A friend and former neighbor, Neil Carlson, recently gave me some pushback on a Facebook status I posted. He brought up a number of theological questions that I don’t feel could be answered properly through Facebook, and this blog post is a result.
Neil and I approach politics very differently, though I believe we’d agree on most issues. He’s a good Christian man and a professor of Political Science at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
My original post was this…
Honestly folks, enough virtue signaling already. Trump said something horrible. Granted. What are you going to do about it? If you’re not busy about the work of the kingdom of God, saving souls, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless, working for racial reconciliation, visiting the prisoner, or at the very least PRAYING for the conversion of all our political leaders, then please keep your virtue signaling to yourself. It’s so easy to be a keyboard warrior. It’s much more difficult to do anything that will make a difference.
For years, I was actively engaged in posting my political opinions on Facebook. I thought that by posting, I was actually doing something to change the world. I thought I was making it a better place. However, over time I discovered this simply wasn’t the case. None of my socialist friends ever came to view the role of government the way I did. None of my liberal friends ever came to believe abortion is murder. None of my gun restricting friends ever went out and bought so much as a BB gun due to my persuasive defense of the 2nd Amendment. None of my conservative friends stopped backing what I viewed as an illegitimate use of the military by invading countries who had not attacked us. None of these things happened because my friends did not share my presuppositions.
The most impactful presupposition in our lives is our view of God. While I’m fallible and no doubt hold certain political beliefs outside of a Biblical worldview, I strive to align my political thought with my religious thought. Government, ultimately, is a moral organism. It can either use God’s morality, or it can use man’s.
In our representative democracy, the views of government reflect the views of the people to a larger degree than we may find in a place like North Korea or Cuba. Though there are some notable exceptions, generally speaking, the government is a lagging indicator of the culture. Our government goes where the people, the culture, lead it. When the majority of Americans supported gay marriage, then the government supported it. Now, the majority of Americans support legalization of marijuana. As a result, we see states acting to legalize and pressure on the Federal government to do away with its marijuana restrictions. The government goes where the people, the culture, take it.
Given the Great Commission, we can legitimately say that the state of the culture is the church’s report card. If the government goes where the culture takes it, and the culture goes where the church takes it, then we must conclude that the government also goes where the church takes it. Could either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton be nominated for the office of President by a gospel saturated culture?
Christians in the United States have unfortunately been convinced by the world that political power is the primary way to effect kingdom change. My contention is that the church is to influence government indirectly by directly influencing culture. I believe this is our Biblical mandate. By primarily engaging government, we are putting the cart before the horse. I hope to show the reader why engagement in government must take a backseat to engaging the culture.
Neil wrote in response to my post…
How does one distinguish a prophetic voice or a journalistic calling or smart social criticism from virtue signalling?
I think it’s important at this point to define what a prophetic voice is. A prophetic voice is truth-telling. There are myriad examples in scripture of God’s prophets confronting man-made power with truth. Nathan clearly had a prophetic voice when he confronted King David, calling him out as a murderer and an adulterer. Elijah called out King Ahab for being a murderer and a thief. We see a number of elements in this the Biblical prophetic voice.
First, the prophets spoke directly to the Kings. This is not the case on social media. On social media, we speak to our friends and acquaintances. Unless we have a huge Twitter following and Donald Trump follows us, it’s highly unlikely we are actually speaking truth to power. On Facebook, the chances are even lower as I don’t believe the President has a Facebook account.
A person who feels called to speak truth to power must actually speak it to power. If Christians want to exercise a prophetic voice, I’d suggest that in lieu of pontificating on Facebook Christians should take the time and write a letter to the President, or calling his/her representatives in Congress. Organize in your local community with like minded people to actually put your passionately held beliefs into action. March on Washington, or Lansing, or Sacramento. Sign petitions and send them to those in authority. All of these activities have an actual prophetic voice. If you use social media to do these things, then may you be blessed in your endeavors.
Second, prophets were counselors to the kings of Israel, God’s covenant nation. I think it’s important for Christians to remember that the United States isn’t God’s covenant community. Whether we like it or not, our government is officially secular. President Trump is not King David or even King Ahab. He is not the head of our New Covenant community. He is the leader of a government that is clearly more akin to the governments of Moloch-worshipping nations (as evidenced by our governments stance on abortion) or Caesar in Rome. While the prophets did speak truth to foreign kings, they did so only when asked, such as Daniel and Joseph. One notable exception is Moses, who was essentially sent to tell Pharaoh his days were numbered. God was going to set his people free no matter what Pharaoh wanted. Moses didn’t go to persuade. He went to give notice that the true Sovereign was removing Pharaoh’s power.
We do see the scriptures addressing the nations, and therefore the kings of those nations. However, scripture never focuses upon right policy or what words the leaders of foreign nations should use. They assumed it would be bad because the nations did not know the LORD. When scripture addressed the nations, it focuses upon God’s work and might. Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh are telling. Moses warned of God’s impending judgement upon the gods of Egypt. The entire Exodus journey is one of God setting his people free from the tyranny of the nations ruled by false gods. Scripture always a calls the nations to recognize the LORD as Sovereign.
“Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy. For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth. He subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet. He chose our inheritance for us, the pride of Jacob, whom he loved. God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.” – Psalm 47
In spite of the Biblical model of calling power to submit to Christ, I see precious little of it from the virtue signalers on Facebook. It we are to be prophetic then let’s do what the prophets of old did – call our leaders to subject themselves to Christ.
Third, Prophets were more than just a voice – they put their lives on the line to speak the truth to power. The life of a prophet was dangerous. In fact, it’s an essential element of the prophetic office. Stephen asked the gathered crowd, just before they stoned him, “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?”
Though it’s entirely possible, I have yet to see a so-called prophetic voice on Facebook or Twitter endure real persecution.
MLK Jr. had a prophetic voice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a prophetic voice. Martin Luther had a prophetic voice. Jan Hus had a prophetic voice. We do these men and other heroes of our faith a disservice by equating our Facebook posts with a “prophetic voice”.
Why so eager to shut down believers’ voices with calls for quiet piety?
This is not a call for quiet piety, though piety should be a part of any Christian activism. The common criticism of piety is that it is done in place of worldly action. Christians become so heavenly minded that their of no earthly good. Pure piety keeps Christians from engaging culture. That’s the exact opposite of what I’m arguing for.
I’m calling for a radical engagement of culture, focusing on those we have the best chances of influencing. Donald Trump doesn’t care about how morally indignant we are on Facebook about his mouth. Yet our neighbor can be saved when we share the gospel with her. If we are looking to make an impact, then we should focus upon those the LORD has put in our sphere of influence.
While the church has been focused upon passing laws to outlaw abortion, it has spent little time engaging the culture of death that made legal abortion possible. Where ministries do engage the culture, we see babies being saved. @HumanCoalition claims to have saved almost 8,000 babies from abortion, not through legislation, but through engaging mothers who are considering an abortion with the power of the gospel.
If we truly desire to change the culture, we must engage the culture. The government will follow.
Why so sure that those who type do not also pray and study and act? If you know who these hypocrites and dilettantes are, doesn’t Matthew 18 recommend you confront them privately and personally with their error, rather than issuing blanket opposition to justifiable protest and disgust?
I think this is a gross misunderstanding of Matthew 18. I could also turn Neil’s questions around on him. Donald Trump is a professing Christian. From what I understand, he attends a Presbyterian church. Have Christians who have publicly criticized the President gone to him one-on-one to discuss his faults? Have they sent him a letter, asking him as Christian brothers or sisters to reconsider his inflammatory rhetoric? Has anyone talked to the elders of his church? If not, why not? Neil seems to have a problem with me calling out nameless Christians for their lack of wisdom and misadventures to change the culture (which Matthew 18 does not address), while at the same time directly violating the precepts of Matthew 18.
A general call to the Christian community for wisdom is what pastors do, and in doing so we do not violate the precepts of Matthew 18 precisely because we do not call out the sins of individuals. Pastors preach about general issues of sin in the world. I don’t feel the need to go to every person in my congregation who used pornography in the past week and personally talk to them about their sin before discussing pornography in my sermon.
Neil is fond of the prophetic voice, so I would think he would appreciate the general warnings the prophets gave to God’s people. They didn’t go around telling people, “If this doesn’t apply to you, please disregard.” That was understood. Someone who heard a prophet talking about hanging out with temple prostitutes, but wasn’t hanging out with temple prostitutes, could either ignore the prophet or join him in calling people to repentance. If Neil isn’t virtue signaling, then he is free to ignore me.
You may see my denunciations of Trump as “virtue signalling”; why should I not see your vocal religiosity the same way? If it is self-righteous to demand repentance of the President, is it not also self-righteous to demand prayer of citizens exercising their First Amendment rights?
What is self-righteousness? Is it saying that we should model the LORD? Is it saying that God’s Word should be our standard? No. Self-righteous is the act of saying “I am righteous, be like me.” As I read my original post, it’s pretty clear that I never called myself righteous, but pointed people to what the LORD has given us as a guide for our lives. I wasn’t making myself the model of faith and practice, but calling Christians to be more than speakers. It was a general call to the church to be doers. If a pastor is incapable of ever calling the church to God’s word because he will be labeled as “self-righteous”, then I wonder what Neil thinks we should be doing?
Word and Deed
For the record, no one at any time has any obligation, religious or patriotic, to “put up or shut up,” as one might abbreviate your message. The President’s egregiously bad words and actions have once again inspired a justifiably massive public outcry. If that annoys you, tune out; don’t appeal to faith to demand discretion from others you don’t expect of yourself. It’s pretty bold to use social media to tell people to stop complaining on social media. That’s especially gross when the cause for complaint is real, cruel words and deeds that put millions at risk of harm by one who has claimed the mantle of Christian faith. People also lose homes and families because voters fail to mobilize for just public policy, and public words are needed to memorialize the evil done and mobilize dissent. No citizen of the Kingdom is too small or too unworthy to speak out.
It strikes me as the plain and consistent teaching of scripture that idle words do not please the LORD in any way. The Reformed faith is a faith of word and deed which transcends and is sovereign over all man-made political thought.
James exhorts us to be doers of the word and not just hearers (James 1:22), reminds us that simply telling someone to be well and fed is useless (James 2:16), and that faith without works is dead (James 2:20). Jesus told his disciples that if they love him they will keep his commandments (John 14:15) and they will bear much fruit (John 15:8). Paul repeatedly hammers upon the theme that faith transforms us into someone new (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are made into new creations, not to sit and idly talk about other people’s sin, but to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). God’s Word is effective in creating kingdom change and does exactly what the LORD intends (Isaiah 55:11). Words that stop short of changing behavior are completely worthless.
Neil seems to be arguing that using words to criticize and denounce President Trump are sufficient enough to change the world for the better. I see no Biblical or practical warrant for such and assertion.
Kingdom of God vs. Kingdom of the World
While on earth, the King of kings and LORD of lords spent precisely zero time going on the attack against Tiberius Caesar and other government powers. He spent his time going after faulty religious institutions because that’s where the real power is.
When Pilate confronted Jesus, he didn’t go on about the illegitimate nature of the pagan empire that dominated the Holy Land. Jesus merely asserted God’s sovereignty over Roman rule – Jesus’ kingdom is not of the earth, but of heaven, and his heavenly kingdom rules over Caesar’s earthly kingdom.
Likewise, when Jesus was brought before the puppet king Herod, Jesus did not take the opportunity to excoriate Herod for selling out God’s people and bowing to a pagan emperor. Instead, he remained silent.
Of course, Jesus is exceptional. However, the apostles continued to follow Jesus’ model of confrontation. Paul’s long journey to an unjust execution at the hands of Nero was not filled with pleas of injustice at the hands of an unjust ruler. He first went to argue with the religious authorities in the synagogues. Paul preached the gospel to the people and religious authorities because he understood that the gospel is far more powerful than any amount of complaining done outside Nero’s presence.
If Jesus or Paul had Facebook, what would they post? Would they be occupied with the poor behavior of men whose kingdom is of this world? Or, would focused upon God’s kingdom – a kingdom that is sovereign over any worldly nation. Would they not focus upon the gospel which, by its very nature, changes culture and thus government like no other force?
How to Treat Those in Authority
How should we treat those in authority? Our Reformed tradition and scripture are quite clear that the church should…
”…hold its (the government’s) representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.” – Belgic Confession Article 36
Praying for those in authority is something that has been completely missing from every single politically motivated Facebook post I’ve read over the last several years. Christians were uncharitable in praying for President Obama, and those who differ with President Trump likewise ooze vitriol that is completely contrary the the attitude the church should have toward authorities.
When we have no humility in our accusations, when we do not exhort the church to pray for our leaders, when we ravage their sin while conveniently omitting a call to faith and submission to Jesus Christ, we are virtue signaling.
Neil is a political scientist, and I’m a pastor. Given our predilections for study, it’s not surprising that Neil seems to see the world’s problems being solved through direct political action, while I see the world being changed through direct gospel action. While I appreciate Neil’s comments, I do not believe he has considered them in light of scripture. As I’ve shown, scripture plainly teaches the following:
- Christ is the ultimate political authority.
- The model for kingdom change is not direct political action with rulers, but through Christ-centered cultural engagement.
- Speech alone is not only ineffective, but also Biblically undesirable. The church is called to more than talking a good game, but living and doing gospel work.