Questions about Chuck Colson

July 27, 2015

People’s perception of Colson

Most people remember Chuck Colson for his involvement in Watergate and as Nixon’s “hatchet man.” As you explain in your book, this doesn’t entirely capture Chuck Colson, the man or his character, before his conversion. What is some background information that might help us understand Chuck Colson?

Chuck Colson was a complex and fascinating man. He lived several lives in his eight-plus decades. He was a “Swamp Yankee” from Boston, turned Harvard down out of spite to go to Brown, partied while at Brown before becoming interested in the military, became a Marine in the days of Chesty Puller, worked in a high-powered Naval procurement office, started and led a successful law practice, was a husband and father of three children, and built a connection with Nixon that led to his becoming Special Counsel to the President (1969-73).

Before his conversion, Colson was powerful, famous, wealthy, and proud. He was a workaholic. If Americans love winners, then Chuck Colson was at the head of the class. The man could not fail to achieve. But he drove himself–and those around him–hard. This had major consequences, not least because while he had an amazing external life filled with high-capacity performance, he had very little internal life. God was a far-off thought for Colson.


Chuck Colson’s conversion to Christ occurred in the midst of the Watergate trial. You explain that its affect on him was immediate. You write, “conversion did not come quietly to Chuck Colson. This was a ‘Damascus Road’ experience.” How did Colson’s conversion affect his approach to the trial and prepare him for his time in prison?

Colson was implicated in Watergate in 1972 and 1973. He was not a mastermind of it, and in fact did not know of much of the corruption that came to light in that period. But Colson was a tough customer, and he had earned the name “Nixon’s Hatchet Man” for a reason. He used back-channeling, for example, to tar and feather Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers. Colson was a man you did not want to cross.

But in the summer of 1973, all Colson’s defenses fell. He was getting pounded by the press, and he realized that he had indeed participated in the murky ethical deeds of the Nixon White House. He retreated to the Massachusetts coast for some reprieve, and talked with his friend Tom Phillips, then CEO of Raytheon, a major defense contractor. Phillips and Colson were similar: they were high-fliers. But Phillips had been converted not long before at a Billy Graham crusade, and he refused to let Colson make excuses for his trials. He called Colson to repent for his sins in a direct and somewhat-shocking manner. It was the Spirit of God moving in Colson’s life, because as soon as he left the house, he had to pull his car over. He saw that he was guilty, that Christ had died for him, and he repeatedly cried out in his car, Take me. He wasn’t blinded as Saul was, but his conversion was dramatic, to be sure.

He was called to go to prison just like Paul, too. He entered in 1974 and was released, seven months into a three-year sentence, in 1975. 2015 is the fortieth anniversary of his release, or as I like to call it, his unleashing.

Chuck Colson was not ruined by Watergate. He was ruined by the gospel of Jesus Christ, which hunted him like a hound of heaven and claimed him when he was at his most vulnerable.

Prison Fellowship/Friendship with Political Opponents

After serving his time in prison Chuck Colson could have written a tell-all book about the Nixon administration. Instead he wrote about his conversion. It was while writing this book that Colson began formulating his plan for prison ministry. You explain that in these early years Colson partnered with an unlikely friend- political opponent Senator Harold Hughes. Talk about their cooperation in the early years of the prison ministry and what believers can learn from their example.

Hughes and Colson basically hated one another. They were on opposite sides of the political aisle prior to Doug Coe of the Fellowship bringing them together in the same room shortly after Colson’s conversion. Hughes listened to Colson meekly tell his conversion story and saw that Colson was a changed man. He too was a hard-charging leader who had climbed the ladder to major success and influence. Hughes prized a straight-arrow approach to gospel witness. You didn’t mess around and sand things down. You preached the Bible, you believed it, and you acted on it.

This resonated deeply with Colson. The two men started a nascent prison ministry program, bringing in prisoners for spiritual instruction and personal rehabilitation. I loved this part of the research for the book, because there was nothing fancy about what Colson and Hughes did (which became Prison Fellowship in 1976). The two men did not care about proprieties; they brought prisoners to wood-paneled offices on Capitol Hill to put a face on inmates for Senators who had never met a convict. All this work quickly marshaled steam, and the two former foes had made a beginning that would eventually become the world’s largest prison ministry organization.

The Lord, as I say in The Colson Way, shows us over and over how he is not perplexed by brokenness, but loves to overcome it, and even put our sinful pasts to use in his kingdom work.

Theological Roots/Education

As he engaged in ministry, Colson knew that his grasp of Scripture was limited. He wanted a stronger spiritual foundation. Talk about the development of Colson’s theological roots and how his friendships with Christian thinkers and pastors impacted his later work in the areas of worldview and apologetics.

Colson learned from several thinkers, many of whom he discovered through Michael Cromartie’s influence. From R. C. Sproul, he learned the majestic sovereignty of God, and why a “God-centered” life is the only life worth living. From William Wilberforce, he found how to wed activism with Christian conviction. From Francis Schaeffer, he came to understand the importance of developing a “Christian worldview.” From Carl Henry, he gained precious insight into how theology and ethics reinforce one another. From Abraham Kuyper, he picked up a model for a Christian standing boldly in the public square, seeking not only recovery but transformation.

Each of these thinkers and leaders made a major mark on Colson. He sets a great example for modern Christians, who sometimes have been taught that it’s very nearly a virtue to not think and go deep in study of Scripture, theology, and ethics. It was in investing in his intellectual and theological development that Colson found the gunpowder necessary to make a stand for Christ in a fallen world.

Application questions:

The Colson Way

You write, “America is caught between allegiance to the first Great Awakening and allegiance to the Enlightenment.” In this context, how can we practice the “Colson Way” as we minister and seek to engage the culture?

Great question! We must do two things: play defense and play offense. We cannot simply bemoan cultural challenges to our faith. We’ve got to stand against them, expose them for what they are, but also much more actively promote a biblical vision of gospel flourishing. We hate evil, but we stand in the public square because of love, ultimately: love of God, and love of neighbor. The second flows out of the first.

Private v. Public Christianity

Chuck Colson believed in a public dimension to his faith. This is important, especially for the millennial generation who are constantly being told they need to keep their beliefs to themselves. How can Colson’s public engagement serve as a model for believers, especially millennials?

Colson engaged in both sacrificial activism and courageous proclamation. I believe that the two work hand-in-glove to propel Christian witness in a jaded, fallen world. If we only act but do not speak, then people won’t come to faith. If we only speak but do not act, the world will judge us hypocritical. What I love about Colson is that he did not focus on one to the exclusion of the other. He was both willing to act, and willing to speak.

Millennials need this model. They can go gun-shy in this noisy age. But a witness of Christ can neither shut their eyes to real suffering nor close their mouths and fail to speak hope and truth. They must do both. They find great joy in doing both, just as Colson did. He was not perfect, but he was faithful to this two-sided mission.

Role of Church

In engaging the culture, what should the public square witness of the church be? How can Augustine’s “City of Man” and “City of God” designations help Christians think through their dual citizenship?

Playing off of Augustine, in a fallen world, the church is a counter-culture. But we are not simply an alien people. We are the true culture, as Stanley Hauerwas famously said. The true culture, the City of God, must continually speak to the dying culture, the City of Man. But we must not assume that this will us the beauty pageant. We will have to stand against evil. We will have to stand firm against attack. We will have to stand down our own instincts to fight with the world’s weapons. The church is fearless and unflinching in the face of reproach.

But this does not mean that we contend for truth as the world contends for its beliefs. Even as we utterly refuse to stop speaking, and to stop promoting the good, true, and beautiful, we do not hate our neighbor, we do not seek their harm, we do not fail to remind that we of all people–including their allies–have the most reason to seek their good, for we know who they are: they are an image-bearer (Gen. 1:26-27), invested with full dignity and worth, an enchanted being formed by God. This, and not any other foundation–“rights” or “privileges” or anything else–grounds our advocacy on behalf of our fellow man, even those who oppose us.

Being a Witness

You conclude your book by discussing the concept of “witness.” Being a witness involves being contra mundum pro mundum “against the world, for the world.” Chuck Colson knew this better than anyone. How can understanding our identity as witnesses guide our own engagement?

We must know that we do not, at base, have an easy mission. We are in a real sense “against the world.” But this is not because we want it to burn. We want it to thrive. We are “for the world.” This is what I’m after in The Colson Way. I hope to do my very small part to reframe Christian engagement with a secular culture. I’ve studied Colson in great depth, and I hope that fellow believers can see that it is not enough to be only “for” something, and it is not enough to be “against” something. You must be both, with your positive vision of gospel flourishing taking precedence.

This formulation–against the world for the world–is not precisely biblical language. But I think it elegantly sums up the Christian public-square posture writ large. Here’s hoping it can be the next “in but not of,” which I think we’ve all heard our fair share of sermons about. I would challenge pastors to preach on this theme, or a related one. I would challenge lay Christians to act on it.

We all have a role to play. That’s what the story of Chuck Colson, and the story of countless ordinary folks in Scripture, says to the church today.

Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He is also Senior Fellow for the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Read More by this Author

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