Steeple and people, quietism and activism, are two demands of the Christian life meant to be held in tension; however, as with most tensions, we tend to find ourselves off-balance in one direction or the other.
According to J.S. Stewart quietists are those Christians who are quick to embrace the indicative of the gospel but fail to catch the imperative. They believe in a mighty salvation accomplished by God and for them, the “one thing needful is to dwell in the secret place of the Most High, to cultivate the interior devotional life and aim at personal holiness.” Quietists are quick to look for the New Jerusalem, knowing that only there will the world find true rest and peace; however, they forget that God intends to use our labors to move our world closer to that ideal, that we are meant to pull the kingdom down to earth as it is heaven.
I think of quietists as steeple people. I know them well, as I tend to be one of them. Given the choice, I would much prefer to sit alone in my home and meet with God, cultivating intimacy with Him.
On the other hand, activists are those who are quick to remember the imperative of the gospel, while minimizing its indicative. According to Stewart, “they are so vividly conscious of the demand to be up and doing fo the salvation of this atrociously needy world that they can scarce tarry to consider what God has done once for all.” The problem is that activists can be quick to put hope in this world and their own labor or movement, “a future Utopia to be achieved by toil and tears and sweat and blood,” which can often lead to disillusionment.
I think of activists as people people. They are drawn toward the masses, the orphan and the widow. They put feet to their faith and sometimes have little time for theology that does not land in the practical.
It seems that two such groups tended to exist, even in the early Church, as James had to remind the nascent church that activism and quietism were two sides of the same coin.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror and goes away and at once forgets what he looks like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets, but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing…Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1: 22-25 & 27.
James sought to intertwine the two strands, activism and quietism. The letter he wrote to His churches that is now the book of James is often misread as being works-oriented as compared to the Pauline epistles; however, Paul and James are coming at the Christian life from two different angles, two different sides of the same coin. Both agree that the balanced Christian life, the desired end for every Christ follower, is a vital union of the two.
What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. The indicative of the gospel, what Jesus has fully accomplished through his life, death and Resurrection sends us out with the imperative of the gospel, lives modeling and proclaiming His kingdom in a lost world.
However, we do not live in a world of the ideal, we live in a world of the real. As such, we would do well to know our tendencies and fight to bring balance by intentionally infusing missing elements to our lives by seeking active quietism or quiet activism.
Active quietism means that I force myself to flip the coin to see the people side rather than myopically focusing on the steeple. It looks like pushing through to initiate toward messy people and causes rather than staying within the bounds of my quiet time. It looks like days of service or time around large groups occasionally when I would rather be alone.
Quiet activism means sometimes choosing to reflect on what God has fully done on the Cross rather than focusing on all that is still left un-done in the broken world in which we remain. It looks like saying no, at times, to right causes that one might sit long in the presence of the Righteous One who will bring His kingdom to bear fully on earth in His timing.
Jesus, of course, is our model for both. He has sent the Spirit to more fully form each of His children into His image until the day when He, our steeple will fully be among His people forever.