The Why of the Church
What Scripture says about Christians’ Engagement in the Public Square
“For Christians to withdraw themselves from the world of politics is poor strategy. It leaves the salt in the saltshaker. It is good salt, yet it is never used for seasoning.” – Phil Strickland.
Engaging in the public square is a tricky business. We can be canceled for the truth, go viral with a well-phrased lie, or become a cultural influencer without offering much culture or influence. For all of the dangers that follow taking a stand, we inevitably find ourselves returning to the public square to learn, connect, and discuss.
To engage or not engage in the public square is rarely the question. We are naturally drawn to the meeting places of our communities to discuss the issues that matter the most. The meeting places change, but from Mars Hill to Myspace to the metaverse, we continue to meet. Scripture is far less concerned with telling us to engage in the public square (although we should) but rather on how to engage in the marketplace of ideas and why.
How Christians Engage in the Public Square
In Matthew 5, Christ lays out a guide for how his followers are to engage in the public square to reflect His kingdom and priorities. Through his teaching, we see that believers are to engage with purpose, passion, and priorities.
Just as salt serves a specific function to enhance and complement its surroundings, believers serve and minister in the public sphere with intentional purpose. Engagement in the public square cannot be haphazard or sloppy. In a world of polarization, ideological grandstanding, and outrage, a Christian’s involvement in the public square should be intentional, purposeful, and meaningful.
When we take stands, are they for the glory and honor of God and his kingdom, or do they merely add to the white noise of debate or outrage? Salt of the earth Christians engage in the public square with purpose, knowing well the potency of their impact and wielding that responsibility with careful consideration.
As a city on a hill or a lamp shining in dark places, we cannot lessen the nature of who we are. A fire cannot dim its blaze; a city on a hill cannot be less visible. We engage, advocate, and dialogue with passion because that is the very essence of who God created us to be.
As Christians engage in the public square, we do so with full confidence in the truth of who we are (followers of Christ) and our message (the gospel of Christ). Christian passion is not in distinction to the command to engage with civility, respect, and dignity, but rather a manifestation of it (1 Pet. 3:15-17).
There will never be a shortage of issues the human imagination can come up with to discuss and debate. However, as ambassadors of Christ in the public square, our priorities are clear: the building of the kingdom of God so that others would see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
A mature engagement in the public square understands the issues that are worth struggling through and when to step away from foolish and ignorant arguments (2 Tim. 2:23).
It seems absurd to wonder how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (the infamous query of medieval scholasticism), but deciphering the modern equivalent is difficult. Social media and the rise of online platforms have made prioritizing issues to engage with more challenging. Across a spectrum of polarized opinions, how do we factor in James’ command to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19)? To what extent do we contest with conspiracy theories, fake news, or misinformation?
One key to anchoring our understanding of how and when to engage on these issues is to remain steadfastly committed to why we ought to engage in the first place.
The Priority of the Church
The why of the Church has been, and always will be, the person and work of Jesus Christ.
We do not engage in the public square to build our own platform, notoriety, or influence. The message of the gospel of Christ is not a weapon to be wielded for personal gain. When the gospel is weaponized for political or partisan gain, it is irreversibly compromised and no longer the life-giving, truth-speaking message of the King and kingdom of heaven. Certainly, we are to engage in truth and power, but only so that others would come to know Christ and him crucified.
We engage in the public square because Christ has commanded us to (Matt. 28:18-20), yet as disciples of Christ, we operate from a different value system (John 15). As many have said before, the gospel is innately political, but it is not partisan. We engage and even civilly disagree, but always so that others may see our works and glorify the One who created all.
Christians have an ancient charge to care for the poor and vulnerable, be an advocate for God’s justice, and speak truth against systemic evils and concerns that are contrary to the kingdom of God. In our modern context, many of these issues are laced with partisan adherents. But God is not limited to the elephant or donkey—we serve the Lamb, and the priorities his church has followed for over two millennia.
We engage in the public square recognizing that our enemies are not flesh and blood, our battle is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). We battle for Christ’s truth and priorities in order that we may share the liberating and love-filled truth with individuals lost in darkness.
As salt and light, we engage in the public square with purpose, passion, and priorities—but never divorced from our ancient bond to Christ and His transformative gospel. Part of discipleship under Christ and His Church is deciphering between hasty engagement and being afraid to stand up for the truth of Christ. Standing aside, not engaging, or engaging poorly leaves the salt in the shaker.