Ministers Should Be Social Visionaries

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses a crowd. August 4, 1965. Washington Post staff photo by Ellsworth Davis.

consacrée le 14 juillet 1077

Our real condition can best be judged by those who have the most direct access to the body and the soul of man and who penetrate his façade. Foremost among them are the ministers of the church, but their testimony is not public and lacks the compelling force of persuasion which might disarm doubters.

These words were written in 1960 by the German economist Wilhelm Röpke in his magnum opus, A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (p. 78). Röpke begins by discussing the disadvantages of what he calls enmassment, by which he meant the individual “losing his own features, soul, intrinsic worth, and personality because and in so far as he is immersed in the ‘mass,’ and the latter is ‘mass’ because and in so far as it consists of such ‘depersonalized’ individuals” (p. 53).

Röpke wrote during the rise of the mechanization of society (especially in America), rising totalitarian and socialistic states, and the wake of Hitler and WWII. He saw society becoming depersonalized, such that individuals simply become part of the homogenized mass. Intellectual and ethical thinking is curtailed; classical education, as he said, “seems to be doomed in our mass society, if only because mass man persecutes it with genuine hatred…” (pp. 54-55).

The real problem with enmassment, however, of which these problems were only the cause, was that it robs mankind of his spiritual component, leaving each individual as a mechanistic function of society. Free men enjoy creative freedom in trade and employment, as well as the beauties of creation such as the countryside, arts, and the classical humanistic tradition. Those enmassed become part of the machine, detached “from his natural social fabric and leaves him to his own resources” (p. 70).

Röpke’s main concern, then, with enmassment (to which we are still subject today in various ways), is the deprivation of the spiritual element of man. In this context, Röpke’s suggests that the real condition of mankind can best be judged by the ministers of the church, who have a concern for both the material and spiritual aspects of man.

Ministers, then, are well suited to be social visionaries.

But why aren’t they? Why are ministers not at the forefront of social vision? Why is it often those in governmental offices–offices which require no education or care for proper anthropology or religion or well-being in general–who create social vision? Why is it those who are opposed to the idea of a spiritual element of man (e.g., the “New Atheists”) who are setting society’s agenda?

Röpke’s answer is that the testimony of ministers “is not public and lacks the compelling force of persuasion which might disarm doubters.” So here we have two problems.

(1) The minister’s testimony is not public.

But why? If ministers have the corner on anthropology, why wouldn’t they be concerned to speak into social issues that might be disruptive of that anthropology? Why keep all their spiritual insights to themselves and to the church? Is it because the Sunday morning pulpit is their only opportunity to speak publicly? Surely not. Technology allows anyone to have a voice in all corners of the world.

Is it because God only intends ministers to speak and share truth within the church? Of course not.

Perhaps it’s because ministers are only intended to speak to spiritual issues, and not social (“carnal”) issues. But if Röpke is correct, then social issues are by definition spiritual, because they involve and affect man’s material and spiritual components.

So I see no reason why ministers, who have special, revealed insight into man’s nature, should not lovingly speak publicly about their opinions on what would benefit mankind.

(2) The minister’s testimony lacks the compelling force of persuasion which might disarm doubters.

This is often true, but likely, the fact that they do not take their testimony public is the cause of their lack of persuasion. If ministers never discuss social issues with people with whom they disagree, but rather relegate their teaching to their believing community, then of course ministers will never have to develop persuasive rhetoric.

If you’re a minister and your rhetoric is poor and unpersuasive, you’re actually in good company. Paul’s sermon put a boy to sleep, and he quickly lost his hearing among the Athenian philosophers. I’m certain, however, that as Paul engaged those with whom he disagreed, he gradually learned how to speak more persuasively.

On the other hand, many ministers were born with persuasion pulsing through their veins. They can persuade people to jump off cliffs. And they should use that rhetoric lovingly and honestly to promote humanity’s spiritual well-being.

One’s immediate response might be that such engagement in social issues deters one’s message of the gospel. But I suppose that’s only true if one’s rhetoric is incredibly poor or distasteful, or perhaps spiteful or hateful. Moreover, I see no reason why engagement in social vision, which inherently involves the spiritual component of man, cannot lead to spiritual matters (and, in fact, I believe they inevitably will).

Ministers, Preach and Engage!

So I believe ministers have a unique voice to contribute to culture. They have a proper anthropology grounded in Scripture that recognizes the creative potential of individuals, created in the image of God, and that man has a distinctly spiritual component that must not be stifled or eradicated through the forces of society. Enmassment is only one social danger to man’s spiritual element. There are far more, and ministers, who spend countless hours counseling and visiting with the broken and lost, are perhaps more acquainted with these dangers than anyone.


About Todd Scacewater

Todd is a Teaching Fellow in New Testament and PhD candidate at Westminster Seminary in Hermeneutics. He holds a Th.M. in New Testament and a B.A. in Political Science, and has served the church in music, college, youth, children, and discipleship ministries.