Today we have reached the point of critical mass as to just how far we intend to let the State run roughshod over our lives. On one level, as people who live in a country, born of a revolution that established a republican form of government, all Americans face the challenge of how much power they are willing to grant the State to use in curtailing their liberty. As Christians, those who believe that Jesus Christ is sovereign King, Savior, and God, we have to ask ourselves what is the proper role of the Church in engaging the political realm. I believe that for far too long we of the Church have stepped aside from the fray, allowing the State to become the Leviathan that has overreached its proper and moral limits. As citizens the Church can and should speak to the legitimate limitations of the State.
Conflicting Views Within the Church
Those who believe in Christ hold conflicting views regarding the Church’s role in engaging political matters. Although there are many views and nuances, I believe there are three general positions commonly held among Christians. I designate them as passive observers, Romans 13 absolutists, and political engagers.
The Christian author, Francis Schaeffer, first coined the terms upper story and lower story, describing those Christians who compartmentalized their beliefs so that their spiritual life makes little contact with their day-to-day affairs. Some in the Church hold that our Christian beliefs have nothing to do with the daily struggles we face in life. This is especially true when it comes to politics. Apart from voting, such individuals hold that Christians should not engage the worldly confines of politics. Such engagement, they warn, defies Scripture’s indictment to be in the world, but not of the world. Worldliness, according to Scripture, entails living in alignment with the world’s values rather than those precepts found in God’s Word that speaks to the way in which he would have us live. The passive observer equates political engagement with worldly engagement. They accuse Christians who are politically engaged with seeking ultimate meaning and purpose in worldly politics at worse. At best, they simply believe that Christians who are politically engaged are wasting their time on things that are not eternal. This is a startling example of Schaeffer’s notion of the upper and lower story split. Things in this life simply do not matter. The world as we know it is going to pass away. To spend any time on making it a better place to live is a worldly affair, hence, not a spiritual endeavor.
Romans 13 Absolutists
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement (Romans 13:1-2).
At first glance, this passage written by the Apostle Paul appears straight ahead with no clarification needed.A closer look at its context, however, raises some questions, especially when applied to the political context today in America. Following these verses, Paul states that rulers are a terror not to good conduct, but to bad. Hence, if one does good, he doesn’t need to fear the authorities. If he does wrong, however, then rulers are servants of God to punish evil doers. So the question arises – what if governments reach the point where they call evil, good, and good, evil? In other words governing authorities pit themselves against God’s precepts and law. What is our response to authorities to be then? Moreover, we have Biblical examples where Christians did not simply bow to worldly power. The Apostle Paul, himself, appealed to his status as Roman citizen when wrongly accused and arrested. When a Roman centurion struck him, Paul replied, Do you strike a Roman citizen? Additionally, the Apostles in the Book of Acts when ordered to cease proclaiming the truth about Christ replied, We obey God rather than man. The early Christians defied worshiping the Roman emperor as a god as well as breaking Roman law when they secretly met in the catacombs to worship. Romans 13 absolutists claim that verses 1-2 mean that Christians should obey the government no matter the context. As such they have given a carte blanche to the State, providing it with absolute rule over the Church.
The Reformed Presbyterians heavily contributed to the values that shaped early America and that eventually led to its break with England. Many of what I call political engagers, can be found today within the confines of Reformed Theology. The aforementioned Francis Schaffer falls within that theological persuasion. Many of those who strongly advocate that Christians should be politically active and savvy are Reformed postmillennialists. Although it’s not the purpose of this article to stake out an eschatological position, I find that I like the work and thought that postmillennialists proffer. To be fair, not all political engagers hold to a postmillennial eschatology. Schaffer held a premillennial position. Having said that I would point to theologians, pastors, and writers such as Doug Wilson, Joel McDurmon, Gary North, R. J. Rushdoony, and James White as examples of those who believe Christians should actively engage the political realm. Although I may not agree with every jot and tittle of what these individuals say, I do like their optimism and the conjectures they offer for ways that Christians can reclaim the culture that we seem to have handed over to those who are diametrically opposed to God’s law.
Conclusion: Engaging All of Life
Reformed Theology and the postmillennialists cited above do not dwell solely on the political realm. They call for Christians to engage all of life’s endeavors – business, education, science, the arts, technology, politics, etc. – and take all these spheres captive in the name of Christ. Indeed I don’t see that any particular millennial position is required to agree with such a notion. We have witnessed over the past several decades, and particularly the past few years, an unprecedented growth of the State and its interventionist strategies that snake inexorably through all the nook and crannies of our daily livelihoods. The attitude that as Christians we should stand idly by and let Statism and its anti-Christian philosophy take over the culture due to some pietistic notion of worldliness seems self-defeating at best and cowardice at worse.
By God’s providential hand, we live in a republic forged out to some degree by Reformed theology by which we are a nation ruled by law, not men – Lex Rex. The call for Christians to actively engage all spheres of life is a transformative one. None of us know when Christ will return. But to merely sit by and wait for his return, doing nothing about the corruption of this culture, while some may see that as an option, I do not believe such passiveness to be a Biblical option. We Christians today have to confront the reality that we will not necessarily witness during our lifetimes the changes in culture that can occur if believers enter all spheres of life and place all their endeavors under the Lordship of Christ. That’s an overwhelming proclamation. None of us know how it will work out. But that’s not a reason for the Church to remain invisible in the midst of cultural battles.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that all three of these camps as I’ve designated them comprise believers in Christ. Hence, regardless of where we land on this issue, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we should let unity rule rather than divisiveness. We need to learn how to agree to disagree, yet remain united.
We live in a republic by God’s providence. Politicians are not our authorities. We do not obey men. We obey the law. Perhaps the ones being disobedient to government are not the ones who draw Constitutional lines in the sand and say to politicians, you do not cross here. Rather it is those who do not engage the political realm and work to set it right.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/September 14th, 2021
ANALYSIS OF POWER/CHRISTIAN THOUGHT
Excellent article John. In the 70s I was introduced to Schaeffer and he has had a major influence on my thinking since. The three different camps you address should be considered by all Christians. No American has every seen a threat to their freedoms like we are watching now. I hope more people read your article and considered the realities you address. Doug Wakefield
Thanks, Doug. Appreciate your reading the article. I am tailoring this blog toward more discussions along these line.