One of the perpetual challenges for the Christian is navigating the affairs of this world, the things the broader society and culture are occupied with, and the practical and ideological waters through which we sail as we carry out our calling as Christ-followers. In no area is this more evident than our interaction with politics and the sociocultural issues that are either upstream or downstream of it. In an election year, in the midst of a pandemic, and with the weight of racial tension and social conflict bearing down on us, how we deal with this challenge has even more relevant implications. Evangelicals are as divided as the nation—and not just on issues or policy—but on what we believe to be true, what we think should take priority, and how these things should be addressed. This division is exacerbated by our general dispositions regarding the affairs of this world. The edges are occupied, and not in reference here to the political left and right, but on matters of perspective and participation. Often we find people falling in as either apolitical, apathetic, and indifferent, or as activist allies with the world, political pawns and players. These two positions, if taken up as simply reactions to issues, are not reflective of a robust biblical perspective, the application of wisdom, and a proper prioritization of “things.” They instead exemplify enamorment with or abhorrence of the entanglements of this world, leading us too often to oversimplified conclusions, less-than-thoughtful critiques, and even naïve or disproportionately passionate participation. Christians are too often no more exempt from being swept up into identity politics than any others—but we ought to be. In fact, we ought to be clear, careful, and consistent.
Being clear about our purpose and motive.
The Apostle Paul exhorts his beloved student using the picture of a good soldier in 1 Timothy 2, reminding him about the importance of focus and clarity. He underscores what everyone familiar with the calling of a soldier knows: a good soldier must not get entangled in civilian pursuits. He cites the obvious reason for this: the good soldier must aim to please the one who enlisted him. Clarity on our purpose keeps us focused, and everything that follows is consistent with that purpose.
There is a dynamic relationship captured in Paul’s thinking and instruction. If we want to keep from getting entangled in civilian pursuits that are outside of our calling, we must remember our aim is to please our Lord. And if we keep our aim on pleasing the one we serve, we are less likely to become entangled in peripheral things. This idea also goes to motive. Why we do something matters a great deal. The good soldier remembers his reason for soldiering. He seeks to please the one he serves and is motivated by that. To keep a clear eye when navigating the affairs of this world—specifically social, cultural, and political ones—it is imperative to remember our aim is to please God, not the world around us. We are to serve His purposes and agenda, not the world’s.
This is tricky business. It is easy to get caught up in what we believe is a just cause, or to seek political wins that we believe might benefit us, or to engage in efforts to “Christianize” society through political means. We have seen Christians take these roads before, on both the left and the right. It is not our way. It is also not our way to be gloating or moping over political outcomes; this we have seen too often in our ranks as well. When we identify ourselves as winners or losers politically, we are not submitting to a sovereign God’s will. As we exercise our dual citizenship, as we carry on as good neighbors and citizens and “seek the welfare of the city in which God has placed us” (Jer. 29:7), the priority of our heavenly citizenship and Christian calling must remain clear. If we do this, we are less likely to be co-opted by political and secular agendas and less likely to get involved for the wrong reasons.
Being wise and careful.
There is an old English proverb that appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.” It captures the idea that caution and care are required when sitting at the world’s table. As we think about our involvement in politics, society, and culture, we must keep our wits about us. There is little margin for error. The sweeping current of contemporary sensibilities and the persuasiveness of pundits, public figures, and the media require a high degree of discernment. It requires great vigilance not to let our cultural context affect our own thinking about the issues and affairs of this world. The Lord Jesus in Matthew 10 instructs His disciples along these lines: “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The idea here is that we not be naïve, that we not be foolish, that we do no harm, and that we do not fall victim to harm as a result of foolishness or naivety.
This principle should inform the way we navigate the affairs of this world. The exercising of wisdom, of careful and thoughtful participation, and of guarding our minds and hearts are essential. Without these things, we may find ourselves capitulating on convictions, acquiescing on ideological or philosophical assumptions about life and the world, and ultimately being conformed to the pattern of this world rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds. It seems fitting then that we as Christians be cautious regarding our associations and acceptance. When we get too comfortable with the world, seek its approval, or try to be winsome and accommodating to an extreme, we err. Our way is to remain Christian, followers of Jesus. In our well-intentioned efforts to be salt and light, we can in turn be seasoned by the world around us, especially when we embrace (without scrutiny) parts of our secular context. We should not be asking ourselves, “How much like the world can we be and still remain Christian?” That spoon is not nearly long enough.
Being consistently biblical and intentionally Christian.
Noted Christian author and thought leader Os Guinness once stated, “Christians simply haven’t developed Christian tools of analysis to examine culture properly. Or rather, the tools the church once had have grown rusty or been mislaid.” Without our own tools, we then borrow the tools around us. Guinness likens it to wearing someone else’s glasses or walking in someone else’s shoes. These borrowed tools are usually based upon secular assumptions, and our use of them will impact us, influence our judgement, and shape not just our thinking but our living. This should be troubling to us. It is not merely an issue of convenience that has us reaching for borrowed secular tools. It is a matter of being unpracticed and unprepared. We have forgotten our own tools, allowed them to get rusty, or no longer believe they are sufficient. Whatever the reason, the result is problematic, and we need to correct it.
As the Apostle James writes, we can and must be doers of the Word, not merely hearers. Rebuilding our confidence in the power, authority, and sufficiency of Holy Scripture will keep us reaching for it. Checking our faith, theology, and biblical convictions at the door when entering into the political is dangerous. But striving to be biblically consistent and intentionally Christian in all things will keep us honest about human nature, protect us from being so temporally minded that we lose sight of the eternal, and guide us in our participation in the affairs of this world in which we remain and to which we are called to be God’s ambassadors. It would be extremely helpful to us as Christians to make this a consistent element of our social, cultural, and political discussions and disagreements; around our tables, in our classrooms, and in our homes. We need the practice. And there is a clear need to keep our tools sharp, free of rust, and handy. It is not our way to be without the resources and tools required to navigate the affairs of this world. God has given us what we need. Will we make use of these things? Will we stay focused and purposeful? Will we be wise and careful? Will we be consistent? Let us pray so.
Dr. Todd J. Williams has been the president of Cairn University since January 2008. He served on the faculty and administration from 1996 to 2001, and then returned as provost in 2005. He holds a BS in Bible degree from Cairn University and a MEd and a PhD from Temple University in Philadelphia. He is a regular contributor to online and print publications and serves as a visiting lecturer and speaker on cultural and professional issues.