Category Archives: Politics
One thing I’ve long admired about Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) is his winsome example of what a Christ-centered, gospel-saturated Christian looks like when they enter the public square. In his latest book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, defining our calling to one of engaged alienated.
Our call is to an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, friends, and citizens.
This means our priority is a theological vision of what it means to be the church in the world, of what it means to be human in the cosmos. We must put priority where Jesus put it, on the kingdom of God. But while we are a citizens Kingdom First people, we are not a Kingdom Only people. Jesus told us to seek both the kingdom of God “and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). We pursue justice and mercy and well being for those around us, including the social and political arenas. This means that we will be considered “culture warriors.” Maybe so, but let’s be Christ-shaped culture warriors. Let’s be those who contend for culture, but not those who are at war with the culture. We will see ourselves in a much deeper, much more intractable, much more ancient war not against flesh and blood or even against cultural forces, but against unseen principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
We will recognize the necessity of engagement in social and political action, even as we see the limits of such action, this side of the New but Jerusalem. But we will engage not with the end goal of winning with the end goal of reconciliation. This means that morality and social justice, while good, are not enough. We witness to a gospel that seeks nor only to reconcile people to one another but to God, by doing away with the obstacle to such communion: our sin and our guilt. hat comes not by voter blocs or by policy papers but by a bloody cross and an empty tomb.
Over the past century or so, the “culture wars” could be categorized as disputes over human dignity (the pro-life movement, for example), family stability (the sexual and marriage and child-rearing debates, for example) and religious liberty. The intuitions of American Christians on these fronts have often been right, I believe, even if too often unanchored from a larger gospel vision and from a larger framework of justice. We should learn from the best impulses of such engagement, and use our articulation of our views at these points as part of an even bigger argument. These should point us back to a vision of kingdom, of culture, and of mission, rooted in the gospel and in church, even as we work with those who disagree with us in the many ways toward an approximation of justice in the public arena. As we do this, we shouldn’t be ashamed of Jesus, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be out of step with America. We are marching onward, toward a different kind of reign.
In our present cultural moment, Moore’s presentation is exciting and needs to find a wide hearing.
As God’s Spirit penetrates people’s hearts through the gospel, those people become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). They take their faith into every sphere of life, including the workplace, politics, economics, education, and the arts. And in all these realms, they seek to glorify God. They hear Paul’s exhortation in 1 Cor. 10:31, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” They obey, imperfectly to be sure. But their incipient obedience leads to significant changes in society, as we’ve seen above.
It is true that the New Testament does not focus on the goal of improving the general society. Most of its social teaching concerns relations of love within the body of Christ. But Jesus taught his disciples to minister to people without regard to their creed or national origin (Luke 10:25-37), and Paul, as we saw, urges believers to do good “especially” to the household of faith, but not exclusively there. The early Christians did not have the power to affect much the politics and culture of the Roman empire, but they did what they could. For example, they rescued babies who had been exposed to die and brought them up in their homes.
The Romans, at least, felt threatened. “Kyrios Iesous,” Jesus is Lord, sounded all too much to them like “Kyrios Caesar,” Caesar is Lord, their own fundamental confession. Jesus did not come in his first advent to be an earthly king, but he is indeed King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 17:14, 19:16), to whom all authority has been given (Matt. 28:18). He is the mighty Son of David, whose kingdom is to stretch “from sea to sea” and “from the River to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 72:8). The Romans persecuted Christians because they believed that Christ’s kingship was a threat to Caesar. The Christians protested that Christ was not an earthly king, and that they sought to be good Roman citizens. They said that sincerely. But in time Christianity overwhelmed the Roman Empire, not by the sword, but by the power of the gospel. In time, Scripture teaches, the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdom of Christ (Rev. 11:15). So the gospel certainly is a political movement. That is not to say that Christians should seek political power by the sword. But they should never imagine that their faith is politically irrelevant.
-John M. Frame, “In Defense of Christian Activism“
I for one understand the temptation to make the presidential election an idol. Whatever side of the political aisle you fall on, it’s all too easy to believe that if “the other guy” wins the country as we know it is doomed. Of course, the opposite danger is equally true. It’s all too easy to believe that if your guy wins the country will be set to rights. This false messianism is naive and anti-scriptural. Keep yourself from idols (1 Jn. 5:21).
This is an important election, but it’s not ultimate. That balance is key. Too often Christians mistakenly think the only two categories of importance are ultimate importance and no importance at all. This isn’t true to Scripture and it’s not true to life. This election is important. The economic health of this country for the foreseeable future and a host of related issues are at stake. Christians should vote squarely on their biblical convictions, asking which candidate will further the common good for the nation. This is no small task. And yet God’s kingdom is greater than the United States of America. God is sovereign over all economies and all social crises. He works all things after the council of his will (Eph. 1:11). So voting is important, but we need a healthy distance from political idolatry. Vote, but vote as though you were not voting, for the present form of this world is passing away (cf. 1 Cor. 7:30-31).
Lord willing, tonight we’ll we have a winner, and it’s our Christian duty to pray for those in positions of leadership (Rom. 13:1, 1 Tim. 2:1-2, 1 Pet. 2:13, 17). May the sovereign Lord be glorified in this election, and may He use the next president as His instrument of justice and righteousness.
As followers of “The Way” let’s recognize the authority and rule of our president, whoever he may be, as a flickering and faint pointer to the King who will one day rule with perfect and absolute justice, peace, and righteousness, the Lord Jesus Christ.
More political wisdom from John Frame:
…in some cultures (like the ancient Roman, in which the New Testament was written) there is not much that Christians can do, other than pray, to influence political structures and policies. But when they can influence them, they should. In modern democracies, all citizens are ‘lesser magistrates’ by virtue of the ballot box. Christians have an obligation to vote according to God’s standards. And, as they are gifted and called, they should influence others to vote in the same way.
This is not to say that political choices are always obvious. Often we must choose the lesser of two evils. Candidate Mershon may have a better view of one issue than Candidate Beates, while Beates has a better view on a different issue. It is an art to weigh the importance of different issues and to come to a godly conclusion. Each of us should have a large amount of tolerance for other Christians who come to conclusions that are different from ours. Rarely will one issue trump all others, though I must say that I will never vote for a candidate who advocates or facilitates the killing of unborn children.”
-John Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 617.
In response to the question of whether Churches should be politically active John Frame cautions the following:
[One] danger [for politically active churches], of course, is that churches will get so caught up in political activism that they lose sight of Christ. The solution is not to avoid political issues, but to see politics as Kuyper did, as an opportunity to promote the claims of King Jesus. It is also important that the church’s message, including its political statements, exude the grace of Christ. Grace is not only the center of God’s word, but a vital element of our communication, even of law. Denunciation of the evils of the world only takes us so far, it can, indeed, be counterproductive, because people come to resent constant scolding. Law and gospel must be wrapped up in one another. Political preaching should show how God’s grace itself impels us to live by standards that are different from those of the world (Ex. 20:2; Titus 2:11-13).
-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 618.
Back in November 2010 the Center of Pastor Theologians interviewed John Frame on Politics and Theology. The short interview is helpful in grasping the larger contours of Frame’s political
The 9 question interview includes the following:
- For readers who are not familiar with your work, can you describe your contribution to the question of how the individual Christian and the Church relates to the State?
- Richard Mouw and Carl F. H. Henry have suggested that the Church’s role is not coterminous with the responsibility possessed by individual believers. Do you agree or disagree?
- Please identify for our readers two influential thinkers or political concepts to which you often respond (perhaps one positive, one negative)?
- How would you summarize the political responsibilities of the average American in the pew—that is, someone with voting rights, but little political capital, and little or no economic capital for political action?
- How does Romans 13 help us understand the limits placed on the church and/or the individual believer in our engagement with political matters?
- How do biblical books such as Deuteronomy and Proverbs help us to understand God’s perspective on politics? Does the fact that they share political and ethical insights with other Ancient Near Eastern cultures (or that they offer critiques of those cultures and their political systems) influence your view of their relevance?
- Some political theologians note that Daniel simultaneously models service, critique, and a message of divine judgment. Are all three of these to be implemented by believers? Are they postures we should always exhibit, or are they more appropriate at some times than others?
- If a young church planter says to you, “In my social and cultural context, I need to avoid political topics. This enables me to address the gospel without any baggage and has helped our church create a community of diverse perspectives centered on Christ and his work. But am I doing the right thing? Should I be bolder?” How would you respond? Which passages would you use as a resource for guiding his or her thinking?
- What is the best article or essay a young pastor could read on politics, political interpretation of Scripture, or political theology? The best book?
It’s a helpful piece. Look into it.
A timely warning from Tim Keller:
When love of one’s people becomes an absolute, it turns into racism. When love of equality turns into a supreme thing, it can result in hatred and violence toward anyone who has led a privileged life. It is the settled tendency of human societies to turn good political causes into counterfeit gods. As we have mentioned, Ernest Becker wrote that in a society that has lost the reality of God, many people will look to romantic love to give them the fulfillment that once found in religious experience. Nietzsche, however, believed it would be money that would replace God. But there is another candidate to fill this spiritual vacuum. We can also look to politics. We can look upon our political leaders as ‘messiahs,’ our political policies as saving doctrine, and turn our political activism into a kind of religion.
The point of Christian ethics is not to be as liberal as we can be, or as conservative. It is, rather, to be as biblical as we can be…Jesus rebuked both the conservative Pharisees and the liberal Sadducees; Paul rebuked both legalists and libertines. Understanding God’s will rarely means falling into lockstep with some popular ideology. We need to think as part of a community, listening to our brothers and sisters, but we also need the courage to step aside from the crowd when God’s word directs us in that way.
-John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, 6-7
These words are especially poignant during an election year.
John Frame shares a few thoughts appropriate during election season. The conclusion should whet your appetite:
But what the Bible would teach us above all in this situation is this: we should not put our trust in government, private industry, or economic theory, whether capitalist or socialist. All of these have failed us miserably in the present crisis, and many times in history. We should not be looking to government to make us wealthy or to deal with the sins that have led our nation to this point in history. Now as ever, we should trust only in “the name of the Lord our God” (Ps. 20:7), the name of Jesus Christ.
In his helpful work Christ and Culture Revisited, D. A. Carson, clarifies the holistic claims of Christ in a familiar passage often thought to teach a sacred/secular split. In Luke we read:
[Wanting to catch Jesus in a trap, the scribes and the chief priests asked him] Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. (Luke 20:22-26 ESV)
Does Jesus here teach a sacred/secular division? Dr. Carson’s comments are insightful:
Yet we must not think that Jesus’ utterance warrants an absolute dichotomy between God and Cesar, or between church and state, or between Christ and culture. That brings up the second detail in the text that must be observed. When Jesus asks the question, “whose image is this? And whose inscription?” Biblically informed people will remember that all human beings have been made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Moreover, his people have the “inscription” of God’s law written on them (cf. Exodus 13:9; Proverbs 7:3; Isaiah 44:5; Jeremiah 31:33). If we give back to God what has his image on it, we must all give ourselves to him. Far from privatizing God’s claim, that is, the claim of religion, Jesus’ famous utterance means that God always trumps Caesar. We may be obligated to pay taxes to Cesar, but we owe everything, our very being, to God. [Here Carson quoted from David T. Ball] “Whatever civil obligations Jesus followers might have, they must be understood within the context of their responsibilities to God, for their duty to God to claims their whole selves.”
For more, see:
If only he spoke like this more frequently:
Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great performers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in Judeo– Christian tradition. ~ Barack Obama
It’s clear thought (or writing) like this that makes me wish that political liberals (and many conservatives as well!) could drop the common fact/value, public morality/private religion dichotomy. It’s neither true to life nor true to history.