prisons as well. During a riot at Washington, D.C.’s Lorton prison complex, inmates torched several buildings; armed, menacing gangs roamed the grounds. But in the main prison yard, a group of Christian inmates stood in a huge circle, arms linked, singing hymns. Their circle surrounded a group of guards and prisoners who had sought protection from the rioting inmates. These Christians were a community of light, and lives were saved.

In prison, the contrast is sharp between dark and light. Choices for Christian inmates are usually clear-cut. Yet most of us in the mainstream of Western culture live in shades of gray. It’s comfortable to adopt the surrounding cultural values. Yet stand apart we must.

For as the church maintains its independence from culture, it is best able to affect culture. When the church serves as the church, in firm allegiance to the unseen Kingdom of God, God uses it in this world: first, as a model of the values of his kingdom, and second, as his missionary to culture.

The monks and nuns of the Dark Ages acted out of obedience to God, and God used their faithfulness without their knowing it-to preserve culture and ultimately to restore Western civilization. As Christopher Dawson has said: “The culture-forming energies of Christianity depended upon the Church’s ability to resist the temptation to become completely identified with, or absorbed into, the culture.” Only as the church maintains its distinctiveness from the culture is it able to affect culture.

Another example that clearly illustrates this comes from the Cuban Isla de Pinos, from a prison so dark and remote that most of the world never even knew it existed. The huge circular cellblocks were built during the
1930s under Batista’s regime. When someone asked the dictator why he had built it so big, he replied, “Ah, don’t worry. Somebody will come along who will manage to fill it up.” That somebody was Fidel Castro.

One of the prisoners there was a young anti-Communist named Armando Valladares. Early in his confinement, he often heard prisoners-fellow Christians-taken to the firing squad. Such executions always took place at night, and the dark silence would be broken by triumphant shouts: “Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!” Then the explosion of gunfire-and silence again. Soon all prisoners were gagged before
their executions. The killers could not stand their victorious defiance.

According to Valladares, the most faithful member of that tiny Christian community, made up mostly of Catholics, was a Protestant prisoner known simply as the Brother of the Faith. He constantly sang hymns to God and shouted encouragement to his brothers to have faith, to follow Christ to the end.

Then one night several prisoners were forced from their cells, and guards began to beat them with sticks, truncheons, bayonets and chains. “Suddenly,” writes Valladares, “as though to protect them, there
appeared a skeletal figure with white hair and flaming, bizarre eyes, who opened his arms into a cross, raised his head to the invisible sky and said, ‘Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.’ The
Brother of the Faith hardly had time to finish his sentence, because as soon as he appeared (the lieutenant) ordered the guards to step back… he fired his AK submachine gun. The burst of fire climbed the Brother of
the Faith’s chest, up to his neck. His head was almost severed, as though from the blow of an ax. He died instantly.”

Fortified by the faithfulness of this one man, as well as by his own faith, in a way he could not forget, Armando Valladares survived gross inhumanity, psychological abuse and torture for 22 years. In 1983 he was released and made his way to the West and freedom. His memoirs of those dark years, Against All Hope, have exposed to the world the hidden horrors of Castro’s prisons.

And therein lies the irony: Though Castro controls the Cuban press, suppresses the visible church, conquers academia and rules a ruthless government, he cannot rule the spirits of those he has enslaved. He
cannot extinguish the light of the soul set free by God. And out of a flicker of light in one dark prison came the indictment of his regime that shocked the world.

Is this not the way our Lord works? Out of brokenness and foolishness come wholeness and might. Out of prison comes power-real power-that defies even the most brutal repression. Out of tiny monastic outposts
come education, moral endurance, and artistic excellence that can save a civilization. And out of holy obedience today, in communities of light, will come what He wills, as we are faithful.

(The above material was published by Focus on the Family, Vancouver, British Columbia.)

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