Welcome back to the podcast. We regularly take up questions on things like church-state separation, on political activism, on Christians and patriotism, on US flags in the sanctuary — things like that. Here’s another question on this theme from a listener named Matthew in Cincinnati.
“Pastor John, hello to you. Years back, you posted a tweet online that I printed out, kept, and would like you to expand on now. You posted the following on April 17, 2021, starting with Mark 6:18: ‘For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”’ A very bold text of John speaking truth to power to confront Herod’s adultery. Then you said this: ‘By all means be willing to lose your life to speak the truth to power. But always keep in mind the vast difference between this and political flag-waving.’ Can you expound on this? What marks this vast difference between speaking the truth to power and political flag-waving? What factors distinguish the two, in your mind? And is this mainly an unseen heart issue we must be warned about?”
Let me begin by giving six descriptions of what I mean by “political flag-waving” that should be avoided, and then turn and try to say something constructive about speaking truth to power.
Don’t Wave That Flag
So, in the tweet, I said, “By all means be willing to lose your life to speak the truth to power. But always keep in mind the vast difference between this and political flag-waving.” And here’s what I mean by “political flag-waving” in that assertion.
Keep in mind that I’m treating political flag-waving here as a bad thing, even though I know that there is a definition of political flag-waving that’s not a bad thing. I’m not talking about that. So, to make that clear, I’m going to use the word bad to designate the political flag-waving I’m talking about. And I’ll describe good political flag-waving in just a minute. Here’s what I mean by bad political flag-waving.
1. Bad political flag-waving means waving the flag of partisan loyalty — that is, party loyalty — as a final allegiance and ultimate allegiance. That’s bad.
2. Bad political flag-waving means asserting a moral or social position without making a clear difference between standing for the position and standing for the party that may also stand for the position. Are you standing for the position, or are you standing for the party? Make the distinction.
3. Bad political flag-waving means expressing an undue hope for the common good in the strategies of partisan politics. Now, there are aspects of common good that can indeed come through partisan politics. Yes, there are. But there’s also an undue, unwarranted level of hope that is to be avoided.
4. Bad political flag-waving means grounding moral stands in partisan platforms rather than in a biblical worldview.
5. Bad political flag-waving reflects a mistaken conviction that moral change will come to a population through political action or partisan advocacy. It won’t.
6. Bad political flag-waving means foregrounding partisan politics in settings where they do not belong — for example, in Christian worship. Making the case for a party’s political platform belongs, for example, at the national convention of the party. That’s where you can wave your flag properly, but not in Christian worship.
So, that’s some of what I wanted us to avoid when I said, “By all means be willing to lose your life to speak the truth to power. But always keep in mind the vast difference between this and political flag-waving.”
Now, what about truth to power? At this point, it seems to me we really need to clarify the phrase “separation of church and state.” Wherever you say, “Speak truth to power,” people wonder if you’re trying to establish your religion as one that the government should get behind with force and with the sword. Is that what you’re doing when you say, “Speak truth to power” — trying to insert your own religion as a religion that the government would use its sword to establish or defend?
“Speaking truth to power in a truly Christian way is always a call to repent and trust the forgiving grace of Jesus.”
So, we need to clarify the phrase “separation of church and state.” And it seems to me that this phrase is surrounded by confusion today. I think it’s always been surrounded by confusion, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault in particular. It’s just one of those American shibboleths that is intrinsically ambiguous. So, when we have a phrase like that — and there are lots of them — those who use them (like me right now) have an obligation to give some guidance as to what they mean by that phrase. You can’t just sling it about as if everybody knows what you’re talking about.
Last June, I published an article at Desiring God called ‘My Kingdom Is Not of This World’, in which I tried to give a careful, biblically argued statement of separation of government force and religious establishment, which I think is right at the heart of the issue. Here’s the thesis — I’ll just read it.
The thesis of this essay is that Jesus Christ, the absolutely supreme Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe, intends to accomplish his saving purposes in the world without reliance on the powers of civil government to teach, defend, or spread the Christian religion as such. Followers of Christ should not use the sword of civil government to enact, enforce, or spread any idea or behavior as explicitly Christian — as part of the Christian religion as such. . . . It is precisely our supreme allegiance to the lordship of Christ [not owing to any kind of secular neutrality] that obliges us not to use the God-given sword of civil government to threaten the punishment, or withhold the freedoms, of persons who do not confess Christ as Lord.
So, the implication of that is this: no human government should ever use its biblical right to wield the sword to enforce a religion or to oppose a religion as such. And the reason I used the phrase as such is to distinguish that bad action of forceful establishment or forceful maintenance of religion from the good action of creating laws that might fit the morality of a religion but not at all be part of prescribing or proscribing a religion as such.
Truth to Power — and Weakness
With that background in place, I say again that it is not only a Christian’s right but a Christian’s calling to speak truth to power and to speak truth to weakness and to everybody in between.
We should tell the president of the United States, and we should tell the panhandler on the street, “‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). If you don’t believe, Mr. President, Mr. Panhandler, you are under the wrath of God. Stop killing babies in the womb. Stop doing drugs on the street. ‘Do justice . . . love kindness . . . walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8).” We should say that and a hundred other things. We are the voice of Scripture when we faithfully read and speak what the Bible teaches.
Even though the kind of obedience that pleases God is only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, nevertheless, we call everyone — believer and unbeliever — to the highest biblical standard of attitude and behavior, because we call everyone to repent and trust Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. We don’t just isolate behavior and pray that presidents and panhandlers would do right behavior. We want them to believe and to be full of the Holy Spirit, and then act that behavior in a way that pleases God through faith. Speaking truth to power in a truly Christian way is always a call to repent and trust the forgiving grace of Jesus.
Christians know that the greatest problem to be solved in every person’s life — from the president to the panhandler — is the problem of God’s wrath against them in their unforgiven sin. Therefore, the main thing that Christians speak to power is Romans 3:25: the propitiation of God’s wrath by the blood of Christ received through faith. So, I’ll say it again, just like I did in the tweet: By all means be willing to lose your life to speak the truth to power and weakness. But always keep in mind the vast difference between this and political flag-waving.