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New Horizons

The Church, History, and Politics

Greg Forster

The problem of the church and politics is really just a part of the larger problem of how the church relates to society at large. In the American church today, some are alarmed by what they see as a catastrophic collapse of the church’s influence over society; many of them have sought to regain that influence through politics. Others believe the true church never really had much influence over society and are frustrated by demands that we seek it; many of them have sought to keep the church out of politics.

Missing in most of these discussions is an understanding of history. The church needs to return to history, along with its study of the Bible and theology, before it can develop a sound framework for finding its proper place within twenty-first-century American civilization.

New Covenant, New Approach

The Bible obviously provides general moral principles to guide us, but it does not provide a detailed blueprint for how to run a society in the context of the new covenant. In the Old Testament era, God’s people were called to be a distinct civilization; hence, they were given a blueprint for how that civilization should run. But in the New Testament era, God’s people are called to be members of every civilization.

Accordingly, the Lord gives us no single blueprint. He calls us to be good citizens in the context of many different societies. Our task is to figure out what it means to live out biblical principles in the context of our culture.

We are social creatures, and human life means life lived in society. Hence, our walk with Jesus means a walk with him in our daily lives as participants in twenty-first-century American civilization. The Christian life unfolds not only in our prayer closets but also in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and civil communities—including our political participation, which has its proper place in God’s plan as one social structure among many.

History and Social Life

Finding the path to good and godly citizenship in contemporary America means, among much else, learning its history. The meaning and content of “good citizenship” in our particular society is shaped by its particular history as well as by the general moral principles we get from the Bible.

God is providentially at work in history, through all the social processes going on around us. It is part of our task, drawing on biblical knowledge and also knowledge of history and society, to discern what God is doing in our civilization and how he is calling us to be part of his work. Our redemption involves learning how to become a force for good in our homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities.

Abstract ethical principles and general admonitions to “be good” are insufficient. Every Christian is called to become a student of history and society, in order to discern what God is calling him or her to be and do in daily social life. An important way in which God equips Christians to do this is through the church. Equipping congregants for social discernment and full-time discipleship is a crucial part of making disciples (Matt. 28:19).

History and Church Wisdom

We need a return to history in another respect as well. Just as our society has a history that we need to know in order to figure out how to live godly lives within it, so also the church has a history from which we need to learn.

The church and society have been in tension in every age. By the power of his sovereign Spirit working in the church, the Lord has raised up great teachers and leaders to grapple with this problem. Just as the church’s understanding of theology has unfolded and deepened progressively in history, so has its understanding of political and social engagement.

We must maintain a critical perspective, of course—keeping an eye out for errors and remembering that our own historical situation is unique. But there is much we can learn from how Justin Martyr, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, C. S. Lewis, and others wrestled with these questions.

Freedom of Religion

I believe the greatest challenge of our time is the ongoing development of freedom of religion as a social model. Freedom of religion is a precious treasure, but it also presents significant challenges to both the church and our society.

Freedom of religion finds its roots in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wars of religion. During its early development, Christianity became an official religion. But then the Reformation created persistent social disagreement about what Christianity was. This theological dispute became political due to the interdependence of church and state, producing some of the cruelest wars and persecutions in history.

Freedom of religion was established as an attempt to maintain civic consensus on public morality (don’t kill, don’t steal, keep your promises, help your neighbor), but disentangle the state from strict confessional commitments. This social model found its most distinct and profound expression in the founding of America. You can’t understand America, and thus you can’t be a good American citizen, without understanding the blessings and challenges of religious freedom.

Eroding Consensus

Freedom of religion has largely worked, but it has also generated many new challenges. The main challenge today is maintaining a stable moral consensus. No society can survive unless its members broadly agree on what is right and fair in public life.

Before there was freedom of religion, societies maintained moral consensus through an official community religion. People knew, broadly, what was legitimate in public life because clerical officers had institutional authority to draw the boundaries. Early Christianity adopted this model because no alternative had ever existed, and no need was felt to change it.

In the seventeenth century, Protestants and Catholics were in conflict over theology, but had enough real agreement on public morality to build a common society. Early advocates of religious freedom were confident that such agreement could be sustained without a state religion. However, sustaining moral consensus over the long term has turned out to be a major challenge.

We shouldn’t go back to state religion, and we couldn’t even if we wanted to. Today’s challenges can be met only if Americans rebuild a genuinely shared moral consensus. Americans of different beliefs must once again—as they have so many times before—find ways to live together in peace with their disagreements.

Moreover, the breakdown of moral consensus has led to the politicization of all areas of life, as differing belief groups have increasingly used power to resolve moral differences. Politics needs to be returned to its proper scope and basis in the rule of law, justice, and civility.

Dangers and Promise

As Christians, we are called to bless our neighbors by being good citizens. If we don’t help our country overcome this urgent challenge, how can we call ourselves good citizens?

This does not mean that the institutional church as such must become involved in institutional politics. That would not be working to rescue freedom of religion; it would be working to undermine it.

And there are many dangers for us to be wary of. Throughout the twentieth century, unscrupulous politicians had great success manipulating pastors and churches for their own ends. Shame on us if we go down that road again.

On the other hand, we cannot build a wall between “church life” and “world life,” and it would be dangerous to try. That’s exactly how the medieval church went off the rails. Without becoming captive to politicians, pastors need to learn how to call their congregants to good citizenship and help them discern what good citizenship requires.

God doesn’t owe us success, but there are biblical grounds for this approach. The doctrine of common grace, which was strongly and consistently affirmed by Calvin and virtually the entire Reformed theological tradition until the twentieth century, teaches us that God is sovereignly at work in the processes of human civilization. Discipleship involves learning to cooperate with this common grace in daily life. Calvin rightly insisted that without this approach, the church would slide back into Roman sacerdotalism.

Since Christians have died to self and are genuinely concerned for their neighbors’ good, we are perfectly positioned to lead the way in reaching across divides to rebuild social bonds. If we don’t, who will? And what will we say to our Lord if we don’t even try?

The author has written five books, including The Contested Public Square and The Joy of Calvinism. He attends Covenant Presbyterian Church in New Berlin, Wis. New Horizons, February 2012.

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