Andrew Perriman, who both says too much and too little, has this to say about the role of the church and social transformation and what it truly means to be prophetic:
The Law of Moses mandated for Israel distinctive patterns of righteous and just behaviour. It was a primary responsibility of judges and kings and other leaders—right down to the chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day—to uphold righteousness and justice. And when things got out of kilter, as they inevitably did, the prophets drew attention to the fact, called Israel to repentance, and warned of national disaster if those responsible failed to put their house in order.
But it can hardly be claimed that the Jews programmatically engaged in—or were encouraged to engage in—social activism outside of Israel. The most that can be said, I think, is that if they had kept the commandments and walked in the ways of the Lord, they would have modelled righteousness and justice for the surrounding nations.
Would we call John the Baptist a social activist? He tells the crowds to share their clothing and food. He tells the tax collectors not to take more than is permitted. He tells soldiers not to “extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations” (Lk. 3:10-14). But this is a call to internal reform, and in any case the basic message is that the axe is already laid to the root of the fruitless trees, that the Lord is coming with his winnowing fork in his hand “to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:17).
Jesus’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with social transformation. It was too late for that. The “kingdom” message was that unjust Israel was facing destruction. John had been the last of the prophet-servants sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel in search of the fruit of righteousness, and the wicked tenants had killed him. Now God was sending his Son, and they would kill him too. What would the owner of the vineyard do? The chief priests and the elders of the people knew the answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt. 21:41).
In short, we are not called to change the world because by the time a prophetic call is made, it is too late. Reform won’t matter. Even the example Perriman cites of Daniel 4, in which Daniel counsels Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon:
[B]reak off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity. (Daniel 4:27 ESV)
That line, “showing mercy to the oppressed” (literally “be gracious to the humble ones”) is interesting, because as king, the oppressed Nebuchadnezzar would deal with would be people he oppressed himself, as king, as the leader of a government that ruled in his name.
But all Daniel is saying is that maybe, just maybe, God might relent for a season if you change your ways. Temporarily. Maybe.
Because the die is cast. Babylon is done. As was Israel and Judah even before they were formed, before the days Solomon took to bedding and keeping non-Israelite wives and lovers. A good king, like Josiah, might delay the rot a bit, postpone the end, but what is clear in both New and Old Testaments is that the end is coming. Because the end is judgment upon God’s people, and then as Perriman later notes, the pagan empire. Babylon/Empire is the tool of judgment upon Israel/Church, but then God enacts a stern vengeance/justice upon the Empire. It too will be subject to God.
To be a prophet, then, is not to say: The end is coming, change your ways that you may avert the end. Rather, it is to say: the end is coming, change your lives that you may live and survive the end.
I have danced around this for a couple of years now, but I think this understanding of our story as Israel/Church is the only understanding that works. It is why I think a Benedict Option ungrounded in the biblical story of Israel/Church, that understand prophetic judgment even as metaphor, will fail to appreciate the real scope of what is happening to us.
What is happening?
Modernity and enlightenment are Babylon and Rome, the beguiling means God is using to judge the church. Not America. Not Europe. But the church. The people of God. We are being called to change our lives not to save the world, but to save ourselves, to accept defeat and conquest and exile, to be a remnant God will use to resurrect his people in the future. In turn, as the powers of the world are the instruments of God’s judgment upon a faithless and idolatrous church, upon one too comfortable with and in Empire, God will judge the powers of the world. They have already been found wanting.