This last week’s class conversation about the benefits and consequences of Christians using political power was lively, and the breath of inquiry was encouraging. We questioned if it is possible for a Christian to wield governmental power in the current democratic American and Western nation-state models, particularly since it seems these political systems often demand a Christian to compromise their integrity for success? Or, is governmental authority so inherently evil that no Christian could function in a position of political authority?
Another line of conversation included the importance of a free society that voluntarily seeks to live according to virtues, the assumption being that these societal virtues should be Christian ones. American was imagined to only be a good society in so much as the population willfully and intentionally lived a religiously virtuous life without government complusion. Since the American populous has rejected Christian societal virtues the idea of a Christian America is lost.
A response to this reality was that communities of faith must become alternative communities within society so as to reveal God’s presence among the people of God and to invite the world into that communal life. There is no hope in wielding political power as Christians, in general or in America in particularly. It would be better to retain our Christian integrity as communities and followers of King Jesus rather than that taint our reputation my seeking to force non-Christians to obey Christian morals as laws and inevitably be corrupted by such power.
These statements brought up another truth that deserves to keep in mind when talking about the Church, government, history, and politics. For the first time in nearly 1,700 years Christianity does not have even one empire to champion or give intentional protection for the faith. I’m not sure this is a good or a bad thing, but it is the situation Christians find themselves in during the late modern world. While many formerly Christian nation-states desired to become Christian empires in their own histories, each have failed to become as great as the Late Roman, Byzantine, or Holy Roman empires. America was implicitly a Christian nation simply by the general religious practice of the population, but not explicitly Christian in any governing document. This has meant that as the population has drifted from a public religious life, particularly in a Christian mold, this current empire is becoming less and less hospitable to Christian life.
What will it take to survive in a world where there is no culture or society is naturally supportive of Christian belief and practice? The truth is that living as alternative communities, fostering our own idiosyncratic Christian cultures within the American and other global contexts will become inevitable. The commitment to this task will have to be more than simply hoped for. Christian communities of faith will have to look to the early church and other faithful believers who have minority Christian communities throughout the centuries to learn how to effectively reject a larger non-Christian cultural influence while shoring up an internal Christian identity.
Here are a few things I thought of during our class discussion that I believe American Christians must begin to mull over, prayerfully prepare for, and begin to implement in order to survive well in this new era:
1) The Christian faith preached in the churches must be one that calls Christians to a communal life together. This participation in the local community of faith should become the defining expression of a relationship between the person, as a member of the kingdom of God, and King Jesus.
2) Our communal life together must begin to be more than small groups and potlucks. We must, once again, begin to live the liturgical calendar, practice the sacraments, and be dedicated to intentional discipleship. These practices bring us into the presence of King Jesus through the Spirit, and they shape our hearts, minds, and bodies to become living embodiments of King Jesus’ life in our contexts.
3) Recognize the importance of other Christian traditions and histories so as to bond over the shared identity of being the people of God, which will begin to bridge the divides among the churches. Evangelical churches must begin to reach out and develop relationships particularly with Catholic and Black churches in their local regions. Alongside an intensified expectation of local community of faith commitment and participation, a larger identity of the kingdom of God must be fostered in order to reject the tendency to become myopic in denominational, hermeneutical, and liturgical scope.
4) At many times and in many places throughout history Christian communities have recognized when they must shoulder the education of their own children in order to instill an identity and way of life intentionally separate from the dominate culture around them. We must once again look at creating better communal systems for raising up our children together. Youth ministry is not enough. Simply trying to be good parents on our own is not enough. This not about creating more options for Christian families to try if they might think it is a neat new idea. This conversation should be about how the community of faith can shoulder the administrative, financial, and logistical costs of creating schools with Christian families out of a sense of holy obligation to raise up Christian children in the faith.
5) Christians must be educated. There must be an expectation to educate oneself and one’s own family in the Christian faith through the Scriptures, history, tradition, etc. The increased expectation of a practicing communal life must be paralleled with a teaching that fuels a general understanding that this way of life is distinct from other Americans. More than that, the education of Christian leaders must include a wider education about the world, cultures, politics, literature, and history so that non-Christian culture can be evaluated, critiqued, and sifted.
6) Church discipline must become real practice of communities of faith. This naturally means the development and teaching towards a concept of church authority. This authority must be effective, spiritual, and in all senses real. For the community to enact discipline as a restorative process church authority cannot simply be administrative and organizational. Christians in the local church must learn to actively submit to Christian leaders as authorities, actually obeying their given guidance and direction.
Recognizing there is no natural congeniality between the American culture or political system with Christian communities does not mean that American Christians should give up on influencing America socially or politically as long as they ask for opinions via voting. It does mean American Christians should not put any hope in the idea that such votes will “save” America. The population of America has become decisively non-Christian, and we must learn to live with that reality. The hope of all of the points above is to begin to cultivating a conviction in every Christian in America that their primary, fundamental, and determinative identity is as a Christian, rooted in life within a local community of faith, that might or might not make use of the secondary and lesser identity of being an American.
To survive in this new world, I believe our communities of faith will have to become incredibly intentional and demanding on those who participate in our churches to form a communal Christian identity with late modern America. While there will be bumps and bruises on the way to learning how to live such gospel-centered communal life together, it gives us a hope that the status quo simply does not offer. A hope of a life with God in and through our life together. A gospel-based communal life that we can faithfully hand off to our children after us.