Written by Dr. Justin Gohl
Tuesday, 07 February 2012 00:00
In the thick of the political season as we are—and ever seem to be—it seems it might be cathartic (both for me and perhaps you) to reflect on the perennial tensions that I suspect most Christians face with respect to Christian identity and this-worldly political realities. And more specifically, to broach the question: what is particularly at stake when we set this tension within the frame of a missional understanding of theology and Church life?
The first and most logical place to start any reflection on this topic is the “in but not of” principle—that Christians live in and relate to this world as “sojourners,” as people who are defined primarily by both an eternal, vertical relationship with God and an eschatological, horizontal participation in the new creation God is bringing and will bring about, and only secondarily then by present material or historical realities (e.g., political, economic, geographical, etc.).
The perennial irony to such a self-understanding is that, refusing to be a full “participant” in the present state of affairs cannot help but be understood as a political posture, and one that usually brings charges of “misanthropy” and then persecution. If Jesus is Lord, as Christians confess, then Caesar is not! Much recent discussion of the Apostle Paul has been an unpacking of the implications of this very confession for Paul’s articulation of the gospel.
But what else is our mission as the Church but to bear witness to and embody this confession? The mission of the Church assumes the “otherness” of its identity and the reality which it confesses and seeks to embody. The Church’s life is its “politics,” then.
This is why, within a missional understanding of Church life/theology, it is essential to keep a clear formal and material distinction between who the Church is and what the Church does as the Church and what the Church or Christians might do, or who they might be, in connection with this-worldly, non-eschatological realities such as civic or political engagement. In practical terms, one important consequence of this should be a retrieval of the sacredness of Christian worship, especially on Sunday. This being a time when Christians, and any who might hear God’s call to assemble with the people of God (“seekers” perhaps), are brought into contact with transcendent reality, with the immanent/transcendent God and with a foretaste of the eschatological life to come with God’s redeemed people and renewed world.
It really is hard to fit much of any of this-worldly political discussion/reality into Christian worship without betraying the very essence of this worship, isn’t it? Of course, there is certainly room for Christian liberty here and for differences in traditions and their respective emphases. And yet there is probably a place for equal-opportunity criticism as well. On one end of the spectrum, perhaps we let nationalistic (perhaps even militaristic?) themes or “culture-war” issues crowd out or confuse the transcendent identity and reality our worship is to actualize. On another end of the spectrum, perhaps we sanction rhetoric that traffics in classism (of defining people in terms of socioeconomic status [as so perceived]) or that injects reductionistic interpretations of complex geopolitical realities (and of what Christians should supposedly think about them), turning the Church’s worship into an occasion to rhetorically separate ourselves from “those people”—indeed, “those Christians”—who just don’t “get it.”
Yet, while there is a danger in confusion and/or reductionism in worship, there is also, in a broader perspective, the danger of dualism—of pitting Christian existence altogether against that which is “secular” or this-worldly. While the Church’s life should be formally and materially distinct from “the world”—something that Christian worship is specifically fashioned to do—the Church’s life should also have an impact in this world, should it not? And moreover, while this-worldly realities are not ultimate, this does not mean that they are not good.
Just like the tension of the “in but not of” principle, the NT presents a complex picture that enshrines this tension: on the one hand, the present “world,” its system, its inhabitants, are under the power of the Evil One (Eph 2.2; 1 Jn 5.19), and on the other hand, creation is intrinsically good (1 Tim 4.4) and Christians are to submit to every “governing power” that exists as coming from God (Rom 13.1ff; Col 1.16; Titus 3.1).
What is interesting, then, is that Paul, for example, who can write eloquently about the influence of malevolent spiritual forces in the world, refuses to buy into either an ontological or a functional dualism that removes the Christian from this-worldly forms of accountability. Now, at least, this means that Christian involvement in this-worldly political realities—to the extent that Christians believe they are called to such—cannot legitimately proceed as if it is not accountable to the systems/realities it seeks to be involved in. But, on the other side of the tension, it also means that Christian involvement in this-worldly political realities is involvement in systems/realities that, as all things “under the sun,” are tinged with human weakness and sinfulness, and even cosmic malevolence. That is, with the capacity to effect harm and evil in the world, as well as goodness and order.
As is evident, there is no “solution” to these tensions, but it is good to recognize them, be humbled by them, and corrected by them as might be necessary. In fact, a few questions present themselves as possible continuations of this discussion:
- To what or to whom are Christians accountable as they seek to “have an impact” in the world? In short, what does this accountability look like?
- And what happens when Christians themselves disagree on whether or not a particular “impact” is good?
- And perhaps the most poignant question: What would the Apostles think of, and how would they operate within, Enlightenment participatory/representative democracies such as America?
Justin Gohl is an adjunct professor of theology at Biblical. He is married to Kate, his wife of 7 years, and is a full-time stay-at-home dad with two kids, Caleb (2) and Phoebe (1). He is ABD at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia where he is in the latter stages of writing his dissertation on the early church’s use of the Book of Proverbs.