Thursday, July 31, 2014

Christian Politics and H. Richard Niebuhr

I must admit that politics is one of those areas of discussion that I try to say clear of with many people because it can be so divisive. If I'm going to draw a hard line in the sand, I want to make sure that it is for the sake of the Gospel. However, I do believe that it is important for Christians to take part in the political process in order to be "salt and light" in our world. At the same time, we should realize that our particular political party or concern is not synonymous with God's kingdom. The only hope for the world is the Gospel and finally the reign of Christ in the New Creation, so how does this fit within Niebuhr's Christ and Culture paradigms?

In 1951 H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book called Christ and Culture, which presented the model that is still commonly used when Christians discuss how Christians should engage the culture. He believed that there were five prevalent ways the Church has viewed culture:

1. Christ against culture
2. Christ of culture
3. Christ above culture
4. Christ and culture in paradox
5. Christ transforming culture

When we look at Nieburhr's five approaches to "Christ and culture", the "Christ transforming culture" model is highly compatible with Christians engaging in political spheres. Dennis Hollinger writes, "Adherents emphasize that God the creator and God the redeemer are one, and thus redemption is not a move away from the world but a transformation of the world that God created and still rules." John Calvin saw that "in some measure, begins the heavenly kingdom in us, even now upon earth, and in this mortal and evanescent life commences immortal and incorruptible blessedness, while to the latter it is assigned, so long as we live among men, to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church, to adapt our conduct to human society, to form our manners to civil justice, to conciliate us to each other, to cherish common peace and tranquility." According to Jonathan Blanchard, "every true minister of Christ is a universal reformer, whose business it is, so far as possible, to reform all the evils which press on human concerns." Matthew 5:13-16 makes it clear that we are to be salt and light in our world and to "let [our] light shine before others." As Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, "the church is the body of Christ...but...we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect."

Understanding that Christ wants to use His body as a transforming agent in society, Christians can be free to lobby and vote for better laws to effect change. However, I tend to side with Stephen Carter who believes that "religions...will almost always lose their best, most spiritual selves when they choose to be involved in the partisan, electoral side of American politics" (as quoted in Hollinger's Choosing the Good: Christian Ethics In a Complex World), so I feel that it is probably best for the Church at large to stick to a prophetic model, using general principles and middle axioms. In working for Christ's kingdom, we must not forget what Jesus told Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world" (John 18:36). It becomes very easy for Christians to slip into the optimism and softening of the harder teachings of the "Christ of culture" model.

May we find some help in the "Christ against culture" paradigm? I'll look at this in my next post. In the mean time, please share your thoughts on how you understand the Christian's role in politics.


  1. In Lutheran exegesis, there is the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. This does a great job of not confusing, but properly distinguishing the role of the secular and the sacred. This along with the doctrine of vocation were most helpful to me in this area. I'm not sure if you are familiar with these doctrines, but I recommend checking them out if you get a chance.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jonathan. Yes, I am familiar with the Two Kingdom doctrine. I am actually going to talk about it a couple of posts from now. Thanks for the resource. I will make sure to check it out before I write.