Scot McKnight is an American New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, theologian, and author who has written widely on the historical Jesus, early Christianity and Christian living. He is currently Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, IL. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.
The church, John Locke once said, is more likely to be influenced by the government than the government by the church. This could be called “Locke’s trap.” I read this statement about Locke in Robert Louis Wilken’s wondrous account called Liberty in the Things of God. Statism, a more-than-occasional reality of Locke’s trap for the church, has become, especially since the days of Reagan, evangelicalism’s trap. Randall Balmer was right: Christianity operates best from the margins of power, not in its center. Too many today think the solutions to our problems are anchored to the one leading the White House. (I write about this in Kingdom Conspiracy and in Pastor Paul.)
The recent dustup over CT’s former Editor-in-Chief illustrates the point. The essay drew evangelicals out of their churches into the city square. Wayne Grudem defended Trump and some 170 pastors wrote a letter defending Trump. Jim Wallis defended the editorial and then so did The Bonhoeffer Society and then a large number of African American pastors.
Who is on the Lord’s side? became the question, but the answer was almost unequivocally “Who does or does not support Trump?” The question and the answers are Locke’s trap.
So caught in the trap is Ralph Reed that he snarkily chose to call CT “Christianity Yesterday.” One merely needs to read David Swartz’s wonderful account, called Moral Minority, to know evangelicals have been diverse on politics. Evangelicalism, Reed needs to know, is shifting and many are wondering about Christianity Tomorrow. That Christianity will be a justice-oriented evangelicalism. The shift is obvious and it’s not likely to slow down with this new move among evangelicals. They stand with this statement by Tim Dalrymple:
Out of love for Jesus and his church, not for political partisanship or intellectual elitism, this is why we feel compelled to say that the alliance of American evangelicalism with this presidency has wrought enormous damage to Christian witness. It has alienated many of our children and grandchildren. It has harmed African American, Hispanic American, and Asian American brothers and sisters. And it has undercut the efforts of countless missionaries who labor in the far fields of the Lord. While the Trump administration may be well regarded in some countries, in many more the perception of wholesale evangelical support for the administration has made toxic the reputation of the Bride of Christ.
And this a few paragraphs down in his article is speaking of Locke’s trap and statism when he says:
[Trump] is a symptom of a sickness that began before him, which is the hyper-politicization of the American church. This is a danger for all of us, wherever we fall on the political spectrum. Jesus said we should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. With profound love and respect, we ask our brothers and sisters in Christ to consider whether they have given to Caesar what belongs only to God: their unconditional loyalty.
The problem, for far too many, Left and Right, is Locke’s trap or statism. It is not speaking prophetically to claim the mantle of the prophet only when it is a Left-leaner criticizing the GOP, nor is it prophetic if a Right-leaner criticizes the Democrats. That’s falling into Locke’s trap. It is little more than partisan criticism baptized by Christian language.
There’s something going on in the Christian church and it is a good time for us all to think about it more carefully. In Pastor Paul, I write (with some changes):
I agree with Peggy Noonan that Americans are afraid and are in search of a story or something to take away the fear. Here’s how she puts our American condition:
Something’s up. And deep down, where the body meets the soul, we are fearful. We fear, down so deep it hasn’t even risen to the point of articulation, that with all our comforts and amusements, with all our toys and bells and whistles… we wonder if what we really have is… a first-class stateroom on the Titanic. Everything’s wonderful, but a world is ending and we sense it.
Many are salving fears, this constant turmoil of the amygdala and worry that we are on a Titanic, in activism and have ramped it all up to apocalyptic proportions. The solution to the fear, it is believed, is the state. America’s dominant narrative today is statism, the theory that the state ought to rule and the state can solve our problems.
Statism as Americans know it goes back to the time of Constantine and since that time the church’s relationship with the state has been complicated on more than but at least two fronts: how much Christianizing the state can accomplish and how much politicking the church ought to be doing. Locke’s trap. From the days of the Holy Roman Empire until now, especially during the founding of the United States, the churches of Europe and North America have told a nation’s story, though since the rise of modernity the church has gradually lost that power. Skip to the USA’s famous study by H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, and a typology of the relationship of the church and state/culture found its language: Christ of culture, Christ with culture, Christ above culture, Christ against culture, Christ and culture in paradox and Christ transforming culture. When every Wheaton student was reading Niebuhr, a Reformed theologian named Abraham Kuyper began to make a different influence felt among American evangelicals. Some Kuyperians turned “transforming culture” into a political agenda. This transformationalist approach gained strength in the heady days of Ronald Reagan and was spearheaded by Francis Schaeffer, James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and the influence of Billy Graham was nonpareil. American evangelical conservatives, as the so-called moral “majority,” became glued in new ways to the Republican Party while the more progressive moral “minority” became attached in similar ways to the Democrat Party. The church was politicized. Kuyperian, Niebuhrian, or some bricolage of them and others isn’t the issue.
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Source: Christianity Today