15 August 2007

Oil and Water

by Phil Johnson

From time to time we pull classic comments up out of an old thread's combox. What follows is one of those.
ere's part of a discussion I had with a quasi-regular commenter who asked some questions about my stance against blending ministry with politics. I've edited it slightly to correct a couple of misspellings, to keep my interlocutor anonymous, to abbreviate some redundancies, to stress a point or two, and to add the quotation that I initially referred to and couldn't produce off the top of my head:

Here are my two top reasons for believing the church (n.b.: not necessarily individual Christians, but the church) should keep her hands off the machinery of secular politics:

  1. There's no positive example of political lobbying or organizing from either Jesus or the apostles.
  2. Every movement in the entire history of the church that has regarded political activism as a legitimate facet of gospel ministry has allowed political ideology to eclipse the gospel. That's true from Constantine to Cromwell to the Liberation theologians.
Note: I haven't suggested that the church should "be silent" about social (or even governmental) evils; merely that we have a more vital way to remedy those evils than by lobbying for legislation.

Also: It's not that I oppose legislation that would eliminate certain expressions of the evil that rules men's hearts. If our legislators outlawed abortion, homosexuality, bestiality, gambling, drunken theologizing, and other similarly gross evils, I would celebrate. If a statute promoting righteousness or outlawing unrighteousness is on the ballot, I'll vote for it. But our collective calling as a church is to announce the remedy for the evil itself. Lets not get sidetracked in the electoral process. Let the dead bury the dead. That's what I'm saying.

R____: "Part of what makes it hard to figure out what's appropriate for the church to be involved in is the fact that policy making was so far from participatory in the NT era. There was no lobbying for Jesus and the apostles to be involved in!"

Perhaps, but so what? Jesus is rightful Lord of all. If straightening out earthly political institutions had been any part of His work, why not mount a revolution? That's what the Zealots were trying to do. That's what the disciples originally expected Jesus to do. That's what politically-zealous Christians under non-democratic governments have often tried to do. It's something Jesus had every right to do, because He alone has a legitimate claim to the title "Lord of all."

It's significant that Jesus didn't mount a revolution. And (the beliefs of some of my postmill friends notwithstanding) He didn't command the church to commandeer the machinery of earthly politics on His behalf, either.

It is a fact of history that every time the church has dabbled in politics—including in the very best cases, such as Calvin's Geneva—the experiments have ultimately failed. Usually in disastrous ways.

Will Durant had an insightful quote about the impossibility of harnessing human governments to help accomplish the true Christian mission. You'll find it where he deals with Cromwell's failure. But I remember reading it and thinking he captured my thoughts exactly. I'll try to locate that quote and perhaps include it in a future blogpost.

[Found it. Durant wrote:

In public [Cromwell] maintained an unostentatious dignity; privately he indulged in amusements and jesting, even in practical jokes and occasional buffoonery. He loved music, and played the organ well. His religious piety was apparently sincere, but he took the name of the Lord (not in vain) so often in support for his purposes that many accused him of hypocrisy. Probably there was some hypocrisy in his public piety, little in the private piety that all who knew him attested. His letters and speeches are half sermons; and there is no question that he assumed too readily that God was his right hand. His private morals were impeccable, his public morals were no better than those of other rulers; he used deception or force when he thought them necessary to his major purposes. No one has yet reconciled Christianity with government. Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Louis XIV (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963), 192.]
But Jesus said it best of all: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you. . ." (Matthew 20:25-26). See the context for even more insight into what Jesus meant.

Phil's signature


Stefan Ewing said...

"Drunken theologizing"?

There oughta be a law....

Deathrow Bodine said...

Ahhhh... politics. Just the subject to awaken Deathrow Bodine from his lurking slumber.

I'd just like to say that if most Christians would concern themselves more with the salvation and discipleship (read sanctification) of politicians and less with the policy de jour, we would be much better off.

[not saying that Christians should not be concerned about policy, just saying that our first concern should be the same as our first concern for all people.]

It is a fact of history that every time the church has dabbled in politics—including in the very best cases, such as Calvin's Geneva—the experiments have ultimately failed. Usually in disastrous ways

Christians who participate in politics should view it very much that same way as a Christian missionary on a foreign mission field. He should ask himself, "Is my calling to change the country I am in, or am I called to simply be a tool for the Holy Spirit to use to change the hearts and minds of the people He places me in contact with?"

No one has yet reconciled Christianity with government.

Phil, much to my own personal frustration... no truer words have been spoken.

More!, more about this topic my friend!

Mike Riccardi said...

Great thoughts. I think the danger of the whole 'Christian political reform' idea is that we turn people into Pharisees. If we did outlaw abortion, bestiality, gambling, etc., then many might think, "Look! We're a Christian nation again," simply ignorant of the fact that Christianity doesn't exist via political positions or social issues. We can wind up cleaning the outside of the cup real nice, while still leaving the inside disgusting and dirty.

MacArthur likes to say that trying to get unbelievers to be more 'behaviorally righteous' is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Who cares how good they look before the ship sinks? What they need is to get saved from the wreck.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones captured it well in his book, Preaching & Preachers:

“We must never give the impression that all that is needed is for people to make a little adjustment in their thinking and ideas and behaviour; that is to militate against our message. Our message is that every man ‘must be born again’, and that whatever may happen to him short of that is of no value whatsoever from the standpoint of his relationship to God. The New Testament teaching is that the unbeliever is all wrong. It is not merely his ideas of art or drama [or, for our discussion, politics] that are wrong; everything about him is wrong. His particular views are wrong because his whole view is wrong, because he himself is wrong. … If you put your emphasis on these ‘other things’ instead of on ‘seeking first the kingdom of God’ you are doomed to failure, and you are doing despite to the message that has been committed to you” (MLJ, Preaching & Preachers, p. 141).

donsands said...

Good words Phil. I am very much the same.

I heard how the Church set apart a Sunday, back when George Bush was running to be re-elected, so that they could speak from the pulpits about how the Church should support President Bush, without apology.

Made my stomach turn when I heard they were using the pulpit for political agenda's, instead of the purity and power of God's Holy Word.

Anonymous said...

"I've edited it "slightly" to correct a couple of misspellings, to keep my interlocutor anonymous, to abbreviate some redundancies, to stress a point or two, and to add the quotation that I initially referred to and couldn't produce off the top of my head."

slightly: To a small degree or extent; somewhat.

Did you say slightly?

I’m new here, so I hope my humor & sarcasm does not “offend”.

Solameanie said...

This has always been a nagging tension in my own ministry (broadcasting and apologetics). When I was in Christian radio as a news director, I covered all of the Christian activist groups and was certainly in agreement with their overall goals. But I began to be concerned (Christian Coalition comes to mind) that we were becoming so consumed with the political process that the Gospel indeed was being subsumed.

Also, there was a tendency to welcome co-belligerence from non-Christian groups or individuals that happened to share the same political views on a given subject. In time, that political co-belligerence worked to make everyone more ecumenical in a dangerous fashion. One key leader I can remember was asked if he shared the Gospel with the president of the Mormons while they were on their way to a Republican event. The leader replied, "Oh, no. That would have possibly broken the coalition we were working to build."

When a coalition means more than the Gospel being presented to someone who is lost in a cult and on their way to Hell, there is a problem.

Stefan Ewing said...

Just as a side thought, a couple of months ago I started trying to work out the various competing eschatologies out there: dispy, historic premill, amill, postmill. Since the greatest of all American preachers, Jonathan Edwards, was a postmillenialist, my first impression was that that particular eschatology couldn't be all bad. But seeing as it requires man trying to realize the millennial kingdom on earth before Christ returns, it's spawned all kinds of questionable movements that seem to have strayed from the Gospel: the Social Gospel on the one side of the spectrum—feeding off of and into socialism—and Reconstructionism and Dominionism on the other. That's not to say that there hasn't been political involvement by other camps, like postrib premillenialists (i.e., Schaeffer) or dispensationalists, but postmillenialism in particular seems to systemically lend itself to diving in at the political deep end, on either the left or the right.

Mike Riccardi said...


I've actually thought similar things about postmillennialism and these types of things. It's encouraging to hear someone else "say them out loud." Just thought you might be encouraged to know you're not the only one.


Erik said...

On Jonathan Edwards being a "Postie"...

You have to remember that most eschatology of the "pre-mil" varity was not developed unitl after Edwards. It was always there, don't get me wrong, just not codified by anyone yet. So my limited knowledge of Edwards cuts him some slack when it comes to his eschatology. To me, it was a blindspot of his. Much like his ownership of slaves. Today we gasp if someone were to own another person and call themsleves a Christian. But in Edwards day...another blindspot.

I wonder, if Jesus tarries, what blindspots our future grandchildren will think of us, "Why didn't they see this?"...

KRG said...

There is a very interesting chapter in "Think Biblically!" (a book written my several professors at the Master's College, general editor John MacArthur). If anyone is remotely interested in religion and politics this is a worthwhile read. I fully agree on this. It seems to me that the only clear commands given in the NT about Christians and government are to the tune of, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right." (1 Peter 2:13&14) Also, it seems to me that if we are successful in accomplishing a society that legislates Christian values, all we have done is reformed the external part of society, as Christians we are to be dealing with the heart. (see Matthew 23:25-28)