The church was born in a political context both like and unlike our own. We Christians today find ourselves worshiping amid empire, just as our first forebears did. Idolatrous civil religion now, as then, competes for the allegiance we owe to Christ.
But ours is an empire that wears the face of democracy, and our civil religion demands nothing so blatant as genuflection before a statue of Caesar. The apostle Paul was never asked how he thought Rome ought to be run. Simon the Zealot’s zeal, if of the nationalist variety some church traditions suggest, was patriotic fervor for a small, occupied nation that would soon be brutally crushed by a trio of wars.
American Christians, by contrast, can participate in the governance of the most powerful nation on Earth. Our political system invites us to be the “rulers of the Gentiles [who] lord it over them” (Matt. 20:25), to embody the very object lesson Jesus used to warn his disciples against seeking power. What does faithfulness in political engagement look like for us?
Evangelicals in the US have long vacillated between two theories—or, perhaps, impulses. One draws on Reformed thinkers like Abraham Kuyper and asserts that our faith should be evident in all parts of our lives. Christians must use our political power to make state and society conform to God’s will as best we can. The second impulse, rooted in Anabaptism and Pietism, likewise takes a holistic view of faith but pairs it with a far stronger skepticism of sanctified power. Service to church and state require different, and sometimes incompatible, ethics and loyalties. As faithful citizens of the kingdom of heaven (Phil. 3:20), we are limited in what we can do as citizens of any earthly kingdom. ...1
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