Friday, August 29, 2014

Is There A New Model For Christians Engaging the Culture...Even Politics?

Photo by Vox Efx via
I must admit that I don't love thinking or talking about politics a great deal. As I've said before, it tends to stir up the pot and lead into areas of conversation that I don't know a lot about. If I'm going to get into a heated discussion, I would prefer that it be over theology, biblical studies, or even bacon rather than politics. However, I can't let myself slide on the subject and still consider myself an aspiring Christian intellect. must all understand exactly what role we, as Christians, have in engaging our culture--even the messy quagmire that is politics.

Previously, I have written about examining the subject through the lens of H. Richard Niebuhr's five Christ and culture paradigms. To be honest, I really only tackled three of them (Christ against culture, Christ transforming culture, and Christ and culture in paradox). The main reason for this abridged treatment was that I was sticking with material that I had written about earlier and considered the stronger models. There are elements of these three that I like, but none of them completely rings true for me as a stand-alone approach. 

A Critique of Niebuhr's Whole Framework

 In his book Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century, Dr. Timothy C. Tennent critiques Niebuhr's Christ and Culture paradigm in four ways:

"Niebuhr's understanding of culture was constructed on the foundation of secular anthropology...Because he understands culture as 'the work of  men's minds and hands,' he inadvertently secularizes culture, creating an unbiblical dichotomy between human cultural activity and Christ...To bracket God from culture is an effective denial of the Incarnation, whereby Jesus stepped into our history--into human culture--as a particular man...[His] entire perspective on culture assumes a Christendom framework...[And his] conception of culture is not set within an eschatological framework that sees the future as already breaking in to the present order...Niebuhr never articulates an understanding of the Holy Spirit as God's empowering presence bringing the New Creation into the present order. Instead, his secularized view of culture, which puts God in a supracultural category, robs his entire project of the eschatological perspective that is so central to all Christian thinking" (163-166).
Dr. Timothy C. Tennent

A New Model?

Critiques are all well and good (some people seem to think it's a spiritual gift), but is there a helpful solution--another way of looking at this whole Christ and culture interaction? Dr. Tennent says, "Yes," and proposes a Trinitarian, "New Creation" Theology of Culture. He presents it this way:

The Foundation of the model is that...

1. The Father is the source, redeemer, and final goal of culture.
    "God is a sending God. However, it should be clear that whether God the Father is sending prophets, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or His church into the world, His ultimate purpose is to draw entire peoples and cultures and, indeed, the entire cosmos into communion with His divine life" (177).

2. The Son is God's embodiment in human culture.
     The life of Jesus shows us that God the Father validates "the sanctity of human culture." Jesus was a real person who lived in a real culture. But Jesus' life also provides us "the basis for cultural critique."

3. The Holy Spirit is the agent of the New Creation
     At Pentecost, Christ empowered his followers to be his witnesses in the world--witnesses of the New Creation--by giving them the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the One who transforms.

Once he lays this foundation, Tennent moves on to spell out the key features that emerge from the New Creation model. "First, as Christians, our primary cultural identity is in the New Creation...Second, we recognize that ultimate meaning can be found only in the triune God...Third, the church is the corporate, community witness to every culture of the New Creation" (187-189).


You may be thinking, "Great! That may be a better model for thinking about missions and how we interact with culture in general, but how does this new model really speak to how we tackle politics in particular?"

Here's how I see it working. Christians are called to be involved in God's transforming work in the world because in the cross and resurrection the New Creation has begun, even though it is not fully realized. We should fully engage our culture as citizens who's home is in the New Creation. This means calling out the sinful patterns of this world by preaching and living out the Gospel. The hope and the transformation is found in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ rather than in a political system.

Christians have effected change in our world and politics in such ways as helping to end slavery in the Western world and ending apartheid in South Africa, but Christians don't always persuade governments towards a Christian-worldview.  If culture refuses to change or maintains laws which Christians deem immoral, the boldest and prophetic statement the Church can make is one of civil disobedience, saying, "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29). Jesus told His disciples that He was sending them out as sheep among wolves after all.

In America we have presupposed a Christendom framework for far too long. Look around. Christendom has collapsed, and the Church doesn't have the power it once did in this country, or the rest of the West for that matter. Christendom is about having the balance of power. But neither the early Church (pre-Constantine) nor Jesus Himself wielded power. The examples of Christ and the early Church are of loving sacrifice as witnesses to the truth. The Gospel is about the weak things of the world shaming the wise--strength in weakness.

So, if it is possible to achieve healing for the broken structures of our world by speaking within the political sphere, just as Joseph, Esther, or Daniel did, then I believe Christians have the duty to be involved in the process. But, if governments are unwilling to surrender to the Gospel, our duty is to peaceably stand for the truth through non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.

What I propose is not the most popular model at the moment, but it is the one that I find in Scripture. Does this model make sense within the canon of Scripture? What arguments do you find that may contradict this view? Please share your thoughts.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Is It A Paradox To Be A Christian Engaged In Politics?

Can Christians be simultaneously committed to Jesus Christ and to the fallen and broken structures of our culture? The Christ and culture in paradox paradigm would say, “yes!” After all, we are all fallen human beings and cannot escape our broken world. In Martin Luther's thinking this was due to the fact that Christians are simul justus et peccator--simultaneously just and sinner. So what then does this mean for Christian involvement in politics?

In two of my previous posts, I addressed H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture paradigms and began to ask how Christians are to relate to their culture, especially in regards to politics. First we looked at "Christ transforming culture" then at "Christ against culture." Finding neither one of these 100% satisfactory, I then asked the question of whether the "Christ and culture in paradox" model might be the balance I find in the Scriptures. So let's have a look and see just what this model proposes and what its strengths and weaknesses are.

Perhaps the best way to define this paradigm is that it proposes that Christians can and should be simultaneously committed to Christ and the governmental structure--paradoxically holding to the separation of Church and State as two realms that are mutually exclusive, while believing that both realms are divinely instituted by God to govern in harmony with each other. Niebuhr often referred to people in this camp as "Dualists," who keep Christ and Culture separate while being a part of both. He gives Martin Luther as an example of this way of thinking, and, indeed, among Lutherans it is known as Two Kingdoms Theology.

This lengthy quotation by C. H. Little explains this view quite nicely:

“We Lutherans should honor the State as an institution of God for the regulation of the outward affairs of men, that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives here upon earth. God has given us this institution “for the punishment of evil doers and for the praise of them that do well” [1 Peter 2:14]. And for the execution of this purpose God has bestowed upon it the sword. The State has authority from God to employ force where this is necessary for the accomplishment of its ends.

The Church also is a Divine institution, but its realm is quite different from that of the State. It is limited to spiritual affairs. It touches matters which the State cannot reach -- religion, conscience, the thoughts and intents of the heart. God has entrusted it with the means of grace and has laid upon it the obligation to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. The Church’s work is in a word evangelization. The Church has no sword but the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. She employs no force, but uses only the persuasive power of the Word. Church and State observing their appropriate spheres should dwell together in harmony. But the Reformed conception of the Church as a theocracy is strong; and the idea that people may be made righteous by governmental agencies has found a lodging even among Lutherans. And especially when some issue, like prohibition, comes to the front, representing itself as a moral issue, we find Lutheran bodies joining them in bombarding the government in the name of the Church to enact such legislation. They seem to think that the chief duty of the Church is to reform the world and set it right. They fail to realize that the Church in thus seeking to invade the province of the State is removing the only guarantee that the State may not someday reverse the process and invade the sphere of the Church by endeavoring to regulate its internal affairs.” (From Disputed Doctrines [Burlington, Iowa: Lutheran Literary Board,1933], pp. 88-90.)

The "Christ and culture paradox" or Two Kingdoms Doctrine seems like a good solution at this point, since it realizes that there will always be sin in government (because government is made up of sinful human beings), and that the Church is a presence of God's grace in the world that will effect change. Though it realizes the tension between our faith and sinful politics, it "looks only for resolution between the tensions" at Christ's return. Until then we are dual citizens who need to respect the sovereignty of both realms.

However, I, among others, believe that this model tends to separate Christian faith and the world in which we live. Operating within this model, Christians could tend towards viewing their convictions as personal and not work towards change in the world, allowing the political world to run by its own rules. Mr. Little describes the Church’s role as Word and Sacrament, but wouldn’t that include bringing the reality of those truths to bear upon our world, including the structures that control our everyday lives. It was because of the Gospel that men like William Wilberforce worked tirelessly to change the laws of England against slavery. John Wesley preached numerous sermons that called for the Gospel to call into question unjust laws and work for their transformation. We are whole people—not dual people. How can we serve two masters?

While I agree that Christians cannot and should not use force to evangelize, nor look to political structures and answers for transforming our world into the coming Kingdom of God, I do believe that the Church has a responsibility to be a light to the nations in such a way that “they may see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] Father in heaven” (see Matthew 5:14-16).

In Luther’s day, both politics and the Church looked very different than they do in our present context. Kings and Popes still ruled. The common people had little to no voice in the workings of either institution. So, I ask my Lutheran friends how living in a republic with voter responsibilities and rights plays out in the current workings of the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. I personally don’t see it as the best solution, but I would enjoy hearing from you on just how a Christian is to engage the culture—particularly politics.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Should Christians Be Against Culture?: Thinking Politics with H. Richard Niebuhr

In my last post, I began looking at Christian politics and H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture paradigms. First I looked at the "Christ transforming culture" model, its strengths and weaknesses. How are we to understand a Christian's responsibility when it comes to something so corrupt and corrupting as politics? Some prominent Christian figures have opted for the "Christ transforming culture" paradigm, using their colleges, churches, and para-churches to sway the political climate and legislate change towards a new Christendom. However, like I said before "it becomes very easy for Christians to slip into the optimism and softening of the harder teachings of the "Christ of culture." So what about looking to the "Christ against culture" model?

The "Christ against culture" model is characterized by a radical withdrawal from the culture. Over the millennia, numerous groups have pulled away from society to form their own--the Essenes, cenobite monks, and the Amish to name a few. They are characterized by separatism and quietism. Perhaps the theme verse for this paradigm would be "Do not love of the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John 2:15) without the tempering of John 3:16.

One of the strengths of "Christ against culture" is that it calls the Church to a standard of holy separateness that God requires when scripture says, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). In this way Christians become a counter-culture that is free from the entanglements of social mandates, being fully able to speak prophetically to the culture without anything to lose. It acknowledges that no matter what society ultimately does "we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15). This separate identity in the minds of believers is where I see the strength of this reaching its limit.

For the "Christ against culture" model there is no political engagement. There is also no hope for the world at large. All those stories about Jesus hanging out with tax-collectors and prostitutes become irrelevant anomalies. All of those those accounts of Paul engaging the Roman authorities in the book of Acts make little sense.  Jesus was against the evil elements of His culture, but Jesus did not pull out of His culture altogether. He celebrated Jewish feasts (even ones not specifically mandated in the OT, such as Hanukkah--the Feast of Dedication), and He continued to teach in synagogues and worship in the temple. If we are going to be thinking Christians who make sense of the New Testament and who follow Christ, we dare not jettison these stories. We "must walk as Jesus did" (1 John 2:6).

Of the five "Christ and culture" models, which are left for us to consider as viable options? What about "Christ and culture in paradox"? What do you think? Is it possible to be a political Christian? In what way?