Is There a Best Model of the Relationship Between Church and Politics?

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By K. Lauriston Smith

What was the best way for a Chinese church to relate to the Maoist Government? Or, perhaps to give a more current example, what is the best way for Hong Kong churches to relate to the expanding power of Xi Jinping’s state? This is the kind of question that occupies my mind when I read much current political theology. Whether it is work by Bruce Ashford, Robert Benne, or James K. A. Smith, the approach often seems to assume that one of the types of H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is ‘the best.’

Niebuhr famously describes five types of relationship that may exist between Christianity and culture. The first, Christ against Culture, assumes that there is an essential antagonism between Christ and human cultures and thus advocates the separation of Christianity from elements of culture—politics, art, science, etc. It can be encapsulated in Tertullian’s famous quote ‘What has Jerusalem to do with Rome?’

The second, Christ of Culture, assumes that Christ expresses Himself in and through any—and potentially every—culture, and thus that there is no meaningful distinction between Christ and culture. It thus advocates that Christian beliefs and practices should change to reflect those of the dominant culture.

The third, Christ above Culture, assumes that culture is oriented towards Christ and thus that culture can and should point us towards Christ, even though Christ is ultimately above and beyond the limits of the culture. It thus advocates for a synthesis between Christianity and cultural norms in which culture is subject to and preparatory for the reality of Christ.

The fourth, Christ and Culture in Paradox, assumes that there is an essential antagonism between Christ and human cultures, but that the human believer cannot separate him or herself from culture. As such, it advocates a sharp division between spiritual and temporal things and argues that believers must be subject to Christ in spiritual things, but subject to culture in temporal things—embracing and enduring the paradoxes that this creates.

The fifth, Christ transforming Culture, assumes that Christ works in and through Christianity and Christians in order to redeem and renew the cultures in which they live. It thus advocates redemptive action by Christians within the culture in order to redeem elements of that culture—politics, art, science, etc.—to more properly reflect the truth of Christ.

Are these categories helpful?

Perhaps these types are helpful for the discussion of Christianity’s relationship to a pluralistic political situation or a secular state, or perhaps they are not (Stanley Hauerwas, in Resident Aliens, suggests that they are not). However, even assuming that the types are in themselves helpful, they generally deal with ambiguous and often changing ideas.

By ‘church’ we could mean First Baptist Dallas, the church of Carthage in 4th Century Rome, a small house church in Xinjiang province, a village of the Kakure Kirishitan in 17th century China, etc. Similarly, by ‘politics’ we could refer to the inner workings of the modern American government, the Roman Empire of Theodosius I, the communist Chinese state, the Japanese Shogunate under Tokugawa Ieshige, etc.

However, these would necessarily result in very different relationships and would have to be navigated differently by Christians living in these contexts. For instance, under Theodosius I, Rome was an officially Christian nation and the advice of clergy members was sought by Roman officials. Under Tokugawa Ieshige, on the other hand, simply to be known as a Christian was a death sentence. The Tokugawa Shogunate of seventeenth century Japan perpetrated one of the most extreme and thorough Christian purges in history.

Is there a best model?

So, why are these the questions that occupy my mind as I read modern American political theology? Simply put, it seems to me that the current approach assumes that there is a best model in which ‘the church’ can relate to ‘politics’, and I do not think that this is the case.

I think that there may be a best way for Southern Baptist Christians in 2020 to relate to the American political situation and the American government in 2020. However, the Southern Baptist Convention in 2020 is not the same as the Southern Baptist Convention in 1951, when Christ and Culture was first published. Similarly, the Southern Baptist Convention in 2070 is likely to be significantly different than the Southern Baptist Convention in 2020. The same is true for the American political situation and the American government, and as both the church and the government change, the relationship between them will change as well. This, in turn, will change the most appropriate way for Christians to navigate this relationship.

Neither the church nor politics is an eternal and unchanging entity. Instead, both are ambiguous terms that could be used to describe any number of real organizations and situations in the world. Considering this, any attempt to describe the relationship between church and state should begin by identifying with some degree of specificity: the when, where, and who that the author is assuming in these ambiguous terms. Only then should it try to describe how those particular Christians might most appropriately navigate the relationship between their particular church community and their particular political situation.

K. Lauriston Smith is a member of the CFC Mentorship Program. This year’s theme is faith and the public square.

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  • politics
  • public square
K. Lauriston Smith

K. Lauriston Smith serves as an Adjunct Instructor at Grand Canyon University and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Theology at Southeastern Seminary. His work can be found in The International Journal of Philosophy, Philosophia Christi, The Journal of Moral Philosophy, and The Southeastern Review. He has also published several short stories in The Gallery of Worlds under the pseudonym Tobias Mastgrave. He and his wife Anna have been married for six years. They live in Youngsville, NC with their three children.

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