The mid-term elections are nearing, and the next presidential election is only two years away. There's already a significant uptick in the super-charged rhetoric from both sides of the increasingly polarized political spectrum.
I've never directly written about politics or the culture wars; I've preferred to instead think about how they impact economics and personal finance. But I know many older Christians are interested in these things, and many of us frequently discuss and debate them.
You may be thinking (as I sometimes do when I read articles on this subject), "why doesn't he just stick to his knitting (I have no idea where that phrase came from—I don't knit). . . why venture into the stormy sea of politics and the culture wars?"
Well, we live in a world where politics matter (more than a little) and in a culture that's getting darker and more challenging to navigate. We're concerned about these things, and so is God—he created the world and loves it (John 3:16). (Not the evil in it, of course, but its people.)
As an older Christian (both chronologically and as a believer), I've witnessed many changes over my almost seventy years. The rate of change seems to be accelerating in all areas of life—social, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual.
Our culture has become increasingly intolerant and even hostile to the orthodox faith we hold dear. It's always been so (John 15:18), but not necessarily as common and 'institutionalized' in some parts of our complex society (such as academia and the traditional media) as it is today.
Like many older Christians, I sometimes feel overwhelmed, stunned, weary, and sad about what's going on. I also admit that I occasionally become angry about things I read or hear. Like many, I sometimes long for the good 'ole days when things were better (or seemed to be).
Others experience anxiety, fear, and despair over our rapid social and cultural decline, perhaps more so than younger folks who don't have as broad a perspective on these dramatic changes; either they haven't lived long enough to experience them or simply don't fully understand their implications.
Carl Trueman, in his recent book Strange New World, sums it up this way:
The era when Christians could disagree with the broader convictions of the secular world and yet still find themselves respected as decent members of society at large is coming to an end if, indeed, it has not ended already. The truth is that the last vestiges of a social imaginary shaped by Christianity are rapidly vanishing, and many of us are even now living as strangers in a strange new world.
He goes on to say:
Older Christians can no longer assume that biblical ethics make sense to younger Christians because the social imaginary in which they operate is so different from the one many of us grew up in. And that means we need to work harder at explaining not simply the content but also the rationale of Christian morality….Show that biblical teaching is not an arbitrary imposition on nature but instead correlates with it. In other words, it assists us in showing that God's commands make sense, given the way the world actually is.
I think this "strangeness" can be felt more acutely by older Christians as anyone aged 50 years or older has lived through a period of relative stability in our political, social, and cultural order. And many of us struggle with how to, in Trueman's words, explain "not simply the content but also the rationale of Christian morality. . ."
How to respond?
I certainly wouldn't presume to tell anyone how to think, much less precisely how to respond to the political and cultural milieu we find ourselves in. Ultimately, that's between you and your conscience and God.
Moreover, although we aren't necessarily called to constantly weigh in on political and cultural debates, scripture gives us great freedom to promote and defend our godly convictions in the public square.
I try very hard to look at things rationally and biblically and not get too wound up over issues that I don't have all the facts about or know I don't have much power to change just because I strongly hold a particular position on them. Instead, I put most of my focus (my time and energy) on things that I think can change individual lives, which in turn has a multiplier effect across families, churches, and communities.
I'm not saying that I don't have strong opinions on certain things; I do—and I can be as passionate about them as the next guy.
I've been reading and thinking more about politics lately because, like many other Christians I know, I've become more concerned about some things the government has been doing and the cultural issues of the day—things like biblical justice, abortion, sexuality, and so on.
And I want to respond and engage with these issues and with those on both sides of them in God-honoring ways. But it's been hard to know what that should look like as someone who aspires to be Christ-like in my response.
As with many other things, I know I must look to the Bible and the wisdom it contains as my best source of truth and guidance on these issues. Its teachings have practical implications for our fallen world and its culture and political systems, all of which have been corrupted by sin.
So, as I have sought to seek out and apply biblical wisdom in forming my perspective on these matters as an older believer based on a practical political/cultural theology, I've come up with a few fundamental biblical guiding principles to help me that may be helpful to you as well.
Principle #1 – The Bible gives us a historical and eschatological perspective on our current cultural "crisis."
We live in challenging times. But from a historical perspective, we should remember that there have been challenging times before. That's because the whole earth, since the Fall, has been cursed by sin, and every person, culture, society, and institution has been corrupted by it (Rom. 8:18-25).
We know that ancient societies and cultures were more Godless and depraved than ours are today. The Egyptian, Babylonian, and early Roman cultures we read about in biblical times were exceedingly contrary and hostile to Judaism and Christianity, much more so than any culture today.
As older Christians, we also know American history is replete with periods of extreme social and cultural upheaval and change—there have been bad times before, and some were very bad. But for many Christians, this time seems more challenging than any they have known in their lifetimes.
One reason is that more and more people in our society don't believe in any transcendent reality (or God) and believe there is no final, absolute truth, or, even if there is, it's not something we mere mortals can ever know. Consequently, the culture has become increasingly secular, humanistic, and relativistic.
The Bible calls this foolishness: "Claiming to be wise, they became fools" (Rom. 1:22, ESV). And this foolishness is on full display when someone insists that something can be factual and therefore true no matter how objectively baseless (and possibly even dangerous or harmful) such a truth claim may be.
These new ideologies are elevated above transcendent, eternal truths—personal preferences and pleasure, gender identities, and political ideologies are considered preeminent. The mere notion that they should be held up to scrutiny by something outside ourselves—apparently even natural science—is considered "toxic" or "dangerous."
I think the biblical perspective on this is that there have always been bad times and always will be, and things will go from bad to worse (2 Tim. 3:13). But we can't stay there because we know that God is writing a different story.
In addition to a historical perspective, we also need a biblically-informed view of the future. For the more politically motivated Christian, that might mean that Christian values and policies again become preeminent in the culture and government.
That would be a desirable outcome that fair-minded Christians can actively work toward. Many of us hold on to the hope that our country will one day come to its senses and move away from the extreme views we see on human sexuality, abortion, economics, and others.
But that is not where we, as Christians, should place our ultimate hope. Moreover, it's not at the center of the biblical eschatological narrative.
The Bible describes a Church-triumphant, not in overthrowing all the forces of evil in the culture or society, but a Church that will prevail despite all the powers of hell that are set against it (Matt. 16:18). God is not dependent on favorable political policies or cultural trends in America (as desirable as they may be) to work his plan for the final and complete redemption and restoration of all things.
Our greatest hope is that Jesus will one day return and restore both our bodies (through the resurrection) and the entire world to its original God-intended state. This is the vision of Rev. 21:1-4.
Principle #2 – The Bible doesn't subordinate soteriological and ecclesiological truth to evangelical Christians' legitimate cultural and political concerns.
God wants his people to be a force for good in the world, and engagement in politics (and with the culture) is one of the ways we do it. At the very least, we do what we can to ensure that our governments and institutions don't restrict religious practices or inhibit human flourishing. We creatively seek ways to increase opportunity for our fellow citizens, especially those on the margins.
Participation in the political process, based on the principle of love of neighbor, is one way to act justly, promote human flourishing, and seek the prosperity of our community. Advocating and advancing Christian principles and ideals such as pro-life, religious freedom, and biblical justice in the public square is totally acceptable for the committed believer (Micah 6:8).
When Abraham Kuyper wrote, "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!" it was a call to all Christians to rightly understand how their faith relates to the social, cultural, and political environment God has placed us in while acknowledging Christ's sovereignty over it all.
Having done so, we have much freedom regarding our engagement with the culture and participation in civic life. Some will actively promote Christian values, ethics, and morals. Others will actively promote biblically-aligned causes, political views, and candidates. Most will vote, and a few will run for political office.
The Bible acknowledges that we are part of a human society on earth, composed of nations, governments, and institutions that God has established according to his sovereign will and good and wise providence. Acts 17:26-27 speaks to the reality of nations, telling us that,
. . . he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, (ESV).
Christians can rightly embrace our nation's history, traditions, geography, boundaries, and unique cultural traditions and ideologies. We can also expect our government to protect our national sovereignty and for other governments to honor it.
The Apostle Peter and other biblical writers promote honorable citizenship and participation in "the system" in ways that honor God and commend the gospel to the unbelieving world (1 Pet. 2:13-17).
But this is where we must be most careful—our true citizenship is in heaven. Our gospel identity, which we receive through salvation, means that our greatest allegiance is to our Sovereign Lord because we belong to another kingdom—the Church, the Bride of Christ, that has been set apart by God as a special people for his own possession (1 Pet 2:4-5,9).
Although the Bible speaks of two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the earth (Jn. 18:36, Col. 1:13), it teaches that we are "of" the former but "in" the latter (Jn. 17:11,15-16). We are but "sojourners and exiles" on earth (1 Pet. 2:11).
While we are free to boldly promote biblically and theologically sound values, beliefs, and convictions in the public square, we must do so from a faithful Christain political and cultural theology focused on our citizenship of another kingdom first and political and cultural issues in the kingdom of this world second.
The Apostle Peter suggests that we are free to work to gain political power to influence public policy to "do good," "live as free people," and as "servants of God." But we must be careful that our political zeal doesn't put our politics and faith on the same plane (Luke 16:13-15).
When we do, it's tantamount to 'political idolatry,' putting too much hope in political influence and power. Political idolatry causes Christians to go beyond fundamental concerns about the welfare of the church, society, and their fellow man and ascribes a non-biblical eschatological hope to specific political outcomes. This is idolatrous because it shifts our ultimate hope to what happens in the kingdom of earth and not the kingdom of heaven (1 John 2:15-17).
The Bible is clear on this: "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry" (1 Cor. 10:14, ESV).
Principle #3 – Christians are free to engage in political and cultural struggles to advance biblical values, principles, and practices; however, the Bible compels us to do so with humility and in the fruit, power, and unity of the Holy Spirit.
Whether it's from internet sites, social media, or cable show pundits (on both the right and the left), there's a steady stream of urgency and panic, creating a lot of fear and angst. To listen to some of them, you'd think civilization as we know it is hanging by a thread.
The pundits are paid to stir us up, to play to our anger, frustration, and anxiety; they're masters at it. And the activists on social media are doing the same thing, but in an echo chamber—stirring up people who already agree with them so that they get even more angry, fearful, and desperate.
Because we evangelical Christians believe passionately in our faith, we also tend to feel passionate about specific cultural issues—abortion (pro-life), gender identity, and marriage, to name a few.
So, based on the absolute truths of the Bible, we speak truth to the culture, seek to dismantle erroneous belief systems through rational arguments, and dispel the evil ideologies that are becoming increasingly prevalent in our world (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
But we are called to both proclaim and demonstrate the truth of the gospel. If we attempt the former without the latter, we will not be doing all God has called us to do because that is the main way he builds his kingdom.
We're not called to bring about God's Kingdom on earth primarily through political influence, power, or by winning the culture wars. Instead, individually and as part of a local church, we're called to make disciples and then to engage in politics and with the culture as Christ-followers.
In that way, we're called to promote human flourishing by seeking the good of our city (Jer. 29:4-5, 7), to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Mic. 6:8), and by loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39).
At the very least, that means living godly, upright, honorable, charitable, and respectful lives as a witness to our real citizenship in heaven. It also means not buying into the political idolatry of any side. We engage in politics and with the culture as respectful people and participants.
That's a tall order, especially in such an emotionally-charged, high-stakes political and cultural environment. We are so often tempted to the opposite—to be angry, fearful, disrespectful, and even hateful at times.
I don't know about you, but I can feel these things welling up in my heart when I see or hear something in the political or cultural sphere that I find offensive, ridiculous, or just plain wrong.
Some verses that can be most helpful are Eph. 4:15: "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ," (ESV), and Eph. 4:26a: "Be angry and do not sin," (ESV).
These verses, and the whole counsel of scripture, admonish us to tell the truth but do it graciously. We are also told to love and pray for our enemies (Luke 6:27-28).
There are certainly times when it's appropriate to call out the wrongs and errors of others in the public square, but self-critique more fits the biblical pattern (remember Jesus's words in Matt. 7:3—"Why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?").
When I read the New Testament, I see Paul confronting his day's religious leaders and churches far more frequently for their legalism and hypocrisy than he attacked the various Roman philosophies or emperors (who were far worse than anything we have to deal with today).
Still, though we are not perfect, we must remain faithful, regardless of how the world responds to us. We must call out sin, and offer God's remedy—the gospel. We need to speak the truth and explain why ungodly and unbiblical ideologies aren't just absurd but harmful.
But we must do this in humility with full recognition that we are just as flawed and equally in need of redemption as those we are addressing. The Bible seems to require this of us: We can't be an adamant truth-teller while not loving those we're speaking to, or doing so without the fruit of the Spirit.
John 1:17b says, ". . . grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." Just as Jesus came with grace and truth, we too must approach our adversaries and enemies in the culture with the right balance of grace and truth.
I read somewhere that philosopher, theologian, and apologist Francis Schaeffer used to say that, after debating with someone, he hoped they would leave with two equally clear impressions: one, that he (Schaeffer) really disagreed with him, perhaps vehemently; and two, that he really cared about him.
Thus, the truth was defended, and the person was respected. As disciples of Christ, can we aim for anything less?
We are called to relate with others in the Body of Christ similarly. We should be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3).
Our shared soteriological and ecclesiastical truths reflect the unity that Christians are to experience in church life. As one writer put it, they represent "the ideal unity upon which the church is built." It's built on our shared identity in Christ and membership in his Body.
It's a sad day when some political issue, legal interpretation, presidential candidate, or a position on masks and vaccines divide brothers and sisters who share the broken body and shed blood of the Lord Jesus. As Samuel D. James explains, speaking of these relationships:
Disposability is a rejection of the doctrine of providence. A posture of disposability toward the people and places that God has providentially given to us (and given us to) is a de facto denial of his wisdom and power.
This happens when we lose our desire to disagree like Jesus— "peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere" (James 3:17). What we lack is godly wisdom that gives us empathy and compassion toward others when conflicts arise. We must remember "how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!" (Psalm 133:1).
When we disagree, if we allow bitterness, animosity, or resentment to creep in, we are dangerously close to making politics more important than all the other things that unite us as brothers and sisters. We may feel more closeness and unity with others who share our political views on every issue than with those with whom we share our faith.
Instead, we need to extend grace to our brothers and sisters who approach some issues differently. We patiently bear with one another as together we try to figure out what faithfulness looks like in an increasingly post-Christian age.
Faithfulness in unfaithful times
I can assure you that I don't always faithfully follow my own principles. But I know that to remain faithful, I must strive not to compromise or abandon my convictions to the cultural concerns of conservative evangelical Christian politics, as legitimate as many of those concerns are. I am a Christian first and a citizen of a country, state, and city, second.
Also, most of us have a relatively small sphere of influence in terms of those whose hearts and minds we can truly influence. Perhaps discipling someone in a local church or building relationships with our grandchildren will have a greater kingdom impact than regularly speaking out on the issues of the day on social media.
Still, I want to be faithful to engage in ways that align with scripture—not just to speak out against the culture based on the absolute truths of God's Word, but also in how I speak and live my life. My goal is to remain faithful to Jesus, no matter how crazy the politics and culture (and social media and cable TV) get around us.
As we enter a season that will be filled with fear, uncertainty, anger, and misinformation, let us boldly and lovingly prepare our hearts to place our hope in the promises of God and continue to work to fulfill the mission we have been called to.
To survive this election, the next two years, and the next presidential election, we must!