Towards a theology of politics
In our modern, rapidly-changing and complex world there are differing responses to Christian engagement and interaction with the surrounding socio-political environment.
Caveat: In a very short article covering a complex subject in a multifarious church, the following article employs very broad generalisations which are not invariably true of every situation.
The nomenclature employed should be interpreted in a very broad-stroking sense.
The aim has been to ‘describe’ rather than to evaluate the different theologies and practices. (An appraisal may come later.)
Three different groupings
Regarding the manner in which Christians engage with the political process, there are mainly three positions which can be found across the Christian church.
In terms of the extent of church/political interplay, these are -
- Non-engagement (typically amongst those of Brethren background)
- Indirect engagement (typically within new church settings)
- Direct engagement (typically found in Calvinist circles)
My Kingdom is not of this world
The non-engagement view focuses around the verse where Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world and that (typically) His return could be ‘any moment’.
The principal metaphor would be Christians being ‘a light to the world’ as a call to evangelism. The Kingdom of God is essentially in heaven through people coming to faith in Jesus Christ.
Underpinning theology: Dispensationalism
Involvement with the political process: none whatsover.
Come let us reason together
Indirect engagement seeks to bring influence by working towards a ‘Christianising’ of society.
In this context it is believed that ‘community transformation’ can be achieved by a combination of Christian social action (with or apart from non-Christian agencies) and ideally populating positions of influence and leadership with Christian believers.
The metaphor here would be ‘salt of the earth’ so that the Kingdom of God is realised 'on earth.
Underpinning theology: Mainly charismatic post-modern Christianity with Emerging Church leanings.
Involvement with the political process: as much as possible and with any other sphere of society. Would see the appointment of a Christian MP (or Police Constable or local mayor or headteacher) as a great step towards a Christianised community.
Obey My Commandments
Direct engagement fashions itself around the Augustinian/Calvinist ‘City of God’ view whereby the adjudged calling on the church is to be God’s policeman.
This view is based on the notion that it is the job of the state to enact laws and order society to comply with biblical injunctions and to support (but not interfere with) the Christian church.
(This philosophy/theology is enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith which seeks to define church/state relationships.) So the principles of the Kingdom of God are applied to the secular socio-political domain.
Underpinning theology: Christian Reconstructionism
Involvement with the political process: Would ideally see a totally Christian parliament which would legislate for civil obedience to all of God's standards.
Three different eschatologies
The above groupings have three quite different ‘end-time’ theologies.
The non-engagement group (substantially of Brethren background) sees Christian believers being suddenly and without any warning (in the 'twinkling of an eye') being ‘caught up’ into the air when Jesus makes – in the first instance, it is said – an invisible return 'for his saints'. (See ‘Dispensationalism’.)
The indirect group (mainly found in new and charismatic churches) sees an end-time scenario as that of a Christianised world whereby even non-believers accept that the Christian way is best; so having as political and civic leaders, either believers or, alternatively, non-believers who willingly defer to the superior Christian code. After this has been accomplished Jesus will come back. (cf Latter Rain; Kingdom Now; Emerging Church Note 1.)
The direct engagement model (mainly found within ‘reformed’ denominations) expects a great end-time ‘soul harvest’ through the triumph of the Gospel; and then Jesus will return. Meanwhile society should be legislated into line with Christian values; with the state fully supportive of the church – but not interfering with it. (See ‘Calvinism’; ‘Reconstructionism’; Theonomy Note 1.)
Three different responses
These three different views/theologies produce three distinct and separate dynamics in relation to the socio-political sphere:
Non-engagement The prevailing imperative is evangelism (by preaching the Gospel). No effort is directed towards social action or political involvement as the socio-political domain is seen as being part of the (secular) kingdom of this world. The non-engagement approach is high on evangelism but virtually non-existent regarding social and/or political involvement and action.
Indirect engagement is principally focussed on permeating the secular world and relying on ‘actions speaking louder than words’ in terms of demonstrating the Christian faith through ‘works’ than communicating the Christian faith in words. The Kingdom of God is extended on earth by so permeating a society/nation with Kingdom values that the society/nation (willingly) conforms to God’s pattern for daily living and healthy life.
Direct engagement This model would require a government to introduce and uphold legislation which would oblige, or at least encourage, the entire populace to conform to Christian standards and ethics. Schools would be required to teach on Christianity; oaths of high office in the secular world would include promises based on God’s word; ‘Sabbath’ (sic) observance would be backed up by social pressures and political policies setting out what is permissible on that day of each week.
(The fact and realisation that present governments in no way see their function as being that of supporting the Christian church or God's statutes has given recent rise to the formation of Christian political parties in both England and Scotland. In Northern Ireland religion plays a large part in the political milieu.)
Note 1. There are striking philosophical similarities but also huge theological disparities between the ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ groupings.
Both would want to see the church exerting very significant influence over and within society and government. However the former are invariably ‘reformed’ in doctrine and the latter (most often) ‘charismatic/new church’.
The former would insist on constitutional, societal, legislative, civic and institutional compliance with the Word of God: the latter would work towards a achieving a willing acknowledgement and acceptance of Kingdom values by those outside of the church.
As an analogy, in the days leading up to the Russian revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks looked to achieving their goals by direct, overt and robustly-enforced compliance; the Mensheviks were more of the subtle reform 'gently, gently catchee monkey' approach. So initially the terms were understood as 'hard' and 'soft' respectively.
Note 2. At the two extremes of the engage-or-not spectrum we see – figuratively speaking – at the one end, something resembling the Amish Anabaptists (total withdrawal) and at the other, a type of Christian behaviour control. (In Scotland in the 17-18th centuries, church elders roamed the streets on the prowl for miscreants and church non-attenders.)