How should Christians engage the culture, view politics and contend with their political and ideological opponents?
It’s a deeply important question. The answer will have great ramifications for how (and whether) Christians get involved in issues affecting their communities, how (and if) Christians will impact society at large, and how non-Christians will be treated as a result.
At one end of the spectrum are those who assert that Christians shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues and politics at all. They view it as inherently dirty and pointless. “Your vote doesn’t matter,” some may claim as a justification for political indifference. Or they see it as a distraction from the “main thing.”
On the other end of the spectrum are those who become so invested in politics that they jettison any semblance of Christian morality in pursuit of unconditional victory over their political opponents and ideological rivals.
But what does a proper, well-formed and intelligent theology of Christian political and cultural engagement look like?
Let’s consider the following four factors.
Christians Move Towards Activism, Not Apathy
Aristotle asserted in his Politics that “man is by nature a political animal.” Politics is the negotiation of our public life together. This cannot be avoided because to be human is to be social.
According to the philosopher, mankind necessarily creates, considers and gets involved in politics because of two distinguishing factors which elevate man above other animals. Christians would say these factors are a part of our nature as persons made in the imago dei – the very image and likeness of God.
First, mankind has a capacity for speech. By it, we create relationships, consider opinions, express disagreements and communicate ideas.
Second, mankind has the capacity for moral reasoning. “It is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities,” Aristotle wrote.
In other words, politics naturally results from mankind’s nature. We can know the difference between right and wrong, we can communicate our opposing ideas, we naturally form communities and partnerships with other human beings and therefore, we have politics.
“It is partnership in these things (speech and reason) that makes a household and a city-state,” the philosopher wrote. “It is clear therefore that the state is also prior by nature to the individual; for if each individual when separate is not self-sufficient, he must be related to the whole state as other parts are to their whole.”
Therefore, government is not, as some conservatives argue, a “necessary evil.” Rather, it exists due to the nature of mankind and by the will of God (Romans 13:1) to promote what is good and punish evil.
As a result, Christians do not have the option to take the easy way out, consider themselves “above the world” and refuse to engage the culture and politics. By our nature, and by God’s design for human beings, we must involve ourselves in politics. This is part of the fulfillment of Jesus’ second great command, “To love your neighbor as yourself.”
Christians Make Enemies for the Right Reasons
This may upset our modern Christian sensibilities, but Christians should not always be nice. Jesus Christ Himself – the God-man – was not always nice.
Consider Jesus’ challenge to the Rich Young Man in Matthew 19. After exhorting him to sell his possessions and follow Him, “when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful.” That doesn’t seem very nice.
Are Christians today willing to risk relationships and cause others sorrow in calling them to live in accordance with the truth?
Or how about Jesus’ command to His twelve Apostles to leave behind those who do not receive the Gospel?
“And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matthew 10:14, ESV).
Or how about Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25), His insulting language (Matthew 23:33), His “hate” of the works of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6) and His statement that He came “not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34)?
None of these statements sound very nice. And yet, Jesus Christ was perfect – in virtue, character, relationships and morals. He is our example.
According to Scripture, there must be room for righteous anger in our theology.
In other words, niceness is not a Christian virtue. Kindness is. Faith, hope and love are virtues. And sometimes, love requires speaking tough truths and placing our relationships at risk.
Additionally, we should recognize that there will be people who deliberately choose to reject the Gospel of their free will; God will judge them as a result. Christians are not called to be friends with everyone. Individuals have the capacity to deliberately choose grave evil and refuse to repent. For them, Christians can “shake off the dust from [our] feet.”
Christians Speak Truth to a Hostile Culture
Christians should certainly not unnecessarily cause strife or speak imprudently. If individuals reject us, it should be because of our message – not the messenger.
And yet, that doesn’t mean our message cannot occasionally have a sharp or even a harsh tone. Consider the Imprecatory Psalms, ones where the psalmist invokes judgement and curses upon his enemies and the enemies of God.
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock! (Psalms 137:8-9, ESV).
That is harsh language indeed.
Or consider the following psalm:
The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.
Let him rain coals on the wicked;
fire and sulfur and a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
(Psalm 11:5-6, ESV).
Christians must speak truth to a hostile culture – and sometimes, that may involve severe language. This is clearly biblical and godly. Now Christians should not always speak this way. And we should ask for wisdom and have discernment when doing so. But nonetheless, speaking truth can involve a condemnation of evil, and yes, sometimes of individuals who practice evil.
Christians Are Willing to Suffer
Lastly, Christians should be willing to suffer. It’s easy in modern America to live comfortably and forget that suffering and persecution are supposed to be a part of the Christian’s life. Romans 8:16-17 says,
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (emphasis added).
And 1 Peter 4:12-13 says,
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (emphasis added).
To be heirs of God means we must suffer. And we suffer by being at clear odds with the spirit of the Age.
Consider Jack Phillips, Barronelle Stutzman, Riley Gaines, and Aaron and Melissa Klein. All have been willing to suffer immensely for the sake of their Christian witness. They are models for how Christians should be willing to live in an increasingly secularized culture.
In our pursuit to engage the culture and get involved in politics, Christians will not always get it right in each circumstance. But we should be thoughtful and biblically faithful when carrying out our mission to be salt and light in a very dark world.
For as the darkness grows, every ray of light shines even brighter.
As we engage the culture, the balance is not between nice and not-nice, but our fidelity to equal measures of grace and truth, just like Jesus (John 1:14). May God give us the grace to know truth, speak truth, practice wisdom, and walk in the light and in the fear of the Lord.
Photo from Getty Images.