People appreciate contributions by Reformed thinkers on issues in contemporary culture, including technology. However, at a recent talk, I also heard a critique: the church does not figure very prominently in many of these Reformed writings. Digital technology is fraught with ethical, social and privacy issues, but what is the role of the church in navigating new challenges like these?
The church is called to offer a prophetic voice in our contemporary setting, and technology is perhaps one of the most significant forces shaping our world. But how should the church address complex issues like net neutrality, privacy and personal information, and artificial intelligence? Should the church publish position papers on technology policy? Should the church lobby government to establish certain technology regulations? If so, what policies should the church promote?
Ministries and medium
To begin, it is helpful to distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism. As suggested by Abraham Kuyper, the church as institution has its own proper sphere of influence, just as governments, schools, businesses and families do. The sphere of the church deals with matters of faith such as the preaching of the Gospel, congregational worship, serving the poor, pastoral care and administering the sacraments. The institutional church is not equipped and does not have the expertise to address many complex issues like technology policy. To be sure, the church is responsible for determining how it ought to use technology wisely in its ministries and discern how the technological medium shapes its message. Furthermore, the church should not shy away from speaking boldly on matters that are directly addressed by Scripture – matters such as truth, justice, morality and the call to love our neighbour. For example, when technology is used to promote lies, bullying or for immoral purposes like pornography, the church should speak boldly and clearly on such matters. However, issues like net neutrality, copyright law, software engineering standards, and machine learning are complex areas for which the church as an institution has little expertise.
In contrast, the church as organism differs from the church as institution; it represents the body of believers, the people of God who are called into all areas of life. The church as organism refers to the individual believers who are called as agents of reconciliation and who are equipped and trained to serve in various cultural arenas. Each Christian needs to apply his or her beliefs and values in the area of their callings, whether farming, politics, carpentry or technology.
Thankfully, individual Christians do not need to do that alone. Christian universities serve the church as a source of expert Christian thought in different cultural arenas. They also help to equip and train students to serve in many areas, including the culturally significant area of technology in disciplines like computer science and engineering. There are also other Christian organizations, like the Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), the Christian Farmer’s Federation of Ontario (CFFO), and the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation (CSCA) that have been established to help Christians engage faithfully in various cultural areas.
Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder called the institutional church het tankstation – the fueling station where you load up for the work in the coming week. The church as organism needs to be spiritually equipped through regular church attendance with the preaching of the word and sacraments, without which our faith runs dry. In this regard, the institutional church is crucial and central as it equips believers to roll up their sleeves and apply Christian principles in the areas of culture where they are called to serve, including technology.
To be sure, the church does have something unique to offer – something that technology, despite its impressive advancements, cannot provide – namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the church as institution as well as organism is called to share that gospel amid the perplexing challenges that often come amid technological change.