7 Guiding Principles for Christians in the Public Square

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By Bruce Ashford

A core biblical teaching is that all humans are worshipers, either of God or of idols. Our worship is located in the heart, and it radiates outward into all that we do. People who are not Christians are still worshipers, and whatever or whoever they worship radiates outward into all tat they do, including their public-square interactions.

As Christian believers, we worship the God of Jesus Christ. Because he is the creator and Lord of all that exists, we seek to bring all of our lives, including our public-square interactions, into submission to his lordship.

Yet the question remains: “How exactly do we bring our public-square interactions in line with Christ’s lordship?” Here are seven points that offer a way forward.

1. Avoid a coercive relationship between the church and the state.

From Genesis, we learn that God created the world and ordered it by means of his world. This ordering includes various spheres, such as family, church, art, science and politics. Each sphere has its own creational design, its own way of reflecting God’s glory and enabling humans to flourish. Ideally, each sphere exists directly under God’s lordship rather than under the “lordship” of one of the other spheres. For example, the church should not seek the authority of the state, and the state should not encroach upon the church.

On the one hand, we should avoid “ecclesiasticism” — a situation in which the church seeks to control the state. There are many instances in history in which the institutional church has sought to exercise power directly over the government. However, Scripture never directs or encourages the church to do so. Although God himself is sovereign over the government and can exercise authority directly over it, the church is not sovereign in this manner. Instead the church is called to equip its members to live godly lives and to be salt and light in their public-square interactions.

The church equips its members to live godly lives and to be salt and light in public-square interactions.

On the other hand, we must avoid “statism” — a situation in which the state encroaches upon the other spheres and especially (for our purposes) upon the church. As Roger Williams, John Locke, and others argued so compellingly in years past, the Christian doctrine of the image of God implies religious freedom. Os Guinnes writes,

Freedom of religion and belief affirms the dignity, worth and agency of every human person by freeing us to align ‘who we understand ourselves to be’ with ‘what we believe ultimately is,’ and then to think, live, speak and act in line with those convictions.[1]

Just as the individual person possesses freedom of conscience, so societies should provide a freedom of religion in the public square.

Although the state should not encroach upon other spheres, and especially not upon the church, this does not mean that the government cannot interfere in these autonomous spheres. Richard Mouw follows Abraham Kuyper in noting three such instances.

  1. The government of any country can and should play the role of a referee when there is conflict between the spheres (e.g., it might restrict an artist from displaying obscene art in public).
  2. It can protect the weak from the strong within a given sphere (e.g., it might interfere in a family after an instance of abuse).
  3. It can also use its power in matters that affect multiple spheres (e.g., it taxes us in order to build roads that enable all spheres to function).[2]

Finally, I add that a government ideally will create an environment in which all of the spheres can operate healthily, enabling society to flourish.

2. Promote the common good.

In Romans 13:1-7 Paul urges the Roman church to live in submission to its government. However, this passage cannot be employed to justify ultimate allegiance to the government or a passive citizenship in contemporary democratic situations. As Mouw explains:

In modern democracies, the power of national leaders is derived from the populace, which is the primary locus of God-given authority. Built into the very process is the possibility of review, debate, reexamination, election, and defeat. Given such a framework, for Christians simply to acquiesce in a present policy is to fail to respect the governing authorities.[3]

God has always called his people to be a light to the nations, and contemporary democracies provide a unique venue for being just such a light. We can be salt and light not only by calling people to salvation, but also by promoting the common good and looking for ways to restrain public evil.

3. Be discerning in how you articulate your beliefs.

As we are looking for ways to promote the common good and restrain sin and its effects, we will have to provide a rationale for the ways we suggest. When providing a public rationale, we face a choice between articulating that rationale in explicitly Christian language or with more neutral language. If we give a more robust and explicitly Christian rationale for our proposals, we often run the risk of being ignored or misunderstood. If we give a more neutral rationale, we are not able to speak with the same convictional force or precision.

For example, if a Christian is arguing against abortion, she might in one instance articulate her rationale in terms of the Christian doctrine of the image of God, but in another instance focus on demonstrating the negative effects of abortion on families and the broader society. Such choices are difficult, and we must pray for wisdom and discernment about the best way to argue our points.[4]

4. Be discerning in what you say from the pulpit.

The gospel we preach is political (we declare that Jesus is Lord and “Caesar” is not), and therefore the church is a political community. We are political in the sense that we are a “contrast community” whose life is ordered under Christ and should be markedly different from other communities. Our power does not come from wealth, social position, or military power. Instead it comes from Christian love, prophetic witness, generosity, and sacrificial service.

One contested issue is whether politics should be preached from the pulpit. This is not an easy question. Mouw is right when he says that we should proceed carefully and pray for discernment when faced with the question of whether to address a political issue from the pulpit. If we decide to do so, we must be confident that our words and concerns arise from God’s words and concerns as expressed in Scripture. If we are confident that our words and concerns match God’s, we might address the situation directly.[5] If we are not so confident, we might merely raise a question about the issue and say that Christians should pray for discernment. A preacher might be confident in addressing the evil of abortion from the pulpit, for example, but likely would not preach about federal regulation of the aviation industry.

We should be courteous toward those with whom we disagree.

5. Be civil.

Public square interactions often become contentious, and Christians should make sure that their interactions are shaped by their love for Christ and for their fellow humans. We should be courteous toward those with whom we disagree. We should represent our debate partners accurately rather than misrepresenting them. We should recognize the good in their lives and their arguments, rather than glorifying ourselves and demonizing them. We should be teachable, rather than close-minded. In a nutshell, we should be publicly righteous and our churches should be formation centers for public righteousness.[6]

6. Have realistic expectations.

As believers, we should be measured in what we expect from the political realm. After all, we are sinners, our politicians are sinners, and in fact we live in societies full of sinners. However, we also know that Christ Jesus will return to institute a new order in which righteousness will prevail.

So we should be neither pessimists who throw up our hands in despair nor utopians who try to force the present era to be the new heavens and earth. Instead, we should be clear-eyed Christian realists, who participate patiently in the public square, seeking to bear witness to Christ and promote the common good.

We should be clear-eyed Christian realists, who participate patiently in the public square.

7. Remember that politics is only one dimension of our cultural witness.

Before concluding our discussion of religion and the public square, I think it is important to remind ourselves that politics is only one dimension of culture. Additionally, what happens in the political realm often is influenced by things that have taken place in other realms.

In other words, if we want to influence our society, we should not put all of our hopes in politics. We should expend our energies in all arenas of culture, because of each of those arenas affects what happens in the political realm. Consider the influence that universities have in shaping the minds and hearts of young men and women. Or consider the power of the arts (especially music, TV, and movies) to shape the way entire cultures and subcultures think and feel about issues. So politics is one arena among many, and it is shaped by the other arenas.

Grace and Joy in Politics

As Christians, we should participate in politics and in discussions about the public good. We do so with seriousness, because Christian love and convictions demand that we work for the public good. We do so with grace, because Christian love extends even to people with whom we have irreconcilable differences politically. And we do so with joy, because our final hope is in Jesus Christ, rather than in the United States of America.

This post was originally published on March 9, 2016. It is adapted from Dr. Ashford’s book, Every Square Inch. Details>>

[1]Os Guinness, The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 69.

[2] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 97 (see ch. 4, n. 3). Richard J. Mouw, “Some Reflections on Sphere Sovereignty,” in Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life: Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for the Twenty-Firist Century, ed. Luis E. Lugo (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 87-109.

[3]  Richard J. Mouw, Political Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 55.

[4] Mouw, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 76-87.

[5] Mouw, Political Evanglism, 76-85.

[6] Mouw, Uncommmon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, rev. and exp. Ed. (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 33-38.

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Bruce Ashford

Bruce Riley Ashford is the author or co-author of six books, including 'The Gospel of Our King' (Baker, 2019), 'Letters to an American Christian' (B&H, 2018), 'One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics' (B&H, 2015), and 'Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians' (Lexham, 2015).

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