I am increasingly convinced (and concerned) that a great number of Protestant evangelicals are unwittingly rejecting the incredibly insightful political theology of early Lutheran and Reformed theologians. What may seem like a merely theoretical or academic issue, political theology has profoundly practical implications for ecclesiastical polity, the role of ministers, church discipline, the priesthood of all believers, a theology of vocation, a theology of institutions, church unity, ecuminism… and the list seems to go on ad infinitum.
For a more thorough treatment of the relevant history and theology, I’d recommend O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations and a handful of other resources, but for the sake of convenience, here are some outstanding online resources:
For our purposes here, we simply note the overwhelming tendency of American evangelicals to restrict the “kingdom of God” to a particular visible institution, affiliation, coalition, or what have you, accompanied by the “right brand” of theology or political ideology. In many respects, this tendency is rooted in our unique church-state philosophy, which often pits two visible institutions – church and state – against one another. This is why we’re so good at culture wars, even within the church. Its in our DNA to band together stand up for whats “right” against “them” (whoever “them” may be). To this end, we like to make long checklists of what makes someone “us,” just to be sure that “us” really is “us.” In short, we want the visible church to be synonymous with the church eternal, and we’ll excommunicate de facto as many people as necessary to make sure that happens. But wait, I thought we were talking about Protestantism…. hmmmm.
Given such deeply ingrained assumptions, we have a hard time wrapping our minds around the historically Reformed approach which understands the civil order as including both the visible church and “state” on the one hand, and the kingdom of God, which rules in the hearts of men by the authority of God’s word internally and invisibly, on the other. There are of course many implications of this approach which deeply challenge our current way of thinking about church, faith, and politics, and for those I direct you to my friend Steven Wedgeworth (linked above). Suffice it to say, it drastically changes the way we think about “us” and “them” and what constitutes either.
In the future I hope to write about a number of implications of a misguided political theology, but for now I leave you with but one. Anthony Bradley absolutely hits one out of the park when he writes:
It is becoming increasing clear by listening to the recent discourse about “evangelicalism” this-and-that and “evangelical center” and the “unity” among evangelicals and the “alliance” of evangelicals and the “coalition” of evangelicals and the “fracturing” of evangelicals and the “splintering” “blah, blah” about “we” and “us” “evangelicals” blah blah, that there is a closeted desire to function like Roman Catholicism with a centralized magisterium for issuing dogmatic teachings about orthodoxy & orthopraxis. Multiple websites & organizations are simply competing to assume the official unofficial role of the “evangelical magisterium.” The energies expended on this competition of centralization is wasting valuable financial and human capital that could be otherwise spent in dialogue with those at the Areopagus. Feel free to link which organizations, websites, coalitions, etc. you believe are competing for the role of “Evangelical Magisterium.”
Bradley points out very clearly the result of a dangerously deficient ecclesiastical polity (and more broadly, a political theology) which makes pastors into “kings” and doctrine into conscience-binding legislation that becomes the litmus test for orthodoxy. So much for the priesthood of believers and reformed political decorum, which exercises charity to all those who call on Christ and insists that “God alone is the Lord of conscience.” One cannot help but wonder “Whatever happened to “faith alone”? Are we not being led to believe that rather than “justified by faith” that our “faith is justified” by the evangelical magisterium? Is the kingdom of God now synonymous with a particular visible institution to which one must give their nod of approval? Scary stuff. Sadly it seems the Reformation has been hijacked by Anabaptists who think they’re Presbyterians and who act like Roman Catholics.