In my last article, I wrote about two principles that Christians should follow when thinking about civic engagement to avoid the murkiness around “Christian nationalism”:
1. The State and the Church have two different missions, not two different spheres.
2. Natural Law ≠ the Law of Christ
Together, these two principles should lead Christians to desire to influence the nation around them, while understanding that we cannot govern a nation the way we do a church. We don’t want to slip into the error of attempting to coerce others into faith, but neither do we want to slip into the opposite error of bifurcating our faith from our public life.
Here are three final principles for thinking through how your Christian faith should influence how you relate to the public square of politics, employment, schools, etc.
1. Love Your Neighbor in the Public Square
Jesus could summarize the entirety of the Old Testament’s law in the two commandments to love God, and love our neighbor (Matt 22:40). When pressed on how we should define what counts as a “neighbor” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan to underscore the fact that our “neighbor” is whoever is around us, regardless of how different they may be from us (Luke 10:29-37). So, for Christians to obey God’s Law, we must care about the well-being of those around us, Christian and non-Christians alike.
And what does that look like as we approach board meetings where we are voting on company policies? PTA meetings where parents get to influence curriculum? Or the voting booth? It means we use the opportunities, position, or authority we have to show God’s love to as many people as we can through our advocacy of policies, curriculum, and laws that will lead to the flourishing of our neighbor.
“But,” you may ask, “what happens when our neighbor doesn’t think what we are doing is loving?” Since “God is love,” (1 John 4:16), it is God Himself–not popular consensus–that gets to define what is and isn’t “loving”.
When the British politician and activist, William Wilberforce, worked to bring the African slave-trade to an end in England, he was fiercely opposed by many pro-slavery advocates. The common argument was that Africans were sub-human in some way, so we were not bound to “love of neighbor” towards them. In fact, some argued that Wilberforce was failing to love his British neighbors by undermining such a lucrative industry that provided many with a reliable income. But Wilberforce knew that all humans–Africans included–were made in God’s image and thus the slave-trade was an abomination in the sight of God. He helped create a popular image of a slave kneeling in chains with the words underneath, “Am I not a man and a brother?”
If the slave is a fellow man and brother, then he falls under the purview of “love of neighbor” just as much as anyone else. Wilberforce used his distinctly Christian convictions in the political realm and brought an end to one of the must savage and brutal of practices in the Western world–something Christian and non-Christian alike would praise today. But he did it not by relying on the common consensus of what “love of neighbor” meant in his day, but by letting God’s definition as revealed in His Word be his standard. That’s a great model for Christians to follow today as we seek to love our neighbor in the public square.
2. The Mission of the Christian Is Distinct from the Mission of the Church
Institutionally, the local church’s mission is very clear: make disciples. The congregation as a congregation should be laser focused on this task as it thinks about its time, energy, budget, and ministry. And, of course, since the congregation is comprised of individual Christians, this is also the mission of the individual Christian.
But the individual Christian has a broader missional focus than the institution of the local church. The individual Christian is also summoned to love their neighbor in a way that the institution of the local church is not. To re-use an analogy I’ve employed in the past, consider the local church as a forge. If you need a sword, a screw, or a saw, you can take raw metal and put it into the forge and (with a few good hammer blows) create these different tools.
This is a good picture of what the local church is like: it is the forge of worship meant to create the “swords, screws, and saws” of individual disciples who go out into the world. But if you try to use the forge itself like a sword or a saw, you will be sorely disappointed. That isn’t its purpose. The local church shapes and fashions us into maturity in Christ, fosters the unique gifts we have, and then sends us to go out into the world as representatives of Christ to do good works, and love our neighbor–perhaps even in the public/political realm. But the institution of the local church itself is not what goes out; it is the bow, not the arrow; the forge, not the sword.
The problem comes when we flatten the mission of the church and the mission of the individual Christian together. We might think that because the local church is to focus on making disciples, this is what the individual Christians should likewise focus on, or that because the individual Christian is called to love their neighbor and practice civic and political engagement, so should the institution of the church. This either results in local churches acting like political action committees, or individual Christians thinking it improper to get involved in the public arena. Both are wrong. The mission of the local church is more narrow than the mission of the individual Christian.
3. Our Biggest Problems are Pre-Political, so Persuasion Matters
In Don Carson’s foundational book, The Gagging of God, he reflects on Christians’ desire to use raw political power to implement sweeping social changes, and how fragile those changes are. Written in 1996, he imagines a hypothetical scenario where, by a “powerful manipulation of electoral forces,” Christians are able to “ram through some cherished legislation.” He then supposes that the issue is abortion, and that somehow there is a constitutional amendment passed that outlaws abortion. He warns:
History warns us that at the very least we should be careful before we wave our triumph banners. In a passion of concern, America approved Prohibition almost three-quarters of a century ago, and when the gangsters and the cheats had finished, the country repealed the amendment.
At one point, there was enough political power in America used to pass a constitutional amendment to prohibit the production and sale of alcohol. Which is amazing. But raw power in the political realm means little if people aren’t persuaded–and apparently Americans in the 1920’s weren’t. Carson guesses that were conservatives able to ramrod through an amendment to outlaw abortion, the media, news, and academy would spin enough powerful stories that public support would eventually erode away, and it would likely be repealed. He continues:
Does this line of argument suggest that it is folly to suppose that effective change can be legislated? Not at all. It is simply a reminder that our deepest social problems are pre-political. They are cultural; they are embedded in worldviews that are fundamentally alien to the Judeo-Christian heritage. It may be wise and godly to aim for legislative change anyway. But unless changes are effected in the outlook of the nation at large, in many cases it won’t be long before the changes are themselves reversed.
He then concludes rather pointedly:
That means, in the end, that we must persuade a lot of people on a lot of points. In a democracy, if you cannot do that, you lose.
(Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, 1996, pgs. 427-29)
Politics are downstream from culture, so we shouldn’t put too much of an emphasis on politics. Passing righteous laws that protect life is a good thing, but it is like scooping the garbage out of the river with a net. It is reactive and remedial. Far better to go upstream and find out where the waste is being poured in and stop it at the source. But that requires us to persuade people that righteousness isn’t only right in a cold, clinical sense, but that it is also beautiful, satisfying, and ennobling. Which means we must–as much as we can–work to make righteousness look attractive and plausible. I don’t mean capitulating or soft-pedaling anything. I am just thinking of Paul and Peter who tell us:
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” (Rom 12:18).
“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation,” (1 Pet 2:12).
We can do that, according to Carson, by “wisely choosing the tone and terms of the debate” and being more shrewd in our public witness. We don’t lean in to a spirit of pugnacious controversy because its fun to “own the libs.” We speak with “perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2), even as we “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God,” (2 Cor 10:5).
We know that to some, no matter what, the aroma of Christ will be a fragrance of death (2 Cor 2:16). We don’t try to spritz Christ with a worldly perfume to make Him more palatable. But we do keep a careful watch on our own tongue, lest the fragrance of death have less to do with Christ and more to do with the “corruption” of our own mouth (Eph 4:29) and the rottenness of our heart (Mark 7:21-23).
But the greatest hope, of course, comes by holding forward the gospel and praying for God to transform hearts so that enemies become brothers, sinners become saints, and the heart is transformed by the Holy Spirit, not merely restrained by the sword of the State.