Phillip Bethancourt sits down with Russell Moore to get some perspective on how we, as Christians, should engage in the public square.
As they have in every generation, evangelicals are wrestling with their role in the larger culture. Today’s increasingly post-Christian America has added new urgency to the discussion. Should Christians be involved in politics? Or should we simply preach and live out the gospel in our communities? Or are these two paradigms as mutually exclusive as they are sometimes branded?
I’ve been on both sides of this debate most of my life. I’ve served at various levels of church and organizational ministry, I’ve been active in political campaigns, and now I have the privilege of serving the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the entity representing Southern Baptists in Washington. I’ve been the pastor aghast at a parishioner’s crude political Facebook posts. I’ve been the activist wishing Christians were more aware of the issues.
This is a tension that won’t go away until Christ consummates his kingdom. Until that glorious day, we must wrestle with very real questions. Let’s start by deconstructing some myths about Christian engagement in the public square:
1. We shouldn’t judge the world, because the world is full of unbelievers. Paul wrote this very advice in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:5). They were a church who had imbibed the sexual values of their culture, to the point where they openly bragged about a “grace” that overlooked and even celebrated open sexual sin (1 Cor. 5:1-2, 6). This was also a church that arrogantly preached to the culture but refused to guard their family of faith.
On the surface, Paul’s words might seem a rebuke to any level of Christian cultural engagement. After all, the Church should expect believers to act like believers and unbelievers to act like unbelievers. This is true in one sense. Our message to the world should not be one of condemnation (John 3:17), but of love, announcing the good news that salvation is available to those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, the rightful King who conquered sin, death and the serpent.
And yet Paul can’t be saying we should ignore the false ideologies around us, turning a blind eye to injustice and caring little for the flourishing of our communities. If so, he’d be contradicting other very clear passages of Scripture that urge the Christian to apply the gospel to all of life.
For instance, are Paul’s words to the Corinthians a rebuke to John the Baptist, whom Jesus called the greatest man who ever lived (Luke 7:28)? John called out Herod for marrying his brother’s wife (Luke 3:19). Were Paul’s words a rebuke to Jeremiah who encouraged the Jewish exiles in Jerusalem to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7)? Were they contradicting Paul’s own boldness in Athens, where he stood on Mars Hill and declared the falseness of the heathen gods?
When Paul says not to judge the world, he’s echoing similar themes as James, who in his letter to the Jerusalem church writes: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27).
2. We shouldn’t be against things, only for things. This is a common cliché. The church shouldn’t simply be known for what it is against, but what it is for. This sounds very good. Christians, after all, should be known for their love for Jesus and for each other. And the story we are announcing is the good news of the gospel, the evangel that Christ has come to reconcile sinners to God. This was Jesus’ mission, to announce the gospel of the Kingdom.
And yet, Jesus was also clearly against things. For instance, Jesus was strongly against the corruption of innocent children. His language in Luke 17:2 is provocative, saying that it would be a better fate for the abuser “if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea.”
I imagine if a politician used language like this today, we’d have a lot of Christians wringing their hands and wishing Jesus could just “show more love.” Jesus is against sin, against exploitation, against any spirit of the age that can corrupt, destroy and kill the very people he came to save.
Paul seems to affirm this when he says, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). What we fail to understand is that to be against something is to be for something else. So to be against abortion is to be in favor of life. To be against poverty is to be for the well-being and nurture of humanity. To be against human trafficking is to be for the dignity and respect of innocent people.
The gospel is not only a positive declaration that Christ has conquered sin and death and has made a way for sinners to find their way to God. It’s not only a positive declaration that Christ is King over the earth. The gospel is also a crushing blow against the evil powers that enslave men in sin and death. You might argue that if Christians are only ever for things, they are preaching an incomplete gospel.
3. We should only preach the gospel and make disciples and not worry about politics. It’s true that no political party or movement can change the world. Sometimes political activism on both the left and the right can be overly triumphalist. Only the gospel, not political ideology, has the power to change hearts. Yes and amen.
But the gospel, if you notice, is a rather political statement itself. The gospel declares, first of all, that Christ and not Caesar is the ultimate King (Mark 12:17) and that even the most powerful rulers serve under the authority of King Jesus (Rom. 13:1). Even the most popular prayer in the world, the Lord’s Prayer, is really a prayer of revolution, declaring that there is another King and another kingdom that is not of this world (Matt. 6:9-13).
So you can’t really preach the gospel and avoid politics. Politics are embedded in the very heart of the gospel. Furthermore, think about Jesus’ words in the Great Commission. The imperative is to “make disciples” and teach them “all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
The gospel doesn’t simply punch your ticket to heaven; it empowers Christians for a radical new lifestyle, one that is at odds with the world (Jas. 4:4; Rom. 8:7). The most nonpolitical Christian, if he is faithful, is a political statement to a world system that is under the temporary and restrained rule of Satan (Eph. 2:2).
The Church is to be an alternate society, an outpost of the kingdom to come (1 Pet. 2:9). This means the gospel calls us not simply to make converts who have no effect on the world around them. The gospel calls us be agents of reconciliation, to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to live and work toward justice and righteousness, to seek the welfare of our cities, to advance human flourishing. In fact, a Christianity that has no impact on the world around it, according to James, is a dead, lifeless faith (Jas. 2:14-16).
I’m glad, for instance, that men like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr. and Deitrich Bonheoffer had a gospel big enough to demand justice for the innocents. To ignore injustice is to say to the 19th-century slave in America, to the 20th-century Jew in Germany, to the 21st-century unborn baby: “Be warmed and filled.” It’s a diminished gospel, a lifeless faith.
What our generation of evangelicals has to understand is that love of neighbor doesn’t mean only the politically safe endeavors of charity that everyone affirms. It might also mean having the courage to get involved in the socio-political structures that either advance or hurt human flourishing.
4. Courage and civility are incompatible. We have this notion that in order to stand up for justice, we must embrace the carnal tools of warfare. But we’d be wise to heed the words of Peter, who encourages an apologetic bathed in kindness: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:15-17).
Notice the tension in Peter’s words. He calls Christians to have courage, to stand and declare what is true in the face of opposition. And yet we’re to do it with “gentleness and respect.” We are to disagree without being disagreeable. We’re to love and respect and honor even those we might consider political adversaries.
We do this, not simply as a new tactic to win hearts and minds, but as a representation of the gospel within us. We are, after all, a different people. We represent a different kingdom. This should affect even the way we speak and interact. How we post our opinions on social media. The types of emails we forward. The conversations we have about those with whom we disagree. Peter is reminding us that courage and civility are not enemies, but friends. Our culture sometimes confuses bravery with bravado, crassness with courage. But the gospel calls us to a new and different way to engage.
5. Our real enemies are human.
This is perhaps the biggest temptation for Christian political engagement. The yin and yang of politics can often drag us into the messy trench warfare, forgetting that our real enemies are not elected officials, presidents of activist groups, or even liberal seminary professors. The real battle is unseen, spiritual warfare at the highest levels. Paul reminds us that we don’t wage war with “flesh and blood” but “cosmic powers over this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Every generation faces a battle of ideologies, a battle of worldviews. People who espouse and believe ungodly philosophies are held captive by the enemy, their minds blinded by unbelief (2 Cor. 4:4).
We err in two ways when we forget the spiritual nature of our political engagement. First, we concentrate on vanquishing seemingly human enemies. We want to see actual people destroyed. This was Peter’s problem when he chopped off the ear of the high priest's servant (John 18:10). This man was not the enemy, Satan was. Sin and death were. The servant was a mere pawn in a larger cosmic struggle. Which is why Jesus, in some of his last words on the cross, said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do“ (Luke 23:34). When we make humans the enemies, we easily forget love and kindness and grace. We abandon the way of Jesus, who fellowshipped and ate with sinners, who tenderly loved even the one who would betray him, Judas.
Second, we put all of our faith in human instruments, the newest tactics and technologies, and the next election. While we should steward our citizenship wisely and vote for those whose positions most closely resemble biblical values, we must remember that all kingdoms of this world are temporal and that only the gospel has the ability to change hearts and minds.
Gospel warriors cannot be fatalistic, those whose hopes rise and fall based on fundraising numbers, Gallup polls, and the get-out-the-vote program in the suburbs. We are looking for another kingdom, a city whose builder and maker is not Republican or Democrat. Knowing that the cultural battles are simply proxies for larger spiritual warfare, we fight for justice and righteousness without the roller-coaster emotions attached to changing political currents.
On Easter Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin and death. We do this, rightly, in song and sermon, in prayer and personal devotion, thinking though the events that transpired in Jesus’ final week prior to his crucifixion and standing astonished at the love of God who entered into history, took on flesh, and gave himself over for the rescue of sinners.
It can be easy to think of the resurrection as if it were simply a sort of exclamation point at the end of redemption. And while the resurrection is indeed a surprise ending, to speak in literary terms, especially to the Satanic powers whose dominion has just been vanquished, it is still more than that.
In fact, the resurrection is the act of God in history designed to animate and reframe the Christian life. It touches on every aspect of the Christian hope and Christian life and should be central in our minds, not just at Easter, but as part of our very identity. For we, as Christians, are those who “have been raised up with Christ” (Col. 3:1).
What, though, does the empty tomb have to do with ethics and public policy? How does Golgotha relate to Washington? At its core, the resurrection is the driving force behind any Christian engagement in the public square. Here are a few reasons why:
1. The resurrection establishes a Christian form of engagement. The crucifixion, Scripture tells us in no uncertain terms, is the pronouncement of judgment on Jesus: “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). But the resurrection of Jesus is the counter-proclamation in which God declares in miraculous act the same thing he previously declared in word at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). The resurrection, in other words, is the vindication of Jesus’ entire life and ministry.
In turn, Jesus’ life and ministry forms the backdrop for the way we are to engage within the world. Throughout his ministry, Jesus addressed sin with boldness and grace, dealing with issues of both personal morality and public justice and speaking truth to power in the public square—but always with the goal of the kingdom of God in mind.
Jesus isn’t interested primarily in the ascendency of a political regime, at least not in the immediate sense (much to the discontent of those who keep trying to make him king) He has in mind—always and in every place—the purposes of his Father in bringing about an eternal kingdom. This purpose frequently intersects with public concerns—from temple taxes to public morality to the authority of government officials and elsewhere. And when it does, Jesus is insistent, prophetic, persuasive, and full of truth and grace, but with cross and kingdom everywhere in view.
2. The resurrection ushers in a new humanity with a public mission. The newness of life we see in Jesus’ resurrection is an image of the eternal life we will possess in the new creation (and that which we now experience a foretaste of in the new birth) and is designed to completely reframe the way we live in this age. It is central to the Christian life in the eschatological hope it offers, but also in the way it signals Jesus’ authority over sin and death and his victory over Satan. This victory leads, successively, to the gifts Jesus gives to his church as spoils of war and the sending of the Holy Spirit who indwells and renews humanity in Christ in the midst of its kingdom mission.
The meaning of this for humanity and our engagement with the world is multifaceted. On the one hand, the newness of humanity wrought through the resurrection will result in love for one another and in communities that look different than what the world would expect. Driven by a vision of a kingdom made up of every tribe, tongue and nation, we seek racial reconciliation and we care for immigrants. Understanding the image of God vested in humanity—one seen preeminently in the perfect union of God and man on display in the resurrected and glorified Jesus—we labor to protect and care for the vulnerable, whether they are unborn, near death or anywhere in between.
On the other hand, having received newness of life and being driven along by the power of the Holy Spirit in the Great Commission, our lives are marked, not by divisiveness and strife, but by a purposeful mission carried out with convictional kindness that seeks to serve, love and persuade—both because we seek the common good for all those who bear God’s image, and we want to persuade them to repent and believe the gospel of our resurrected king.
3. The resurrection helps promote a public morality. Government is instituted by God and vested with the authority to wield the sword for the protection of the innocent and the promotion of justice. That said, government works downstream from culture, and legislation does not have the power to awaken or change hearts. In other words, formed consciences are a prerequisite for public morality, but the state cannot create or provide them.
That said, at the resurrection and with the sending of the Spirit and the expansion of the church, there exists a body—the church—that is grounded in biblical revelation, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, and called to bear witness to the gospel, form consciences, and cultivate virtue in discipleship and life together. The church, within itself, demonstrates morality and images in this age what the kingdom of God will look like in the age to come. At the same time, it bears witness outside the church to the consciences of others. On mission together, the church is able to demonstrate and cultivate intact societies and promote justice within its own walls and bear witness to these social goods to a larger culture, contributing to a public morality within a secular society, all the while carrying with it a gospel of the kingdom that points beyond the common good to the ultimate good—reconciliation with God in Christ.
Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, a righteousness declared in the raising of the Son of God. As we go through this high week on the Christian calendar, let’s rest in the full hope promised by our Christ who is risen indeed. And as we engage the culture with the gospel, let’s remember how the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb leads to the fullness of Jesus’ gospel in the public square.
NOTE: Jennifer Marshall will be one of the speakers at the ERLC National Conference: “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage.” The conference is designed to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families and their churches. This event will be held at the iconic Opryland Hotel on October 27-29, 2014. To learn more go here.
Jennifer Marshall sits down with Lindsay Swartz to discuss what Christians need to make their number one focus when absorbing public policy issues.
Marshall is director of Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation and oversees research in areas that determine the character of our culture: education, marriage, family, religion and civil society. She is the author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century. Marshall holds a Master’s degree in statecraft and world politics from the Institute of World Politics and a Bachelor’s degree in French from Wheaton College, where she also earned teacher’s certification.