While Evangelicals value the separation of the church’s worship and the state’s intervention, the notion that Christian theology is a-political has finally run its course. The rise of misinformation in political media, coupled to the credulity of Christians when it comes to conspiracy theories, shows the need for a robust political theology.
David French defines how deficient our theological engagement with politics has become in a recent article:
By the time you reach middle age, you’ve been exposed to countless books, Sunday School lessons, speaking series, YouTubes, personal testimonies, retreats, and small group study sessions that help you engage with virtually every life challenge.
This is not the case with politics. Not at all.
With politics, the theological “training” consists mainly of education about issues and controversies that Christians should be aware of and concerned about. Conservative Christian political engagement, for example, is largely defined by the defense of religious liberty and the protection of the unborn. These issues are important, and our faith principles should inform our political positions.
He is right. Evangelical engagement with politics tends to follow the lines of a few important ethical or political issues (which we rightly focus on). But we do not really have a full understanding of how we ought to engage—and how we ought not to engage as “political beings”!
French continues: “We do not, however, spend nearly enough time learning how to live as political beings within a political community. We connect our faith with our political objectives but do far less work connecting our faith to our political conduct or our theological priorities.. This is not the way we engage with other significant areas of life.”
Granting his argument, we have to ask why Christians have not educated each other on theological politics? It is not as if Scripture is silent on the issue.
Indeed, Scripture and Christian theology require thinking politically. Some North American evangelicals may have pushed the Book of Revelation into the future without reference to the church, but the book’s intent is deeply political. John writes to seven churches who will enter into tribulation partly because Rome demanded worship of its gods and wanted Christians to follow its way of life. The seven churches needed to discern how they related to the polis to faithfully testify to Jesus Christ.
Paul and Peter in their respective ways provide Christians guidance in their duties to the nation in which they find themselves. The Old Testament likewise fills its pages with theological wisdom and injunctions for political theology.
Nothing in Scripture requires that Christian theology and politics have nothing to do with one another. The Gospel in its proclamation subverted the Empire’s proclamation that Caesar is Lord. No one could claim that Christ is Lord without at least considering that this also means that Caesar was not.
The Soul of the World
Granted, the power of Christ’s kingdom belongs to another world (John 18:36). Nothing in Scripture expects the formation of a Christian state as opposed to non-Christian states. But Scripture teaches Christians how to interact and contribute to the political world.
For what is the political world except a well-organized society? That wellness derives in part from the Christian duty to be the salt and light of the earth. Writing in the second century, the anonymous author of the letter to Diognetus defines Christians as being to the world what the soul is to the body.
We energize and give life to the world. We perfect the world’s habits and capacities. In short, Christians realized they were not meant to be the leaders and emperors of the world. In fact, God calls the weak to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27). But we do pursue truth, justice, and goodness. And we do so as an example, as the soul guides the body, so do Christians lead the world in holiness.
We do so not through the power of sea beast nor the deceitful words of the land beast (Rev 13; 17–18). We do so through a patient and enduring testimony to Jesus.
Despite Scripture and the claims of Christian theology, Christians have understudied our relationship to the polis. Obviously, here I am making an overstatement since history rarely is that simple.
But this line of thought at least potentially has led many of us to affirm something right: the state should not impose its will on the church’s worship before thinking something entirely wrong: the church, therefore, has no real interaction with the polis.
It does. It is the soul to the world’s body. The soul does not fight wars with spears. It is the higher principle of the irreducible union of soul and body—what a human being is. That’s who we are because Christ saved us and gave us his Spirit. We have become, in Paul’s language, “one new human being” (Eph 2:15; ἕνα καινὸν ἄνθρωπον).
Yet we have often invested ourselves into a political allegiance with a particular party. We have then come to believe in one lie or the other: whichever lie the media now proclaims since we follow our party’s media partner. We may recognize this bias. If we do, then many of us turn to skepticism and become credulous of rather incoherent conspiracy theories (5G will activate a secret implant that vaccines put into our bodies, for example).
The Way Forward
A short article like this will not provide an antidote to our current need. Books can do that. But I hope this article at least shows that we need to move forward. The choice between the mainstream media and shadow organizations seems like a bad one for a Christian.
We must reclaim our identities (and the reality that the identity suggests). We are the soul to the world, the light on the hill, and the salt and light. We do not create kingdoms for our kingdom is not of this world. We are the kingdom insofar as we act on the principles that are otherworldly—that is, we live by the Spirit.
This deeply political affirmation means we testify to Jesus. In so doing, we may deny the emperor’s imperious demands—something much easier to do in a North American democracy than it was in the first and second centuries.
We not only testify to Jesus by our words but by a whole life lived in and by the Spirit. This soulish existence gives life and light to the world. But it requires some deep thinking about the nature of Christian theology and how we can practically impact the world around us.
One place to start learning this process is in the works of Oliver O’Donovan. At least, I plan to spend some time in his works to help equip me to understand my obligations and duties as a Christian today.