James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World advocated a model of culture engagement he called a “faithful presence”—a position he set against some other methods on display, seen in both the culture-warring and the culture-engaging strategies of evangelicals during the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, many younger evangelicals consider “faithful presence” insufficient for political engagement.
What we need is something more akin to truthful witness, with the accent less on presence and more on proclamation and action. When the world gets loud on a certain subject and the church goes quiet (even if out of a well-intentioned desire to avoid giving offense), the next generation gets indoctrinated into another worldview and hears no counterpoint. Truthful witness means the church must speak the truth—boldly, compassionately, and without qualification—with full confidence that doing so will be for the good of the world we oppose.
To put it another way, we cannot compartmentalize the Christian faith, as if following Jesus does not transform our perspective regarding the various spheres of life, including politics. Discipleship requires teaching on how best to speak the truth in a world of lies, to promote life in a culture of death, to lift up the goodness of the created order in a world full of people who negate the natural law and harm humanity through their errant and destructive understanding of human freedom and identity.
At the end of the day, we don’t want merely to engage the culture but to change it. In the words of Chesterton, we don’t want a church that moves with the world but one that will move the world.
So what does truthful witness look like? In the previous seven columns, we’ve looked at the rise of the neo–Religious Right and the challenges and opportunities of this cultural moment. Today, I offer three suggestions for younger evangelicals who seek a truthful witness to the kingdom of God while living in Babylon.
1. Always be on guard against political idolatry.
Political idolatry shows up in two ways. First, we make an idol of politics when we treat this sphere of life with messianic hope and fervor. We expect too much from fallen and flawed government systems or rising politicians, and then the idol always lets us down.
Second, as David Koyzis has shown, every modern political ideology tends to deify—or idolize—some aspect of the created order. Christians who engage in the political realm must be most influenced and shaped by the scriptural storyline so we can challenge the prevailing patterns of thought on display in our parties and leaders today. Truthful witness requires nothing less.
Along these lines, we must recognize there will be no cookie-cutter approach to the church’s engagement in this era. We fool ourselves if we expect leaders to align on all the same strategies.
Yes, we must help Christians think biblically about the world and then respond to political challenges with truth and grace (and that will require us to teach on areas of moral concern often connected to hotly contested public policy debates). But the last thing we want to see is more churches falling into the left-leaning activism of the mainline (which so often has led to the social gospel supplanting the proclamation of the cross), or the newly inspired MAGA-type churches who attract hundreds or thousands because of pastors who regale them with in-your-face preaching on vaccines, masks, and those “demonic Democrats.”
Political idolatry always destroys the church, and the Evil One can make use of any variation, even if the cause is righteous.
2. Consider areas of competence and calling.
To provide space for evangelicals to engage differently in the public square, we must acknowledge differences in competency and calling. Not everyone will interact the same way.
Something I appreciate about John Piper is his reticence to weigh in on particular policy proposals, in part because, as he says, I don’t know enough about the complexities of that subject to be helpful. He worries that pastors today are expected to be public policy experts, which can easily conflict with the calling to pastor a local church and preach the Word.
Many Christians expect their pastors to act as pundits, to hold increasingly strident views on any number of issues that animate people in the congregation. But a pastor should reserve his “Thus says the Lord” for areas where moral issues are clearly laid out in Scripture, and his “This is the Christian way” for those areas of longstanding agreement within the broader Christian tradition as to the best and most appropriate ethical stance to take.
If it’s true that we are heading into a “negative world” in which the hostility toward Christian morality will increase, then what we need now, especially now, are pastors who stay closer than ever to the Scriptures, who are circumspect in their use of social media—who make clear the difference between airing their own opinions and the moment when they step before their congregation to say, “Hear the Word of the Lord.” The Word draws and repels. The last thing a pastor should want is for his political punditry to detract from (or be confused with!) the message he has been divinely commissioned to deliver.
But the question of competency and calling applies also to those in the congregation called to truthful witness in the public square. These believers need to be equipped for their task, much the way a pastor and church will pour into their congregation’s artists, businesspeople, nonprofit workers, and schoolteachers.
In this case, a Christian who is called to public service should not seek to be “balanced” at all times in what he or she says. Partisanship is not a dirty word but an unavoidable element of political engagement in our day. A politician can and must speak more directly to issues of competence and calling. If a political strategist is working for a GOP lawmaker, for example, we wouldn’t expect to hear public criticism of that representative or the institutions that support that campaign.
Political alliances do not require selling out the faith. Truthful witness can and must occur in the various spheres of life, politics included.
3. We need all types.
The beauty of truthful witness is that it is a community affair. We need each other—with various gifts and skills—if our witness is to be full and robust.
It’s foolish to expect any one individual—pastor or politician—to embody the essence of truthful witness in the public square. We need the whole body of Christ for this task, each person playing a role. Some people may be temperamentally inclined toward peacemaking in the political realm, and therefore less devoted to critiquing or calling out the people or policies he disagrees with. Others may have reforming impulses, always improving policies and working toward party clarity and cohesion. Some believers have a prophetic edge, a gift for telling people how to think and what to do practically, in the moment, while others are more like loyal foot soldiers, making up the mass required for party allegiance.
We don’t want everyone doing everything. We want everyone doing something, and that something should be within a person’s sphere of competency and calling.
Unfortunately, we are still figuring out how to deal with social media (and how it deals with us!), and this new phenomenon often puts a strain on leaders with different gifts, pressuring all of us to move out of our areas of competence and calling. Most of the time, calling out another Christian on Twitter for a posture or position you don’t like isn’t courageous, especially if your followers expect you to “go after” that kind of person anyway. Too often, social media imagines the world as a gigantic coliseum in which Twitter personalities duke it out for the cheering of their fans. Let’s not confuse social media dustups, which happen in a small part of the online world, with actual change or public witness.
And that leads me to a final thought, to be shared in the next column, about the need for us to “play the long game” politically by not letting our fervor for today’s cultural battles overheat our thought process and drive us toward compromising the truthful witness that must endure, whether it be politically plausible or not.
This is the eighth column in an ongoing series. If you would like my future articles sent to your email, as well as a curated list of books, podcasts, and helpful links I find online, enter your address.
1. The Return of the Culture War
2. The Tearing Apart of Convictional Civility
3. Navigating the (New?) Negative World
4. Didn’t I Grow Up in the Negative World?
5. We Need to Complicate the Negative World
6. Let’s Contextualize Tim Keller
7. Encouragement and Caution for Culture Warriors
8. Truthful Witness in the Public Square
9. Five Quick Takes for New Culture Wars