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Book Review

Christianity is political, but not in the way we think

A review of Patrick Schreiner's "Political Gospel"

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November 1, 2022

“I don’t think the average Christian is nearly political enough.”

For Christians paying any attention to political developments in the United States, these words may seem ill-conceived at best, or just plain crazy. Just think, in 21st-century America, the term “evangelical” has been so co-opted by politics that it describes a demographic increasingly viewed as a voting bloc more than a religious community. We might better wonder if we’ve gotten too political. But for Patrick Schreiner, associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the new book Political Gospel: Public Witness in a Politically Crazy World, these words aren’t crazy at all, nor are they ill-conceived. They’re tethered to the main argument of his book, that “Christianity is political“—a reality, it seems, we’ve come to collectively overlook.

Rather than viewing Christianity and politics as two wholly different spheres that sour when mixed, Schreiner argues that “[Christianity] and politics are . . . completely and wholly overlapping.” And because they’re so intertwined, Christian discipleship would do well to “not separate what God has joined together,” so to speak (Matt. 19:6). But, lest we misunderstand Schreiner’s aim, Political Gospel “is not an argument for one party over another,” nor is it “a manual for policies,” nor even “an argument for a third way;” instead the book “offers a framework” that leaves readers “recognizing Christianity is quite political, but maybe not in the way [they] think.” 

Christianity is political

“It has become a truism,” Schreiner writes, “to state that Jesus didn’t come with a political message. As the common trope goes, though Israel expected a warrior-king to come riding on a white horse to overthrow Rome, he came with a spiritual message about their hearts. Jesus simply wants a relationship with you.” 

Have you ever heard someone make this statement? Have you ever made it yourself? 

“The problem is,” he continues, “this is a half-truth. Jesus made a political announcement. He declared himself to be King. We have one ruler to whom we are loyal . . . he is the King of kings.” With this, Schreiner drives the stake of his argument firmly into the ground—”Christianity is political.” In fact, he argues that “the whole biblical storyline,” and “all the vocabulary of salvation,” even, “can be put under the banner of politics.” He goes on: “The substance of Christian hope at its foundation is political. Thus, Jesus was not merely urging a revolution in personal values. He was not aloof to political concerns; it was the very purpose of his coming.”

Politics defined

Over the years, our working definition of politics has become skewed and is now assumed to mean something more akin to partisanship. And partisanship, “the wheeling and dealing along party lines” or the “endorsement of candidates by pastors” is not what Schreiner argues for. He’s also not advocating for “the merging of church and state.” Instead, he means “politics in terms of public life, the ordering of society, enacting justice, and the arranging of common goods.” And because “God is sovereign over the whole world,” not just “the inner reaches of the human heart,” the gospel has significant political implications. 

Politics in its proper place

But Schreiner is “not merely suggesting Christianity has political implications.” He argues that “Christianity is itself a politic. It is an all-encompassing vision of the world and human life…meant to be enacted in the church, showcased to our neighbors, and spread to the world.” If that’s the case, then Schreiner is right: Christians should indeed be more political. But to what degree, and in what way?

In Political Gospel, the charge is for readers to put politics in its proper place, which requires that we “recover the true political nature of our message” and reassert our allegiance to the “King of kings,” letting his vision of the world and its proper ordering shape our public and private lives. And while we are called to be more political not less, the model of Christian political engagement put forth by the New Testament, as Schreiner argues, is surprisingly paradoxical. 

The paradox

The way in which we understand Jesus’ message to be political and the way we apply and enact his message in our current political environment consists of a series of paradoxes, as it did for Jesus and the first-century church. We are to embody what Schreiner calls “the way of the kingdom” and “the way of the dove;” “the way of subversion” and “the way of submission;” “the way of the lion” and “the way of the lamb.” It is these tensions—these paradoxes—that are to mark our thinking and our ethic as “political disciples” of the King of kings.

Way of the kingdom, way of the dove

“When Jesus stepped onto the scene, his first words were fully political: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). Gospel. Kingdom. Believe. All of these are politically loaded terms.” With these words, Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was officially breaking into the Roman world of his day and, therefore, rivaling its political order. And he went further, calling people “to enter this new polis (city)” by transferring their allegiance, and enacting the kingdom’s dominance, for example, by disarming one of Rome’s “mascots” (the exorcism of legion, Mark 5:1–20). In his life, Jesus “proclaimed, presented, and performed a new public, social, and political reality”—he “was the bearer of a new political regime.” And he was crucified for it.

But, though “Jesus proclaimed the way of the kingdom he “enacted it as the way of the dove.” He was not “an anarchist, revolutionary, or social reformer.” And he didn’t bring the kingdom by way of “the sword.” Instead, the political ethics of Jesus were marked by persuasion, servanthood, mercy, peacemaking, meekness, love, and submission. They are what Schreiner calls “the ethics of the dove.”

Way of subversion, way of submission

In observing the life and ministry of Paul, we encounter the subversive nature of the gospel message—a message that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). As he traveled from city to city, Paul constantly had “political accusations” levied against him: he was accused of “subverting the Roman Empire,” “acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees,” and disturbing “the Pax Romana,” or peace of Rome. And why were these charges raised against him and his companions? Because Paul proclaimed the gospel of God’s in-breaking kingdom and established “political assemblies” (i.e., churches) all over the Roman Empire whose members pledged allegiance to a King not named Caesar. 

But like Jesus, “Paul proclaimed the way of subversion [yet] did so in the way of submission.” Paul is accused of being “an agitator, a plague, a leader of a rebellion, and someone who desecrated the temple,” but maintains that he is innocent of these charges. Rather than leading rebellions, Paul subverts the Roman Empire while submitting to it. 

Way of the lion, way of the lamb

In the book of Revelation, we read of Jesus as the King of kings, the one whose throne “stands above every earthly throne,” whose coming will mark the fall of every other empire. At his return, the “city of God” will finally supplant the “city of man” and “complete the redemption of the redeemed.” We will join him in the city whose “gates will never be shut” (Rev. 21:25). One day “The Lion will return and [conquer] all other kingdoms.” 

But what are we to do in the meantime? Should we try to hurry the kingdom by taking up the way of power? To conquer the city of man by legislating our King’s victory now? Schreiner says no, “We are called to conquer. But the way we conquer shocks us.” The way of the lion must be “embodied in the way of a slain lamb.” We are to conquer by being in Christ, by bearing witness to Christ, and by waiting on Christ faithfully. “In many ways, we are to continue in normal everyday Christian responsibilities looking forward to Christ’s return.”

Our public political witness

In Political Gospel, the charge is not for readers to make politics ultimate but to put politics in its proper place. Too often the church has chosen one of two ways—either partisanizing or privatizing our “politic”—that either overlook or refuse to see the political nature of our message, both of which reveal and result in “malformed political discipleship.” On the side of partisanism, our political discipleship “comes from talking heads on cable news” instead of from “reflections on the implications of our faith for public life.” Here, our partisan loyalties are prized over loyalty to Christ. On the other hand, we can also privatize our faith, refusing to see “how the gospel should shape our public habits [and] stances.” Here, we become “politically quietistic or innocuous,” with nothing to offer a society in dire need of our “political gospel.” Both approaches reveal a misplaced politic and a counterproductive or ineffective public witness.

But how we “behave” politically—how we “respond to the government,” how we interact on social media, how we speak of our elected officials, how we think—”is part of [our] witness.” And, currently, our public witness is floundering. The time is ripe for us to bring “our political lives in conformity with Christ.”

“The gospel is political, but it is political in a way no one expects.” And followers of the way are political, but should engage in politics in a way no one expects. But, like every generation, we face a political choice. “Will we follow the cross in our political engagement or our own ideas? Will we let fear drive our decisions, or trust God? Will we submit to his way, or carve out our own paths?” In Political Gospel, Patrick Schreiner helps readers answer these questions, offering a new paradigm from which to think. True to his aim, readers will leave convinced not only that “Christianity is quite political” but that Christians themselves are not “nearly political enough.”

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Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a writer/editor at RightNow Media. He's a board member at The LoveX2 Project, an organization seeking to make the world a better place for moms and babies. Jordan is a graduate 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