To be faithful to God, Christians should take care not to invest too much hope in politics. But we must be good stewards of the power and influence we have. This is the natural consequence of two biblical beliefs. First, God is sovereign over the universe and Christians will be in heaven one day no matter what happens on earth. Second, each person is responsible to God for his own stewardship of responsibilities and opportunities. Though there will be some overlap, each Christian is called to be faithful differently because each has his own opportunities, vocation, and callings.
For the most part, I think Christians get into trouble doubting that first statement. As fallen beings, we far too often set our minds on the here and now, rather than on eternity. Waiting until heaven to see results is hard, maybe more so in our present age of instant gratification.
For two millennia Christians have struggled to stay on mission, at times allowing the siren calls of power and relevance in this world to draw us off course. This is perhaps most acute for those of us called to be faithful in politics and culture. The very same malady afflicted the disciples, who first expected the Messiah to bring reform and a worldly kingdom. At times they were mainly interested in an armed revolt against Rome. As they soon learned and proclaimed clearly in Scripture, Jesus had not come to rule a worldly kingdom, reform the Roman Empire, or bring Judea back to its glory years. His agenda was one of changing men by supernatural means, not bending wills to outward conformity by law or culture.
Even after it became clear that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), the church continued to struggle with mission creep. Within a century it became clear that the Christian church would not form a nation-state and instead became a minority religion throughout the Roman Empire. With rapid demographic growth, successful evangelism, and converts in high positions, the church saw growth and, eventually, worldly standing. Over time, Christianity became intertwined with the state in a way that would last for more than a millennium.
Fast forwarding to our time and our nation, Christianity has always been a dominant cultural force. The Founders were clearly not all orthodox believers, but they largely respected the moral teachings of the Bible. During times of revival, the influence of the church increased. In our own recent history, there seemed to be a peak of religious interest in the 1950s, when three-quarters said religion was “very important” in their lives.
For a complex set of reasons outside the scope of this piece, the influence of the church on the larger culture and the health of the visible church itself weakened considerably. Today self-reported church attendance is down twenty percent since the 1950s, and the portion saying religion is very important is down to 55 percent. Within living memory the influence of Christianity has dropped significantly. The mainline churches have been a spent force for decades.
Perhaps in part because of the one-time “success” of nominal Christianity—the line between the faithful and the nominal was blurred—theological precision and fervor subsided. Today’s ascendant and sometimes dominant religion—inside the professing church and in society at large—is what sociologist Christian Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It is a “how-is-this-going-to-help-me-now” approach to religion devoid of the gospel. Such thinking, Smith found, is particularly prevalent among those under thirty, a trend that is true also in the church. When worldly success is more esteemed, valued, and sought, is it surprising that true Christianity (“Pick up your cross and follow me,” Matthew 16:24) morphs into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?
Such a shallow gospel, of course, is no help to those undergoing trials and hardly spurs the kind of devotion necessary when you are encountering the headwinds of mainstream culture to “get with the program” of the sexual revolution. The theologically rotten fruit of worldly thinking are all around us: To take just two issues of relevant political importance today, we have abortion on demand, same-sex marriage in more than a dozen states, and a majority of the Supreme Court cannot even bring itself to engage arguments for the traditional definition of marriage, instead maintaining that proponents of marriage are animated by animus.
The rapid cultural collapse in many areas of the United States is evident: A photographer who did not want to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony was reprimanded by the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. Laws concerning sexual orientation and gender identity in many locales will make it increasingly difficult for some employers to operate according to biblical views of sexuality.
So how should believers respond?
Our political engagement must not hinder our desire and ability as the church and as individuals to preach the gospel and, reliant on God, to make disciples. That is also true for those of us working vocationally in politics and culture. While we need not strain our theology to be popular—that often means ungodly accommodation—we do need to be careful not to put ourselves as an obstacle to someone to hear about Christ. God saves political liberals, moderates and conservatives alike. We should worry a lot less whether about our candidate wins the next election and a lot more about whether our friends, family and neighbors have heard the good news and see us living that out in our lives. After all, to paraphrase Jesus, what would it profit us to gain the whole world “politically” but lose souls “theologically”?
Redoubling our efforts to organize and “take back America” is distinctly the wrong approach. For one thing, the Millennial generation has little interest in an infusion of Christian political activism bordering on sloganeering, ensuring that such a strategy would not work even if it was the best course.
Christians who take the Bible seriously should seek faithfulness in all spheres. The most direct threat to the church is not political, but theological, and always will be. Jesus and the apostles warned us repeatedly to watch out for false teaching. Paul in 2 Timothy warned us, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Instead of shaping our theology and practice to make us popular, we must fear God rather than men. Jesus told us to “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” A local church’s weekly preaching should reflect God’s Word, holding forth the gospel and teaching the congregation to be more like Christ. That will transform culture more than prodding the congregation to battle in the culture. And more importantly, God uses the preaching of His Word to save souls.
People are not saved by common grace or political arguments—they are saved by redeeming grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And that gift of faith comes by hearing not a political speech but by hearing God’s own revealed Word about a forgiving God who sent His Son Jesus Christ to save sinners.
That said, we should not stop fighting for biblical principles about public issues, thinking the cause is not worthwhile (faithfulness is always worthwhile) or being deluded that the world will suddenly love us if we stop talking about controversial political and cultural issues. Preaching the gospel faithfully may well offend, after all.
Some advocate for a “culture war truce” in our politics. Such a truce would amount to little more than capitulation. (As a political and practical matter, Republicans would be imprudent to set aside social issues. Traditional marriage outperformed the Republican presidential ticket in states where it was on the ballot in 2012.) The Bible addresses marriage and the unborn, to take two issues mentioned earlier. Not speaking to those issues in the larger culture would be poor stewardship. In as many ways as possible, believers should strive to be agents of common grace for all as we seek to be instruments of redeeming grace.
To be faithful, a Christian who is running for political office or toiling in the fields of the culture wars must be ready to give a defense of his views, using both scriptural reasons and arguments accessible to non-believers. When the Bible speaks on something, we should not shy away from defending that proposition. We can pray that God’s grace—common and redeeming—will be at work in the people hearing our arguments. And if our arguments do not prevail, we can take comfort that we were faithful in proclaiming the truth, and remember that our home is in heaven.
Certainly there will be plenty of opportunities for our own repentance and faith—privately and publicly—as we seek to be faithful in a realm in which so many invest so much meaning and it is easy to offend others. As Christians, we must approach this from the right perspective. Scripture is exceedingly clear on some cultural and political issues, and faithful expositional preaching will address them in due course and in context of all God’s teaching. We must consider our political efforts as a test of faithfulness on these issues and think, act, and speak charitably on those issues where Christians can disagree. The church’s primary mission is to make disciples. That means overall we ought to worry a little less about this world, and a lot more about the next.