Should Christians Engage in Political Activism?

We had our monthly meeting this past Saturday (yes, it is possible for the human being to experience the accumulated pleasure of an NCAC meeting and a family gathering overflowing with turkey, ham, and every other gastronomic goodness you can imagine all in the same weekend without dying), and the discussion quickly turned to the redefinition of marriage. It wasn’t a discussion about homosexuality, per se; it was more focussed on the traditional definition of marriage and what ramifications, if any, it should have for its relatively recent redefinition in Canada. In short, the discussion was more political than moral or religious (acknowledging that political issues are almost always inherently moral, and that moral issues are inherently religious).

The political nature of the issue seemed to rub a few attendees the wrong way. The question was raised whether the political aspects of social issues such as homosexuality and abortion even pertain to apologetics at all. This seems to me an interesting question, a question I’ve been thinking about since that evening, so I’d like to spill a little ink in getting my thoughts out in this post. Be cautioned that they are somewhat preliminary.

The first thing that must be said is that no one denied that the redefinition of marriage in a same-sex permitting way is antithetical to the biblical definition of the institution. There are those who claim to be Christians who deny this, but there were none at the meeting, and as such it’s a topic for another post.

All present were in agreement that the biblical definition of marriage restricts it to being between one man and one woman, but there was a division over whether or not the Christian should actively attempt to promote the biblical definition in the political sphere. Almost immediately someone raised the objection that it’s a debate we’ve already lost in Canada, and thus we should focus our energies on more fruitful endeavours. This, of course, provoked the opposition into arguing (for the remainder of the formal meeting) that we have not lost the battle, and that the tide can still be turned. Much more was said on each side, but I’ll not delve into it here because it seems to me a red herring.

The question of whether or not we have lost the battle is irrelevant for at least two reasons:

  1. It may be that God wants us to fight a losing battle. In fact, even a cursory reading through the Scriptures reveals that the majority of God’s messengers have toiled in the face of insurmountable adversity—the corrupt will of fallen men. But it was certainly God’s will for them to do so.
  2. It’s possible that the battle could be won, yet God doesn’t want us to fight it anyway. Jesus is our prime example. He could have easily utilized God’s angelic forces or His inherent power to overthrow the earth and reign supreme forever, but it was not God’s will that He did so. He had different (far better) plans in mind, and He may have better plans in mind for us as well. The bare fact that it is possible to win tells us little about the appropriateness of the battle.

So the real issue for the Christian should not be whether or not we can win the debate, but whether or not we should even try. Is it God’s will for us to engage in this debate on a political level?

The key phrase here is on a political level. The definition of marriage is undoubtedly an apologetics issue inasmuch as it proves a stumbling block for individuals who may otherwise come to the faith. These individuals should be and are engaged, so answers to their concerns should be developed and learned by apologists. But should we take this fight to the political arena? Is it the Christian mandate to create a state in which the God of the Bible is honoured in word and deed, or is it our mandate to simply preach the Gospel (which includes the moral commands from Christ and His Apostles) and call those who don’t harden their hearts against it to come out of this corrupt world? I lean more towards the latter, and thus refrain from Christian activism on issues such as homosexuality and abortion, but I can see at least one decent point on each side of the debate.

In making the case that we should engage politically, one could argue that the political and legislative spheres have a deep impact on the moral constitution of a country’s citizens, and that eliminating (or at least fighting against) any laws and political ideas which are contrary to God’s word is the wise thing to do in attempting to remove this stumbling block from before them.

This argument is certainly not without merit. It may be that the best way to change hearts and minds is to attack the issue as close to the source as possible, which in this case might be the political ideologies (and ideologues) which promote the redefinition of marriage.

On the other hand, it may be that the Spirit will do His work on those who are open regardless of the cultural milieu in which they find themselves. This response seems to me to have some force in that we don’t see the early church engaging in political activity. They refuse to obey the demands of a corrupt society where obeying would put them at odds with the commandments of their Lord, but they certainly didn’t campaign for the abolishment of slavery, or any other social depravity that was current at the time (homosexual behaviour being one of them). Neither Christ nor His Apostles command us to act out in such a way, nor do they seem to engage in political issues themselves. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and a lack of command to act doesn’t make it immoral to do so. The only point I’m making here is that it certainly isn’t clear that the only way (or even God’s preferred way) to turn hearts on these issues is to act politically, and if we look to the early church as our example, we see no such explicit activism. This is no knock-down argument; it’s not supposed to be.

In arguing against political activism on the part of the Christian, it can be argued that such actions have the potential to do damage to the Gospel. We risk being defined by the issues, instead of being defined by the message of Christ’s coming Kingdom and the inheritance promised to those adopted into His family through faith. A Christian friend, who is also an acomplished pro-life activist, once told me that the majority of the time his pro-abortion opponents peg him as a Christian, even when he hasn’t mentioned the fact. The reason is that Christians have been so staunchly opposed to abortion that the pro-life cause has come to be identified with Christianity in the eyes of many pro-abortion advocates. The same is certainly true of the marriage debate. Granted, much of this is hollow rhetoric from the opposition coupled with an imbalanced presentation of the issues on the part of the media, but the fact remains the same that the perception is a popular one, and that it may be hindering the Gospel. Again, if we are to take the Apostles and the early church as our example, we see a conspicuous lack of such activity.

Notice that this isn’t an argument that speaking out against homosexual behaviour, abortion, and the redefinition of marriage will hinder the Gospel; those things are wrong and contrary to the commandments of Christ, and thus should be addressed with honesty and rigour. Rather, the argument is that engaging in such activity within the political arena is serving to redefine (which necessarily distorts) the Gospel message so that those exposed to it are missing the life-changing message that the Christian Gospel truly is.

Against such an argument it may be tempting to respond that just as the Spirit doesn’t need any particular cultural milieu to do His work, even so He is not dependent upon the milieu in which the Gospel is perfectly clear. But this seems to me a bad response. I agree that it is not necessary for the culture to agree with Christianity’s exact moral presuppositions for the Spirit to work in the hearts of unbelievers, but the very thing the Spirit is working towards is bringing the unbeliever to faith in the true Gospel. How can this be done if no accurate understanding of the Gospel is there? Certainly, God could provide personal revelation or some such thing, but this would seem to eliminate the need for the evangelist/apologist altogether.

Perhaps one could respond by arguing that the true Gospel could be preached by individual evangelists, and that the overarching view prevalent within the unbelieving society as whole is less relevant than it would at first seem. Again, this may have some merit. The problem I have with it is that a distortion of the Gospel, at any level, seems to me necessarily a bad thing. If faced with the choice between speaking for a (good) moral cause politically and potentially damaging the Gospel, and preaching the Gospel on a more personal, yet still public, level, giving it a clear presentation that is faithful and true, I lean more towards the latter.

As stated above, I don’t take this to be any sort of definitive statement on the issue of Christian activism. I refrain from it, and think it an unwise enterprise for the Christian, but my views remain underdeveloped here and I am very open to being challenged. What do you think of the above arguments? Do you know of any arguments one way or the other that I’ve failed to present and consider? Let me know in the comments. Far from being the end of the conversation, I hope this post opens it up for fruitful dialogue.

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About Shawn Clayton Ferguson

I have a B.A. in philosophy with distinction from the University of Calgary. I'm a Christian seeking to share the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. You can learn more about me on my website at www.waxaxiomatic.ca.
This entry was posted in Christian Church, General Apologetics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Should Christians Engage in Political Activism?

  1. In his book, Politics According to the Bible, Dr. Wayne Grudem begins by addressing 5 wrong views of Christians and the government:

    1. Government should compel religion
    2. Government should exclude religion
    3. All government is evil and demonic
    4. Do evangelism, not politics
    5. Do politics, not evangelism

    It seems as though the Biblical view is significant Christian influence on the government so as to make and enforce just laws, while recognizing that government can neither save people or change human hearts. I can’t recommend highly enough! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LwHJfwxO_c

    • Shawn Clayton Ferguson says:

      Thanks for the comment, McKenzie!

      Dr. Grudem’s views are interesting, but I’d really need to see his arguments for them to be able to say anything more about them.

      Keep in mind that I’m not asking the question of whether Christians should be involved in government, but whether they should be involved in activism regarding morally controversial issues such as abortion, redefining marriage, and homosexual behaviour, issues which may serve to redefine the Gospel, thus doing damage to it.

      With this in mind, it’s clear that none of Dr. Grudem’s 5 views apply to the question in this article. Even 4 and 5 are not in question, because we’re asking whether we should engage politically on very specific issues, and not on politics in general.

      In the video, he gives two responses to the argument that Christians shouldn’t impose their views on others. I’ve neither made nor considered such an argument; in fact, I said that it’s relatively uncontroversial that we should attempt to persuade others that Christian views are correct. The question, which Dr. Grudem doesn’t here address, is whether we should do so at the political level as a Christian enterprise.

      I’ll definitely get my hands on that book and give it a read! Like I said, I’m still open to both sides of the issue.

      Shawn

  2. Jemima says:

    Great piece, Shawn. Thrilled to see more writing and thinking on apologetics and theology from Canadians. For a long time, there were too few of us and too far between. Hoping to meet up with a few like-minded souls at RZIM’s summer school next year in Vancouver (http://rzimsummerschool2014.eventbrite.ca) — Lennox, Zacharias, Bannister, yay!

  3. Paul Buller says:

    I’ve been of the mind that Christians in activism is not necessarily problematic in itself, except that there needs to be a more basic component to it; changing the public milieu first and foremost. If we manage to succeed politically to have the laws changed, yet the majority of Canadians do not support the laws, then we are forcing a belief onto an unwilling public. However, if we are able to persuade the majority of Canadians (who at least nominally align themselves with Christianity) to live and think in a manner more consistent with the Biblical paradigm, then changing the laws will be a natural by-product of the social transformation.

    In short, work to change the laws of the land, fine, but don’t do that unless the general thrust of the Christian Church is to change the minds of the person on the other side of the fence. We need to rebuild our intellectual and social credibility before putting all our eggs in the activism basket.

    What are your thoughts on that? I gather from your article that you probably see things this way and perhaps I have just reworded some of your perspective. Let me know.

    • Shawn Clayton Ferguson says:

      Thanks for commenting, Paul!

      The real thrust of the article is to clarify the salient points of the debate, at least as I see them. The question that I’m asking is not whether we should work towards changing the laws of the land, per se, but whether we should align ourselves with movements that engage in activism over highly controversial moral issues, all under the banner of Christian apologetics.

      There are many Christian apologists who seem to think that participating in an anti-abortion rally falls just as firmly under the umbrella of Christian apologetics as does, say, arguing for the resurrection of Christ. This doesn’t seem to me to be the case, at least not clearly so.

      In fact, it may be that participating in such things is actually damaging to the Gospel (although, I’m not arguing here that it is) in that it causes its redefinition (or a false initial definition) in the eyes of unbelieving onlookers. If the purpose of the apologist is to show that the Gospel is reasonable and true, and doing so necessarily involves representing the Gospel accurately, then it is questionable whether engaging in activism which causes the understanding of the Gospel to diminish is within the purview of the apologist.

      So the question here isn’t whether Christians should work toward changing the laws of the land to be more inline with God’s moral laws (however interesting such a question may be); rather, it’s a question of method. Is activism on highly controversial moral issues conducive to an accurate understanding of the Gospel, or is it a hindrance to it? This seems to me the relevant question that needs to be answered, and this is the question here posed.

      I hope that this answers your question, Paul. Thanks again for the great comment!

      • Paul Buller says:

        Well I think I have to agree with your follow-up comments, but with a bit of a disclaimer. In terms of defining the boundaries of Apologetics as a specific field of study I would have to agree that the Resurrection of Jesus, the origin of the universe, the existence of the soul/ mind and other issues like these are certain to the heart of Apologetics. However I believe the edge of this field of study is somewhat blurry. For instance, if I defend the Biblical basis of the Trinity in conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness (as but one example) then am I engaged in Apologetics or Theology? I would say both. What exactly is “in” and what is “out” is not always easy to define.

        With respect to what is “damaging to the Gospel” I’m not sure I agree that Christians making an effort to shape culture to more accurately reflect God’s plan for humanity (even through activism) is necessarily damaging to the Gospel. I think the people about whom we are afraid this might damage the Gospel probably already have a pretty lousy perception of the Gospel in the first place.

        However, I sense there is merit to your comments. I’m not trying to dispute them. I’m just thinking out loud. Perhaps more thinking (in my head) is in order. Thanks for bringing up the subject for us to hash out a bit.

  4. alex says:

    was MLK and few christians then wrong in engaging in activism?
    I’ve always wondered why the “bible belt”, was also the place where discrimination was rampant. What was the christian church doing back when minorities were looked at as a lesser kind of person? Think back when the church looked the other way afraid to address the elephant in their midst, has the gospel thrived? Didn’t Christians and Christianity lost credibility because of that and is still suffering the consequence of their inaction to date?

    • Paul Buller says:

      Alex, I have to apologize for the delay in approving your comment. Somehow it slipped through the cracks. Terribly sorry about that. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

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