Non-believers are often confused when they see the lack of cooperation various Christian denominations have with each other and with the non-Christian world around them. This is especially true when it comes to what we would consider important social issues. It’s easy for Atheists to see the Christian would as a relatively homogenous group. After all, they all claim to be Christians and just how many messages could Christ have given? It may surprise some un-believers to learn that the “Christian” world is highly fractured and many groups are very vocal about the “heresy” other groups believe. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that there are over 34,000 Christian denominations and Wikipedia gives an impressive partial listing: List of Christian denominations by number of members.

Even so, why can’t they just put their divisions aside and work together for the greater purpose of helping their fellow man? Why won’t some of them work with secular organizations, especially those that consider themselves evangelical or fundamentalist? This blog post will try to help you understand why.

  1. First and foremost, you need to understand that while the differences that separate the denominations may seen trivial to us, they are vital to that particular group. Remember, the differences were great enough to cause a split. Instead of staying with the original group and keeping a unified front, they chose the pain, agony and conflict that goes with any split. These differences are major ones in their mind, at least if they are going to be “true” to their interpretation of scripture.

  2. Second, as surprising as it may be, many churches do NOT see social issues as their primary concern. In their mind, poverty, disease, justice, etc. are ultimately meaningless if you are going to hell forever. For instance:

    The church is called, first and foremost, to proclaim the gospel. The most loving thing the church can do is to proclaim the gospel of eternal salvation to every economic and social strata. Timmis and Chester say it well, “If we do not keep people’s eternal plight in mind, then immediate needs will force their way to the top of our agenda, and we will betray the gospel and the people we profess to love. The most loving thing we can do for the poor is to proclaim the good news of eternal salvation through Christ.” You must not use social justice to avoid the offense of the cross. No matter how well Christians articulate the gospel, no matter how effectively and compassionately we serve, the gospel will always be offensive to those whose hearts are opposed to God. (Social Justice: The Tension)

    Working with any group that compromises what is seen as the gospel message would therefore be unthinkable. It is a matter of priorities and social justice isn’t number one on the list.

  3. Even within conservative, evangelical denominations there is more than a little confusion as to the role of the church and the individual in regards to social issues. A recent article in New Horizons Magazine, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, by Michael S. Horton deals with the issue of Reformed-Roman Catholic Cooperation:

    Scripture clearly includes diaconal care of the saints in the mission of the church, but in my view it does not authorize the creation of agencies for general relief, cultural engagement, political causes, and similar important but nonecclesiastical operations… The church is neither called nor competent to satisfy every human need, but that in no way eliminates the responsibility of Christians to love and serve their neighbors…Obviously, though, this cooperation cannot be regarded as belonging to the Great Commission. This is the serious problem with documents like the Manhattan Declaration. According to this statement and its authors’ interpretations of it, the only justification for speaking together on social issues is our common agreement in the gospel. However, this hinders both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. It hinders the former because we (Reformed Christians, at least) do not have agreement with Rome on the gospel, and in such declarations the gospel and Christ’s mission to deliver it are confused with the law and our cultural activities. It hinders the latter because a (false) Christian consensus in the public sphere often binds Christian consciences beyond Scripture and gives our non-Christian neighbors the impression that the church is another political action committee vying for social power. (Loving Our Neighbors Together: Reformed-Catholic Cooperation?)

    In Mr. Horton’s view, social issues are not something the church should be involved in. They are something that Christians, as individuals, should be involved. He makes that clear by stating:

    So when it comes to loving our neighbor, from globalization and human rights to caring for an elderly parent, Christians can make common cause with adherents of other religions and even agnostics and atheists.

    This is very magnanimous of Mr. Horton, but if the primary reason for doing good works is to give glory to god and to magnify his name, won’t an individual working with unbelievers or those who have a different gospel interpretation dilute or eliminate that message? At best, doesn’t it send a confusing message to those that are being helped, at least from the Christian perspective?

  4. Indeed, there is confusion as to the role an individual Christian should play, apart from the Church, in social causes:

    “In our country, the younger generation is becoming obsessed with social justice,” including through government opportunities, politics and voting, said McKnight, author of The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. “What it’s doing is leading young Christians out of the church and into the public sector to do what they call ‘kingdom work.’ “I want to raise a red flag here: There is no such thing as kingdom work outside the church — and I don’t mean the building. The kingdom is about King Jesus and King Jesus’ people and King Jesus’ ethics for King Jesus’ people. (Associated Baptist Press)

    “That the church must speak the Word of God to the various crises of contemporary human existence is self-evident. But the complexities involved in such a simple assertion require that Christians pay close attention to their choice of message, messenger, and means. Failure to do so will only compromise the deep moral conviction that emerges from the timeless Word of our everlastingly faithful God.” (The Authority of the Church in the World)

    Evangelism and social action are inseparable. They are two sides of the same coin. But they are not identical. Working for economic development in poor communities or structural change to end systemic oppression is not the same thing as inviting persons who do not now confess Christ to embrace Him as Lord and Savior. If we only do social action and never say we do it because of Christ, our good deeds only point to ourselves and make us look good. (Relevant Magazine)

    In this view, the Christian and his/her work in not separate, or should not be separate, from the work of proclaiming the gospel. When engaged in social causes, the recipient must know in whose name (Christ) the work is being done. Here, the work is nothing more than an open door in which to proclaim the message of the Gospel of Christ. As strange as that may seem to those not steeped in the evangelical, Christian mindset, it does make sense. If the most important thing in life is a “relationship” with god through Christ, then all else is secondary.

What does this all mean to Atheists when they are engaged in social issues? I obviously won’t tell my fellow Atheists how to act and what to do, but it is important to know the mindset of those you are working with as well as your own. We can fall into the same uncooperative mindset (rightly or wrongly) if we aren’t careful, because this mindset is a human one and not one limited to religion.

We really shouldn’t be offended if various religious organizations refuse to work with us and I hope this post has shown you some of those reasons. Many Atheists, in turn, won’t work with religious organizations for similar reasons. Of course, there are denominations which do consider social issues their primary mission and are not evangelical in their beliefs. Working with such groups may be fine, but what about the more religious groups and individuals? Here, there are many questions to consider and some Atheists may have problems similar to those just discussed for Christians:

  1. As an atheist, do you want the work you are doing being associated with or done in the name of a god in whom you do not believe?
  2. As an atheist, are you more concerned with the message of non-belief and freeing the minds of people held captive by belief in fairy tales or of helping those in need?
  3. Is the belief in a magical god irrelevant in the grand scheme of things in light of so many pressing issues, especially in times of natural disaster and other such needs?
  4. Do you want those you help to know you hold no allegiance to any god and your purpose is simply to help another human being? This is a big concern for some Atheists since so many people see us as unconcerned with such issues.
  5. Do you help a group financially, Atheist or religious, if you disagree with their belief system or goals if the financial goal is to help your fellow man?

I don’t have all the answers and, in many cases, I think it will depend on the situation and organization. As Atheists and skeptics, we need to be aware of our own reasons and reasoning in such cases and make sure we are following a rational and not purely emotional approach to cooperation.

I am interested in knowing what your thoughts are.

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