By / Nov 6

American Christians can often take for granted the rights of conscience secured for us in our constitutional order, but the rise of religious liberty was not a historical inevitability. Religious liberty was and remains a contested idea. Indeed, much of Western civilization’s history revealed a hostility toward freedom of conscience. 

Religious establishmentarianism as a mechanism of civil unity

Constantine unified the Christian church and the Roman empire in 325, and in 381, Theodosius began wielding the sword against heretics. Thus, in the span of a few decades, Christianity went from being a persecuted religious sect to the primary mechanism of unification within a vast empire. Throughout the subsequent centuries, European emperors and kings equated unity in the things of God as not merely a theological imperative for the Church, but a political necessity—and one they were willing to uphold by the use of civil punishment. 

For the next 1,300 years, that worldview dominated Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, establishmentarianism enforced at the point of the sword continued to hold its place as a pillar in both Catholic and Protestant political theology. In fact, civilly mandated religious establishment was arguably exacerbated and strengthened by the realities of the Reformation. Religious and denominational proliferation of the 1500s and 1600s culminated in cataclysmic religious wars that left millions of Europeans dead. The English Civil War—a conflict that erupted in large part because of religion—spanned much of the 1640s and killed a higher percentage of the British population than World War I and World War II. 

Despite these calamities, devotion to religious establishment precipitated, remaining both a theological conviction and a political requirement. Theologically, establishmentarianism created civil conditions conducive to orthodoxy and right belief. The civil magistrate functioned as a typological fulfillment of Isaiah 49:23, wherein “Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.” Politically, Europe’s leaders—like Theodosious in the fourth century—viewed religious establishment as the necessary precondition for civil unity. 

Again, to dismantle this vital pillar of European theology and political philosophy was not a foregone conclusion, nor was it a historical inevitability. Thus, how religious liberty emerged and displaced establishmentarianism was and remains a vital story to tell. 

The rise of religious liberty

The rise of religious liberty was complex, and it took centuries for it to topple the millennium of political theology that had married church and state together. To explain its necessity, theological arguments had to be made, and religious dissenters (especially Baptists) provided many of these doctrinal assertions and beliefs. The interest theory of liberty also materialized during the 1600s, which highlighted the political, social, and religious benefits of disestablishment.

Added to this was what one historian called the “lived politics of toleration.” In many jurisdictions where religious establishment existed throughout the early modern period, people grew weary of dragging their neighbors to court. Local officials simply refused to enforce establishment policies out of ambivalence, as well as a growing conviction that even the threat of execution did little to stem the enthusiasm of religious dissenters. 

A recent book by historian Mark Valeri has shed new and important light on the rise of religious liberty in the early modern period. “The Opening of the Protestant Mind: How Anglo-American Protestants Embraced Religious Liberty” analyzes the remarkable replacement of militant establishmentarianism with religious toleration and eventually religious liberty. 

Valeri explores how interaction with other religions steadily shifted the attitudes of Anglo-Protestants against religious establishment. Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, Britain’s borders expanded, and the realities of colonialism and empire building brought Anglo-Protestants in direct contact with Native Americans and Muslims. As Valeri notes, the introduction of religious others seemed to strengthen English resolve for religious uniformity. Yet, as England progressed through the early modern period, cultural shifts, war, and imperialism exerted tremendous political pressure amongst the people to alter their beliefs and convictions on issues of conscience. 

According to Valeri, important features of continuity and discontinuity emerged amongst Anglo-Protestants in the early modern period. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, political thinkers and leading ministers assigned legitimacy to a religion based upon that religion’s perceived benefit to England’s public order. These figures connected the welfare of the empire with religious conformity and the willingness of individuals to adhere to a distinctly Anglo-Protestant identity. Valeri notes that his thesis in no way precludes the importance of theological beliefs during this period of history. However, he gives special attention to the political realities and arguments made by many of England’s leading figures.

What changed over time was a growing tolerance toward religious differences, especially as the empire grew. The need for unity never diminished from the days of the Puritans to the times of Locke, Hume, and Smith. The change came in how England defined its identity and what thereby constituted unity. As Valeri argued, the 17th century began with a confessional unity in a specific theological creed rooted in Reformed doctrines; however, political realities and war exerted a strain upon that narrow conception of national confessionalism.

By the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, religious toleration expanded to capacious levels, introducing, “a new mandate to separate political legitimacy from religious creed and to vindicate a non-theological criterion—regard for liberty of conscience—as a rule by which to measure the public acceptability of different religions” (208). Thus, the story of how the Protestant mind opened to religious liberty included political circumstances and contingencies that, to a degree, forced Anglo-Protestants to reconsider the litmus test for how the empire defined the legitimacy of a religion. 

If anything lacked in Valeri’s narrative, it was a more careful consideration of how theological beliefs shifted over time. For example, what theological arguments were made that effectively dislodged a seemingly unwavering commitment to religious establishment amongst English religious leaders in the early to mid-1600s? 

Despite this, Christians, especially those committed to religious liberty, will benefit from Valeri’s work. He reminds us how complex issues of conscience have been throughout history and prompts us to consider how religious and theological conviction intersect with historical and political context, with both the political and the theological influencing each other. 

How religious liberty arose remains an important narrative for us to understand. Our ability to think wisely about present issues of conscience hinges upon our historical consciousness and recognition of what was and remains a contested idea.

By / Apr 27

Editor’s note: John Stott would have turned 100 this year. And to celebrate his life and legacy, we wanted to share this article about Stott’s life from Tim Chester’s book Stott on the Christian Life.

1. Stott had multiple careers.

I wonder who you think John Stott is. You may know him as the evangelist who preached at student missions around the world. You may know him as a careful exegete whose contributions to the Bible Speaks Today series remain invaluable guides. You may know him from his preaching and the way he let the text itself shape the sermon so that you felt God himself addressing you. You may know him as a defender of evangelical orthodoxy against the threat of liberal theology. You may know him for his commitment to the Church of England and his famous confrontation with Martyn Lloyd-Jones after Lloyd-Jones had urged British evangelicals to leave their denominations to create a pan-evangelical body. You may know him as an advocate of social involvement who exhorted Christians to serve within the secular world. You may know him as a supporter of Christians leaders from the Two-Thirds World and the founder of the Langham Partnership. But did you know about all these facets of his ministry? It can sometimes feel as if Stott lived a dozen lives.

2. The main influence on Stott’s preaching was someone he never met.

The culture into which Stott was converted was one where preaching was only loosely related to the Bible. Yet a few years later, his preaching was electrifying congregations with sermons that gained their power from the text itself. Stott had spent the intervening years at university in Cambridge, and I believe it was a Cambridge preacher who transformed his preaching: Charles Simeon, the vicar of Holy Trinity. But Stott never met Simeon because Simeon was preaching in the 19th century—a century before Stott went to Cambridge. Stott met Simeon only through Simeon’s writings. “Simeon’s uncompromising commitment to Scripture,” Stott once wrote, “captured my imagination and has held it ever since.” In his London apartment Stott had various pictures on his wall of some of the places that had been significant in his life, but he had only one portrait—a portrait of Simeon.

3. Stott belonged to only one congregation.

Stott’s father was a doctor and lived in Harley Street, the area of London traditionally associated with the medical profession. The nearest parish church was All Souls, Langham Place, and it was there that Stott was taken as child. Stott spent his school days at boarding school and it was at Rugby School that he was converted. After graduating from Cambridge University, he was ordained and became a curate, or trainee pastor, back at All Souls under the then-rector Harold Earnshaw-Smith. But within months, Earnshaw-Smith had suffered a heart attack and Stott was largely left in charge. Five years later Earnshaw-Smith died and in September 1950, Stott became the new rector. Though not entirely without precedent, it was unusual for a curate to move straight to the senior role in the same parish. Stott remained at All Souls as Rector and then Rector Emeritus for the rest of his ministry. Only in the last few months of his life did he move to a retirement home outside London.

4. Stott was a successful student evangelist.

In November 1952, Stott returned to Cambridge, the university where he had studied, to be the main speaker at the triennial evangelistic campaign of its Christian union. Attendance was so great that at the final meeting, people had to be turned away. For the next twenty-five years, Stott spoke at numerous university missions all round the world before returning to Cambridge for his final university mission in 1977. The substance of his addresses, honed in many different contexts, became his book Basic Christianity, first published in 1958. It has sold over 2.5 million copies and been translated into over fifty languages, becoming the standard evangelistic book for a generation of Christians.

5. Stott was a pioneer in lay mobilization.

It’s pretty normal for churches today to organize people into home groups and mobilize them for evangelism. But Stott was one of the pioneers of this. In the 1950s and 1960s he began applying the approaches he had learned from student missions to the local church. In the 1950 issue of the All Souls church magazine that announced his appointment, Stott wrote: “The task [of evangelism] is beyond the power of the clergy. . . . There are only two alternatives. Either the task will not be done, or we must do it together, a task force of Ministers and people thoroughly trained and harnessed as a team for evangelism.” Stott introduced a regular guest service to which people could invite friends and launched a six-month training program (with a written exam at the end). Later he published his ideas along with their rationale in his book One People: Clergy and Laity in God’s Church (1969).

6. Stott was a major influence in changing evangelical views of sanctification.

I’m the chair of the Keswick Convention. Originally founded in 1875, it’s one of the oldest conferences in the world. People often associate the Convention with the “holiness movement”—a movement characterized by the belief that the power of sin can be overcome through an act of surrender to God. It was a dominant view throughout evangelicalism in the first half of the 20th century. This association of the Keswick Convention with the “holiness movement” is kind of correct. It’s just fifty-five years out of date! For in 1965, John Stott addressed the Convention, expounding Romans 5-8 in his characteristic clear, careful fashion. 

The Convention had never, in fact, been monolithic and it was beginning to change. But Stott’s address marked a decisive turning point that impacted not only the Convention but evangelicalism more broadly. His key point was that, while our union with Christ makes sin incongruous, it does not make it impossible. It’s because sin is not impossible that Paul calls on us to count ourselves dead to sin—to live in a way consistent with our new identity in Christ (Romans 6:11). In The Contemporary Christian Stott describes sanctification as a process involving “ruthless repudiation” and “unconditional surrender.”

7. Stott wrote the Lausanne Covenant.

Over 2,500 delegates met from the Lausanne Congress in 1974 in an attempt galvanize evangelicals toward the task of world evangelization. But Lausanne also did much to provide theological coherence to the evangelical movement and was an important milestone in placing social action firmly on its agenda. The resulting Lausanne Covenant is a key document in the history of 20th-century evangelicalism. Though agreed by the Congress as a whole, it was Stott who had the unenviable task of bringing the perspectives expressed in the Congress together in one document.

8. On the one hand . . . on the other hand . . .

Stott believed in what he called “BBC”—“balanced biblical Christianity.” He refused to polarize if he could avoid doing so, but neither did he opt for a docile version of the middle ground. We need to develop this balanced, biblical Christianity, Stott wrote, “by combining truths which complement one another and not separating what God has joined.” So a common feature of his writing are the twins phrases: “On the one hand . . . ” and “on the other hand . . .”. He would identify two contrasting approaches before combining the best of both. 

For example, he would often refer to “holy worldliness.” He rejected two extremes: living in a religious ghetto that ignores the surrounding world on the one hand and being shaped by the world around us on the other hand. Instead he combines both: a deep involvement in the world for the sake of mission combined with an uncompromising commitment to God’s Word.

9. Stott saw over 2,500 different species of birds.

Stott was a passionate ornithologist. At first his interest in natural history was focused on butterflies. But, when a cushion landed on his butterfly collection in the midst of a sibling squabble, he switched to birds. At school he started a natural history club. Later, when he started being asked to speak overseas, the church council at All Souls agreed to this wider ministry as long as Stott always added on a few days of bird-watching to his trips. A life-time later, Stott had spent time bird-watching on every continent—ticking off the final continent when friends gave a bird-watching trip to Antarctica for his 70th birthday. By the end of his life he had seen over 2,500 different species (out of an estimated total of 9,000).

10. Stott’s great ambition was Christ.

A TV reporter once asked Stott, “You’ve had a brilliant academic career; first at Cambridge, Rector at twenty-nine, Chaplain to the Queen; what is your ambition now?” Stott replied, “To be more like Jesus.” Stott’s classic presentation of the gospel in Basic Christianity starts not with humanity’s need (which forms part 2) or with Christ’s saving work (which forms part 3) but with the person of Christ. This is what Stott found compelling about Christianity. As we see Christ’s glory, we want to serve him; as we see his beauty, we want to imitate him. This is the repeated refrain of one of Stott’s final books, The Radical Disciple

If Christian maturity is maturity in our relationship with God, in which we worship, trust and obey him, then the clearer our vision of Christ, the more convinced we become that he is worthy of our commitment.

So if we want to develop truly Christian maturity, we need above all a fresh and true vision of Jesus Christ.

If only we could see Jesus in the fullness of who he is and what he has done! Why then surely we should see how worthy he is of our wholehearted allegiance, and faith, love and obedience would be drawn out from us and we would grow into maturity. Nothing is more important for mature Christian discipleship than a fresh, clear, true vision of the authentic Jesus.

For the discipleship principle is clear: the poorer our vision of Christ, the poorer out discipleship will be, whereas the richer our vision of Christ, the richer our discipleship will be.

Content adapted from Stott on the Christian Life by Tim Chester. This article first appeared on; used with permission.

By / Apr 15

If you were a child of the evangelical 1980s and 90s, you likely saw a VHS tape containing a morality tale. Whether it was McGee and Me, Quiggly’s Village, or a plunger-headed cucumber fighting rumor weeds and fibs from outer space, you were told tales of the dangers of lying, envy, and other numerous sins with the help of cartoons, puppets, and animated vegetables.

I don’t remember all the plot lines of such shows, but I do have vivid memories of great tragedy befalling the protagonists when they committed various vices that spun out of control.

While there’s a place for discussing the merits and drawbacks of such entertainment, the aim of cultivating virtue—and warning against vice—is very appropriate. It smacks of the philosophy of the Proverbs. You might say Proverbs was written, among other things, as a warning to young people against vices. The sage tells the young man to avoid joining gangs for a false sense of belonging. Wisdom creates a hedge for the youth against the deadly allure of illicit sex.

Now this is important. Stories cultivate moral sensibility. In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior makes this case deftly: when we read books well, we practice moral judgments and further develop our own moral convictions. Stories reduced to mere morality tales are not good literature, but all narratives when told truthfully will develop our understanding of virtue.

How much more does history, when told truthfully, serve us—and our kids—with the formation of virtue.

History is full of women and men who exhibit virtue. And unlike morality tales, these history-shaping men and women live in a very real world, a world like our own. To quote Voltaire, “History doesn’t repeat itself. Man always does.”1Quoted without source attribution in Barabara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), xiv. No matter what era we study, we are still gripped by our shared imago Dei. Our humanity connects us with figures across history. Indeed, humanity gives us access to models of virtue, and examples of vice.

For every virtue has at either extreme a vice. If the path of virtue is a road, then on each side is a ditch. Virtue is about staying on the road, and not walking into either ditch. If virtue is about keeping to the center, vice is found in among the cattails.

Arius’ overgrown ambition

History has many figures among the cattails. One of them was a man named Arius, and there are three things you should know about him:

First, he was handsome, gifted, and a golden-tongued teacher. He was an influencer. If Twitter was a thing back in 300 A.D., Arius would have had the blue check.

Second, Arius is an example of the failure of temperance. Arius served under Alexander, the man who held office as the bishop of Alexandria, arguably the most important church office in the ancient world at the time. Arius wanted that office, and his ambitions birthed in him a jealousy that eventually overtook him.

Third, in his jealousy, Arius began making up lies about Alexander. And then things got really out of hand. Consider gathering your kids in the family room, or my favorite—around the campfire—and telling them this tale: 

The young jealous Arius dug up an old heresy, one we now call modalism, and he accused Alexander of denying that God is one in three persons. Alexander tried to reason with Arius. This first charge was an easy charge for Alexander to defend, but Arius’ jealousy carried him to the next phase, and the rumor weeds grew. 

Next, Arius stirred up other bishops and the people. Arius began to explicitly teach that Jesus was not God from eternity. He famously said, “There was a time when the Son was not,” effectively denying Christ’s full deity and saying the Son was a created being. Then, Arius went even further and said that the Spirit was not God.

And as if this wasn’t enough, Arius worked hard to recruit allies to his cause. He used his gifts to gather around himself a group that aligned with Arius’s innovative teaching. To complicate matters, all this took place during the rule of Constantine, the newly converted Christian emperor. Constantine had hoped to use Christianity to reunite the faltering Roman empire. The last thing Constantine wanted was for his Church to split over what he saw as a petty theological issue. 

So what began with Arius’ unbridled ambition and jealousy grew into an enormous political controversy. Constantine called a meeting, inviting 1,800 bishops from across the empire, representatives from the Christian East and West. 

The meeting took place in modern day Iznik, Turkey, a city that was then called Nicaea. Roughly 300 bishops actually came, which is a rather good turnout considering how costly and time consuming such a journey would have been in those days.

The meeting was long. We’re talking March-to-August long. The council determined that Arius had indeed diverged from the Church’s teaching, and they affirmed a statement from which the Nicene Creed we recite today originated. Arius, along with his followers that wouldn’t yield, were banished. 

Now, if only that were the end of the story. The trouble is that the Council was unable to fully uproot Arius and his followers’ vices. The proud man and his adherents regrouped, and many (though not Arius) found ways to wiggle back into church fellowship. They used clever words, avoiding language that was condemned at Nicea, without actually changing their heretical theology.

Athanasius against the jealousy weed

Just five months after the Council of Nicaea, Alexander died, and a young man named Athanasius was elected as his successor. He had served as Alexander’s assistant, and he’d played a critical role at the council. 

Athanasius was a man of virtue. He wasn’t a brash man but was known instead for being gentle and pastoral in his approach. And yet he took the Arian threat seriously. He held tightly to the truth of the Scriptures and the deity of Christ without yielding to the political pressure to merely keep the peace. 

Athanasius’s commitment to truth made him a problem for Arius and his followers. They saw him as an enemy to be thwarted. But because of Athanasius’ virtue, they were hard pressed to find an accusation that would stick. Nevertheless, they tried.

One of the factions of Arius’ followers went so far as to fake a man’s death, hide him in another city, produce a severed hand (probably from a real corpse), and then claim that Athanasius had maimed and killed the man with sorcery. This attempt to remove Athanasius from power only failed when authorities were able to produce the alleged victim and reveal that he was still alive with two hands!

This wasn’t the end of the story. Arius and his tribe were successful in their attempts multiple times. He was forced into exile on five different occasions by four different emperors.

But when we take a close look at how Athanasius withstood these trials, we see the role of virtue in his life. One critical virtue he demonstrated was fortitude. His commitment to truth was resolute. He endured in faith in spite of banishment and fleeing for his life. Despite these continuous trials, he stayed the course, maintaining his conviction in the deity of Christ and his commitment to the true God made flesh. 

There is some scholarly debate, but most likely Athanasius’ magnum opus, On the Incarnation, was written during his first exile. Those who argue against it being written at this time point out that Arius isn’t mentioned in this work. I think it’s more likely Athanasius had his eyes set on a different prize—the purity of the Church. 

Athanasius wanted God’s people to know the beauty and majesty of the God who saw fit to dwell among us. He wanted the world to know that the exalted God who created the universe came to dwell on earth as a human. To paraphrase a lengthier passage from On the Incarnation: Just as the prestige of a city is raised when a great king dwells in it, how much more is the human race, when the God of the universe takes on flesh.2Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 69. In his writings, Athanasius was clear, and he shows us where true virtue is found—only when we are rooted in Christ. 

Athanasius wasn’t alone in his biblical convictions about the person of Christ. There were many other leaders and fellow believers who gave him aid and shelter in his exiles, but the well known phrase Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world,” is fitting because it captures the gravity of the pressure he faced and the virtue with which he stood.

Meanwhile, Arius—our man caught in the cattails of vice—who enviously desired the throne of Alexandria, found himself at the end of his life upon another more ignoble throne. While Arius’ case was under consideration for his readmittance and welcome into the fellowship of the church, he experienced a pain in his bowels, entered a public latrine, and immediately died upon the toilet. 

When Constantine heard this news, he immediately concluded that Arius was a scheming liar, because—in his view—no man of God would die such an ignoble death.

Arius, in his jealousy, sought fame and influence at the expense of virtue, and it led to his destruction. By contrast, Athanasius, a man of Christ-centered virtue, suffered intrigue and exile but found a prize more valuable than rubies. Nothing could take him away from the pearl of great price he found in Christ. 

Just as Arius serves as a somber warning against the dangers of unchecked vanity, envy, and pride, so also Athanasis serves us and our kids as an example of Christlike humility and a tenacious and humble refusal to compromise on the truth. 

Passing along church history from generation to generation

In Psalm 78, Asaph tells us of the importance of passing down the story of the faith from generation to generation. The psalm focuses on telling children about acts in history “so that our children should set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God (v. 7).” 

Often when we cite this passage, we think about passing down the stories of our faith that we find in the Bible. But it’s also wise to tell our children about the works of God throughout the history of the church, of the men and women who endured many trials with faithfulness and of those who failed by giving into vice.

We need resources to help us do this well. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Christian History Made Easy by Timothy Paul Jones. Covering the span of church history this book has full color pictures and illustrations. It also includes the fun stories and legends that kids love (like the tall tales of “Saint Nick” punching Arius in the nose).
  • Light Keepers is a fantastic series that tells the stories of historical figures through the lens of childhood in a way that captures kids’ imaginations. 
  • Super Heroes Can’t Save You. Todd Miles cleverly breaks down Trinitarian and Christological heresies into gripping stories from history, and clear explanations of doctrine—using superheroes! If you think church history and theology are boring, check out Miles, he’ll change your mind. 

Let’s tell our children stories from our shared Christian history. When we tell them the story of Arius’ jealousy and Athanasius’ fortitude, we aren’t just telling kids morality tales of vice and virtue. We are giving them a framework for how to view the entirety of history through the lens of God’s grace. In the stories of men and women who lived lives of virtue, we’re teaching our kids about how God has shown himself faithful across hundreds of years. When we tell them about the works God has done through men and women with Christian virtue, we are strengthening their hope in the God who gives grace to the humble and fortitude to those who depend on him. 

  • 1
    Quoted without source attribution in Barabara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), xiv.
  • 2
    Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 69.
By / Dec 7

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Augustine is often called the founder of the just war tradition. This is only partly true, and requires at least two caveats. First, Augustine did not write a treatise or essay on war or even on civil government: his comments on the state and its lethal violence are scattered throughout his sermons, letters, and other works, written over the course of decades. It can be difficult to say with certainty that the Augustine who wrote the City of God still agreed with the Augustine from 20 years previously. Augustine seems to have followed a similar course in his life that Western Christendom would travel over the course of a millennium: from an optimistic belief in the righteous possibilities of Christian imperial power to a chastened vision of “conflicting purposes, of uncertainties of direction, of divergent loyalties and irresolvable tensions,” in which “political power has become a means of securing some minimal barriers against the forces of disintegration,” in the words of one scholar.1Markus, “Saint Augustine’s Views on the ‘Just War,’” 10. See also Henrik Syse, “Augustine and Just War.”

Second, the just war tradition that followed Augustine’s line of thinking—a paradigm that treats war as an act of loving punishment—essentially ended in the 17th century, replaced by the Westphalian paradigm. Augustine can rightly be called the founder of one tradition that recognized him retroactively as its founding influence. In fact, what is sometimes called “just war theory” (and should be called just war doctrine) unfolded in three traditions: the Augustinian, the Westphalian, and the Liberal. The Augustinian just war tradition is an application of the political theory of Medieval Christendom; the Westphalian, of the early modern Enlightenment; and the Liberal, of the broader commitments of classical liberalism. 

What is the Augustinian tradition of just war doctrine, and how does it differ from its successors? 

Different traditions of just war doctrine

The Augustinian tradition

The Augustinian tradition of just war thinking was an application of Medieval political theory with roots in antiquity that matured into its classic expression during the Wars of Religion. This pre-Enlightenment political theory rested on the idea that natural law exists and should guide human social and political order to fulfill natural human moral aspirations; that sovereignty means responsibility for the common good; and that justice should guide states to use force to defend and uphold the common good. In that context, just cause for war was understood to include not merely self-defense, but the defense of justice and peace, defense of the innocent, and punishment of the wicked—as defined by the commonly accepted, teleological standards of natural law. 

Statesmen, in turn, were expected to wage war to defend the common good and, broadly, uphold peace and justice. And statesmen were to fight war with the right intention: out of love for one’s neighbor and one’s enemies, not for glory, honor, revenge, or profit. Fighting to uphold justice and to prevent the wicked from perpetrating justice was understood as the duty Christian love required of statesmen.

The Westphalian tradition

The Westphalian tradition arose after the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia (1648). It moved away from the Augustinian tradition in three respects. It was a tradition of legal reasoning, not political theology; its conception of natural law was descriptive, not teleological; and it tended to focus on procedural justice, not substantive justice. Together these innovations amounted to a change in the fundamental orientation of just war thinking. The Westphalian tradition left behind much of the theological background that had given the Medieval tradition its content and meaning.

Just war was never an isolated exercise in military ethics; it was originally an argument about the rights and purposes of the state, about natural law, and about justice

The vestigial language of “just cause” and “right authority” remained, for example, but with transformed meanings. Because natural law jettisoned its teleological aspect, Westphalian thinkers also had a different notion of justice, and therefore of just cause and sovereignty: sovereignty evolved from defense of the common good to defense of international borders; and just cause consequently shrank to encompass only territorial self-defense. The right authority for the use of force was understood unproblematically to rest with the state, regardless of how the state chose to use it or for what purpose. 

The Liberal tradition

The embryonic Liberal tradition has arisen since World War II in an effort to rectify the weaknesses of the Westphalian tradition and, since the end of the Cold War, address new and emerging security concerns, often by borrowing and reinterpreting Augustinian concepts shorn of their theological commitments. Concepts like human rights and accountable governance do the work that natural law and justice did in the Augustinian tradition: external standards outside and above the state used to judge the state’s legitimacy. War is just when it vindicates rights, including the rights of states whose security has been violated, of course, but also the rights of individuals. The Liberal just war tradition allows war to vindicate the rights of individuals suffering under a humanitarian emergency, insists on respecting individual rights in how war is fought, and understands the vindication of individual rights a crucial part of ending wars justly. 

The emerging Liberal tradition is right to highlight weaknesses of the Westphalian tradition, and that there is a fundamental compatibility between the Augustinian and Liberal traditions. The central organizing concepts of the Augustinian tradition (love and the common good as external standards outside and above the state) can and should be recovered and worked into the Liberal tradition, for which human rights serves the same function. The Augustinian tradition of just war thinking argued that the right intention of warfare was love for our neighbors and for our enemies. It further argued that the defense, not of self, but of the common good, was the lived embodiment of such love. Much the same can be said with the idiom of human rights: the right intention in war is to vindicate rights, and just cause in war is to defend and uphold a system of ordered liberty for allies and enemies alike. 

The purpose of just war doctrine

Just war was never an isolated exercise in military ethics; it was originally an argument about the rights and purposes of the state, about natural law, and about justice. Even in its Westphalian guise, just war was an argument against theocracy and universal empire. The early modern Augustinians argued that wars for religion were utopian, inconsistent with humanity’s sinful nature, doomed to achieve the opposite of the justice it professed, and violated the state’s God-given jurisdiction. The same body of political theory—the theory of secularized Christendom—gave birth to classical liberalism and, eventually, to what we today call the liberal international order. Like the just war traditions, classical liberalism also argues that there are limits on the state’s jurisdiction; that sovereignty is not unlimited; that there should be no coercion in matters of belief; and that universal empire is a dangerous ambition. 

If we are to be faithful to the political theology of the just war traditions, we should by the same logic be faithful to the political theology of classical liberalism. Similar principles animate both. Indeed, the kinship goes so far that, if it is a just cause to oppose universal empire, we might just as well say that the defense of classical liberalism is a just cause. It is a just cause to defend a system designed to prevent universal empire, to guard against theocracy or ideological totalism, and to enforce limits on government’s jurisdiction: that system is what we today call the liberal order. 

This view draws on the Augustinian tradition’s surprisingly expansive view of the self whose defense justifies war. War is just when fought in the defense of our individual selves, our states, our allies, our neighbors, but also of innocent victims of oppression, and even the commonwealth of all mankind when it is threatened by grievous crimes against nature. Ordered liberty is the common good, the defense of which is just and the preservation of which reflects love for our neighbors and for our enemies. 

Is a war ever just?

When is war just? The violent disruption of ordered liberty is the “injury” in response to which force may be used and war may be justly waged. This obviously covers cases of defense against invasion, but it also covers humanitarian intervention. The Augustinian tradition at its zenith (from the early 16th to the mid-17th centuries) explicitly addressed the problems of what today we call state failure, armed non-state actors, and humanitarian intervention. These thinkers argued that the sovereign had just cause to wield force against non-state actors and, even, to redress conditions of state failure, although typically with strong qualifications. These writers rested their arguments on an underlying philosophical framework: war, they believed, was an extension of the sovereign responsibility to defend the common good (itself an extension of a prior and more fundamental duty to love all humanity), and under extreme conditions love demands intervention to punish the wicked and defend the innocent, even when that involves crossing international boundaries. 

Second, what does justice require? Justice requires the vindication and restoration of ordered liberty in, through, and after warfare. War requires victors to make right the wrongs that prompted the war; make right the wrongs of war (the destruction of combat), and prevent the recurrence of such wrongs in the future. The upshot is that while just cause is more expansive than is conventionally understood, the responsibilities of post-conflict restoration are commensurably far higher. Taken together, this Augustinian Liberal approach to just war thinking permits intervention but increases international responsibility for what intervention entails, and thus should dampen any enthusiasm for intervention that might otherwise exist.  

  • 1
    Markus, “Saint Augustine’s Views on the ‘Just War,’” 10. See also Henrik Syse, “Augustine and Just War.”
By / Oct 26

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

For much of history, Christians have understood the church and the state as two orders given as good gifts by God. Rightly relating the two is no easy task. Historically there are two temptations regarding the proper relation of the church to the state. 

Absolutely apart? 

First, some are tempted to hold church and state absolutely apart. In doing so, they tend to conflate the relationship between church and state with the relationship between religion and politics, extending to political life a strict separation from religious convictions. This view aspires to a vision of secularism which sees the task of living together peacefully as requiring political discourse to be areligious. It may even see institutional religion as toxic to the preservation of a well-functioning pluralist society. 

Some Christians may even embrace this view, holding that we ought not bring our religious convictions with us into the public square. They may do so out of the belief that arguing for policies or visions of justice framed directly from our Christian commitments may inappropriately compel others to accept religious beliefs against their will.

Other Christians may possess a vision of the Christian faith as a fundamentally private affair, which has very little bearing on the construction of a political order. After all, did not Jesus himself state, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17, ESV)? 

The problem with this view is that it holds that political arrangements can be constructed from a neutral standpoint of reason, without recourse to religious conviction. Secularism is often self-possessed of such naivete, failing to recognize that secularism is often a shroud for a thinly veiled religiosity itself. In fact, its religious convictions about human reason or even identity being are sacred sources of truth in themselves. It is a religion of an imminent order, seeing no place for reference to a transcendent God.

Accordingly, when we seek to answer how the church and state ought to be related, we must start from the belief that religious convictions are fundamental and prior to the shaping of any worldview.

Too closely together? 

The second pull regarding the relation of church and state is to hold them too closely together. Again, this is to conflate the religious and the political with the church and state, though this position sees politics as rightly ordered only when it is subservient to the church. This was the predominant temptation of Christians for over a thousand years of Western history.

This position rightly sees the Christian faith as having a direct bearing on the shape of our civic life. However, it wrongly sees the church as possessing the God-given authority to dictate to the state what this should be. 

Our Christian convictions certainly ought to play a pivotal role in our approach to political life. Subsuming the state under the power of institutional religion misunderstands the nature and scope of the church’s earthly authority, taking for itself the power to compulse by force that which belongs to King Jesus alone, when in reality its public power is to compel.

How should we seek to navigate between these twin pulls toward secularism and ecclesialism? Saint Augustine can help us avoid both pitfalls by leading us to ask, “What are we, as humans?” and “What time is it, in God’s telling of history?”

Augustine on worship and sacred history

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, is almost unparalleled in the breadth of his influence on Christian thought. His theology, however, was hardly systematic, and his approach to social order was highly complex.

In his Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Robert Markus provides one of the most lucid and helpful summaries of Augustine’s understanding of social order. In the book, Markus’ aim is to explore what Augustine thought about the nature and purpose of society and how the church should understand its relation to it. 

To have a sense of the paradigm Markus proposes, it is helpful to have a cursory understanding of Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God. Written over the course of 16 years at the beginning of the fifth century, Augustine’s book is part defense of the Christian faith against pagan critics, and part argument for how Christians ought to understand God’s history in the world and Christians’ place in it. At the heart of the work lies his belief that human beings at their most basic level are worshipping creatures. They are made to worship God, but because of sin they worship elements of creation as idols. 

Because Christians are never fully sanctified until the final resurrection, the city of God can never be fully realized here and now. Christians will always live as pilgrim citizens of the heavenly city as they go about their lives in the earthly city.

When we look at the whole of human history there are really only two groupings of people, each constituted by its ultimate love. The city of God is defined by the love of God, and its citizens are all those who have been born again by his grace, and therefore can properly order their affections toward him. The earthly city is really an anti-city, a shadow arrangement characterized by disordered love and idolatry. Neither city is fully synonymous with any one particular grouping of people in history, but both exist alongside one another in any given time and place.

Because Christians are never fully sanctified until the final resurrection, the city of God can never be fully realized here and now. Christians will always live as pilgrim citizens of the heavenly city as they go about their lives in the earthly city. As sojourners seeking to be good neighbors in the earthly city, Augustine calls Christians to understand what we as humans fundamentally are (i.e., worshippers), and to use God’s creation in a way that exhibits and leads to increasingly more worship of him. 

This forms the initial foundation of Augustine’s social though. To complete it, Markus argues that we must also understand Augustine’s approach to history and its ultimate meaning. For Augustine, there are two types of history: sacred and secular history. 

Sacred history includes all of God’s work in the world concerning the coming of Christ, his work of redemption on the cross, his resurrection and his imminent return. The events of sacred history are the only historical happenings which bear ultimate meaning, and the reason for this is that these events are the only ones which come to us with authoritative interpretation of their significance through God’s self-revelation in Scripture. We can know why they happen and what purpose God is working toward in them because God has told us so. 

Secular history includes everything else, all occurrences of ordinary human life. Secular history only has significance in reference to sacred history, and this characteristic impels us to ask, “What time is it, in relation to sacred history?” We now live in the in-between time after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, and before his second coming. Because there are no defining markers of sacred history to give meaning to the present age, and because it is one which Scripture makes clear the city of God and the earthly city will exist co-mixed until Christ’s return, ours is an age marked by radical ambiguity. We cannot point to specific events or to political arrangements and pronounce an authoritative explanation of their meaning and purposefulness in God’s plan.

Church and state in the saeculum

How then is the church to understand its relation to political orders in the present saeculum, an ambiguous age between the Christ events? As Markus argues, for Augustine the church is not to see itself as synonymous with the state and its authority to wield coercive power, which for now rests in the domain of the earthly city, nor is the church to see itself as unrelated to it. Rather, the church is to see itself as uniquely concerned with the cultivation of the spiritual lives of the citizens of the city of God. 

Likewise, the state ought not to see itself as serving at the behest of the church or inaugurating Christ’s earthly end-times kingdom in the same way as the church. Instead, the state’s purpose in God’s plan is to preserve social order for all, citizens of the heavenly and earthly city alike. Therefore, while its grounding is religious, as any sense of justice must appeal to God and the proper worship of him, its operation cannot be to further any one religion, and thus recreate the earthly city prematurely into the heavenly one by force.

Augustine’s career as a church leader may throw doubt on the degree to which he held to this understanding, such as when he drew on state power to put down disruptive elements of the Donatist church faction. Markus argues, however, that his actions operate with some form of internal coherence in which he saw Christian individuals, rather than the offices of the state they held, as leveraging their influence to direct actions which would be seen as a blurring between matters of church and state.

Regardless, the imperative in Augustine’s thought is clear: in this time between the times church and state should remain clearly apart in their authority and social responsibilities. However, because Christians are to fill the offices of the state in order to uphold justice and enact laws for the common good, religion and politics must always be intermixed and mutually influencing. The state’s job is to ensure there is freedom to do so, while the church’s job is to fill society with the type of Christians who give guidance on the proper use of such freedom.

By / Oct 29


The apologists of the early church represent a group of early Christian writers primarily concerned with defending Christianity in a culture hostile to the faith. Champions of the faith such as the unknown author of the epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, and Athenagoras of Athens demonstrate a deep concern for defending deep gospel truths. They also reveal a uniquely Christian perspective on sexual morality in a sexually deviant Greco-Roman culture. Second-century apologists offer a consistent biblical defense relating to sexual holiness as an apologetic for the veracity of the Christian faith. Additionally, this apologetic relates to other biblical motifs calling Christians to exhibit a faithful presence in society. This idea of a sexually faithful presence in culture is ever-so helpful for Christians of the twenty-first century. We may be centuries away from second century Rome, but the moral atmosphere is all too familiar and remains relatively unchanged.

The Epistle to Diognetus 

The author of mid-to-late second century, The Epistle to Diognetus, text is ultimately unknown. Though seemingly written as a letter, “the consistent impression,” Charles Hill maintains, “[is] of an oral address in which a Christian teacher explains Christianity in the presence of one who has requested it, a man of some social stature named Diognetus.”

Using the motif of citizenship, the author contrasts two ways of life, that is, Christian and gentile, or Roman. The author of the epistle claims that Christians do not “practice an eccentric way of life” (Diogn 5.2). For this author, the Christian life is heavenly in the sense that its not a “human doctrine” which might be “discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people” (Diogn 5.3). Their character and behavior is reflective of the citizenship which some may consider “remarkable” and “unusual” (Diogn 5.4). The writer of the epistle declares, “They share their food but not their wives” (Diogn 5.7). Benjamin Dunning notes how the text of chapter five “develops this framework in which Christian practice is contrasted to that of a stereotyped Roman social order” wherein “Christians fulfill expected norms of hospitality…but never at the expense of sexual purity.”

Diognetus presents an alternate realm of existence, advocating for an ethos transcending reality. This moral domain includes not just obeying the laws of the land, but transcending laws in their private lives  (Diogn 5.10). The author of Diognetus calls his reader to a life of imitation of God. Imitation of God comes when one imitates his primal act which is to love. Therefore imitation of what is ultimately Good leads to good acts. Greediness and impious ambition are contrary to God’s nature (Diogn 10.5).

Diognetus shows a consistent strand of biblical reasoning in regards to sexual holiness. Though not a diatribe against the sexual conventions of Roman society, the author provides a contrast, similar to the apostolic writings, between citizens of earth and citizens of heaven.  Michael Bird notes, “The author attempts to rise up and meet the challenge of the cultural despisers of the Christian religion in the Greco-Roman world and he employs Pauline motifs to that end.” The author posits a community wherein imitating God leads to imitating his goodness, and this is indicated in their sexual practices.

Athenagoras’s Embassy for the Christians 

Athenagoras of Athens (c. 180) sets about contrasting the gods and lifestyle of the Romans to those of the Christian community. Athenagoras states, “But we are so far from practising promiscuous intercourse, that it is not lawful among us to indulge even a lustful look” (Embassy 23). Athenagoras posits that Greco-Roman morality simply mirrors that of its gods. In the same way, Christians mirror the morality of their progenitor, Jesus Christ.

In Chapter 34 of the Embassy, Athenagoras engages the vices of Roman sexuality head on. Prostitution includes the young, even boys, “men with men working that which is base.” (Embassy 34). For Athenagoras, such a debasement is a “dishonoring [of] God’s created beauty” (Embassy 34). Athenagoras avers, “These men reproach is with those deeds which they have upon their own consciences and which they say their gods do, and brag of them as noble and godlike. Adulterers and pederasts, they revile us who live in self-denial or single marriage.” (Embassy 34). It is not the Christians who should be ridiculed for their supposed deviant behavior, but the adulterers and pederasts who should be reviled. Athenagoras betrays a knowledge of homosexuality and pederasty within society, a presence he assumes that his readers understand as well.

Justin Martyr’s First Apology

Justin Martyr (c. 100–c. 165) provides a “veritable mine of information about mid-second-century Christian and even Jewish and Roman theology, attitudes, and practices.” Justin’s defense of Christianity demonstrates more a proof for its validity and veracity as an ancient religion and one worthy of tolerance, yet his use of Scripture and appeals to reason demonstrate a desire to convey the reasonableness of Christian moral practice. He states, “Of old we rejoiced in promiscuity, but not we embrace only temperance” (1 Apol14.2).

Chapter fifteen of the First Apology provides a string of texts relating the standards of sexual holiness in Christian marriage and Christian celibacy in contrast to Roman practice. Some have lived their entire lives as “disciples of Christ and [have remained] pure” (1 Apol15.6).  Justin’s goal in this regard is to “point them out in every race of people” that is, as a testimony of Christian morality and faithfulness to the teachings of Christ (1 Apol 15.6).

Justin’s goal, as it is with other apologists, is to show that Christians should not be judged on the basis of their name alone, but rather on the merits of their life and practice. He asserts, “For neither commendation nor punishment could reasonably be based on a name unless actions can show something to be virtuous or wicked” (1 Apol 4.3). Justin demonstrates the unique, and desirable, way of life demonstrated by the Christian community. For him as with other apologists, this included a faithful presence in regards to sexual morality.


The apologists of the second century offer modern readers much insight in understanding the contrasting morality of Christians and the surrounding culture. Especially in regards to sexuality, Christians imitate the virtues of their savior. Likewise, Romans imitate the vices of their gods. In understanding sexual ethics from an early Christian perspective, the apologists help believers today by revealing the consistently of the transformational power of the gospel, whether in the AD 100 or AD 2015.

By / Jul 24


But it simply isn’t true.

Wrong side of history argument…

Our key anchor point is always the Scripture.

2,000 years.

That’s a long time.

It’s here we should stop and acknowledge that history is never a sterile environment. Political and economic ideals intertwine with philosophical questions as they bump against theological concepts. Sometimes dividing between Individuals of the past were every bit as flawed as present ones. The famed orator and preacher John Chrysostom used his gifts to move audiences to repentance but used those same talents to move masses to violence against Jews. Gregory the Great may have brought significant reform to a drifting church in the 6th century, but he also codified the concept of purgatory, an extra-biblical conjecture.

4 decades.

That seems like a long time.

In 2016, we will be four decades from what Newsweek famously proclaimed “The Year of the Evangelical.”

In the modern political and cultural realities we face, that feels like eons ago.

Since the heady days of 1976, we’ve traveled the road from Carter’s election to “Evangelical” being a term that loses an election. We reveled in the triumphantalism of the Moral Majority but became relegated to the minority because of our morality.

Yet we are talking mere decades.

For nearly two millennia, the church stood rooted and grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ.. The church offered the freedom of the cross to people groups that openly accepted the Gospel as well as to cultures that fully rejected the claims of Christ.

For nearly two millennia, the church has contemplated and been faced with it all:




Wanton consumption.

Social inequality.





The list goes on. It’s all there. As Solomon once stated, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Since the very beginning, the church has spoken to the challenges of their day by driving believers back to the ultimate authority – the Scriptures. In certain eras, the church engaged the needs of the day effectively. In other eras, the church itself became so enmeshed with the cultural norms of the day, prophetic voices arose not with new message, but one as old as the church itself – to return to the Word of God.

Each generation received a missiological mantel to engage the cultural issues of their day. They presented Truth. The Truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior over and again. As a pilgrim people who have not yet reached their homeland, voice after voice in the church championed the claims of Scripture to encourage positive aspects of culture or prophetically condemn the atrocities of the era.

For Christians, we engage the situations of the day standing not alone, but amid the throngs of generations. This “great cloud of witnesses” provide encouragement, balanced insight and a deeper context than the flash-fire of the present. It gives us the ability to wrestle with ideas along with our forbears – even when the process is less than neat and clean.

Consider the question of abortion. Evangelicals continue to hold the ground on issues of life in the womb. Not only in the Scriptures is all life upheld as precious in God’s sight, but the church carried this teaching forward. In the early 3rd century, Tertullian writes his apologetic work, Treatise on the Soul, arguing for a clear understanding of life beginning at conception. By the 6th Ecumenical Council in 680 the question of abortion was re-iterated leading Eastern churches to affirm in 692 that those who abort a baby or produce drugs that lead to an abortion are committing murder.[1]

Sound like issues we might face?

Even the Reformers challenged their culture. Luther called out those who abort their children as violating an understanding of the gift of children in his commentary on Genesis 25:4.[2] Calvin famously stated his opposition to abortion in his commentary on Exodus 21:23 where he states,

for the foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, (homo,) and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light.[3]

Here’s the point: We do not stand in isolation from those who have gone before us.

Yet this brings a new challenge to our churches. Much of our practical outworking of Christian history only goes back as far as “the-last-time-something-great-happened” or “the-worst-event-ever” in our recent memory. Our churches become untethered from the anchor of our rich heritage which points over and again to the faithfulness of our Savior.

So what are we to do about our historical amnesia?

I believe there are several solutions that start with church leaders but it can move through our congregations quickly.

• Highlight historical figures and stories as illustrations in sermons or teaching series. Bring awareness to our congregations that people in the past understood the power of the Gospel and stood for the truths of Christ.

• Educate our children in the heroes of the past. The Torchlighters animated series highlights several key persons that your family should know. They are readily available to rent online and can help kids connect with the giants who journeyed before us in the faith!

• Read biographies of faithful men and women. Read their letters and their words. Read the sermons of pastors and church leaders of prior eras. While this type of reading should never replace Scripture, it should be a regular part of our spiritual disciplines! For pastors and church leaders, I frequently recommend a reading plan that’s as simple as 1, 2, 3. 

1 – Read at least one treatise by a key figure in the history of the church annually. This could be Augustine’s Confessions or Athanasius’ Life of Anthony. It could be Calvin’s Institutes, or Spurgeon’s The Soul Winner. I recommend reading this in a community of other Christians so you can talk about the ideas presented by the author.

2 – Read at least two biographies of individuals who faithfully followed Christ. Do this every year. There is a reason why biographies have played such an essential part of Christian spiritual life and discipleship for centuries!

3 – Read at least three sermons by leading figures like Spurgeon, Luther, Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan and Calvin every month. Read sermons on whatever text you are teaching or currently studying to gain a fuller understanding of how the church understood these passages in the past. In the process you will hear how leaders encouraged their churches during times of persecution or times of plenty. You will hear cautions about heresy or be amazed at reports of the advancement of the Kingdom of God.

As the Bride of Christ, we join the throngs of Christ-followers who stand on the “wrong side of history” over and again as we rally around truth, not the shifting tides of culture. In the history of the church we find encouragement for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

[1] The Quinisext Council in 692 was largely attended by Eastern Bishops and considered a continuation of the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils by the East, but not in the West. Canon 91 condemns abortion.

[2] Martin Luther, Jaroslav Pelikan, et al, Luther’s Works, Vol. 4 (Saint Louis : Concordia Publishing House, 1999) 4:304.

[3] John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, Vol 3 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1854) 3:42

By / Mar 2

Something is stirring in the Body of Christ.

In the wake of yet another media frenzy over race following the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, the Church seemed to veer yet again toward polarization over resolving the issues related to Christian involvement in race-based slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the institutions and systemic racism they’ve spawned that still impact the Church today.

Hostage to the past

As I’ve written elsewhere, I draw parallels between today’s human rights abuses against the persecuted Church and America’s un-reconciled history. I’ve pointed out that human rights violations often follow similar and predictable contours, regardless of the cultures and nations in which they express themselves. America, while exceptional in many ways, is no different from other nations in that she owns human rights atrocities that simply refuse to stay quiet in the annals of history.

This month, a few Christians from America’s dominant culture have spoken boldly and honestly about America’s past. Others are listening courageously, and reconsidering what is at stake for the Kingdom in the polarization between the races. It seems that the issue of our national sin is being approached with fresh eyes and tender hearts (a partial list of recent offerings from historians, theologians, and denominational leaders appears below).

Each has their own biblical rationale underlying such soul-searching, yet history indicates that there may even be benefits beyond.

Our achilles heel

The old folks in the Black community used to say, “Things that die bad don’t stay in the ground.” The National Prayer Breakfast was not the first time that Christian involvement in America’s dark historical underbelly has been defined according to a non-redemptive and perhaps even political agenda.

In the 1930’s, the Stalinist Soviet regime denounced our Black Codes (laws that created a racial caste system and segregation through political disenfranchisement), declaring America one of the most racist countries on earth. As the regime launched its “antiracist agenda,” America provided fodder for their propaganda machine displayed in films like Black and White (1933), and Circus (1936). The Scottsboro trial of 1931 in particular was heavily propagandized by the Stalinists to promote their claimed superiority on racial matters.

Likewise, Germany’s National Socialists propagandized our national shame. Ironically, America fought to eradicate both of these totalitarian ideologies in the modern era, even as her hypocrisy roiled at home. It is a fearsome thing to be legitimately rebuked by the godless, especially when the godless stand in hypocrisy themselves. Military historian Stephen Ambrose has observed that during World War II, “the world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated Army.”

Today, Islamic extremism is a similar, yet even more insidious form of totalitarian ideology. It is already nipping at our nation’s Achilles heel, attracting those disenfranchised from American culture in general and “American Christianity” in particular. The territory we cede to these ideologies through our indifference is fertile ground. Extremist ideologies prey upon the disenfranchised who have heard no adequate explanation of our hypocrisy, then fill that vacuum with explanations that satisfy their radical agenda.

FBI Director James Comey points out that in particular, ISIL/ISIS’ propaganda and online recruitment tactics are of great concern to federal law enforcement. Technology provides immediate and global access to the organization’s radical ideology that prior regimes would have coveted; this access makes it easier than ever to weaponize our historical shame. We are still vulnerable to outside interpretation of historical events, leaving others to judge Christianity based on America’s moral failures rather than on the Word of God.

Oh, freedom over me

When we attempt to discuss Christianity and America’s racial sins, we often witness Christ’s Body become two distinct and polarized entities. The conversation turns easily to those Christians who rightly risked their lives to stand by the biblical principles embedded in our national documents (i.e., that “all men are created equal”). Yet we blanch at fully exploring the deplorable acts committed by Christian men and women who held the same Word of God in their hands.

Though work has been done on the issue, a precise and robust response has yet to permeate the American Church exploring how men and women who claimed fidelity to the Word could exclude African Americans and others from Christian institutions and organizations, violate basic human rights, and stand by as others committed lawless murder couched in “religious ritual.”

Can it be that the theological foundation of those who shaped our current understanding of God lay fundamental flaws? Can it be that inadequate understandings of imago Dei, anthropology and Christology produced their flawed ethics? If this is the case, then it must be that any sound theology produced in light of these ethical failures was purely a function of God’s grace and sovereignty – not a product of the spiritual or ethical prowess of the people themselves. It was a further function of God’s grace and sovereignty that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were able to appeal to those documented core principles, and hold America accountable to her founding words.

To call Christian involvement in egregious human rights violations a mere “blind spot” seems both theologically and intellectually inadequate; it does little to salve the wound. The time seems ripe to retire the true yet trite defense, “God can make a straight lick with a crooked stick” in favor a more redemptive and nuanced understanding of what we would classify today as “moral failure.”

We need not fear such honesty. It is right for the church to lead the national discussion toward a more robust and honest understanding of our leaders’ failings, taking into account both the depth of human depravity, and the grace of God that is deeper still.

Power made perfect in weakness

Are we beating this dead horse called Race again, you ask? Most certainly. When it gallops away with disenfranchised members of Christ’s Body in tow, tramples the Gospel underfoot, and challenges national and global security, the horse is clearly alive and well.

Ending slavery and Jim Crow was certainly a positive step forward for America’s human rights record. Also encouraging, we see that today, a growing number of men of faith in leadership positions are attempting to understand how revered leaders could have erred so gravely on such basic issues. Race-based slavery was not a foregone conclusion in nascent America; the door is now open to understand how our sin became culturally normalized, then legislated, and finally systematized – on the church’s watch.

Such ownership by dominant cultural thinkers who have inherited positions and legacies built on those systems is a necessary step on the long journey toward binding up our Achilles heel. The movement may be small in numbers, but it is significant.

The dominant culture must continue the honest examination of history, and we must encourage them in the effort so that our ethics and our epistemology may match today. To not do so will leave us isolated from the larger Body of Christ; it will hamper our witness and, as history has shown, leave us vulnerable to the further reshaping of our own narrative.

We have no more time for indifference. The American church has the tools to cauterize the wound she allowed herself to create – we will need this healing for the days to come.


“A Milestone for Redeemer Church, Jackson, MS and an Important Day for the PCA.” 2015.

Ambrose, Stephen E. 1998. Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

“Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and Southern White Evangelicals: A Historians Forum (Sean Michael Lucas).” 2015. Justin Taylor.

“Race and the Roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, No. 1.” 2015. Reformation21 Blog.

Race in America: Why the Past Matters. 2014. Russell Moore.

Roman, Meredith L. 2012. Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of U.S. Racism, 1928-1937. Reprint edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Sookhdeo, Patrick, and Westminster Institute. 2012. Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism. Mclean, VA: Isaac Publishing.

“The KKK, Selma, and Southern Christianity | Acton PowerBlog.” 2015. Acton Institute PowerBlog.

K.A. Ellis
K.A.Ellis holds an MFA from Yale University in New Haven, a Master of Art in Religion (Theological) from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and is a doctoral candidate at Oxford Center for Mission Studies in Oxford, England. She speaks nationally on Human Rights, the Islamic Challenge, African American Culture, and the Persecuted Church. Follow her on twitter @KarAngEllis.

By / Nov 25

“So why your interest in issues of race and theology?”

The question was asked rather innocently of me in recent days. But it also betrayed some intrigue. Why would a thirtysomething white historian who spends most of his time working in academic administration be so fixated on questions of race, theology, and justice? Why in the world would I spend a whole semester leading a small group of seminary students through a study of race and theology in American Christianity?

I guess it’s actually a legitimate question.

So let me give you my answer. And, if I’m right, it might just help you consider why all Christians should be mindful of the gospel’s demands for racial reconciliation and justice.

First, racial injustice is, at its core, a sin problem.

Racism and all manifestations of racial injustice are not merely the result of historical forces, economic interests, or lacking education. The biblical account makes clear that our proclivity for self-exaltation is rooted in the primal sin of the Garden. As sons and daughters of Adam, we are spring-loaded to see ourselves as distinct and superior from other individuals, but also from groupings or communities of persons.

Is racial prejudice and injustice really a matter of sin? We have abundant biblical evidence to conclude that it is. Moses records an especially informative account in Numbers 12 that should help us understand just how seriously God takes this sin. We’re told that Miriam and Aaron “spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1). The reference to this woman as a “Cushite” is clearly intended to convey racial meaning–presumably she was of darker skin, from the region of Cush, in modern day Sudan and Ethiopia.

Interestingly, Aaron and Miriam’s accusations against Moses invoked the racial identity of his wife as evidence against his calling as a prophet of God. They cited her race as a way of delegitimizing Moses’ authority. But God’s response should tell us something. He summons the three siblings together at the Tent of Meeting and speaks to them, reaffirming his unique relationship with Moses and warning Miriam and Aaron. But not only that. We’re told that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against them” (Numbers 12:9). When God’s presence is removed from them, Miriam discovers she has been afflicted with leprosy and her skin is now “like snow.” We shouldn’t miss the irony here. Miriam, who had indicted her sister-in-law for her blackness is now judged. And her judgment takes expression in her whiteness. As John Piper has pointed out, it’s almost as if God says, “Oh, you think your skin color makes you superior? You think white is better? I’ll make you so white your skin will literally rot.”

But the sin of racial injustice is far more insidious than we often realize. It is not content to restrain itself to individual prejudices, beliefs, and attitudes. Injustice infects and perverts entire societies, institutions, and cultures. And when a fundamentally unjust system is perpetuated for generation after generation, the effects and consequences of that sin become far more deep-rooted than we often can begin to see.

Indeed, this kind of injustice is often harder for us to see. Well, maybe I should be more precise. It’s especially hard to see for those who are not victimized by it. But a historic Christian theology of sin will not be one that underestimates the insidiousness of sin. We see it all around us. We see it in a massive economic machine that preys upon poor and unmarried women, telling them that their choice to terminate a pregnancy is one of empowerment and security. We see it in state-run lotteries that disproportionately accumulate billions of dollars off the backs of the poor and those most desperate to see their luck change. We see it around us in an industrialized penal system that is overwhelmingly populated by young black men. And we see it in the recurring headlines of unarmed black teenage boys shot by police officers. Sure, we can trumpet the virtue of personal responsibility and try to sleep better at night, our uneasy consciences salved by the distance of “out of sight and out of mind.” But look more closely and you’ll see that sin is never confined merely to the orbit of individual choice or personal responsibility.

Second, racial injustice denies the truth of our universal kinship.

The great lie of Jim Crow and all forms of racial injustice was–and continues to be–that it perpetuated a system that implied a differentiation in human worth and dignity among human beings, all made in the image of God, all sons of Adam, sons of Noah (cf. Acts 17:26).

We literally share the same DNA, we are all part of the human family. So any system that elevates one branch of the family tree while denigrating or demeaning another on the basis of race or ethnicity contradicts this ancient reality. The spiritual kinship shared by the redeemed in Christ is enduring and eternal, one that supersedes genetic family ties. But we should not miss the reality that there is also a basic human kinship–we are all connected to one another by genealogy and blood, descended from the same first parents.

Third, racial injustice is contrary to the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the implications of our universal kinship in Adam is that we are also all tied together in the sin and culpability of our first parents. But the good news of the Christ and his kingdom is that where the first Adam failed, the second Adam has now taken on our guilt and suffered the judgment we deserved (Romans 5). In exchange, he grants his perfect righteousness to men and women from every sector of the human family–every “nation, tribe, and tongue”–to reconcile us to God.

There’s also an eschatological vision to this. In his vision of the new heavens and new earth, the Apostle John relays a vision of the people of God, gathered together in worship of the Christ. This great assembly is not racially, ethnically, or culturally monolithic. Instead, the apostle tells us, it’s a congregation of ransomed sinners too large to count from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

As civil rights hero John Perkins has noted, if God’s great plan of vertical reconciliation–to redeem sinners to himself through his Son’s sacrificial death and resurrection–required a deliberate and providential plan, then we should also expect that our horizontal reconciliation with one another will require a similar measure of intentionality. It won’t happen by sheer good intentions or by cultural inertia.

Fourth, evangelicals have a complicated history when it comes to racial justice.

As a historian, this truth haunts me. How could so many of my own theological forbears within my own denomination have been so right on biblical authority, the urgency of global missions, the exclusivity of the gospel, and the centrality of the cross, but have been so wrong on the issue of racial justice?

Of course, this historic reality has a humbling and sobering effect. And it should. It should serve to inoculate against arrogance or self-righteousness. Even God’s people, those who are sojourners and aliens, are still embedded within cultures and societies marked by injustice. And it is far easier than we realize for us to be lulled into it and simply make our peace with it.

Fifth, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only full and final solution for racial injustice.

There are a host of good and necessary steps needed for racial justice and reconciliation. We can and should have reasoned and civil debates about matters of policy and law that will uphold justice and equity. But the only solution capable of rooting out the sin that is fundamentally responsible for this kind of evil is the good news of the Kingdom of Christ.

This is at the heart of the New Testament. As our great High Priest, Jesus Christ mediates a new and better covenant, reconciling us to God and to one another. In him, there is no longer a dividing wall of hostility–whether between sinners and God, or between the redeemed new people of God. Now Jew and Greek, slave and free, men and women are all “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.28; cf. Col. 3:11).

If the gospel of Jesus Christ really is the only full antidote to racial injustice, then we understand it as long as we wander through this present evil age, we will have to temper our expectations. Yes, Christ has conquered sin and crushed the head of the serpent. But until he comes again, we continue to wage war against principalities and powers recognizing that the conflict will not subside until the consummation of all things. So we work, we pray, we speak out, we listen, and we yearn for racial reconciliation and justice. But ultimately, we join with the church through the ages and with the Apostle in crying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

Matthew J. Hall
Matthew J. Hall (Ph.D., University of Kentucky) is vice president of academic services at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also teaches courses in church history. He is a research fellow of the ERLC Research Institute and co-editor of the forthcoming Essential Evangelicalism: The Enduring Influence of Carl F.H. Henry (Crossway, 2015).