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This article was originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society. If you would like to see some other articles from Missionalia, have a look at the list of Missionalia articles on the Web:

Missionalia 25:3 (November 1997), pages 274-284.

Phil Robinson1


Some perspectives from Matthew 5:13-16

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The processes of secularisation and modernisation have swept away the Christian church from its original place and role in European society. The result is that it has become marginalised and irrelevant. Pluralisation has also destroyed the plausibility structure in which the gospel was presented. It is therefore urgent for the church to rethink its evangelisation strategy. Changing individuals or social structures is not enough. The deepest level of existence, namely the fundamental cultural one, should be exposed to the biblical message. The biblical images of salt and light are powerful directives for the church towards an assertive identity and contructive participation in the public sphere.


Looking at the history of the church's relationship with society, and especially at the role and the place of the church in contemporary European society, one is rather alarmed at the changes that have taken place. In many instances one may even speak of such a radical and dramatic shift that Hans Küng (1991:2f) is perhaps correct in calling it a "paradigm shift." It is especially due to the events since the Enlightenment that a new frame of reference and interpretation has taken shape. In this new frame, religion in general and the Christian church (faith) in particular, has received a sharply reduced role and place, if any. While in the first three centuries the church was merely an insignificant minority, often persecuted and marginalised, it changed rather suddenly when Constantine gave official recognition to the Christian religion and introduced it into the public sphere. For the next seventeen centuries the church was highly successful in Chris tianising Western Europe and even in establishing a Christian culture. But, as has so often happened with ancient Israel, its hour of triumph was also the time of its imminent downfall. Several forces hidden in this so-called "Christian" culture eventually led to its secularisation. The result was that while the Christian worldview was still dominant, it was no longer normative (Gilbert quoted in Runia 1994:303).


The process of secularisation was further accelerated by the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th century and the two devastating World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. According to Runia, the process of secularisation in western Europe went even further. Several factors have contributed to the virtual eradication of Western Europe's "Christian face" and its replacement with a secular one. Among these factors were increased prosperity, higher levels of education for all, increased leisure time and mobility, and the impact of the mass media, in particular that of television, etc. (Runia 1994:304). Many pre-Christian habits and views have been revived so that the question is asked today whether Europe was ever really evangelised (cf. Wessels 1994).


However, analysts point out that secularisation is only one aspect of a much larger process influencing religion in general and the Christian faith in particular, namely the process of modernisation. In a valuable discussion of the process of modernisation, Klaas Runia puts forward some of its main characteristics. Foremost, and perhaps most far reaching, was the differentiation process it triggered in society. While until the second half of the 19th century society as a whole and the lives of its individual members were characterised by unity and coherence, this started to change since the Industrial Revolution. Previously family life and professional life had formed a unity. Whole families pursued a trade or profession, mostly from their home or from a building adjacent to it. The Industrial Revolution changed all that: the development of technology led to a separation between family and profession and progressively also between home and factory/office. Runia (1994:306) concludes: "Gradually nearly all aspects of life became independent and occupied their own world: the arts, education, medicine, economics, etc. The same also happened to religion: it too became a separate world, confined to the sphere of private life."

A similar conclusion is reached by Lesslie Newbigin (1983:22) in his assessment of the secularising effect of the Enlightenment: "Christian faith became – for most people – a private and domestic matter strictly separated from the public worlds of politics and economics." In the rather extreme formulation of Eilert Herms (1994:135), the secularisation process caused a progressive marginalisation of the church from being an all-encompassing socialising structure to that of a society for religious leisure-time entertainment.

In other words, a secular society is not anti-religious, says Brian Carrell (1994:355), it merely insists that matters of faith be private concerns, restricted

to certain occasions and places, and never intruding into the everyday life of society. Politics, economy, and science became independent spheres that have rid themselves from any accountability to religion in general and the Christian faith in particular. The privatising of faith and the marginalising of religion of necessity leads to a loss of the sense of the sacred in society.

A second characteristic of the modernisation wave was a new freedom for humans with regard to society. People became more and more independent from one another and from the community. All persons were allowed and even expected to speak their own mind (democratisation), exercise their own choice (subjectivisation), and plan their own future according to their own will (rationalisation).


All these processes have led to an ongoing pluralisation of society. Although religion, politics, economics and science developed into worlds/spheres of their own, each with its own meanings, values and norms, they were at the same time also interrelated – each with all the others. It is therefore necessary that we do not deal with these spheres in separation, but that we take all spheres into account simultaneously, due to their interrelatedness (Herms 1994:142-146). There is no such thing as pure politics or pure religion. Economic matters always have political, religious (ethical), educational and scientific dimensions, while religion always has political and economic dimensions. This interrelatedness needs to be taken very seriously.

The process of pluralisation has also entered and changed the monolithic character of each of these spheres (:144). The ways in which these spheres establish themselves are continually differentiating so that, according to analyst Alvin Toffler, the model of integration can be tailor-made to suit the taste of each individual. Fewer and fewer people are willing to be herded/flocked together as if they had the same questions and could therefore be served with the same answers.

In the sphere of religion, pluralisation confronts each of the religious traditions with the assumption that truth is present in all religions and that all share a common goal. This poses a tremendous challenge to the truth claim of the Christian faith. The plausibility structure in which the gospel used to be presented has been destroyed.


As a fourth characteristic I would like to add the process of relativisation. Modern society accepts no absolutes. With God and rulers removed from the pinnacle of authority humans (the mass) have to decide for themselves what is true, good/acceptable and necessary: "There is no authority outside our own consen sus to which we are accountable," says Carrell in capturing the spirit of this process. He continues "Doubt in such a world is more acceptable than dogma; searching than discovery; feelings than thoughts; departing than arriving. The heretic is the hero, the saint the sinner" (Carrell 1994:356 -emphasis mine).

From the viewpoint of the Christian gospel we can agree with Runia (1994:306) that we are living in a post-Christian world, generally characterised by such secular presuppositions as: only scientific knowledge or value free facts are true knowledge; all convictions are equally valuable and legitimate; religious convictions belong to private life; sin is an antiquated, at most a personal, view; life is restricted to this world.


The tragedy is that this onslaught on any constructive involvement of the church in the public sphere coincided with an even more detrimental development within the church itself, namely its clericalisation. While the early church placed all the emphasis on the members of the congregation as witnesses in the world, the situation changed dramatically since the time of Constantine. From then on the emphasis started to shift gradually from the laity to church officials. They had to represent the church at all levels of life. They were mandated to speak and decide on behalf of the congregation(s). More and more power became vested in their hands with the result that they even challenged the political leaders for supremacy in the power pyramid of society (Meyer 1969:75-105). The church was tempted to seize dominance over all spheres of life, in particular the political sphere. While the conflict between pope and Caesar raged on and pomp and glory were the order of the day among church officials, the ordinary members of the church receded into the background. Instead of being represented they were replaced. A chasm developed between a privatised spiritual life and the public sphere where only a few powerful did run the show.


The question raised at the beginning of this section must be answered in the affirmative. There are a number of lessons to be learned from history. In the first place, the church has to admit that its effort to take over and dominate the public sphere proved to be fatal. Outwitted by the differentiation process, its operational area shrank progressively until it became almost totally insignificant and irrelevant. At a recently held Annual Day of the German State Law Association, religion was relegated to the sphere of the rationally unexplainable and to the border experiences and situations of people's lives (Herms 1994:135). Religion, and thus the Christian faith, was deliberately privatised and pushed out of the public sphere.

A second lesson to be learned from history is that an attitude of withdrawal or resistance does also not work. Some churches have fenced themselves off in an effort to keep the modernisation process out. The danger is that they become so satisfied with themselves and their own life that they do not recognise that they do not have any influence on their surrounding environment and least of all on life in the public sphere. They become what Rebecca Pippert (1980) called "salt kept in the saltshaker." The salt must get out of the saltshaker and the lamp must be put on the lamp-stand: "The church carefully locked in inside the confines of the peaceful atmosphere of its own walls will not be able to bring the message of God's liberating grace to the world" (Heyns 1967:68 – my translation). Only a church that is willing to venture out and encounter people with the gospel has understood its mission.

The third lesson pertains to the attitude of accommodation. Runia (1994:309f) points out that many individual Christians and even a number of the larger church denominations fell prey to the spirit of tolerance and worldliness. The result is that the distinction between church member and non-church member disappeared. People became more afraid to be called outmoded than to be frowned upon as heretics. Many church leaders in the ministry did not hesitate to dilute the gospel to make it more acceptable to modern tastes. Doctrines like eternal damnation, physical hell, total depravity, and endless punishment, to mention but a few, that were once deemed essential, have quietly been shelved. The reasons advanced for living a life of faith no longer make sense to many people and the stream of people leaving the church is increasing at an alarming pace.


South African society is being shaken to its foundations. The long cherished paradigm that regarded South Africa as a Christian country has been shattered by a glaringly contradictory public life. A mighty wave of crime, violence and immorality lashes all pious structures to pieces. In spite of the fact that every town has one or more church buildings, normally situated very prominently on the central square; in spite of statistics provided over the years informing the public that the South African society is more or less 80 percent Christian; in spite of the fact that many members of parliament are confessing members of various churches, we are faced with an alarming moral decay. The reason, as I see it, is that we have been caught unprepared by the modernisation and secularisation process. Very few people seem to be equipped to handle the situation in a re sponsible manner. Christian faith and principles are being betrayed on all levels. With much ease and haste the public sphere has been cleared of its so-called "Christian" image. Churches either have not properly realised what is happening or are satisfied to be directed to prescribed areas like eradicating poverty, assist ing with development projects or rendering emergency help during disasters. For the rest the church is to express itself in the private sphere.


In a recent article on a holistic approach to Christian evangelisation in New Zealand, Harold Turner (1994) has made some helpful remarks. In his reflection he distinguishes three levels of human existence at which the communication of the gospel as truth ought to take place, namely the individual personal, the public social, and the deeper cultural. Missionaries have to start at the first level and address the personal/individual religious life. Then they have to address the second level: social systems that demand reform in the direction of the kingdom of God. Here one can think of marriage customs, the position of women, the treatment of disease, retaliation customs, and many more. The third level that has to be addressed is that of the basic culture. This has to be done with the help of linguistics and anthropology. Missionaries have made pioneer contributions in both these fields.

The amazing thing is that while this holistic approach has been common in mission work, the same cannot be said of the communication of the gospel in the established churches. The problem is that the main emphasis in these churches is placed on the individual and personal level. This is especially true of the evangelical and charismatic approaches. The clearest evidence of this trend is the popular literature produced and displayed by Christian book stores. The second level comes into focus with more socially concerned ministers and theo logians, especially in the mainline churches and liberation movements. On this level the focus is on social issues like human rights, ecology, peace, gender roles, feminism, etc. People operating on this level are much more involved in the reform of social systems and structures. During the seventies and eighties most programmes of the World Council of Churches were concentrated on this level. Since the latter half of the seventies, evangelicals have also started paying more attention to social reform. The International Symposium on the Lausanne Covenant marked this turn (Padilla 1976).

To be only involved in changing individuals and social structures is, however, still an incomplete form of evangelisation. The deep cultural forces that ultimately control our lives need to be encountered by the gospel. It is therefore not enough to aim only at the surface culture of social customs. What is needed is a compre hensive philosophy of existence which can offer foundational truth to people. People need the opportunity to re-examine their basic cultural worldview in the light of the biblical worldview and its version of the real structure and goal of human nature and the real forces in history. At the Worldview 1988 Consultation, organised from 13 to 18 June 1988 in Nairobi by the Association of Evangelicals in Africa and Madagascar (AEAM), a new interest in the meaning of the gospel for real life issues beyond the church became clear. The following recommendation is a good example:

We are convinced that an integrated Christian worldview based upon Holy Scriptures, the Bible, is an indispensable foundation to live out an authentic Christian life in contemporary society, hence the imperative of calling all Christians to develop a Christian worldview within the African context. The battle therefore is for the Christian mind, to think Christianly and to grasp the full implications of the Lordship of Christ over all areas of life. This implies the necessity to develop a Christian anthropology and a Christian social philosophy (quoted in Van der Walt 1990:i).

This holistic approach is what real evangelisation entails, as we find it commu nicated in the biblical passage Matthew 5:13-16.


In the light of this passage, the problem with the so-called irrelevance of the Christian faith to many people today is not the making of the gospel itself but of the people who deliberately or unknowingly water it down and restrict its meaning. The passage speaks of not putting the lamp under a cover (meal-tub) nor making the salt tasteless. Christian witness is meant to be a dynamic force of transfor mation in society. Matthew's use of these images adds valuable insights into each image's meaning.

Salt and Light

Matthew treated Jesus' use of these images in a very significant manner. While Mark and Luke dealt with these two images separately, Matthew joined them together to emphasise their interrelatedness (Gnilka 1988:133). But that was not all. He also expanded the imagery with two additions, namely that of the city on a hill that cannot be hid and the lamp on a lamp-stand. Also significant is the context in which Matthew introduced this imagery. He placed it immediately after the Beatitudes, thereby giving it a definite ecclesiological and missionary focus. Furthermore, the way Matthew constructed the sentences highlights the fact that these statements about the new status of the followers of Jesus were meant to be emphatic: "You are ..." Henceforth they – and no longer the scribes nor the spiritual leaders of Israel nor the law (Thora) nor the temple – will be the salt and the light of the world. According to Lohmeyer (1967:99), the wording "you are" was meant to draw attention to the presence of that which in Ex 19:6 was still a promise for the future: "You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." That promise has now been fulfilled. Salvation history has entered a new stage. The new nation of God, the avant garde of the kingdom of God on earth, will henceforth consist of Jews and Gentiles.

Salt to the world

To Matthew the point of comparison between the congregation and the salt image is the new life in Christ which has been outlined in the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12). The new life in Christ gives evidence of God's power to create anew. God created a people to live not for themselves but for the world (Luz 1989:251). Salt does not exist for itself. Christians do not exist for themselves either (Bruner 1987:160). This new life is going to have a profound influence on the context in which the congregation lives. Its all-renewing influence is destined to penetrate the totality of a people's life world. In other words, no boundaries can be set for the kingdom. Every square centimetre falls within the ambit of God's reign in Christ. Guder (1985:chapter 1) concludes that whoever has an encounter with Christ becomes inevitably mission-minded. It is in the very nature of the church to proclaim God's reign over every creature and over every aspect of life. We can therefore only confirm Fritz Rienecker's (1961:52) conclusion that the expression "salt of the earth" indicates that no boundaries are set for the service of the followers of Christ. To be a disciple is to be involved in every aspect of humanity's existence, including the cultural, social and political dimensions. Not only horizontally to the ends of the earth but also vertically to every area of life, from top to bottom. Rienecker makes the significant remark that this saying on salt is the first word of the gospel but also the final word on Christian discipleship. The salt image thus emphasises in a significant way the all-inclusive character of the church's calling in the world. Ridderbos (1952:98) points out that earth here refers to the totality of life of which human existence forms a significant component. It is the responsibility of Christ's followers to resist everything that threatens life and that causes decay of life's fabric.

In being the salt to the world (earth), the presence of the congregation should communicate to all creatures that God seeks their salvation. Like in early times the salt has symbolised validity, perpetuity and everlasting power at the conclu sion of a covenant or treaty (Num 18:19; 2 Chron 13:5), so henceforth the church should be a sign of the reality and indestructibility of the covenant of grace (cf Ellul n.d.:7,8). The church is but the first sign of the full harvest to come. Through its presence in the public sphere the congregation should remind people at all levels of life that everything depends on God's grace and that all creatures should glorify his name. When the church fails to witness in this way, it is like tasteless salt. Matthew's rhetorical question about how its saltiness can be restored does not open up the possibility of a restoration of the salt but emphasises the utter tragedy that nothing can be done about it. The tasteless salt can only be thrown away and trodden underfoot. Therefore, if the church fails its nature the cause is lost. Minear (1960:31) correctly remarks: "The worthlessness of the church apart from its use for salting the earth is explicitly underscored."

Light for all the world

Like the image of salt, the image of light also emphasises the fact that the church is primarily focused on the world. The addition of two further images, the town on the hill and the lamp on the lampstand, emphasise precisely this quality of the Christian church. It is its nature to seek the world. Schnackenburg (1967:7) calls this the church's "missionary tendency." Now that "transparency" has become a fashionable word in political circles, it is important to stress that the church is the one institution in society that should always be transparent. The church should live with open doors and windows, even in the face of threats and danger. When the powers of the world tell the church to "stick to its own business" by restricting itself to the private sphere, this challenges the church at its heart. To heed such demands would be like putting the lamp under a meal-tub. It contradicts the very nature of the church. If the church really "sticks to its business" it will be deeply involved in the public sphere – the precise opposite of what the powers would wish!

The meaning of this light image is expressed in the history it has in the life of Israel and eventually in the life of Christ Himself. The image of light has a broad frame of reference in salvation history. Israelites know God as the Light (Psalm 18:29; 27:1; Mi 7:8; Is 60:1-3). Sometimes even Israel, the Thora or the temple is called the light (Schnackenburg 1967:6f especially note 10). Therefore Jesus' hearers were not unfamiliar with this image. They, like all Israelites, cherished the promise of the Messiah who will come as the light of the world (Is.8:23-9:1). When the old Simeon took the child Jesus into his arms, he exclaimed: "a light that will be a revelation to the heathen (nations)" (Luke 2:32) and in a preceding passage Matthew quoted the prophecy from Isaiah and called Jesus "a great light" (Matthew 4:16). When Matthew reports that Jesus called his disciples the light of the world he was making a direct link between Jesus and his followers. Jesus' presence in their midst makes them also the light for the world (cf 28:20). The rest of the New Testament communicates the same message: those who share in the salvation effected by Christ are called "children of the light" (Eph. 5:8; John 12:36). They have been called out of the darkness "into his marvellous light" (1 Peter 2:9).


Both the images of salt and light emphasise active involvement in the public sphere. Both images speak of transforming activity: salt fights decay and tastelessness and light removes darkness. In Mt 5:16 the followers of Jesus are called to shed light among their fellows by doing good. The "good works" of the congregation have multiple dimensions, which may range from assisting the poor and the weak to constructive involvement in politics, economics and social matters. Being liberated from the bonds of evil in all its forms, the church itself becomes a liberating community. Wherever they live and work, Christians should expose evil and help to transform and reconstruct this broken world. In order to do that, Christians should break through every false dichotomy that intends to prevent them from doing and being what they are called and intended to be. If we take the scriptural passage seriously, then it is obvious that the church outside the public sphere is not the church. Or to put it in the famous word of Hans Jochen Margull (1975:354): "Only the church/ congregation that succeeds to be genuinely present in this changing world, succeeds in being a missionary church." However true this may be, it is only one side of the truth. The other side that must always complement the church's active presence in society is its being the church. I would therefore like to add a second complementary part to Margull's statement, namely: Only a church/congregation that succeeds in keeping its identity in this changing world, succeeds in being a missionary church. The two concepts that feature prominently in these statements are genuine presence and identity. Both are key concepts in understanding the place and role of the church in the public sphere. For the church to be involved means to keep the fine balance between constructive participation and identity. Involvement at the expense of identity is as detrimental to the church as identity at the expense of involvement. Through genuine presence in the public sphere the church can ensure that it does not become irrelevant to the cause of the kingdom of God.


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CARRELL, Brian. 1994. The Christian faith in a post-Christian society. Evangelical Review of Theology 18:4 (Oct.1994), 354-358.

ELLUL, Jacques. n.d. Staan in de wereld van nu. Amsterdam: Uitg. Holland.

GNILKA, Joachim. 1988. Das Matthäus-evangelium. Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament. Basel: Herder.

GUDER, Darell L. 1985. Be My Witnesses. The Church's mission, message, and messengers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

HERMS, Eilert. 1994. Vom halben zum ganzen Pluralismus. Einige bisher übersehene Aspekte im Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche. Evangelische Theologie 54:2, 134-157.

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SCHNACKENBURG, R. 1967.Die Kirche in der Welt. Aspekte aus dem Neuen Testament. Biblische Zeitschrift 11:1, 1-21.

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1 Prof Phil J. Robinson taught in the Department of Christianity and Society in the Faculty of Religion and Theology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Private Bag X17, Bellville 7535. He has just retired from teaching, after 23 years at UWC.

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