Church and State Postscript: What Now?

Church and State Postscript: What Now?

The election is now behind us. Perhaps you are distraught that the Democrats gained control of the House. Or maybe you are on the other side, upset that they did not gain the Senate too. Or maybe you are one of those in the middle who thinks a divided government is a good thing because it forces compromise. 

In any case, we have spent multiple weeks laying out fundamental Scriptural principles that should guide us politically: the sovereignty of God; the Lordship of Jesus; and the church as God’s kingdom. We followed that with articles on the mission and method of the church: to call people out of the world and into the kingdom of God, not through coercion but through visible witness. And our sermon last Sunday morning focused on placing our trust in God rather than any earthly institution, as we are wont to do sometimes with our government. Now, let us consider where we go from here. You see, if our analysis of the issues is correct, then the church in America is very much on the wrong track. Change is in order.

Let me make it clear here so there is no misunderstanding: I am happy, personally, to live in the United States of America, for a variety of reasons. Christians, in particular, have been truly blessed by the religious toleration we have enjoyed in this land. There were many places historically – and there still are many places in the world today – where that freedom does not exist. I do not take that for granted. But I also do not want to conflate my country with the kingdom of God, where my true identity lies.

With that said, how do we specifically apply the larger principles we have laid out?  Several issues related to our main lines of inquiry are worthy of reflection in their own right. But, in light of our government of, by, and for the people, perhaps the most pressing question is how we should vote – or, indeed, whether or not Christians ought to vote at all.

I think we can note a couple of points in passing to help guide us in this area.

First, not all elections are equal. In terms of the issues we have raised, there is a great deal of difference in voting for city council or Sheriff or the like and United States Senator or President.

Secondly, one could argue that Christians can enter the public square in voting in ways that are consistent with the principles we have expounded.  Daryl Hart, in his book A Secular Faith, has convincingly argued that Christians can vote for policies that are favorable to themselves so long as it is not done on Christian grounds, as such political ends misconstrue our purpose. Another scholar, John Nugent, contends that Christians should consider the prophetic criteria which God used to judge nations rather than applying the standards he has for his people, recognizing the distinction between his kingdom and those of the world. 

These are merely examples, but they are good, thoughtful ones. I do not promote either of them as definitive answers, as my own personal resolution differs. And you might find another way to work this out for yourself. Our focus has been on God’s people collectively, his holy nation, and how it should orient itself toward the nations of this world; individual application of these principles will conceivably vary based on circumstance.  The goal is not to make some sort of dogmatic prescription, but to cause us to reflect more deeply on an issue I feel we often take for granted.

It is often said that we are in the midst of a “culture war” as a rallying cry for political action. This ignores the larger truth that God’s people are always in a culture war, as we hold to the alien values of the kingdom of God. This was as true, even more true, for the early church in a hostile, pagan society, as it is for us today. But Scripture lays out a very different battle plan than that we draw up: radical witness that we are God’s servants, living lives conformed to the submissive, self-emptying shape of Jesus, calling others out of the world and into God’s nation.

The question, then, is not one of transforming culture—the church will always exist in a foreign culture no matter when or where we live—but how we confront culture in any age.

Will we be conformed to the world and its wisdom? Or to Christ?

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