5 myths about Christian engagement in the public square

May 5, 2015

As they have in every generation, evangelicals are wrestling with their role in the larger culture. Today’s increasingly post-Christian America has added new urgency to the discussion. Should Christians be involved in politics? Or should we simply preach and live out the gospel in our communities? Or are these two paradigms as mutually exclusive as they are sometimes branded?

I’ve been on both sides of this debate most of my life. I’ve served at various levels of church and organizational ministry, I’ve been active in political campaigns, and now I have the privilege of serving the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the entity representing Southern Baptists in Washington. I’ve been the pastor aghast at a parishioner’s crude political Facebook posts. I’ve been the activist wishing Christians were more aware of the issues.

This is a tension that won’t go away until Christ consummates his kingdom. Until that glorious day, we must wrestle with very real questions. Let’s start by deconstructing some myths about Christian engagement in the public square:

1. We shouldn’t judge the world, because the world is full of unbelievers. Paul wrote this very advice in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:5). They were a church who had imbibed the sexual values of their culture, to the point where they openly bragged about a “grace” that overlooked and even celebrated open sexual sin (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 6). This was also a church that arrogantly preached to the culture but refused to guard their family of faith.

On the surface, Paul’s words might seem a rebuke to any level of Christian cultural engagement. After all, the Church should expect believers to act like believers and unbelievers to act like unbelievers. This is true in one sense. Our message to the world should not be one of condemnation (John 3:17), but of love, announcing the good news that salvation is available to those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, the rightful King who conquered sin, death and the serpent.

And yet Paul can’t be saying we should ignore the false ideologies around us, turning a blind eye to injustice and caring little for the flourishing of our communities. If so, he’d be contradicting other very clear passages of Scripture that urge the Christian to apply the gospel to all of life.

For instance, are Paul’s words to the Corinthians a rebuke to John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest man who ever lived (Luke 7:28)? John called out Herod for marrying his brother’s wife (Luke 3:19). Were Paul’s words a rebuke to Jeremiah who encouraged the Jewish exiles in Jerusalem to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7)? Were they contradicting Paul’s own boldness in Athens, where he stood on Mars Hill and declared the falseness of the heathen gods?

When Paul says not to judge the world, he’s echoing similar themes as James, who in his letter to the Jerusalem church writes: “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” (1:27).

2. We shouldn’t be against things, only for things. This is a common cliché. The church shouldn’t simply be known for what it is against, but what it is for. This sounds very good. Christians, after all, should be known for their love for Jesus and for each other. And the story we are announcing is the good news of the gospel, the evangel that Christ has come to reconcile sinners to God. This was Jesus’ mission, to announce the gospel of the Kingdom.

And yet, Jesus was also clearly against things. For instance, Jesus was strongly against the corruption of innocent children. His language in Luke 17:2 is provocative, saying that it would be a better fate for the abuser “if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea.”

I imagine if a politician used language like this today, we’d have a lot of Christians wringing their hands and wishing Jesus could just “show more love.” Jesus is against sin, against exploitation, against any spirit of the age that can corrupt, destroy and kill the very people he came to save.

Paul seems to affirm this when he says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). What we fail to understand is that to be against something is to be for something else. So to be against abortion is to be in favor of life. To be against poverty is to be for the well-being and nurture of humanity. To be against human trafficking is to be for the dignity and respect of innocent people.

The gospel is not only a positive declaration that Christ has conquered sin and death and has made a way for sinners to find their way to God. It’s not only a positive declaration that Christ is King over the earth. The gospel is also a crushing blow against the evil powers that enslave men in sin and death. You might argue that if Christians are only ever for things, they are preaching an incomplete gospel.

3. We should only preach the gospel and make disciples and not worry about politics. It’s true that no political party or movement can change the world. Sometimes political activism on both the left and the right can be overly triumphalist. Only the gospel, not political ideology, has the power to change hearts. Yes and amen.

But the gospel, if you notice, is a rather political statement itself. The gospel declares, first of all, that Christ and not Caesar is the ultimate King (Mark 12:17) and that even the most powerful rulers serve under the authority of King Jesus (Rom. 13:1). Even the most popular prayer in the world, the Lord’s Prayer, is really a prayer of revolution, declaring that there is another King and another kingdom that is not of this world (Matt. 6:9-13).

So you can’t really preach the gospel and avoid politics. Politics are embedded in the very heart of the gospel. Furthermore, think about Jesus’ words in the Great Commission. The imperative is to “make disciples” and teach them “all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).

The gospel doesn’t simply punch your ticket to heaven; it empowers Christians for a radical new lifestyle, one that is at odds with the world (Jas. 4:4; Rom. 8:7). The most nonpolitical Christian, if he is faithful, is a political statement to a world system that is under the temporary and restrained rule of Satan (Eph. 2:2).

The Church is to be an alternate society, an outpost of the kingdom to come (1 Pet. 2:9). This means the gospel calls us not simply to make converts who have no effect on the world around them. The gospel calls us be agents of reconciliation, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to live and work toward justice and righteousness, to seek the welfare of our cities, to advance human flourishing. In fact, a Christianity that has no impact on the world around it, according to James, is a dead, lifeless faith (Jas. 2:14-16).

I’m glad, for instance, that men like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr. and Deitrich Bonheoffer had a gospel big enough to demand justice for the innocents. To ignore injustice is to say to the 19th-century slave in America, to the 20th-century Jew in Germany, to the 21st-century unborn baby: “Be warmed and filled.” It’s a diminished gospel, a lifeless faith.

What our generation of evangelicals has to understand is that love of neighbor doesn’t mean only the politically safe endeavors of charity that everyone affirms. It might also mean having the courage to get involved in the socio-political structures that either advance or hurt human flourishing.

4. Courage and civility are incompatible. We have this notion that in order to stand up for justice, we must embrace the carnal tools of warfare. But we’d be wise to heed the words of Peter, who encourages an apologetic bathed in kindness: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:15-17).

Notice the tension in Peter’s words. He calls Christians to have courage, to stand and declare what is true in the face of opposition. And yet we’re to do it with “gentleness and respect.” We are to disagree without being disagreeable. We’re to love and respect and honor even those we might consider political adversaries.

We do this, not simply as a new tactic to win hearts and minds, but as a representation of the gospel within us. We are, after all, a different people. We represent a different kingdom. This should affect even the way we speak and interact. How we post our opinions on social media. The types of emails we forward. The conversations we have about those with whom we disagree. Peter is reminding us that courage and civility are not enemies, but friends. Our culture sometimes confuses bravery with bravado, crassness with courage. But the gospel calls us to a new and different way to engage.

5. Our real enemies are human.

This is perhaps the biggest temptation for Christian political engagement. The yin and yang of politics can often drag us into the messy trench warfare, forgetting that our real enemies are not elected officials, presidents of activist groups, or even liberal seminary professors. The real battle is unseen, spiritual warfare at the highest levels. Paul reminds us that we don’t wage war with “flesh and blood” but “cosmic powers over this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Every generation faces a battle of ideologies, a battle of worldviews. People who espouse and believe ungodly philosophies are held captive by the enemy, their minds blinded by unbelief (2 Cor. 4:4).

We err in two ways when we forget the spiritual nature of our political engagement. First, we concentrate on vanquishing seemingly human enemies. We want to see actual people destroyed. This was Peter’s problem when he chopped off the ear of the high priest's servant (John 18:10). This man was not the enemy, Satan was. Sin and death were. The servant was a mere pawn in a larger cosmic struggle. Which is why Jesus, in some of his last words on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do“ (Luke 23:34). When we make humans the enemies, we easily forget love and kindness and grace. We abandon the way of Jesus, who fellowshipped and ate with sinners, who tenderly loved even the one who would betray him, Judas.

Second, we put all of our faith in human instruments, the newest tactics and technologies, and the next election. While we should steward our citizenship wisely and vote for those whose positions most closely resemble biblical values, we must remember that all kingdoms of this world are temporal and that only the gospel has the ability to change hearts and minds.

Gospel warriors cannot be fatalistic, those whose hopes rise and fall based on fundraising numbers, Gallup polls, and the get-out-the-vote program in the suburbs. We are looking for another kingdom, a city whose builder and maker is not Republican or Democrat. Knowing that the cultural battles are simply proxies for larger spiritual warfare, we fight for justice and righteousness without the roller-coaster emotions attached to changing political currents.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

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