What might it mean for public and political life to be understood as an important dimension of following Jesus? As a part of Zondervan’s Ordinary Theology series, Vincent E. Bacote’s The Political Disciple addresses this question by considering not only whether Christians have (or need) permission to engage the public square, but also what it means to reflect Christlikeness in our public practice, as well as what to make of the typically slow rate of social change and the tension between relative allegiance to a nation and/or a political party and ultimate allegiance to Christ. Pastors, laypeople, and college students will find this concise volume a handy primer on Christianity and public life.
About the Author
Vincent E. Bacote (Ph.D., Drew University) is associate professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of the The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (2005), and has contributed to books including On Kuyper(2013), Aliens in the Promised Land (2013), Keep Your Head Up (2012) and Prophetic Evangelicals (2012). He has been a regular columnist for Comment (wrf.ca/comment) and has also had articles appear in magazines such as Books and Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian and re:generation quarterly and journals such as The Journal of Markets and Morality, Christian Scholars Review, Urban Mission and the Journal for Christian Theological Research. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Christian Ethics. He resides in the Chicago area with his family.
Gene L. Green (PhD, Kings College, Aberdeen University) professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School. Before coming to Wheaton in 1996, he served for over a decade as professor of New Testament as well as Academic Dean and Rector of the Seminario ESEPA in San José, Costa Rica. He is the author of two commentaries in Spanish, 1 Pedro y 2 Pedro (Caribe) and 1 y 2 Tesalonicenses (Portavoz), and English commentaries on 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Pillar Series, Eerdmans) and 2 Peter and Jude (BECNT, Baker). His special research interest is the intersection of the Christian faith and cultures, both ancient and contemporary. Gene has pastored and taught in churches in the United States and Latin America since 1972. He also serves on the board of John Stott Ministries.
Read an Excerpt
The Political Disciple
A Theology of Public Life
By Vincent Bacote
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Vincent Bacote
All rights reserved.
PERMISSION: CAN WE GO OUT IN PUBLIC?
At various times in my youth and young adulthood I found myself heavily influenced by my peers and superiors, especially when they stated strong opinions, whether it was about sports, music, politics, or faith. It's not that I didn't have a mind of my own, but I had a strong desire to know the right way to think about things. As I grew in my faith during my college years, I was particularly attentive to ways that spiritual leaders expressed their views on the priorities that should be most important for Christians. While I had my own thoughts, I was willing to listen to the views of the spiritual leaders I heard in church and at conferences.
When it came to the question of how a Christian should think about life in the public realm, as I discovered that there were strong opinions across a wide spectrum, my eagerness to find the right answer became a challenge. Only later did I recognize that my college years coincided with a time when evangelical Christians were sorting out how much priority they should give to matters of public life.
Looking back on my evangelical sojourn over the past three decades, I have seen many committed believers reach different conclusions about Christian engagement in the public realm, especially when public is synonymous with political. Many questions are tied to this: How are we to make the most of the days allotted to us in a way that will please God? Is it a waste of time to invest our lives in the messiness that comes with public life? Or to put it more strongly, Can a Christian live a life of faithfulness and also involve oneself in the political arena? Evangelicals have wrestled with these questions for quite some time.
Although the Jerry Falwell–led Moral Majority (1979–89) was influential in encouraging Christian political engagement, significant ambivalence remained among evangelicals when I entered divinity school in 1990. This ambivalence about Christian engagement, or in some cases resistance to it, was prominently displayed in the differing views about the relationship of Christian mission and social action. While some readers may point to Carl F. H. Henry's The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) or the Lausanne Covenant's articulation of the gospel in 1974, neither of these important signposts resulted in a sweeping consensual view that Christians should be engaged in the world or link social and political engagement to gospel mission.
In one of my classes, we invited a missions professor to discuss the question of mission and social action. While he suggested that it was important for Christians to care about a broad range of social concerns, it was also clear that he was nervous about making too close a link between gospel and the broad domain of social, cultural, and political life. The fear was that if the link became too close, then the social gospel (a term most associated with Walter Rauschenbusch) would creep in and change the message to one that eliminated spiritual and eternal concerns and restated the gospel as merely an earthly salvation that addressed such issues as poverty and politics. There might also have been a fear of liberation theology, which was more overtly political and critical of Western capitalist societies.
Though this was only one example of how some Christians were ambivalent about Christian public engagement, it is important to qualify it by saying that there was fairly consistent public moral concern about issues like abortion, though this moral concern did not translate consistently into public engagement beyond an encouragement to vote.
The circumstances I encountered during my divinity-school years changed fairly dramatically by the end of the 1990s. By then, many evangelicals were talking about a holistic faith that expressed concern for society as well as for souls, ultimately reaching a peak in the early years of George W. Bush's presidency. Initially, the Bush White House was regarded as an environment where evangelicals could have public influence, most notably in terms of the Faith-Based Initiative and the role of Wheaton College alumnus Michael Gerson as a presidential speechwriter. Yet by 2002, media reports began to indicate that younger adult evangelicals were getting excited about a holistic faith but wanted to change the tone and turn the focus away from the Religious Right, which had been prominent in evangelical politics at least since the 1970s. These younger Christians wanted the prominent issues to expand beyond abortion and gay marriage to include issues like the environment and poverty. This desire remains, but not without being contested in some circles.
By the time of the 2008 election, weariness from the Iraq war along with frustration with the minimal gains from political activity yielded an evangelical populace that had a new ambivalence, a buyer's remorse about politics. Many evangelicals did not wish to disengage but were now wondering where the best place was to apply their efforts. The value of political action once again became, and remains, an open question.
One other notable factor contributed to this ambivalence: the lack of a strong theological basis for Christian involvement in the political sphere, and that is despite the fact that nearly a decade had passed since a great majority of evangelicals concluded that a holistic, publicly engaged gospel was simply common sense. This dearth of theological underpinning is one of the main reasons for this book.
Moving Beyond Intuition to Conviction
It may seem a stretch, but the question of evangelical engagement in politics is similar to the question of whether Christians have good reason to participate in secular culture generally—in film and music, for example. My experience of finding a culture-affirming Christianity runs a parallel path to my experience of thinking about whether Christians should take seriously the issue of political theology.
The central question of this initial chapter is one of permission: Are Christians even allowed to participate in the public sphere? To put it differently, do Christians have either direct commands or indirect imperatives that permit, demand, or make optional some form of participation in public life? This was not an easy question for me years ago, and it remains a difficult one for many Christians today. Ultimately, I arrived at my answer through the doctrine of creation. How did this happen?
It happened because I fantasized about being a rock star. Actors and actresses often intrigued me, but I never wanted to be like them. Instead, I wanted to be up there on stage, and, depending upon the particular fantasy, playing the role of the lead singer or the bassist or the lead guitarist. My fantasy was about the fun of being a performer who goes on tour and plays for large audiences all over the world. My love of rock music and my commitment to Christ, however, resulted in this crisis: How is it possible to affirm "the world" and put God first? This question is fundamental to public engagements, whether social, cultural, educational, or political.
In college and the years immediately afterward, I only had a hunch that it was God-honoring and theologically valid to appreciate the good things that emerged from the culture external to the church, and that it was "Christianly sensible" to work toward improving society culturally and politically. I had no theological categories or biblical texts to support my view, but I had a sense that one could be Christian while appreciating and participating in the surrounding culture.
I began to move beyond the level of intuition about a year or two before I went to seminary because of my exposure to the work of Francis Schaeffer. The film series How Then Shall We Live was my first exposure to a Christian leader who thought we should live in God's world in a way indicative of a desire to transform the culture while also expressing appreciation for the good things in the broader culture. It was a relief to learn that there were Christians whose response to the culture was neither exclusively evangelistic nor escapist.
Although I was encouraged by Schaeffer's example, I still lacked a theological argument for why Christians could appreciate and engage the culture. Not until my years in divinity school did I finally find a theological voice for my long-held intuition.
I entered Trinity Evangelical Divinity School intending to prepare for pastoral ministry and hoping to discover some way to demonstrate that Christians should engage the culture. Within the first year, I was on a path toward greater clarity in my vocation (as a professor rather than a pastor) and was hoping to find time in my schedule to study the relationship between theology and culture. In my spare time I began to research authors who had written on this topic. I discovered that many people referred to Abraham Kuyper as an important figure in this discussion, and I was sufficiently intrigued to do an independent study of his theology of culture. A door was opening to a world that would begin to supply theological substance to my intuition about Christian cultural engagement.
First, a disclaimer: Every theologian is a human being with flaws. I learned this early while reading Kuyper. Like many of his time, he made assumptions about civilization and race, namely, that Europeans were superior to other people, especially those with African heritage. My encounter with Kuyper's statements on race led me to become a critical thinker. I had to decide whether it was possible to find helpful aspects of his theology when I knew that he regarded someone like me as inferior. As I thought about it, it became clear that his views on race actually contradicted the best aspects of this theology. Kuyper could not transcend his own cultural biases and completely live up to the implications of his theology. I learned that even the greatest figures have feet of clay. Still, I label myself "Kuyperian" in spite of the troubling deficiencies of the man himself. And I think that he now, in heaven, has a more accurate view of things.
My study on Kuyper's theology of culture focused primarily on his L. P. Stone Lectures delivered at Princeton Seminary in 1898. As I read the first lecture I came across a quotation that was inspiring, invigorating, and ultimately life changing. Kuyper states that Calvinism
... has not only honored man for the sake of his likeness to the Divine image, but also the world as a Divine creation, and has at once placed to the front the great principle that there is a particular grace which works Salvation, and also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator. Thus the Church receded in order to be neither more nor less than the congregation of believers, and in every department the life of the world was not emancipated from God, but from the dominion of the Church. Thus domestic life regained its independence, trade and commerce realized their strength in liberty, art and science were set free from every ecclesiastical bond and restored to their own inspirations, and man began to understand the subjection of all nature with its hidden forces and treasures to himself as a holy duty, imposed upon him by the original ordinances of Paradise: "Have dominion over them." Henceforth the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position in life. To praise God in the Church and serve Him in the world became the inspiring impulse, and, in the Church, strength was to be gathered by which to resist temptation and sin in the world ... the life of the world is to be honored in its independence ... we must, in every domain, discover the treasures and develop the potencies hidden by God in nature and in human life."
As I have written elsewhere, these words were like oxygen to me. I had been gasping for air for years, sustained by a faint intuition in what seemed like a theological vacuum. No longer. At last I had found a theological affirmation for Christian engagement in the world. This discovery gave my Christian faith a language that was new to me.
The most important aspect of this thrilling discovery was the doctrine of common grace. I had never seen the words common and grace together; I had understood grace to refer primarily to God's unmerited favor toward us in the salvation that comes through Christ. Now I was reading about a grace of creation that made it possible for us to bring God glory by our participation in the world. I had sensed in the past that there was a theological argument for this stance, and now I discovered that it had a name. Common grace was the key to a deeper theology of creation and the reason for taking life "in the world" seriously. I was now on a path to an informed faith that would wed the lordship of Christ to my desire to affirm our embrace of the public aspects of life.
Not Quite Worldly
Another phrase that leaped out at me as I read this passage again and again: "Instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position in life." This was what I had felt for years, yet I was aware of few Christians who spoke like this. I was more familiar with an approach to Christian faith whose watchword was "beware of the world" and whose admonition was "don't love the world." This resistance to taking life "in the world" too seriously had an attractive spiritual veneer, especially when expressed by a passionate and eloquent preacher, missionary, or spiritual expert whom I would hear in church, at conference, or on Christian radio. The truth of the matter is that even though I was excited to have this new theological air to breathe, I was also hearing a passionate spiritual counterargument in my head. After reading Kuyper, it took a while to move beyond internal conversations like this:
Me: At last I see that I've been right for years about engaging the world.
Spiritual Voice (SV): Are you sure about that? The Bible tells us that we shouldn't love the world. Aren't your priorities out of order?
Me: I don't think so. Don't we have a role to play in society?
SV: Everything we do should be to the glory of God, and that means we show our allegiance to God by connecting everything to the gospel. How can you do that if you waste time with politics or strain to find something to appreciate in the secular world? Besides, you're in danger of getting corrupted by "bad company" if you get involved in the world. Remember what James 4:4 says: "Friendship with the world means enmity against God."
Me: Jesus is Lord of my life, and I want nothing more than to live fully for him. I think we can be faithful by getting involved in society in a way that pleases God. Isn't God pleased if we simply do things well, whether we are a politician, musician, or teacher?
SV: Is that connecting it to the gospel? If you really want to please God "out there," you have to find a way to make sure you are a witness. It has to be like Paul's desire to become all things to all people in order to introduce people to Jesus.
Me: What about expressing our faithfulness to God by trying to do our best in every area of life and even trying to change the world? Isn't it worthwhile to make life better for all of us?
SV: The Bible tells us the world will only get worse and worse. It's a waste of time trying to improve things. The ship is going down! Everything we do has to point toward being a good witness to the gospel. Maybe things will get a little better if more individuals get saved, but we can't afford to waste time on improving society. It's a loser's game. Only what you do for Christ will last, and those are eternal things like helping people know Jesus.
Me: I know what you mean, but I'm not sure. Something seems right about what Kuyper says. Let me think about it some more.
Excerpted from The Political Disciple by Vincent Bacote. Copyright © 2015 Vincent Bacote. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
Chapter 1: Do we need God’s permission to be political?
Chapter 2: Navigating the promise and peril of the political world
Chapter 3: Patience, please: Thoughts on changing the world
Chapter 4: Love my enemies? Even political ones?
Chapter 5: Hope for the world: The end of the story and political present