A great question, in response to yesterday’s post recommending Michael Gerson’s article:
March 30th, 2012 at 8:33 am
I have been wondering a lot lately on the Christian’s attitude towards politics while keeping things balanced with a Gospel centered approach to it all. How much involvement should a Christian have in political discussion and engagement? I tend to find Christians who are either too hardcore about it (which leads to depression and a lack of eternal perspective) or they are laissez faire about anything that doesn’t immediately affect their wallet. I wish I heard a little more about this from a Biblical perspective. Seems that Christian leaders either go overboard or they avoid it. Could you give me some feedback, scripture, or a resource?
Here are a few reflections. In all of these points, the key is to make distinctions without oppositions:
- Distinguish Christ’s kingdom from the kingdoms of this age without seeing them as enemies. Although he is the Lord of all even now, Christ will make the kingdoms of the world his own realm of direct rule (without caesars, presidents, mullahs and tribal chiefs) when he returns. At present, the church participates in this kingdom in a partially realized way. Ultimate justice, righteousness, and peace with God have been established in the world through the new creation in Jesus Christ. As the Spirit unites sinners to Jesus by his Spirit through the Word, a colony of this kingdom is planted in this present evil age. The politics of this age can never bring about ultimate justice, peace, or righteousness. Just because earthly governments and other social structures (such as voluntary associations, relief agencies, schools, neighborhoods, etc.) can’t bring in the consummated Kingdom of Christ does not mean that they are not God’s means of contributing to the common good and preserving society with a relative order, justice, and peace in the world.
- Closely related to this, distinguish common grace from saving grace. Radical Protestantism has often bred radical politics, which feeds off of a nearly Manichean opposition of light and darkness. On one hand, this makes us presumptuous about ourselves, as if non-Christians can only create darkness and Christians can only create light. It has never been that simple historically, because non-Christians are beneficiaries of God’s common grace and Christians are also still sinful. God’s saving grace comes to us in Jesus Christ through the means of grace ministered by his church. God’s common grace comes through the wisdom, vocations, education, and other gifts that the Spirit bestows on unbelievers as well as believers. These common callings cannot build Christ’s kingdom, but they are the means through which he loves and serves us and our neighbors every day. So enough of this Manichean dualism! Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. The best works-and policies-fall short of God’s glory. Nevertheless, they are still commanded and are critical for the common good.
- Distinguish between the church as institution from the church as its members. Abraham Kuyper expressed this distinction in terms of church-as-organization and church-as-organism. In the former sense, the church is Christ’s embassy of saving grace through the ministry of Word and sacrament. In the latter sense, it is believers-saved by grace-who are scattered into their worldly callings as salt and light. The institutional church is entrusted with the Great Commission, with no calling or authority to reform the world. Being shaped decisively by this Word, believers are called to serve their myriad neighbors in the world. Sometimes this provides opportunities for newsworthy impact, but that is not our concern. Our calling is to be faithful at our posts. Where the state has accrued a dangerous monopoly on cultural activity, politics is seen as the most significant sphere of activity. However, Christians can testify by their quiet faithfulness at their posts how essential are the daily and often mundane gifts. Ambition to make a noticeable difference in the world may be a God-given purpose and calling, but it can also be an expression of our pride and self-righteousness. It is easier to abandon the callings where God has placed us to love and serve our neighbors in order to “be somebody” and to be remembered for our “legacy.”
- Distinguish between “necessary” and “good” consequences of Scripture. The Westminster Confession reminds us that our ultimate authority is Scripture: whatever is contained there explicitly or “by good and necessary consequences may be deduced therefrom.” One of the benefits of preaching through the Bible (rather than topically) is that we are forced to concentrate on the whole teaching of Scripture. By contrast, when we follow our own topical hobby-horses, we are prone to avoid some biblical teachings and to over-emphasize others. Some preachers manage to avoid texts that address sexual ethics or creation stewardship. Others may harp on moral and political issues, with speeches that could have been written if the Bible had never been written. What we need today more than ever is a rigorous submission to the Word, standing under it rather than over or alongside it. It’s not just that we can’t preach anything contrary to God’s Word; we can’t preach anything that isn’t required by it. Not only must our interpretation and application be a good inference; it must be a necessary one. Abortion-on-demand is an obvious example of a “good and necessary inference” from Scripture: namely, the prohibition of murder. Surely opposition to the modern slave-trade, whether in early America and the antebellum South or in current forms around the world, finds multiple sources of good and necessary application. Sound preaching and teaching over the years should shape people who think of creation as neither divine nor something to devour and destroy, but as the work of God’s hand. On many other issues, Christian preaching will shape the worldview that we bring to our lives and policy decisions. Nevertheless, we cannot require specific policies that are not required by legitimate exegesis of God’s Word.
- Distinguish between the sufficiency and scope of Scripture. Scripture is sufficient for everything necessary for faith and practice. That does not mean that Scripture is sufficient for everything necessary for daily life. For example, doctors and auto mechanics have wisdom and knowledge that we need. God committed to Scripture what he deemed essential for our salvation and godliness. The scope of Scripture is the Triune God as he is known in Jesus Christ in the covenant of grace. Whatever in Scripture informs and directs our decision making in daily affairs bears divine authority. However, the Bible is not a manual for personal, domestic, and foreign policy. There are commands and promises, but they have to be interpreted and applied according to their natural sense and with sensitivity to their covenantal context. Everything we need for salvation and worship is given in Scripture, but the Bible’s purpose or scope is not everything we need for life. We should not be surprised when an unbeliever who is a trained economist is better-equipped to address sweeping questions of poverty in developing countries than a preacher armed with the Bible.
To conclude: Christians, of all people, should be concerned about the pressing issues in culture and society today. However, even in the same church, where people share the same faith, worldview, and values, there will be different applications, policies, and agendas. Where Scripture speaks, we speak; where it is silent, we don’t dare to speak in God’s name but as those who are attempting to apply our understanding of God’s Word and world to daily living in ways that are not explicitly or even implicitly determined by Scripture. Fundamentalists on the left and the right quote the Bible in a manner that can only be designated “taking God’s name in vain.” It’s no wonder that the public sense of God’s authoritative Word loses its credibility in the process. By all means, let’s preach the Word, embrace the Word, and live in the light of it in all areas of life. Yet let us never invoke God’s authority for decisions that we must make every day that are matters of Christian liberty.