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Discipleship, Politics and the Problem of a Christian Society
The term "Christian nationalism" is thrown around a lot these days. What should be the role of the Christian and the Church in the broader political landscape?
I am not, nor will I ever be a “Christian Nationalist.” This has nothing to do with the “cringe factor” which seems to accompany the movement, nor its general socio-economic makeup. My reasons are theological. Many Christians, even those who consider themselves orthodox and embrace a traditional Christian moral frame, have not been taught to think about the world theologically. This makes it challenging for them to integrate their faith life with their public life. This is hindered by the idea prominent in our culture that faith is supposed to be a private thing, not a public thing. North American Protestantism also has a strong pietist streak. For many, their Christian faith is part of the private, personal portion of their life, even when they are not shy about doing “witnessing.” It is about one’s personal relationship with Jesus, getting saved, and being born again. It is about being a good, upright person. You go to church, say grace before meals, read your Bible and pray. But other than being a good person, most expect to leave the fullness of their faith life behind at home when they go to work, school or engage the political. So how should a Christian approach the political? Its a difficult question, fraught with danger, a territory seeded with many land mines, ready to blow up in your face if you make the wrong step.
As we begin to sort this out for ourselves, it is good for us to begin at the beginning and talk about the nature of the Christian community. Sometimes you gain essential insights about yourself through the eyes of another. I recently worked through the second volume Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West in which he made the observation that the Church is a brotherhood of the faithful with no earthly home or frontier. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” He argues that the true form of Christianity is that of the ghetto. Christians form their own nation, their own people. They are a nation not bound to place or soil. Christians conquer through conversion. I think this is perceptive observation.
For other nations and peoples, much of the formation process is largely involuntary. You grow up in this place. You have blood ties, ethnic ties, to the people who live around you. You share the same language. For Christians there is some of this, but it is not the heart of how we are formed into a people. We are the ἐκκλησία, literally “those who are called out” or “the assembly.” We are a people called out and gathered by God into a nation, bound together “in Christ.” What makes us different than other nations is that the “bonding agent” is composed of two parts: one is the active presence of the Holy Spirit at work among the people. The other is the active role of “discipleship.” The Church never just happens. It is always an intentional community. It was this way from the beginning. You move from outside to inside through the process of conversion, that is, through repentance and faith. You are then bonded to the community by the Spirit. It is a supernatural happening. You are made culturally one with the people through the process of discipleship, the process of discipline and training. I speak at much greater length on this in a piece written a while back, “The Christian Answer to Individualism, the Liberal Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”
As a separate people, beginning right with Jesus, there was a consciousness that Christians, by becoming Christian, were separating themselves from their neighbors. They were no longer “in the world.” Jesus says it this way:
“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” John 15:19
Elsewhere it is put this way:
“For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Hebrews 13:14
This idea, by the way, forms the core of Augustine’s argument for believers, offering them comfort as the Roman Empire was in the process of passing away. We do not look to the glory and enduring of Rome for our strength. We have our eyes fixed on the City of God.
There are tangible political implications of this teaching. First of all, it is one of primary loyalty. As a Christian, your loyalty is always to Christ above all other loyalties and then secondly to the Church. Not so much to the institution, but to the community, the people who make up the nation of those who are “in Christ.” These are your people and this is your nation. So, you are not an American Christian. Instead, you are always a Christian living among the American people. This is an important distinction, one that has often got lost in the formation of America as a nation and empire. Because of the intentionally religious and Christian reasons which caused many of the early settlers to come to the New World, there was a sense that the process of national formation was intimately tied to the Christian faith. America had a “manifest destiny” from God. Seeing it this way, though, clouds and obscures what the Church is and what it’s purpose is. Christians do not seek an earthly kingdom. Their nation is the Church. They belong to a people eagerly awaiting the final revelation of God’s Kingdom. Christians do not need to establish a country, because they are a nation without a land of their own. We are sojourners among the nations of the earth. It is vital that we understand this point and keep coming back to it as we build out from this point.
This intentional nature of the community of Christ is the key reason for my hope that the Church will survive the political turmoil which seems just over the horizon. As something formed by the Father, bound together by his Spirit, united in Christ’s death and resurrection, we also benefit from the reality that the Church is not the work men. Rather, it is the work of God. God nurtures, protects and always preserves for himself a remnant, regardless of how corrupt, weak, distracted, co-opted or what not the Church becomes. God maintains the pathway to rebuild his community at any time, in any situation. Repent and believe. Be filled with the Spirit. Disciple one another.
The Christian Battlefronts
Because the Church is formed differently than other nations, through conversion and discipleship, its primary battles and battlegrounds are different than that of other nations. There are two main fields of battle for the Christian. The first is inward. Even though we have been made new in Christ (2 Cor 5:14), this newness remains veiled for the time being, hidden. Our struggle is the revelation of who we are in Christ, revealing it to ourselves and to the world. While other cultures may value the warrior with his sword and armor, the true hero in the Christian community is the person who has dedicated themselves to tearing open the curtain so that the world can see fully who they are “in Christ.” The spiritual path of the believer is our heroic journey:
“In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Hebrews 12:4
Our conquering hero is the person in whom Christ’s victory has been completely revealed.
Because we see the world, and the events which occur in the world, through the lens of Christ, we are not fooled by the rise and fall of nations. We watch other peoples come and go. We know that what is seen with the eye in the flux of history is just the surface layer of a much deeper, much more important fight. Ours is a battle fought in the heavenly realms, a supernatural war, ongoing now since the dawn of creation.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Ephesians 6:10-18
This is our warrior language. Ours is a spiritual war. Ours is not a historical battle. In many ways, the fact that we think in “historical” terms is already a threat to our Christian faith as historical thinking puts mankind at the center of the world’s events and not God. We as Christians are not really looking for “red Caesar,” or “the man of destiny” to come and “save the nation.” Christ is the Man of Destiny and we the Church are his nation. Our battle is the real battle, the one waged behind the curtain, the supernatural war fought against the “principalities and powers.” Again, we conquer through conversion. We fight the battle through prayer and through discipleship. We win when our Christian character reveals who we are “in Christ.” Jesus himself talks about this when he met Paul on the road to Damascus:
“‘ I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” Acts 26:17-18
This is our battle. We engage with Christ the battle against Satan for those who are in bondage to Satan. That means anyone who is not specifically “in Christ” is in some form or another a slave to the devil. Yes, that means even the people you think are generally “good people.” We wage war through conversion, repentance and faith, and the formation process of discipleship.
Much of the essence of who we are and the character of our relationship with the larger society is defined by Christ and his sacrifice. The Apostle Peter puts it this way, and rather than cut it up I will let you see the full passage:
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves.
“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:11-25
There is a lot going on here, but in its essence there are two theological dynamics at work shaping the whole passage. The first is the separateness of the Christian community. Wherever Christians find themselves, they should consider themselves to be aliens and foreigners in the land. The Church is a holy people living among, but apart from, the others who surround them. I reiterate, Christians are not really Americans, they are Christians who live among Americans.
Secondly, Christ is our example, our model in all things. That means we are not called primarily to “fight for what is right;” rather, we are called to emulate Christ, take up our cross and “suffer for what is right.” This act of self-conscious suffering for what it right is one of our primary weapons in revealing Christ’s defeat of Satan to a world still waiting for the Day of Judgement. We are a holy nation, set apart. It is our good deeds that mark us out. Because Christ suffered for us, we are called to follow in his footsteps. It is important to establish this at the outset, because, living in a world in which Christ has won the victory but that victory is not yet fully revealed, we will still face many choices in which the options are not good vs. evil, but rather a lesser evil vs. a greater evil. It is important in those moments to remember who and what we are. It is important to note that as the surrounding society becomes increasingly evil and immoral, it is vital that we lean on and into who we are at our core.
The Marks of the True Church
Looking at this question, it is good to think of ourselves as moving outward through a series of layers. We began with the Church as the community of believers. From there the next layer is to look at the Church as an institution. As we move to this next layer, one way of thinking about this whole bundle of issues is that the closer you are to the core of what the Church is, the assembly of saints, the more clear the choices become. The Church as an institution, begins to accumulate within itself some of the characteristics of politics and the political. So what is the role of the visible institution of the Church in society? Here, I betray more fully my roots in Protestant, specifically Reformed, theological thinking.
Part of the argument that drove the Protestant Reformation was the question of the proper role of the church in society. The reformers argued that part of what made the Church of the day corrupt was that it strayed from, or abandoned entirely, its true mission. It was entangling itself in politics. The Church, from its inception, was intended to be separate from the State and from the political more broadly. Some reformers argued that there were two marks of the true church, others three. I am of a tradition which considers the three marks of the Church to be:
“The true Church can be recognized
if it has the following marks:
The Church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel;
it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them;
it practices church discipline for correcting faults.
In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.” Belgic Confession Art. 29
What this lays out for us is the institutional program for the Church. If it strays from these three tasks of preaching, sacraments and discipline/discipling, the Church ceases to be what it is. If it ceases to practice these activities, it ceases to be “Church.” One of the great lacunae of our age is the loss of discipleship. It is easy to fall into a practice that allows us to relax our focus on discipleship and discipline.
Discipline is the negative function of calling people within the Church community to account for their actions. Although we strive to fully reveal who we are in Christ, we recognize that as we wait for Christ’s return, no one will live a perfect live. As long as one is truly repentant and places their faith in Christ and is trying to demonstrate the truth of both of those realities through their actions, this is enough to remain in good standing with the community. If one’s life is willfully sinful, unrepentant and evidencing a lack of faith, this person should be treated as an unbeliever and thus not a part of the Church community.
This negative function is the endpoint of a failure of the more positive function, that of discipleship, in which a person is trained in the ways of the faith, taught how to live as a believer, how to foster their faith and how to reveal who they are in Christ, making the life to come a lived reality today. This is, in my mind, the danger of the idea of Christendom, as well as the danger of growing up within a multi-generational church community. The temptation is to become lax, to assume that if “everyone” is a Christian, if “everyone” is under the auspices of the institutional Church, that “everyone” will just naturally imbibe Christian values and habits of life on their own by virtue of being part of the culture. Once you stop practicing discipleship, it is easy to let go of the practice of discipline. It is always a hard and difficult thing to declare someone who was once part of the community of believers no longer one of us, an outsider, an ex-communicant.
Why focus on this? As long as the Christian community is a small ghetto community relative to the larger society, the matter of Church discipline is largely one of spiritual formation. But as the Church conquers a society through conversion, how it relates to the political becomes ever more pressing. We will soon be discussing the “necessity” of politics in a still sinful world, but the two main visible roles that the Church has is vis a vis the political is the preaching of the Word, that is, prophetically calling political leaders to repentance and faith; as well as the “threat” of discipline. If a political leader’s actions are unbecoming those of a Christian, or the demands of the office require him to something that is the lesser evil, as part of the discipleship process he should be expected to repent, perhaps do penance as evidence of repentance, and recommit himself to living fully his Christian faith. Part of the burden of leadership in a broadly Christian society is that leaders are expected to be held to a higher standard. While that means that average folk may be able to engage this process privately, a public official should expect to be chastised, called to account and to repent publicly for their sins, no matter how necessary they were for the life of the State.
The Church, not the State, holds the keys of the kingdom. The role given the leadership of the Church is the power of binding and loosing, primarily though this ability to declare someone inside or outside the community of believers and thus inside or outside the grace of Christ Jesus. When the Church is a minority, outside the halls of political power, this is is largely a matter of internal Church affairs. But as the presence of the Church grows within a society, this role will interact with the political, with the State, primarily through this mechanism. This is also why the many divisions in the Church following the Protestant Reformation have weakened the public role of the church so significantly. It makes it hard to speak as a single voice, and enforce that voice, when the Church itself does not speak with one voice.
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This leads us the next layer. As the Church conquers the surrounding people through conversion, eventually, even if the Church itself wishes to remain outside of the political and the affairs of State, there will come a time when Christians are involved in politics. It may be that a Christian politician is converted. It may be that a Christian feels a vocational call into politics, to be a Christian presence within the realm of the political. Why can we call politics a form of Christian vocation? This is largely because God is King over all of life, not just the Church or one’s private life. God is Sovereign over your business, your schools, your unions, your hospitals. But he is also Sovereign over activities and fields of inquiry. God is Sovereign over art and media. He is Sovereign over fields like medicine and accounting. God is Sovereign over your wood shop or your farm. And he is Sovereign over the political.
This means that each of these activities can be and should be brought under the Lordship of Christ. The idea that “Church is Church and business is business” is not a thing in the Christian faith. A Christian businessman should be under the authority of God and the Church for the manner in which he conducts his business. The character of a the business of a Christian businessman should demonstrate the Sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Christ. All Christians should be conducting themselves as is fitting for a member of the community of Christ.
This also means that Christians should be asking the question, when they are out in the world, beyond the specific confines of the Christian community, what does it mean for me and my art, for example, that God is Sovereign over all things? What should it mean for art in general? What does it mean when I design software that God is Sovereign over all the world? What does it look like when God is Sovereign over my inquires into the physical nature of the creation? How does the Sovereignty of God shape not just my politics, but the whole realm of the political in general? Before one starts talking about things like “Christian Nationalism” it might be productive to spend some time mediating on the Sovereignty of God before marching off half cocked to the Capitol.
In the realm of politics this is especially important because I agree with Carl Schmitt that all law is an expression of morality. If our morality is informed by our faith, this means that the laws developed with the Sovereignty of God in mind should flow out of our faith response to God and his salvation. For the Christian there is never a public and private split. There is not one area where God is primary and others that run by a different set of rules. We live under the authority of God in all aspects of our life and this should impact all that we do.
Christian Realism and “Necessity”
All of this brings us to the final layer. We have been laying the ground work step by step, preparing ourselves to confront the world not in its idea form, but rather in its current state, corrupted by sin and evil. This reality of a sinful world will impose upon us certain exigencies. As we mentioned earlier, a sinful world will cause us to be confronted with choices that are not simple good and evil, but rather are between a lesser evil and a greater evil. There is a great temptation to rationalize “lesser evils” such that they become another form of the good. Especially if we are Christians, we want to be seen as being “good people.” No one wants to do evil, even if it is the lesser evil. So there is a perennial temptation to justify our actions as good, and this is one of the more corrupting forces, especially in politics.
The reality is that we live in a world of sin and evil. It was not always this way. The world was created good and then corrupted by human transgression. What this means is that things like violence, for example, were not intended by God to be part of the creation order. Violence is a byproduct of human sinfulness. There is no argument that can be made from a biblical perspective that it is, when push comes to shove, a “good.” This is where the subtle theological distinction of Jacques Ellul, the realm of “necessity,” is so helpful. He argues that violence, while never a “good” may be “necessary.” It might even be something commanded by God to deal with the realities of a sinful world. This does not mean that God, when he created the world, intended violence. It also means that part of the revealing of God’s saving work in Christ is the end of violence along with the end of other sins. It has always been this way:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:6-9
This said, within the context of a sinful world, the role of the state is that of violence. All states, even those that are majoritarian Christian, ones that could justifiably be called a “Christian” nation, are founded by and maintained by violence. This is just the way of things in a sinful world. There is a “necessity” to use the lesser evil of State violence to impose order, maintain discipline, mete out justice, and protect the people so as to prevent greater evils. Violence is not the only necessity which presses itself upon a state. Another is secrecy and deception. This means lies are an essential part of statecraft. It has been argued that advertising and propaganda is itself a form of violence against the human spirit. The modern State by necessity must use propaganda to manufacture the political consent of the people.
This also means that for the Christian the realm of politics is especially dangerous and corrosive upon one’s moral and faith life. It can also mean that those who are on the front lines, wielding violence on behalf of the state, also imperil themselves. Anyone who uses violence against another human cannot do so without it affecting them negatively in their spirit and soul. This is the burden of the State. This is the price of power. It is why power corrupts. It is also why it is a real challenge to talk about a purely “Christian” or “moral” politics. Ellul argues such a thing is an impossibility in a sinful world and ultimately leads to a politics that is either ineffectual or hypocritical. I encourage you to read more in these previous pieces of mine: “The Autonomy of Politics: The Political Illusion by Jacques Ellul” and “Necessity and Christian Realism: Jacques Ellul’s Reflections on Violence.”
This is why the two institutions of Church and State are able to work hand in hand for the betterment of a flourishing society. The Church is largely freed of burden of “necessity” and can thus play the role of prophet and priest, giving the call to repentance and administering the ministry of grace— although, as an aside, it may be necessary at times for the minority Christian community, not so much as a political entity per se, but as the Church community, to defend itself with violence. This allows the Church to minister grace and restoration to all its people, even those caught up in the necessities of the State. Even in a broadly Christian society the Church should retain and maintain the task of discipleship and discipline with vigor as part of its ministry of grace, especially to those on the front lines implementing state violence so that the broader population does not have to take up the task. Part of the public role of the Church are the rituals of repentance and penance, allowing for public restoration and the ministration of grace to the population.
There a number of subtle concepts at work here and this is but an introduction to the topic and some of the issues. It is important to see the relationship of Church and State as a series of theological issues nested within other theological issues. At times there are no easy answers, but hopefully this helps you think more theologically about the relationship between the Christian and the State as well as the Church and the State.