4 insights for healthy engagement in the public square

March 21, 2024

Healthy engagement in the public square can feel like a fond memory of past decades, but we believe that Christians can still engage the public square today in ways that bring hope where it is desperately needed. In 2019, the ERLC, the Fetzer Institute, and LifeWay Research conducted a study on civility in the public square, interviewing a number of evangelical leaders. The study found that “the single most common adjective … interviewees used” to describe the current political discourse was “toxic.” As as a result, we often avoid political discourse. But if Christians avoid the political engagement altogether, could our disengagement from the public square be more harmful than we think? In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul shows us what healthy engagement in the public square can look like.

While in Athens, Paul was “deeply distressed” because the city was filled with idols. He was provoked by what he saw in the city. Yet, he didn’t shrink back from engaging, and he didn’t “power up” against the people. He began a reasonable discourse (v. 17). While some opposed and ridiculed Paul, others were intrigued by him and his ideas, and they invited him to the Areopagus—an official courtyard where issues were discussed and debated.

Paul was given the opportunity to speak in a way that compared and contrasted the widely held beliefs of the community with a Christian worldview. He knew his audience and respected them, but he also spoke with courage. In Paul’s example, we see four takeaways that can help us in political engagement today.

4 considerations for courageous and civil Christians for engagement in the public square

1. Listen to understand

In the study referenced earlier, Christian leaders offered several alarming observations.

That is quite a contrast to the way Paul engaged the people of Athens. Instead of using words as his primary weapon, Paul first used his ears to listen and his eyes to observe.

2. Confront others to promote Jesus

The Epicureans and the Stoics both had misguided views about God and creation, and those errant views had social implications that impacted the entire city and the welfare of its residents. But those views did not surprise or offend Paul. Instead, he understood the nature of humankind. He understood how sin has corrupted all of us, and he cared for the people of the city enough to begin his comments with their perspective in mind. 

In the public square, that dialogue will often begin around issues of public policy and political import. But all these issues find their origin in the things of God. We may not share the gospel in every political conversation, but every hot-button debate gives us an opportunity to offer a more accurate picture of the nature of God, the nature of man, and the redeeming hope found in Jesus. 

3. Seek to move hearts and minds

Along with his explanation to the crowds of God’s work in history, Paul deliberately appealed to one of the core tenets of the faith; namely that every human is stamped with the image of God and is worthy of respect.

4. Invite everyone into the conversation. 

Paul used his moment in the public square to talk about the person and work of Jesus. His message was clearly a gospel-centered message which, no doubt, invited criticisms from the crowd, but Paul did not shy away from controversial issues. He knew that Jesus is the only way to God for everyone, so he invited everyone to consider his claims. 

No one is persuaded to a new way of thinking by argumentative, sarcastic, or condescending speech. We may win the “verbal gladiator” duel like that, but strongly held beliefs, as wayward as they may be, are loosened through prayerful, reasoned, and courageous conversation. The power of our words is not in their volume or venom but in the veracity of the gospel demonstrated by our love for others.

When we, like Paul, engage people with various viewpoints in significant dialogue we make more progress than we would by staying behind our religious or political walls. What’s more, the gospel gets more of a hearing, and more people take new steps toward Jesus. Could it be that we fail to make progress in the public square because we neglect to invite everyone, including our opponents, into the conversation? 

Go into all the earth, including the public square

The apostle Paul was not a politician, but he found himself in a public setting speaking to politicians about the welfare of their city from his perspective as a Christian. In other words, Paul was a public theologian in Athens. 

Similarly, God has given each of us a unique platform for public engagement—we are all public theologians. Even in a politically contentious environment, Christians can and should engage in the public square, and do so with both courage and civility.

It’s our public political engagement that God uses to help people from different backgrounds and worldviews understand the ways of God, experience the common goodness of God, and respond in faith to the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, for, “How will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent” (Rom. 10:14–15)? 

Christians are those who have been sent into all the earth to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ—and that includes the public square. May we do so with courage and civility.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24