Dr. Bruce Ashford, a provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, discusses the relationship between Church and state, and the value of life in both of these arenas.
BRUCE ASHFORD: Alright, Ashford. So you’ve told us how Christianity and politics fit together. You’ve given us an example of how one biblical doctrine can shape our view on different policy issues. Now, how do we do this thing in a secular age? And for the first time in history in America, you’re actually often viewed as a morally bad person for believing the teachings of Christian Scripture. It’s not just that Christianity has been replaced from the default position—as it is now positively contested by dozens of ideologies and ways of thinking and religions, so that almost everybody in society feels they have doubts about what they say they believe. So this is kind of the setting that many of the people around us, our neighbors, people on our Facebook wall—help me Lord, my Facebook wall. Many of the people we know consider historic Christian teaching on any number of things implausible, and even unimaginable, maybe even reprehensible. In a situation like this, I think we’re tempted to lose heart. A lot of times when you watch TV—and maybe we should stop watching as much as we do because the media outlets, I’m telling you, the media outlets are making money. They make money off of anger and fear, and so everything gets exaggerated, and it looks like the entire country is burning down. And if we keep watching the news, it might actually burn down. We might all be convinced that everyone in the country is a bunch of idiots and jerks. All that to say, when we watch the news, I despair. I’ve been so disillusioned the past 2 or 3 years—or the past 10 to 15—because the forces that array against us seem so powerful, right? But you need to know and you need to remember that God and His Word, that God and His gospel are even more powerful than any force that can be arrayed against us. II Corinthians 12:9 says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And in fact, if you don’t hear anything else tonight, I want you to hear this, John 20:21, Jesus looked at his disciples and he said, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And when He told them that, He showed them the holes in His hands and His side. One of the points that He was making is this, that if I, as the cosmic King of the universe, came to speak Truth to power and declare that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, that if I did that and I was crucified, then when you do that you’re going to suffer too. And so listen, if the cosmic King of the universe, the only innocent one among us, could suffer a death on a cross, then we in this room in North Carolina can suffer a little bit of social ostracism. Some people who are angry on our Facebook wall and type in all caps with exclamation marks—I want to steal the all caps keys and exclamation marks from these people and see if they could even say anything at all. When Jesus came, He was prophetic. He spoke the Truth to power, and we can do the same thing. He was sacrificial. He was a homeless and itinerant teacher. He had nowhere to lay his head. And so, we can be willing to suffer some setbacks socially and have some neighbors who don’t like us or think we’re weird or backwards. We might suffer some setbacks as businessmen when people know what we believe, right? The corporate world is against us in many ways, the big corporations are, many of them. Jesus was humbly confident too because He knew He’d return one day to set the world to rights. So let me give you four tips, four things—they’re not the only four—but four things that I think we need to do as we’re increasingly marginalized in our country. Maybe, the marginalization will stop. I certainly hope so. That’s what I’m working for. I don’t want to lose. All I’m saying is, we can’t control whether our view of the good life, and our view politically, is going to win the day.
So if we as Christians continue to get marginalized, here are four things we’re going to continue to need to do. The first is we’re going to need to reintroduce God, re-center him in public life. Most people have some sort of a view of our God that we believe in, and they’re wildly wrong about him, and we’ve got to find a way of reintroducing him: Hi, I’d like for you to meet the King of the universe. You’ve never really met Him. You think you have, but you haven’t. What are some ways of doing that? I’m going to have to go very quickly here but if what I say, if you don’t catch it all, and I’m going to have to go very quickly, if it resonates with you, buy the book. We’re going to need to learn to realize that the Bible’s narrative of the world is the true story of the world, and MSNBC’s narrative and CNN’s narrative and Fox’s narrative are not the true story of the whole world. They are smaller narratives of the world. They each pick out their own evils in the world and then their own saviors from those evils, but only the Bible is the true story of the whole world. We need to let the Bible frame the way we view things and the way we treat people. No matter what the radio talk show hosts say, no matter what the political pundits say, no matter what many of our political leaders do, we will cut our own wake. We’re Christians first and foremost. That’s our first team. We’re Republicans or Democrats, second team. That means that we’re never intentionally, entirely loyal to any political leader, any political party. That is what John means when he says we’re bipartisan. The only person we give full allegiance to is Christ the King who will return one day to install a one world government and a one party system where justice will roll down like the waters, and He will make things right. And that’s our great hope, certain hope. So we want to reintroduce God by letting people see the Bible’s narrative of the world is the true narrative. Also, by showing people that false gods don’t deliver—the false gods of sexual freedom, wealth acquisition, power accumulation, material equality, cultural heritage, I mean you name it, anything you elevate above God. Anytime you take something that God created or gave us and elevate it above Him and worship to Him, it’s going to go badly for you. If we can show that and connect the dots for people, then we can introduce to them the real and true God and how His vision for human life and flourishing is the only real and true vision.
So we’ve got to re-center God, put Him back at the center and at the same time we have to decenter the self. Two people can’t share the stage in this sort of situation. So how do we decenter the self? In Jeremiah 29:7, God tells Israel to seek the welfare of the city, to put down roots, plant vineyards, have farms, have children. This is when they were in exile. What God was saying is: I want you, my people to put down roots in this city and make it a better place. What we can do as Christians is to make very clear to the people around us that we want what is best for the entirety of the nation. We’re not just special pleading for ourselves and our own tribe. This is not identity politics. We’re seeking the good for every identity and not merely our own identity.
A second thing that we can do—and this one’s really important, and this is the one that’s caused me, I don’t know, it just has felt like, the past few years, have been a gut punch—We’re going to have to learn how to stand there in the moment when people are arrayed against us, telling partial truths about us, lies about us, misunderstanding our motivations, thinking we’re hateful people, cursing at us, mocking us, and we’re gonna have to learn to stand there in the moment and not respond in kind. It’s deeply important that we don’t respond in kind. We should not take the cues of political leaders who do that. We’re going to be very careful not to do that. It’s the quickest way to lose our moral authority, to lose our witness. It takes a lot. It takes strength. It’s a weak person who has to insult and mock and karate chop and fight. That’s weakness, that’s not strength. Strength is to stand there in the moment and be a statesman like John Rustin, like Dan Forest, any number of other people. And there’s people on both sides of the aisle who carry themselves with dignity and strength, to stand there in a civil manner and put forth reasoned discourse, and to care about the person you’re talking to. That is strength. We, of all people, as Christians, should engage in public life in that manner: strength not weakness.
Number three, we need to reframe the issues. A lot of times when there’s contentious issues in American life, it’s because you have two secular parties who have framed those issues in their own terms. So, even if I almost always agree with one party instead of the other, the way I reach my conclusion is different, or my tone is different, or maybe my conclusion is a little bit different. I think it’s very important for us to do that, to let our Christianity be the master-shaper. Now listen to this, too many of us have sat in our homes for hours every night, for thousands of hours over the course of our life, and we have been discipled by our favorite political talk show hosts, so that our view of the world is shaped almost entirely by the talk show host, rather than by the Scriptures, and we have absolutely got to fight to reverse that.
And then finally, we need to revitalize cultural institutions. I don’t have time to go through that because I don’t want to skip the conclusion, but we need to work to shape cultural institutions: our schools, our legal institutions, our families, our churches, to make those institutions as strong as they can be. That is why local politics and state politics, in its own right, is much more important than national politics. That’s where school systems get shaped, families get shaped, churches get shaped, businesses are shaped.
So the relationship between Christianity, politics, and public life is not an insignificant matter. As I conclude, our secular age is, in many ways, a very challenging one for us as Christians. It’s a pretty challenging age. Listen to this. Our society will lose much of what is good about it if it loses the Christian influence. We can be salt and light no matter how tough it gets, no matter how many of the forces are arrayed against us, that Christianity is custom built to give witness from the margins. It doesn’t matter how powerful those forces are. God and His Word are more powerful. God and His gospel are more powerful.
One day when I die, or when the Lord returns, I’m going to meet Him as an American, now that’s not my primary identity. My primary identity is Christian, but I’m an American, and I’ll also meet Him as an American and, I’ll give account to Him for what I did with the nation that He put in our hands. And so I want to just ask you tonight to think about what are some ways that you, with the life that God has given you, can be a faithful steward with the citizenship to which He’s entrusted you. Citizen of the great state of North Carolina—there’s no state that I’d rather live in. It actually turns out to be the most important state in national politics right now—So what can we do at the local level, at the state level, and maybe even at the national level? Think about it. What can you do? One thing you can do is support this institution. They didn’t ask me to say that, and I mean it.
One day, Christ will return—this is the last thing I’m gonna say—and He will institute, like I said, a one world government and a one party system, and justice will roll down like the waters. But until that day, maybe God in His grace will allow us. in this room, to be the heart and strength of the state of North Carolina, and maybe of our nation, and to be the forefront of any good movement of social, cultural and political concern.
I’m going to close in prayer and ask the Lord to work in and through a policy banquet to do big things in our lives in the future. Let’s pray together:
Father, we come to you in the name of your Son, and in the power of Your Spirit. Because of your Son, we come boldly before your throne with confidence. We ascribe all glory and power and honor to you and to you alone. We thank you for your goodness to us, that you sent your Son to save us, that you revealed your Word to us. We thank you that you have planted us in the great state of North Carolina and that you’ve put us in the 21st century in the midst of this secular context. We pray father that you will help us to exhibit that combination that your Son exhibited, that combination of Truth and Grace as we seek to be at the heart of every good movement of social, cultural and political concern. For your glory, Lord, and in the name of your Son we pray, Amen.
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