"Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas hit on one of the biggest issues that has forced a paradigm shift in my life the last several years: The crucial need to fight big battles, and to win them. He defined the biggest battles we are fighting in the values war now as the sanctity of life, the preservation of marriage, and God in the public square. My older life contained so many pitiful distractions with certain theological issues that I get literally ill thinking about it. Current church circles I am indirectly affiliated with are involved in such meaningless and trivial theological arguments that I simply have no doubt as to why they are such impotent churches culturally. As a matter of calling and priority, the esteemed Senator is right. I appreciate this reminder in the political, and ecclesiastical realm. I am more than willing to let others fight about paedo communion, exclusive psalmody, and which theologian is going to hell this week."
I find some things to agree with here and some to disagree with.
First of all, this is pretty much a sound bite, so I know that David didn't intend to write a full blown treatise on the relationship of the political to the ecclesiastical, and I realize he could probably nuance his comments in any number of ways.
Secondly, I think his examples effectively illustrate that there is such a thing as an obsession with theological minutiae which can turn our attention away from the greater things of the gospel and can render us useless in the fulfillment of our civil obligations.
Third, I think Senator Brownback is correct in stating that there are bigger battles and there are smaller battles and we must give our attention to the bigger battles. And I agree with Senator Brownback's political priorities.
But I want to respectfully disagree with some of Mr. Bahnsen's extrapolations from Senator Brownback's comments.
1. The peace, purity, and preservation of the church is a weightier matter than the peace, purity and preservation of American civil society.
In saying that I don't mean to oppose the two - the desire for preservation of the church and the preservation of civil society can and should be seen as complimentary, not contradictory. Also, one of the things I have gained from my reading N. T. Wright is a greater appreciation for the calling of the people of God to be a blessing to the nations of the earth. One of the great problems in Jesus' day was that the people of God, i.e. Israel had forgotten their vocation to be a blessing to the whole earth and instead were wrapped up in internal matters, and this translated into a desire to see Israel rule the nations rather than being a blessing to the nations. There is a helpful analogy here - if the church's concern with it's own peace, purity and preservation turns insular then it denies its calling to be a blessing to the nations. And, a part of fulfilling the calling to be a blessing to the nations is the attempt to preserve a well-ordered civil society. One of the things that is implied but not spoken in Bahnsen's words is that the people engaged in "trivial theological arguments" often do so to the exclusion of civic concern. That too is a valid criticism with which I agree.
Having said that, God nowhere promises to preserve any particular form of social order or geopolitical entity. But He does promise to protect and preserve His church. Chapter 5 of the Westminster Confession states it this way:
As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures, so, after a most special manner, it taketh care of his Church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.
This says it well. God does have a care and a concern for all of His creatures and it is right and proper to consider the civil sphere as an object of His care and providence. But He cares more about His church. He orders the affairs of men in such a way as to benefit His church, but He doesn't order the affairs of men in such a way as to benefit a particular social order or geopolitical entity.
Thus, while it may be the case that some err in their obsession with theological trivia to the exclusion of civil concern, it may also be the case that these people simply have their priorities straight - recognizing the pre-eminence of the church.
2. Theology is a more important discipline than sociology or political science.
Again, I don't want to create a false dichotomy. Theology is not opposed to sociology or political science. In fact, theology ought to inform and guide sociology and political science. Yet I argue that knowing God and knowing about God is more important than knowing about society or politics. And, for the Christian at least, we ought to understand that without good theology we can't do good sociology or political science.
Somewhere in his book Beyond Culture Wars (sorry, I couldn't find the page number or the exact quote, but I am sure I am close in this), Michael Scott Horton says that in the average evangelical church today one is more likely to be ostracized for having a wrong view of abortion or homosexuality than he is to be ostracized for having a wrong view of the the deity of Christ, the Trinity, or justification. Yet, there is far more biblical data and far more biblical weight is given to the latter issues than to the former issues.
3. Pragmatism and/or triumphalism must not stand in judgment over the church and theology.
I am anticipating an objection here to my first two points. Someone might say that if we are doing church right and are doing theology right then civil society will necessariy change and reflect Christian values. While we ought desperately to want to see the kingdoms of the earth reflect the kingdom of God, nowhere in Scripture is the success of the church linked to it's approbation of, or triumphalism over, the kingdoms of the earth. In fact, Scripture shows us that one evidence of the church's "sucess" may be persecution from the world and our "values" may in fact be rejected in the civil sphere.
4. Keep in mind the "downstream" nature of politics.
For this I'll quote a prior entry on my blog called "Why All the Fuss?"
And really, that is all I am getting at. At no point in any of my prior posts have I argued that Christians shouldn't be involved in politics. I'm just arguing for a change in perspective. I read some words just today in Nancy Pearcy's new book, Total Truth, that are helpful. Speaking of Christians revived political activism over the last couple of decades she says:
This heightened activism has yielded good results in many areas of public life, yet the impact remains far less than most had hoped. Why? Because evangelicals often put all their eggs in one basket: They leaped into political activism as the quickest, surest way to make a difference in the public arena - failing to realize that politics tend to reflect a culture, not the other way around.
She goes on:
Today, battle-weary political warriors have grown more realistic about the limits of that strategy. We have learned that "politics is downstream from culture, not the other way around," says Bill Wichterman, policy advisor to senate majority leader Bill Frist. "Real change has to start with the culture, all we can do on Capitol Hill is try to find ways government can nurture healthy cultural trends.
On a similar note a member of Congress once told me, "I got involved in politics after the 1973 abortion decision because I thought that was the fastest route to moral reform. Well, we've won some legislative victories, but we've lost the culture (italics hers)." The most effective work, he had come to realize, is done by ordinary Christians fulfilling God's calling to reform culture within their local spheres of influence - their families, churches, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, professional organizations, and civic institutions.
The bottom line is that, though our concern for the church and theological matters is to trump our concern for civil society and political matters, we are to have a great concern for and be involved in civil and political matters. Yet, as these words from Nancy Pearcey illustrate, the battles for things like the sanctity of life and the preservation of marriage ultimately aren't going to be won in the state capital or the nation's capital. We need to be in the state capital and the nation's capital, but more importantly we need to be in the church.
5. Remember the political illusion
This is a drum I beat from time to time. Jacques Ellul spoke of the political illusion, or the increasing politicization of more and more of civil society. He speaks of it in the sense that it is an illusion to believe that the most pressing problems of humanity have political solutions. James Fowler summarizes Ellul:
When all values are cast in political form, and all hopes are directed toward political solutions, believed to be on the verge of realization, politics becomes the "supreme religion of this age," propagating its "myth of the solution" for all social problems, despite the inability of politics to deal with good and evil, personal character, or the meaning and quality of life.
So ultimately, I am going to have to disagree with this statement from Bahnsen:
As a matter of calling and priority, the esteemed Senator is right.
I'll qualify that to say that if Bahnsen is merely arguing against unhelpful theological nitpickiness and arguing for a proper biblical engagement with politics, then I agree. If however, he means that our engagement with politics and the civil sphere is a greater calling and higher priority than our engagement with the church and theological matters, then I have to respectfully disagree and say that the best hope that Christians have of providing a meaningful Christian influence in the civil/political sphere comes from giving greater weight to the church and theological matters.