Politics, the Church, and Getting Our Story Straight

Politics, the Church, and Getting Our Story Straight

We pray “that [Christ] would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.” Notice the ecclesial logic. The “these ends” have to do with the proclamation of the gospel, the saving of the lost, and the edification of the saints. In other words, Christ rules over all things for the good of the church. The kingdom of power is subservient in purpose to the kingdom of grace (giving way to the kingdom of glory), not the other way around.

In the last several years, we have seen a resurgence of interest among Christians in political theology. On the whole, I believe this has been a good thing intellectually. I’m less certain this has been a good thing ecclesiastically

We need smart, well-read Christians talking about natural law, the magisterial Reformers, Enlightenment philosophy, and American history. We need experts weighing in on the differences between classic liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, progressivism, and post-liberalism. Having done my doctoral work on John Witherspoon, I am personally very interested in reading about Locke and the Founders, in analyzing the Declaration and the Constitution, and in examining what political principles we can glean from the Bible and from the wisdom of the church through the ages. More Christians reading deeply and thinking carefully about political theology is a welcome development.

Okay, you’re wondering, so where’s the “but”?

The “but” is about political theology that supplants the centrality of the church. This can happen by deliberate conviction (the political theology calls for it), but it can also happen by the sheer weight of interest in politics. The issue isn’t merely idolatry (“You are too concerned about politics!”). The bigger issue is when Christians—and pastors worst of all—make the church intellectually, affectionally, and teleologically subservient to the world of politics and nation-states, instead of the other way around.

A Little Help from the Larger Catechism

Let me get at this concern in a roundabout way by highlighting a great section from the Westminster Larger Catechism. Question 191 asks, “What do we pray for in the second petition [of the Lord’s Prayer]?” Here’s the answer:

In the second petition, (which is, Thy Kingdom come,) acknowledging ourselves and all mankind to be by nature under the dominion of sin and Satan, we pray that the kingdom of sin and Satan may be destroyed, the gospel propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, the fullness of the Gentiles brought in; the church furnished with all gospel officers and ordinances, purged from corruption, countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrates; that the ordinances of Christ may be purely dispensed, and made effectual to the converting of those that are yet in their sins, and the confirming, comforting, and building up those that are already converted: that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him for ever: and that he would be pleased so to exercise the kingdom of his power in all the world, as may best conduce to these ends.

Notice three things about this answer.

First, the Catechism understands “Thy Kingdom come” to be about sin, salvation, and the church. The Westminster divines do not understand the petition to be about general human flourishing or about national renewal. The focus of the prayer is on the propagation of the gospel, the conversion of the lost, the health of the church, the destruction of the devil, and the renovation of our hearts. More on this ecclesial focus in a moment.

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