Christianity and Politics (6)
A culture of virtue
In the previous article we noted that both classical and Christian political theorists emphasized the role of virtue in political systems. In particular, republics require a virtuous population who will elect virtuous leaders, or else the political system will become corrupt and collapse. We also noted that virtue is not a private matter; it can only be developed and expressed in community.
American society has all but lost any sense of virtue, so much so that we don’t use the word much any more. This is why our political system is in such trouble. We need to rebuild a culture of virtue if the republic is going to survive. To do this, we need revitalized institutions that will promote a free and virtuous society. First and foremost, this means rebuilding the family and rediscovering parental responsibility for teaching virtue to the next generation.
After the family, the next institution we should be working to reform is the church. Although church and state are separate institutions, the church has a role to play in supporting the republic by promoting virtue, acting as salt and light, and thus helping to prevent the government from falling into increasing levels of corruption.
Unfortunately, the American church is not up to the job in its present state.
State of the church
Churches of all stripes in America have decided that it’s far easier to conform to the culture than to stand up to it. Mainline churches have essentially adopted the ideas of the liberal wing of the Democratic party as their Gospel; evangelical churches have sometimes confused political action on the right for the Gospel as well. But as Chuck Colson was fond of saying, ideology, whether of the left or the right, is the enemy of the Gospel. Or as Sam Rodriguez put it, we don’t need the agenda of the donkey or of the elephant, but the agenda of the Lamb.
But the problems extend beyond partisan politics. Many churches have acquiesced in the culture’s embrace of homosexuality. Those that haven’t often ignore heterosexual sin, whether premarital sex, people living together out of wedlock, divorce and remarriage (which Jesus explicitly says is adultery), abortion, and a host of other wrongs. When was the last time you heard any of these addressed from the pulpit?
The root of the problem is that we have tried to accommodate the Gospel itself to the tastes or felt needs of our audience. Some churches offer the Prosperity Gospel, which says God wants us to be healthy and wealthy. Others have a Therapeutic Gospel, where God is there to help us to feel good about ourselves and to give us inner healing. Others offer a Fulfillment Gospel, which teaches a view of Christianity built around personal fulfillment and satisfaction.
All of these have elements of truth in them—even the Prosperity Gospel—but in the end they are all heresies. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairein, which means “to choose.” A heresy occurs when you pick one element of the truth and emphasize it to such a degree that it distorts the rest of the theology, much like pulling a thread on a knit sweater can distort the whole fabric.
The Gospel is even distorted by the way we preach salvation. We tell people they can be saved by praying a prayer, but no one in Scripture was ever saved that way. We talk about accepting Christ, making Him your personal Lord and Savior, we may even talk about faith. What we don’t say is that you need to repent, to turn away from your sins, to deny yourself, to become a disciple—and we don’t even know clearly what a disciple is. We don’t tell people to count the cost of following Christ because there really isn’t a cost in our Gospel: we can continue to live pretty much as we have been, but with new friends and a Sunday morning activity.
In the end, what we offer is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”:
The alternative is “costly grace:”
In short, too many churches preach a Gospel of forgiveness of sins that is a heresy itself—it distorts the true Gospel by making it grace cheap and reducing the good news simply to forgiveness of sins. Important, indeed central, as the message of forgiveness is, the Gospel is far, far more than that.
So what is the alternative? What should the church be teaching, and what does this have to do with virtue in society?
Evangelicals are fond of quoting the Great Commission: “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). The version in Matthew is a bit longer, and explains the Gospel in more detail: “go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
The Gospel is thus about making disciples. The word translated “disciple” here means a student, one who is studying under a teacher. We are all disciples of Jesus, of course, but we are also to be teachers of others. And what we are to teach them is to obey everything that Jesus commanded.
We need to be clear here. We are not saved by works. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works. But in the next verse he tells us why God saved us: For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
We are not saved by works, but for them. We are to do everything that Jesus commanded.
So what exactly are Jesus’ commands? Here is a partial list from the Gospel of Matthew:
There are more things that Jesus commanded, of course, but even with this very short list we see that he taught us to live lives of virtue. In fact, many of the traditional virtues are on this list.
One other thing from the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus told us: We are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, preserving it from rot and driving away the darkness (Matt. 5:13-16). This means that if the church isn’t teaching people to obey Jesus, it isn’t following the Great Commission, it isn’t being salt and light, and the culture will rot and sink deeper into darkness.
To put it differently, our culture’s drift is the fault of the church. We are not doing our job.
If that seems too harsh, consider: how often have you heard sermons on repentance, on obedience, on virtue? In our therapeutic and personal fulfillment oriented culture, how often have we called people to deny themselves and take up their cross? Conversely, how often have you heard evangelistic approaches that omit Jesus’ call to repentance and His rightful demands to obedience, in favor of easy believism?
Even this does not exhaust the richness of the Gospel. We would need to talk about the Kingdom of God, the Lordship of Christ over all things and over every aspect of our lives, having the mind of Christ, and a host of other topics to even begin to do justice to the fullness of the Gospel. But for present purposes, we need to recognize that the church is meant to promote virtue in obedience to Christ, and to influence society toward virtue as well.
In short, along with the family, the church is one of the primary institutions that is intended to promote virtue and thus to create a stable political environment. This is one of the most important ways the church can help preserve republican government and liberty. But we need to look at other institutions as well. In particular, education has historically been recognized as in important means of inculcating virtue. We turn to that in the next article.
In what ways is your own church working to instill virtue in its members? Ask some church leaders to comment on that question. Then ask what you can do to help your church better fulfill its mandate to make disciples.
For more insight to this topic, order the series, Renewing Virtue, and gather a group of friends to begin studying this important subject together. You might also benefit from reading the article, “Near Christianity,” by T. M. Moore.