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Changed Hearts, Not Politics, Prompt Social Renewal

R&L: In some Christian circles, social action has taken precedence over evangelism. I am here thinking of the way that the pursuit of social justice has taken the place of the proclamation of the Gospel. What are your thoughts on this trend?

Palau: My view is this: Evangelism, proclamation of the Gospel, is social action. It is social action because it changes the core of the problem, which is, the individual out of control from God. Conversion brings the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, and His life into the picture and changes people who, in turn, become salt and light by living their lives without necessarily acting politically or in terms of “social action.” So I put Gospel proclamation first, because you have nothing to work with unless you have people who have been converted.

R&L: What kind of message do pastors need to be giving to business leaders in their churches?

Palau: I keep saying to pastors “You must become chaplains to the business people who want to practice Christian principles.” I tell them to remember that the only other option to prosperity is poverty. I feel very strongly that pastors need to encourage entrepreneurs and business people, because they are the ones who build jobs, who encourage young people to dream of lifting themselves up from the dust heap. I think pastors need to quote Psalm 113, which says “The Lord raises the poor from the dust,… and seats them with the princes of their people.” This idea that earning money is somehow “dirty business” has to be cleared up. So, the message that businessmen need to hear is that success is God’s purpose. The alternatives are either mediocrity or failure–really no alternatives at all. Success is God’s will, within the limits that it be for His glory and to exercise loving charity.

I was in Romania five years ago talking to a Baptist pastor, and I asked him how many businessmen he had in his congregation. He said “None, thank God.” He explained that businessmen would be so involved in their businesses that they would have no time for the church. Well, I had him traveling with me for two weeks, and I thought that by the end of two weeks this man’s got to change.

So I said to him “Do you realize that business is also the Church’s work?” “What do you mean?” he said. I told him that a man who is influencing a generation of workers in a Christlike manner is building up the Church, honoring the testimony, and speaking for Christ by his actions. This Baptist pastor was in shock.

At the end of the two weeks, as I was saying good-bye at the Bucharest airport, I asked him what his goal was as he went back to his church. And he said “I want to develop businessmen in my church.” Thank God he got it in two weeks of conversations!

R&L: In your travels in Latin America you have undoubtedly encountered Liberation Theology. Tell us your thoughts on this ideology.

Palau: I have often said that Liberation Theology is neither theology nor liberating. It uses the Bible to promote atheistic and Marxist praxis. On three counts in particular it just isn’t biblical theology: the Fall, redemption, and regeneration. First, Liberation Theologians said that it is the structures and institutions of society that make man do evil things. Second, they insist redemption therefore requires destroying the old structures and institutions and building new ones that will make man behave gloriously. Third, regeneration happens when the new man emerges from those new structures and institutions.

But the biblical perspective states that fallen man and his evil heart are the problem from the beginning. Therefore redemption must include the redemption of the individual. The new man is the fruit of regeneration by the Holy Spirit through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. So Liberation Theology turns out to be very unbiblical theology.

R&L: Did Liberation Theology ever make significant inroads among evangelical missionaries or pastors?

Palau: It was beginning to, and it was frightening and appalling to most leading evangelicals. The mainline churches had a significant portion of their foreign missionaries who were quite enthralled by it, but right now those people have completely lost their authority, partly because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the failure of Marxism, and partly because it was only a small minority who were advancing it. There was one seminary in Costa Rica and one in Argentina that were focal points and that sent out young people all worked up about Liberation Theology. Now, I do not see any of them anywhere. Many have disappeared, and some have even moved to the United States that they once decried so thoroughly.

R&L: Let’s talk about this explosion of evangelical Christianity in Latin America. How has this affected the culture of those countries?

Palau: Right now there is not one dictator in Latin America, except Castro. Now, I am not going to attribute that fact exclusively to the growth of conversion Christianity–that’s what I like to call it–but it is an important factor. Change comes from the masses upward. We often think that if we could get the president or some of his cabinet to be converted, we would change the nation’s trends. My study of history tells me that change comes when the masses are converted and they live out the biblical ethic in their personal family, and business life. Then, pressure builds in the community from the bottom up.

When Constantine converted to Christianity, the masses had been turning to Christ already and were shaking the foundations of the Roman Empire. Constantine certainly helped by instituting laws that were fairer to the Church and to Christians, but he was following the trend, not creating it.

So I think conversion Christians in Latin America have had an effect in the sense that there is now a growing love for true freedom and democracy. This is a result of the people who are turning to freedom concepts borne out of our Lord Jesus Christ: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.… If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” Yes, evangelical Christianity is responsible for this, but also the charismatic movement in the Roman Catholic Church.

R&L: Let’s talk about the tensions between Catholicism and evangelical Christians in Latin America. How do you approach this question–you used the phrase “conversion Christianity” as opposed to evangelical Christianity, for instance.

Palau: I’ll tell you why I use that phrase. All of us need to be converted, whether Protestant or Catholic. Unless we have a personal experience of conversion to Christ, we are going to be as lost as the pagan in the bush of Brazil who has never met Christian civilization or Christian missionaries. We may have an outer garb of Christianity, but if our heart is not changed, we have nothing. I have come back to the United States from this last trip to El Salvador with a conviction that we had better start preaching conversion in America, because we have Catholics and Protestants who are Church people, but their life-styles simply do not speak of Jesus Christ.

Interestingly enough, at this moment the tensions between Protestants and Catholics are not too high. There is not open conflict among Christians in regard to secondary matters, and there is a positive emphasis on the foundational truths of Christianity: the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, His perfect work on the cross, the need for conversion, the hope of resurrection. This is a good trend; we are not diverting attention to secondary matters but staying with the fundamentals. If we can continue to do that, I think the Western world can again experience a new cycle of spiritual reawakening.

The danger I see in Latin America is that now that evangelicals are numerically strong, there is the temptation to think “Now that we have the numbers, let’s have an evangelical political party.” It has tempted some people, who are perhaps rightly ambitious, to use the wrong methodology. My counsel has been not to form Christian political parties. Every mistake they make will be blamed on the Church, and politicians will make mistakes. Politicians who happen to be Christians should not try to get Christian votes by appealing to the fact that they are Christian. They instead ought to appeal to voters on the basis of their character, principles, and programs.

R&L: Basically, you are warning against the assertion of theocracy.

Palau: That is exactly right. God is not obligated to bless my political projects just because I am a committed Christian. It is a very poor trend to try to get the vote of believers strictly by saying “I’m a Christian. Therefore vote for me, and don’t ask any questions.” I think that approach is entirely wrong.

R&L: We still have the obligation of prudence.

Palau: Yes. We need to encourage Christians called to politics as a ministry to act honorably as politicians, knowing that in some countries they are going to face unbearable pressures. But the institutional Church should not be directly involved. It has always been the temptation of the Church to be obligated to make pronouncements on issues that are not within its province.

R&L: You have said that “Politics has its limits” and that we should not “expect from politics what politics cannot deliver.” What are the limits of politics, and what are the proper expectations that believers should have of politics?

Palau: I go back to Romans 13 where Paul lays down some simple yet essential principles. Political leaders should see that they do not hold their positions by virtue of their own great wisdom, charisma, or political maneuvering, but that their authority comes from and is established by God, and that they should therefore see themselves as ministers of God. When I spoke with our president at a breakfast, I told him that I am a minister in that I proclaim the Gospel, but that he, too, was a minister in that he serves the people. Political leaders serve the people in two ways: First, they are to affirm justice and righteousness, and to use the authority given them by God to be a terror to those who do wrong. In other words, they are to preserve freedom for peace-loving, justice-loving citizens. Second, they are to commend those who do right. So the limits of politics lie in those two fences; protecting the innocent and defenseless from evil assaults and fraud, and encouraging, commending, and facilitating the work of those whose main goals in life are to bring up their families freely, to make business happen, to lift up the economy, and to enjoy the creation that God has given us.

Politics has its limits: Politics cannot deliver submission to law. Politics cannot deliver godliness of life. Politics cannot force a family to stay together. We Christians run the risk right now of thinking that if we elect committed Christians, then somehow that in and of itself will sanctify the nation. I think that is a mistake. It would be beneficial, no doubt, but people are not changed by force of politics. When the majority of people in a nation are not committed to biblical principles, then they will elect people who are not committed to biblical principles. So we of the Church must focus on converting as many people as possible to Christ and build up their way of life biblically so that they keep the heat on elected officials as much by example as by public demands.