Yes, I Have an Agenda

Every so often, I run across something like the following sentiment: “Sure, I want people to come to believe the gospel, but I want to love them without an agenda. I want to respect and serve others and promote the common good. I want to do these things because they’re the right things to do. I don’t want to tie everything people accepting what I believe.”

After a fair amount of reflection on this kind of perspective, I’m growing in my conviction that such thinking, while commendable in many ways and often well intentioned, isn’t quite right. Now, I admit that I’m in process on this. And one reason for writing about interesting questions is to help sharpen one’s thinking on the matter. So here goes.

First the positive aspects of what we might call the “no agenda/pro common good” perspective:

1. It rightly affirms the value of each person we come across, regardless of his or her beliefs. Biblically speaking, this arises from the fact that each human being bears the image of God and is to be valued and respected as such.

2. Flowing from the first point, it rightly directs us to treat all people in a manner consistent with their God given value. That is, we should love our neighbors and, yes, our enemies…even when they don’t believe what we believe or show any sign of coming to believe it. So, for example, before we sympathize with someone having difficulty at work or expressing concern over a child’s health, we needn’t first ask her whether the people involved are secular humanists or Christians. (Seems like I remember reading about someone making much the same point somewhere.)

3. It rightly seeks distance from a mentality that treats expressions and deeds of kindness, respect, etc., as those things that must be endured so we can “get on with the important stuff.” We should have a healthy desire to avoid things that smack of a “bait and switch” character, or emulating a telemarketer who dutifully reads a script of pleasantries before asking us to consider their product.

4. It rightly understands that (a) there is often good deal of broader cultural agreement over many things that benefit our society at large, and (b) when we as Christians promote and participate in these things, we do genuine good, regardless of whether people become Christians or not as a result. We should look to help the poor, to make our communities safer and more beautiful, to promote proper business practices, to encourage the stability of the family, etc. In so doing, we increasingly reflect in the present the character of God’s consummated kingdom, where all of creation will one day be gloriously renewed.

5. Very often, this perspective is accompanied by the salutary belief that Christians aren’t the only people with good things to offer others. The fact that God pours out various gifts on those outside of the people of God (what theologians refer to as “common grace”) is affirmed repeatedly in the Bible. Likewise, it takes only a moment’s thought to realize it’s affirmed repeatedly by our experience as well.

Still, even with all this—and the above points aren’t meant to be exhaustive—I think the perspective in question is at least incomplete in certain respects. Namely:

1. It runs the risk of de-emphasizing or forgetting that the greatest good anyone can experience is knowing Christ. It’s common these days to hear talk of promoting human flourishing, and rightly so. But if that truly is our goal, we would do well to remember that giving people access to a quality education, clean water, or a safe place to play with their kids—as good as these things are—pales in comparison to the indescribable joy and satisfaction of eternal life with God (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 2:9).

2. Given the previous point, it’s a good thing to desire that everyone we meet come to know the gospel. Not only so, but we’re perfectly justified in actively seeking to bring about that very thing through our various relationships and interactions. If eternal life with God is indeed our highest good (the very thing we’ve been created for!) and the means of receiving this life is through Christ and what he’s accomplished, shouldn’t we look for appropriate opportunities to commend the gospel? True, this is an agenda. But when accompanied by (a) respect and care for the person that isn’t dependent upon their response and (b) a desire to discern the doors God is genuinely opening rather than forcing the issue, it’s an agenda that is both loving and thoroughly biblical.

3. Finally, as I noted above, genuinely pursuing the common good does result in a greater reflection of God’s coming kingdom. But the character of that kingdom is what it is because of the King. That means our admittedly incomplete and halting efforts to act redemptively in our world are often integral to people being attracted to and glorifying God (see Mat. 5:14-16). Work done for the common good at present is not less noble if it also encourages people in some way to consider and trust in Christ. The efforts are worth it even if such fruit doesn’t result, but so much the better if it does.

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