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Thanksgiving, 2020

Thanksgiving, 2020

Thankfulness isn’t the banner most of us would naturally fly over 2020. Only a few things come to mind: a pandemic, violence, and an election season that exposed so many of our nation’s contradictions. Even Thanksgiving is at least legally curtailed for some brothers and sisters in other states. 

But I’m not writing to rehearse reasons why we might not be thankful. I’m writing to give thanks and to do so out loud in front of you. I know you well enough to know that you are not shaken or pressed down or unhappy or unthankful. You are a thankful people and thanks is on your lips. But I know your computer screens well enough to know you need to hear someone speak words of thanks before you and over you. Best I can tell, that was part of Paul’s strategy to strengthen a church a little worn down with trouble. So, after some meditation this morning on thankfulness in Paul’s letter to the Colossian church, here four reasons I’m thankful today.  

1. I’m thankful for your faith, love, and hope

That may not sound like a terribly pithy way to start into a blog, but it is a profound reason for thanks today. It’s how Paul began his letter to the Colossian church, “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:3–5). It’s also on the top of my mind today. Seeing things you don’t is one of the blessings and difficulties of pastoral ministry. But the blessing part far outweighs the difficulties. I see your faith growing as you inquire about the Word. I hear about your love for one another in countless ways as our elders talk and pray and report to one another. And I am reminded of our shared hope as you struggle through every kind of suffering, and kinds we didn’t see coming these past many months. All of this is a reason to “[give] thanks to the Father who has qualified you” for salvation (1:12).

2. I’m thankful for your faces 

Yes, some of these will be a play off of the themes of our unforgettable year. And no this is not a statement about mask science or the need for some to isolate. I really am genuinely thankful for your faces. I’ve been reflecting on this a bit lately and I think it needs some more reflection from all of us. The Apostle Paul recognized that some of his readers had not seen him face to face, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face” (Col. 2:1). On the one hand, he struggled for the saints at Colossae, whether he had seen them face to face or not. On the other hand, he had to acknowledge that second group because perhaps they would not assume it. In other words, face to face encounters are the norm. The Lord’s Day is a face to face encounter with God and with one another, a grace that we might read one another’s faces and in that way read one another’s souls, the second most important book in the world next to the Bible. I love all your faces and I thank God for them today. If we haven’t seen yours in a while, know this: we love you and we miss your face.

3. I’m thankful for your voices

They say not to overuse a word in your writing. Swap it out for a good synonym. Maybe Paul was the culprit that our style guides are trying to fix. “…be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:15–17). That makes three. And at the heart of this flurry of thanks is a word about speaking and singing to one another with thanksgiving. Yes, in 2020, I’m thankful for all the things I heard you say and all the songs I heard you sing.

4. I am thankful for your many names

Paul named names. In his closing words to the church, he mentioned Tychichus, Aristarchus, Mark, Barnabas, Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demus, Numpha, and Archippus (4:7–17). He wrote from prison but he wasn’t writing from pity. He wrote from thankfulness toward God and thankfulness to others. If I start naming names, I’ll break this blog. So, let me just name the names of those I work with every day.

I’m thankful for Aaron Bednarski’s work ethic and excellence in the details, Dan Cruver’s example as a dad, Abe Stratton’s persistence with Scripture memory and the lost, Lisa Hansen’s commitment to know everyone’s name and help me with names, Brad Hilgeman’s tender and tenacious care for saints in every kind of crisis, Caleb Greene’s ability to bring theology to life through artistry, Brian Burch’s resolve to adorn the Word with technology and not the other way around, Liz Stratton’s discerning leadership among our ladies and insight for me, Kevin Delp’s famous way of taking both the Bible and our children seriously, and Barb Illsley’s rare ability to focus intently on a task and feel deeply about people mingling about the office throughout the day.   

There are some names that need a little more attention this thanksgiving. I’m thankful for my beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord, Sandy McCormick, and for Karen, his loyal support and our sister. Sandy has been on our vocational team for some 25 years and he retires in a week. I’ve known Sandy for almost exactly four years now, but it feels like many more. We shared a lunch this week and talked about all kinds of things, as usual. He will remain an elder, so we’ll keep lunching together. I hope you have friends like this. If you don’t, follow our example as leaders and go to lunch with someone in our church to talk about everything like we do. I thank God for this man.

Here is another set of names we can thank God for today: the Read family, Jason, Deb, Hudson, Norah, Paton, Rose. Jason will be moving into the office this coming week, easing his way into the role Sandy has filled so faithfully. They have been filling their days this past week with many hard “goodbyes,” so let’s be sure to fill their early days with us with many warm “hellos.”        

Watchfulness and Witness in 2021

2021 could be harder than 2020. I expect we have much harder years ahead, actually. One reason to give thanks is for our great country and the occasion for this holiday. Tim Keesee reflects on its significance in his recent post, “The 1620 Project.” On that note, let’s give thanks for the right decision made yesterday by our Supreme Court concerning limits on corporate worship in New York.

Come what may, we will still brim with thanks if we are filled with the fullness of Christ. In all of our eating and relaxing today, let’s remember where Paul was and what Paul wanted for us: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak” (Col. 4:2–4).

Give to God What Is God’s: Rule 3, Reserve Your Greatest Energies for the Most Lasting Society, the Church

Give to God What Is God’s: Rule 3, Reserve Your Greatest Energies for the Most Lasting Society, the Church

This is the fourth in a series of posts during election week 2020, titled, Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement. Read the Introduction, Rule 1, and Rule 2.

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Political engagement takes energy. Mental energy, emotional energy, and an investment of time. As it should. Our heavenly citizenship is good for many things, including good citizenship here, for human government is part of heaven’s plan for our welfare on earth. That hardly means everyone who takes Christ’s name understands what they are doing with it. It just means that the world and everything in it is God’s, and that includes the buildings in the District of Columbia.

My purpose in this series so far has been to make this case and to give it some direction, to frame up and to fuel energetic participation in politics, the activities of human government. I’ve hoped to do so in a way that keeps us pretty close to the Bible, pointing in the directions it points without getting too far into our immediate political challenges except to land the Bible’s own emphases.

To this point I have largely turned over the question, what does it mean for those who belong to God to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mk. 12:17)? In this post I want to flip that coin over to ask, what does it mean for those who belong to Rome, to “[Render] to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17)? My thesis is captured in the title for this post, the third rule for political engagement: reserve your greatest energies for the most lasting society, the church. Or, in other words, be a better church member than a party member. This minimizes nothing of the importance of our earthly endeavors. It makes sure we understand the infinitely greater place of the church in God’s plan for our welfare and that of our neighbors.

If the title for this post was the only thing you expected to hear from a pastor, then you probably needed the other three posts. If the title for this post is the last thing you expected to hear from a pastor, then this post is especially for you. Thank God, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Thank God, Jesus’ kingdom has broken into this world. I want you to know all about it.

Here are three reasons the church is worth your greatest energy: we have a perfect leader, a more perfect union, and a more powerful story.

There is no contest for Lord

The matter of Jesus’ kingship is settled. There are no delays to find out if it’s really certain. There are no higher courts to settle disagreements. There’s no corruption, no counting, and no competition. Not that some have not taken up the challenge. But remember Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed … He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Ps. 2:1–4). That’s right, he laughs. He laughs at the fiercest opponents of his greatest gifts. Which is to say, he is in perfect control and he is perfectly relaxed. He is our perfect Lord and there is no contest.

We engage in politics with a full sense of what’s at stake. That means at our best we take these things more seriously than anyone. It also means that we too can laugh when our human efforts are met with failure. Not from some kind of deficient understanding of his providence. We do not laugh as someone breaks into our house because, after all, Jesus is king! We don’t laugh because our causes are not a big deal, but because to him the nations are a drop in the bucket, and he counts even this exceptional nation as dust.

That Jesus is the uncontested King of the universe is good news because he is good. There is no one better for the job. No one is more competent, more wise, more powerful, more benevolent, more forgiving, more merciful, more sympathetic, or more truthful. He never overstates what he can do for us, because what he will do for us is beyond imagination. If he seems slow in keeping those promises, it’s because there is no one more patient than him and he wants everyone to come to repentance (2Pet. 3:9).

This is what we talk about every Sunday. So, let’s keep going for a second reason the church is worth our greatest energy.

Your presence and vote with the church on the Lord’s Day is more important than your presence and vote on election day

Unless we are all fools, this is emphatically true. Sunday is the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead. If he really did suffer as the Son of God for sinners, then our sins really are removed as far as the east is from the west. If Jesus really is raised from the dead, then the society—city, people, community, assembly—he is gathering is more lasting and beautiful and secure than any city on earth, no matter how weird we get around election season. The universe has a throne and a city in the middle of it and Christ has his name on both.

Jesus gave two ordinances to his church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Both of these dramatize all that is ours together through union with Christ. Every baptism is a bigger deal than any inauguration. When we are baptized, we are baptized into his death, his resurrection, and his city. Every meal around the Lord’s table is more meaningful than the most intimate meal with the most important human ruler. We eat and drink to the King. When we come together to sing, we sing together, the sound of what Jesus has done in us and to us. Through our union with him by faith, we are united to one another as family. 

We are not united by a donkey or an elephant or even an eagle. We are called together by a Lion and a Lamb. As human kingdoms go, America is an exceptional nation. But our spiritual union in Christ is a truly more perfect union. As an important aside, this is why we don’t have an American flag on our platform. We are a church in America, and we are a church made up of Americans for the most part, but we are not an American church, whatever that could possibly mean. Yes, there are cultural trappings that tie us to this place and time, and as citizens we should be the best patriots. But local churches are outposts of a kingdom without borders, made up of men and women from every tribe and language and tongue. We are a people in Christ and that eclipses every other earthly association.

What we do when we come together and the decisions we make for our shared life and mission are more important because they are an engagement with eternal things. So, come to church.

Your prayers for the government do more than the signature of our President

It makes sense that we would end this series by speaking of prayer and of power. In our system of government, we can elect a bad President and then check him or her with the House or the Senate. And if our representatives don’t do their job, we can replace them. Our system is difficult to crash. Power is diffused. But if there’s one man whose signature is powerful it is the signature of the President of the United States.

Our prayers are more powerful by a longshot. In fact, besides submission, prayer is actually the one other explicit New Testament command we are given concerning human government: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1Tim. 2:1, 2). The purpose of this prayer is so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life,” and this is because God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2:3, 4). America has a powerful story. But through the church our Lord is weaving a more powerful story still. He is bringing about a whole new creation.

There’s much we can do as citizens, but this is our precious work as the church. Even the very best legislation signed into law cannot change the human heart, cannot take away our sin, and cannot give us life everlasting. But God is pleased to do all of that in answer to our prayers, and he is doing so among us today.

So, let’s land this series with a prayer.

Father in heaven, you are in heaven and you do all that you please. You are more powerful than the most powerful office over the most powerful nation on earth. No one checks your power because you are the source of all power and authority. No one fact checks you because you are the source of all truth. No one judges you because you are the standard of all righteousness.

You, the God of heaven, have put us on earth in this place for this time. You guide the nations on the earth, and you steer the hearts of kings. Would you steer our land and our leaders to righteousness, to enact and carry out and enforce laws that are good and not evil? Would you show our lawmakers that the freedom of American citizens to exercise their religion free of compulsion is a sacred duty? Would you see that we may live peaceful and quiet lives? Would you save our neighbors from the tyranny of sin and guilt and of Satan and the fear of death? Would you make them, with us, citizens of your glorious and everlasting society, your church?

America is great. But we, your church, have a perfect leader, a more perfect union, and a more powerful story. Bless this country and especially your church.

In the name of Christ and for his kingdom,

Amen

Give to God What Is God’s: Rule 3, Reserve Your Greatest Energies for the Most Lasting Society, the Church

Give to God What Is God’s: Rule 2, Engage in the Political Process as a Christian

This is the third in a series of posts during election week 2020, titled, Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement. Read the Introduction, Rule 1, and Rule 3.

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Jesus is never not Lord for the Christian. To be a Christian is to confess Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords forever. Which includes every second of time and every sector of life, from what’s under our own roof to the voting booth. To confess Christ King of Kings, after all, is to make a political statement. Our lives are his and our government is his. He is over this whole operation.

The second rule for political engagement is this: engage in the political process as a Christian. That sure sounds right, but what can this possibly mean in practical terms? Are we out to set up a theocracy? Are we like Israelites in the promised land setting up God’s kingdom? Do we see American law as a means to making people obey all that Jesus commanded? From another angle, does Christianity, like Islam, build a Christian nation-state if you give it the chance?

Back to Jesus with that coin. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he communicated at least two nuanced intentions for the relationship of the state and the church (Mk. 12:16). First, there is a legitimate separation between the two spheres of authority in the new covenant age. Israel was a theocracy. That is not what Jesus outlines for his followers. Second, there is a primacy to the sphere of God’s worship. Caesar was owed taxes. But not our worship. And that was Jesus’ not so subtle religious and political claim; Caesar is not God. We might rather call them tensions rather than intentions, because that’s what they create.

This is a post about how to follow Jesus where we live within this framework he set up. We must give to God what is God’s. Which means in one way or another, we fulfill our civic responsibilities as Christians, for our whole lives are his.

What then does it mean to engage in the political process as a Christian? Here are three answers to that question: engage with your first allegiance to Christ, engage with biblically ordered Christian convictions, and engage with expectations calibrated by the promises of Christ.

First things first

Life is full of allegiances, allegiances to the companies we work for, the teams we root for, and the nations we die for. No, there is no necessary contradiction between our allegiance to Christ and our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Nations were established by God with certain responsibilities for our good. We can be for God and for the nations in which we live. Some may wed God and country a little too tight, but that doesn’t mean we should be filing for divorce. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, he affirmed a proper national loyalty. There were Jewish zealots that taught that you could not recognize God as God and Caesar as king. Jesus corrects that notion. The King of Kings is the King of actual kings. So, worship God and be patriotic. 

In a moment we’ll get to how that allegiance works itself out in the voting booth. But first things first, to engage as a Christian is to engage with our first allegiance to Jesus Christ. We may identify as Americans, but we are first and foremost and forever Christ-ians. The Apostle Paul wrote, “to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” that is, to Romans who nevertheless confessed “Jesus Christ our Lord,” descended from David, raised from the dead (Rom. 1:3–7).

This first allegiance informs our view of humanity. We do not see in red and blue, though those differences are not meaningless. Rather, we see humanity in Adam or in Christ. Death reigns through the one man, life through the other (Ro. 5:14, 17). This first allegiance informs our hope. Emperors come and go, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Empires crumble, but we have received “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). This first allegiance informs our understanding of history and where it is headed, putting every earthly citizenship in its place, for “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20, 21). That is, all things. Which means he is first.

Jesus is King forever and that is good news. Even better news, he is a great and gracious Lord and Master. This explains the happy allegiance of his early followers under Roman rule. The Romans restricted the preaching of the gospel, and the Apostles replied, “’Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard,’” and “’We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 4:19–20; 5:29). It was right to keep speaking, and they also couldn’t help themselves. Christ was first.

This is not a post about civil disobedience. It’s a post about how our loyalty to Christ works for everything before that. So, let’s get into that.

What we take with us into the voting booth

The second thing faithfulness requires of us is to engage with biblically ordered Christian convictions. Let’s keep this simple and focus again on the act of voting. What does it mean to honor Jesus as Lord in the voting booth? What does it mean for us to render to God what is God’s in that moment? What are the convictions that we bring to this responsibility? More could be said, but not less than two things.

Take your view of humanity into the voting booth

Everyone goes into the voting booth with a view of humanity. The question is from where it comes. The first thing Christians must take into the voting booth with us is God’s view of humanity as his special creation. Here is the plain beautiful truth about every one of us: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27). This means at least four truths precede human government.

First, humans are made in God’s imageWe are not advanced animals. We do not derive our worth from our size, or our level of development, our environment, or our degree of dependencySLED. We have this dignity from our very conception, when biologically speaking as an embryo we are a fully integrated human being, until our death. We do not derive our worth from our abilities, our class, or what contribution we can make. Our worth is from God and it extends to every human.

Second, humans are created binary, male and femaleThis is a truth so beautiful that it comes to us in form of poetry. It couldn’t just be said; it had to be sung. This is also a biological reality that extends to every cell in the male and female body, except for the presence of female cells in the male sperm.

Third, humans are made for each other, for the two became “one flesh” in marriageIn this story of origins, Moses explained the origin of human society: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24, 25). In this, he also gave us a foundation for sexual ethics.

Fourth, a married husband and wife are responsible before God for the welfare of their children“And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gen. 1:28). Children come from a mother and a father and God’s design is for children to come into the world in a home where mom and dad are married. That the leading indicator that an individual will be poor is whether he is in a one or two parent home confirms this basic truth of nature.

All this is true before government is there. So, take your view of humanity into the voting booth. What else should we take?

Take your view of human government into the voting booth

Everyone who goes into the voting booth has a view of human government. This is shaped by the particular government of which we are a part, but also our more basic assumptions about what government is there for. The second thing Christians must take into the voting booth with us is God’s view of human government as his servant.

According to Scripture, governing authority is a derived authority, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Gen. 13:1). Government is, literally, “the servant of God,” otherwise translated, minister. Remember, “governors [are] sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1Pet. 2:14). In other words, as we believe the Scriptures, we believe that human government exists because God established the institution of government. Which means we don’t leave behind his mind on the matter as we enter the voting booth.

With our vote we should direct our government to fulfill God’s purposes for government, as best we can, given the circumstances. Often those circumstances involve less than ideal options. Remember, the electoral process is a negotiation between millions of people on who gets the power to make decisions on our behalf.

This work of directing the government with our vote involves three things.

First, we should direct the government to serve God by punishing evilThe Decalogue, or what we often call, the Ten Commandments, do not apply to modern governments in a direct fashion. But they do instruct us concerning what humans are owed and, with a little reflection, reveal to us God’s intention for humans from creation. For example, the commandment, “You shall not murder,” assumes the right of persons to live, a truth rooted in creation (Ex. 20:13). The commandment, “You shall not steal,” assumes the right of persons to property (20:15). The command, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” assumes the right of persons to due process (20:16). One of the jobs of government is to protect people and property and to punish those who violate either. Government does not have to punish everything that is sin, but a government that rewards or overlooks these things is wrong to do so.

Concerning the right to life and the government’s responsibility to punish evil, our government, and by extension the American people, are complicit in the legal and lethal murder of 60 million unborn children since Roe. This is not what the sword is for. There is forgiveness available to any of us who will come to Christ, but this remains a challenge that demands our strategic effort. Roe was a bad decision by the Supreme Court, who found a right to privacy in the constitution and decided a matter by fiat that in our constitutional system should have been decided by the people. Per our constitutional system, the question should go to the states. As with slavery, it is not a matter to relax on, even if we do choose strategic incremental avenues for its abolition. Christians may judge one avenue more strategic than another, but the question of what human government owes unborn human beings is straightforward.

Second, we should direct the government to serve God by praising what is goodThis means the government should enact policies and promote a culture that normalizes good behavior. Again, here the Decalogue points us to prior creational realities to which all humanity is accountable. The command, “You shall not commit adultery,” assumes the right of married partners to the sexual faithfulness of their spouse and teaches us about the natural and moral context for human sexuality (20:14). All governments regulate human sexual behavior to one degree or another. Good government recognizes marriage for what it is and regulates marriage for the good of children and, by extension, of society at large. Government cannot legislate on the basis of a moral fiction concerning marriage without harming its people, even with good intentions. History bears this out. In a 1934 study, “Monogamy as a Condition of Social Energy,” J. D. Unwin shows his results from a study of 86 different cultures and concludes that apart from a culture of sexual marital monogamy, societies do not last: “In human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence.”

The command, “honor your father and mother,” assumes the context of the natural family with a mother and a father who are owed obedience because they are responsible (20:12). The government should promote the stability and health of the family, which involves protecting the rights of parents and holding parents to their basic responsibility to care for their children. Even the command, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” assumes that humans have a problem of envy that is destructive enough to make God’s top ten (20:17). The government should promote economic policies that reward hard work, productivity, innovation, and responsibility, and in this way channel our self-interest for the common good.

This emphasis on the truths about humanity embedded in creation is reinforced by what happens when these truths are opposed. Following humanity’s fall into sin in Genesis 3, Genesis 4 reveals the disintegration of human society with the sin of Lamech, who “took two wives” and boasted, “I have killed a man” (Gen. 4:19, 23). Life and marriage are precious and basic.

Third, we should direct the government to serve God by staying in its placeRome imposed its religion by force, requiring the worship of Caesar as god. On that coin before Jesus was the image of Rome’s god, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of Divine Augustus.” But neither Caesar nor Tiberius nor Augustus were divine. The Roman state was pedaling in a lie and coerced its people into false worship. Several commands in the decalogue point to the basic human responsibility to worship God, “You shall have no other gods before me,” “You shall not make for yourself a carved image,” “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (20:3, 4, 7). What this means for human government requires reflection.

Why don’t we believe that America should establish Christianity as the official and required religion of Americans? There is a long tradition of thinking this kind of question through that has brought us the “freedom of religion” which we enjoy today. This freedom is a profoundly Christian commitment, and one Christians hold for their own sake but also their neighbor’s. As Robert Louis Wilken outlines in his book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, Christians are committed to several things: freedom of religion or conscience is a right that precedes government that belongs to all human beings, conscience is a form of spiritual knowledge that brings with it an obligation to act, and human society is governed by two powers, God and the state. The state should not compel religion, nor should it prohibit religion. In other words, as our first amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is a profoundly good commitment. Christians do right by the household of God and our neighbors of all faiths to hold America to this promise.

Two notes to close this section. First, I’ve interacted some with the Old Testament laws of ancient Israel. That has to be done carefully and I have deliberately pointed us back to truths embedded in creation. For more on applying the Old Testament law to life today, including its application to the role of government, see Stephen Wellum’s chapter on Christian ethics, in Progressive Covenantalism. Second, I have stayed away from specific policy prescriptions, even though I may have my own (hopefully) informed judgments on these things. Andy Naselli has a helpful lecture and book answering the question, “how can I love fellow Christians with different politics?”

Now, a final way we can engage politics as Christians.

Calibrating our expectations

Our final way of honoring Jesus as Lord in our politics is to engage with expectations calibrated by the promises of Christ. Take caution, courage, and comfort in these three beautiful truths.

First, as you vote, do so with a proper humility about the possibilities of human government in light of the coming and return of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ had to suffer on the cross and rise from the dead because there are some things government can’t do for us. It can’t give us meaning and it can’t take away our guilt. This is true regardless of what politicians promise to do for us. Government can’t fix our deepest problems. Insert government bureaucracy joke here. Even our country with its unparalleled prosperity and security is nevertheless, in light of all God intended for humanity, a cold and lonely place to live. Human government is instituted by God to punish evil because there is still a whole lot of evil that goes on. But in Christ we have this: the forgiveness of our sins, the removal of our guilt, and life everlasting. We are not engaging in the remaking of humanity or the elimination of all human wronging. The Lord will bring his perfect justice on the Day of Jesus’ return.

Second, as you vote, do so with a proper expectation of reproach, division, trouble, and incomparable blessing for honoring Christ in your engagementThe things we believe about human beings and what they are owed are contested ideas. We believe they are of great moral consequence, and if you follow the money so does everybody else. This matter of voting which is inherently simplistic is bound to get us in trouble with people we love. Remember Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).

Finally, as you vote, do so with eager anticipation for the coming of our LordWhatever current hopes we have for life here in America, even the best outcome in our best days, they cannot compare with what is to come for those who are in Christ. At the coming of our Lord all of our sorrows will be erased and all of earth’s joys will be entirely eclipsed. Remember Paul’s words, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Politics is exciting for some of us and there are victories to celebrate along the way. There is also reason for profound disappointment. But there is no disappointment in the end with Christ who is the King of Kings.

Keep all this in mind as you vote. That’s what I’m heading out to do right now.

And remember, Caesar’s image was on that coin. But you, dear friend, bear the image of your Maker. You can’t leave him behind in the voting booth, and why would you want to?

Give to God What Is God’s: Rule 3, Reserve Your Greatest Energies for the Most Lasting Society, the Church

Give to God What Is God’s: Rule 1, Understand What You’re Doing as an American

This is the second in a series of posts during election week 2020, titled, Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement. Read the Introduction, Rule 2, and Rule 3

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To be a good Christian you have to be a good American. Let me explain.

The Bible says that God put you right where you are. “And 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” (Acts 17:26). Assuming you are reading this in America as an American, that means God put you inside the borders of America to be an American for this period of time.

What does that mean for you? Among other things, it means that you have specific civic responsibilities as an American. It’s biblical for me to say that to you. When the Sanhedrin asked Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar, remember his reply, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That means that a Christian can take up residence in any number of civic contexts. We aren’t tied to any one nation. It also means that our responsibility to worship God is not incompatible with our responsibilities as citizens here. If we consider the difficulty of living under Roman rule, we should be inclined to work hard at making these two allegiances work.

It’s biblical to talk about our responsibilities as Americans, but what about “our rights as Americans?” Yes, that’s biblical too. Admittedly, that doesn’t always seem like the right emphasis as Christians who are called to lay our lives down. In an age when many of our fellow Americans are contesting those rights, it even feels a little culture-warish. But what if laying down our lives includes appealing to our rights as Americans? Where are we going to get a Bible verse for that? Remember what the Apostle Paul did when he was taken before the Roman tribunal? “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts. 22:25). He knew the answer, and so did the officials, so they let him go. Paul took up his cross and followed Jesus, but that doesn’t mean he was trying to get killed as fast as possible. No, he’s the one who told us to pray for kings so that we could lead “a peaceful and quiet life” so that all people might “come to a knowledge of the truth” (1Tim. 2:2–4). In other words, Paul’s strategic appeal to his rights saved his life and made way for the gospel’s advance. It also checked the state at that point of intrusion. He was right and they were wrong.

The American preoccupation with rights is not just an American thing. It’s an American thing because it’s a human thing. Biblically, rights are tied to the basic structure of the created order that God has made in which there are humans who have inherent dignity, families that are the basic building block of society, and government, each with their own distinct role in relationship to God and one another. Paul appealed to his rights as a means to the gospel’s advance.

Here’s where I’m going with all of this: faithfulness to God as Christians means faithfulness in the civic context in which he has placed us. Which brings us to our first rule of political engagement: understand what you’re doing as an American. I am arguing that Christians in America have a certain responsibility to hold America to its promises. Not only because many of our rights as Americans precede the state, but because the state has made certain guarantees concerning those rights enshrined in the Constitution and the rule of law.

There are two other parts in this series to follow. In those posts I will get into our specific concerns as Christians and our broader outlook as the church. Here, I want to help us understand two things: our civic context and our civic responsibilities. These are important and neglected topics, so let’s settle in for a civics lesson.

Understand your particular civic context

You and I are citizens of The United States of America, along with some 328 million other people who call this home. Unless anarchy or fascism rule the day, large groups like this live together somewhere on the spectrum of personal freedom and government control. What kind of government do we have?

In a sentence, we have a beautiful, balanced, and frustrating kind of government. My goal in this section is first to inform you, since you are an American, and secondarily to make you see the wisdom in it all as a Christian.

What Is a Constitutional Federal Republic?

What form does our government take? We have a constitutional form of government. We are not ruled by a king whose authority is derived from blood or force or the words of some Lady of the Lake, but by a constitution. We do not have a ruler, but we are instead ruled by law, the fundamental law of which is the Constitution. More specifically, we are a constitutional republic, which means our representatives are democratically elected by the people. Their authority is derived from the people they lead. More specifically, we are a constitutional federal republic. Hence, we are not the United People but the United States. It’s for this reason that our election of a President is not by popular vote, but by means of the electoral college, a way of ensuring national schemes do not subsume the interests of local communities.

What is all this government machinery constructed to do? The Founders had a precise answer to this question: the government is here to secure the rights of the people, rights which are universally held and preexist government. Those inalienable rights alluded to in the Declaration of Independence were made explicit in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The Constitution has been amended many times, and the first of those are called the Bill of Rights, which guarantee our civil liberties. These amendments outline our rights in relationship to the action of our government and make explicit what the government cannot do to us or take from us. The first of these is important enough to cite, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Lose one of these and lose them all. That’s why they are collected together in one amendment. Other amendments deal with due process, ensure that we are innocent until proven guilty, and protect our right to property. At their best, these amendments are just a way of making explicit a commitment to keep government in its place as God’s servant.

Weapons and Balances 

This form of government is utterly unique in human history. The history of nations is a story of tyranny, as our Founders admitted in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. By contrast, the theme of our constitutional system is restraint, or limited government. Several principles built into the Constitution help to limit the power of the government. For instance, we took the power usually given to one man (the king) and split it into three parts (separation of powers): a legislative branch to make laws, an executive branch to execute and enforce the laws established by the legislature, and a judicial branch to interpret the laws. Then we gave weapons (checks) to each of those branches to allow them to keep their powers balanced (checks and balances). The President can veto laws, but Congress can override the veto. The Supreme Court can declare laws unconstitutional, but Congress can impeach justices and the President can appoint new justices with congressional approval. Separation alone would not keep any one branch from dominating the government. Checks must be given to each branch to keep the others in line. All of this keeps government doing its job.

That’s a summary of the form, the structure, and the theme of our government. Now, which Americans get to run this ship? The Bible is clear that governing authorities derive their power from God (Ro. 13:1, 4). They are his minsters doing his work, whether it be patrolling the streets or signing bills. But the Bible does not speak to how this or that person comes into this authority. More must be involved than someone deciding they should be king. The process is left to prudence and the people. 

What about Rhode Island?

America’s electoral process is built on John Locke’s understanding of social contract theory, an idea that is not derived from the Bible but that does not contradict it. That is, the idea that the government’s just powers are derived from the consent of the governed.

How this works out to balance a large nation’s consent involves some deliberate intricacies.

As one example, the legislative branch, or Congress, is made up of an upper and lower chamber. The lower chamber is the House of Representatives where each state elects representatives in proportion to their populations. The upper House is the Senate, where each state regardless of their size elects two representatives. This ensures that Rhode Island’s interests are not functionally irrelevant at the table because its relative size. Shorter terms in the House keep our elected officials accountable to the people while longer terms in the Senate protect against the intrusion of short-term political interests and ensure stability. The Presidency, as we know, is limited to a maximum two-term office, which keeps us from crowning a king. And justices on the Supreme Court, appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, serve for life, insulated from political pressure so that they can check both the Presidency and the Congress.

Even our two-party system is very American even if it isn’t a part of American law. What is it exactly? It’s a way of facilitating a negotiation between millions of people. It gets a bad rap at times, and that’s understandable. It delivers us less than ideal candidates. We don’t generally get to vote for who we would pick if it was just us. But that again is a design feature. Because America isn’t just us. Narrowing our whole process down to just two candidates before the final pick fosters cooperation, concession, and compromise among people with differences, but with enough in common to go in together. Things can get weird, as we know. Given human nature and in the absence of true religion, these collections of interests can become a functional religion unto themselves. And we can get swept up or lumped in with the phenomena. Party slogans don’t help. Certainly, Christians must be disciplined about how we relate with our respective parties. But my point is this: there is much to appreciate in even this part of our system for how it fights our natural tendency as a large group to fragment.

Let’s bring this section in for a landing.

Difficult by Design

The American system of government is frustrating, and that’s the point. It is frustrating to human government’s time-tested tendency to totalitarianism. Rome moved from a republic to a dictatorship and that keeps happening. If ever the political process seems frustratingly slow and inefficient, that’s on purpose. Our government is designed to slow things down. It’s calculated to make power frustratingly difficult to accrue, arrest, and abuse. The purpose of government is not to perfect humanity or the human experience. The purpose of government is, among other things, to protect humanity from itself. Or, as Peter put it, “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1Pet. 2:14).

Paul knew his rights and held the officials to honor them. That’s part of what we are doing in our political process as Americans.

Understand your civic responsibility

Americans will engage in the political process in different ways and to different degrees. But voting is the thing all of us can do. I’m calling it a responsibility, which is a touch short of an obligation. You don’t have to vote, and yet I think it’s fine to say not doing so is in most cases irresponsible given our role as citizens. This responsibility is the second thing we will focus on in this piece. This is also where some of our work to this point in the series will begin to payoff.

We rightly speak of wanting a clear conscience in the voting booth. Important for a clear conscience is a clear understanding of what we’re actually doing when we vote. You don’t need to feel bad about stealing third base when you’re playing baseball. That’s because it’s baseball. I’m convinced that many of our disagreements—especially in this election—come down to prior and less obvious disagreements about what a vote does.

I’ve read a dozen articles on this subject over the last year and I’m rarely happy with how a writer outlines evangelical voting patterns and priorities. So, let me take a shot and join the club. Best I can tell, there are three approaches evangelicals take to their vote for the President.

All-In Voting

For the pietistic view of voting, what matters most is what a vote says about me before God. This view adopts a secular religious framework for the action of voting. With the receding influence of Christianity in our culture, politics and political leaders have moved into that space. Politics is how Americans, having lost their religious moorings, express their hopes and aspirations for themselves and humanity. Which is why our political discourse takes on such strident overtones. As with all religion, in this secular civil religion of politics we identify with the individual who gets our vote. Because religion requires purity, the purity of this selection is crucial to our spiritual and moral standing. Our vote is a statement of faith, so it has to be just right. True to the nature of religion, to vote for a candidate is to be all-in with that candidate, to engage in a form religious self-expression, a kind of secular sacrament.

If your candidate can do no wrong and their opponent can do no right, you may be a pietistic voter. Or, alternatively, maybe you’ve said, “I could never vote for Kandidate Karl.” Depending on the reason, you may have accepted the all-in sacramental framework that supercharges your association with the candidate with spiritual implications that lead either to personal defilement or salvation.

All Eyes on Us Voting

For the public relations view of voting, what matters most is what a vote says about me or us to others. It treats a vote as an important public statement effecting one’s reputation and, by association, the reputation of the church and of Christ. It is a signal to others of virtue. I don’t mean to say that in a cheeky way, but to describe the function of a vote in this mindset. To vote for a candidate is a decision in which all eyes are on me or us. When polls report on blocks of voters, they do so in a way that ignores the textured motives of voters. Those polls generate headlines, and those headlines generate reactions. Maybe you don’t want to be one of thosepeople.

If it is especially important for you that others know who you voted for and why—or who you did not vote for and why—you might be trying to persuade your peers, which is fine, but is is also possible that you are treating your vote as a signal to others of the kind of person you are. That focus on you and the perception of others means you may be seeing your vote in these terms. It also makes you vulnerable to manipulation, as public square opponents of your values know how to drive you away from the partnerships that would advance your interests.

Both of these voting approaches are often held together, and both can be held with good motives. In the first case, we want to honor our Lord. In the second case, we don’t want to misrepresent him before the world. Yet, our tendency to pietism in voting can be a form of worldliness. The world makes government its God, an election its sacrament, and the President its king. It divides humankind into red and blue. We don’t do any of that. That’s not the game we’re playing, constitutionally or theologically. Yet when the accusations of a compromised character follow, we easily accept this pietistic framework.

Our tendency to prioritize how others perceive our vote comes with the good intention of preserving our witness. But before which of my unbelieving neighbors? And before which generation, the one we’re in or the one fifty years from now? Today’s evangelical pundits are rightly hard on nuance before abolition or the end of Jim Crow, and yet lean into nuance when it comes to our day’s grossest human rights violations. The common theme is perception and reputation. When the accusations of an inconsistent witness follow, we easily accept this public relations framework.

My own take is that there is a better approach, an approach with more integrity. That is, an approach that is truer to the kind of game we’re actually playing, regardless of what Twitter thinks. Here’s how to vote. 

All Things Considered Voting

For the principled pragmatic view of voting, what matters most is not what a vote says about me or to anyone else, but what a vote actually does. This view, also called a functional view of voting, sees a vote as a strategic move to advance the greatest good given the circumstances with a special emphasis on the role and goals of government. In other words, a matter of prudence. For a book-length treatment on this subject, read Clarke Forsythe’s, Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square. Our vote gives power to some people to make and carry out and enforce laws over the rest of us. What matters is who is getting that power and what we expect them to actually do with it. If we were the only ones voting for a President, we would need to approach it like we choose a babysitter. But it is not like that at all. It is 328 million people not like that. It’s much more like blob tag, an image that has stuck with me recently. This is an all things considered approach in a system designed for concessions.

Let’s add some more p words to the argument here, which I am borrowing from Andrew Walker. Do the platform promises matter? Yes, it matters what a candidate intends to do with our support. Do their promises strengthen or undermine our constitutional structure? Do their promises honor or undermine our basic rights as humans and as Americans? So, we might carefully read the republican party platform and the democratic party platform before voting. Does the person matter, that is, their character? Yes, character matters because it matters whether they will keep those promises. We watch their life, listen to their words, consider their history, listen for inconsistencies, and don’t forget about what they intend to do with the power we give them. That’s a matter of character too. Does it matter who the alternative viable person is? For this approach, yes that’s a meaningful factor. How about the personnel they will appoint to judge’s seats, cabinet positions, etc.? Yes, also a factor. How about specific policies? Yes, those are also important. How these all fit together will depend on the moment and our unique judgments about what’s at stake. Whatever a vote is in this case it is not a sacrament or a signal of our virtue. It’s a strategy decision based on many factors, some of which we will explore tomorrow.

Okay, I’m done.

Perhaps that will help you in the voting booth this Tuesday. For all the noise of the political season, we have it pretty good.

Remember, God put you in America. Be sure to vote.

Give to God What Is God’s: Rule 3, Reserve Your Greatest Energies for the Most Lasting Society, the Church

Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement

This is the first in a series of posts during election week 2020, titled, Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement. Read Rule 1, Rule 2, and Rule 3.

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Don’t talk about religion and politics, they say. They can get you in trouble. Maybe that’s why the Sanhedrin asked Jesus a question that involved both, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mk. 12:14). Caesar’s image was on the coin, which repulsed the Jews. The Sanhedrin had Jesus cornered. If Jesus insisted on the tax, then he was a religious idolater. If Jesus undermined the legitimacy of the tax, then he was a political revolutionary. Jesus’ reply was brilliant: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17). In one sentence Jesus managed to talk about both religion and politics and get himself out of trouble.

We’re Christ-followers. We talk about religion all the time. Let’s talk about politics. Based on the questions I get and the questions I have myself, I think we’re hungry for help in this area. Based on some of what I see in my newsfeeds, I am quite sure we need some help in this area—from civics to civility.

Now, before I write anything more, I need to offer two caveats. First, I write to you as a pastor. I mean to emphasize both words. I’m writing to you as a pastor, as Trent in my role as the pastor for preaching and teaching. This is not an addition to our statement of faith or a new section of our membership covenant or even a word from our elders as a group. Nevertheless, this is an attempt to lead you biblically. I’m writing this to you as a pastor. It should bind your conscience in as far as it is plainly biblical, but there is also a good measure of moral reasoning in what follows. Weigh it all as a good Berean (Acts 17:11). Second, what I’m writing is an exercise in thinking biblically about big things, which is hard and fraught with risk. Consider that preachers have to be experts at a different ancient text every week, but we also have to connect that ancient text to our modern context. The Bible makes sense of everything in the world. But I am not an expert in every field in the world. So, how about a bargain?: I’ll write carefully and you read earnestly.

This is the first in a four-post series that will run from today through Wednesday, the day after the election. This started out as an outline to use over lunch with members. It evolved into an article, and now, on the eve of the election, it has matured into a four-part series. Hey, why not? Politics has our near full attention and I’d like to channel some of that for some instruction.

Let’s talk about politics

Politics can be hard to talk about for many reasons: it’s complex, it’s hard to keep up with, and it deals with matters of great consequence. So, instead of talking about politics, I want to start by talking about politics. That is, about the thing itself. What is it? Work up front on this question will payoff later in this series of posts.

Broadly speaking, politics refers to the activities associated with large group decision-making. Because every person in a group cannot reasonably engage in every decision that effects the group, politics involves the delegation of power over people and the deliberation about the scope and purpose and administration of that authority. If you follow the etymology back, it comes from the Greek word, polis, which means, city. We are citizens of a city (state, nation, etc.) in which we engage in politics, the work of deciding things together. For our purposes we will define politics as the activities involved in human government.Naturally, when we talk about people deciding things together, we are also talking about disagreement. That’s another reason talking about politics can be hard. Politics is the art and science of navigating our disagreements to a conclusion that is both maximally good and agreeable. The quality of that outcome will depend largely on the political processes involved along the way

From God, not God

It is true that politics is messy. It is also true that human governments are responsible for carrying out many great evils. The bigger the governments it seems the greater the potential for evil. But should we think of government as a necessary evil in itself? According to Jesus and the Apostles, no we should not. In fact, it is sin to do so.

When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he recognized the legitimate authority of human government and governors (Mk. 12:17). Governing authorities, Paul writes, are “appointed” and “instituted by God” (Ro. 13:1–2). They are “God’s servant for your good” (Ro. 13:1–4). How are they for our good? As Peter put it, they are “sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1Pet. 2:14). Which means we rightly honor God by honoring governing authorities. We even glorify God by pondering all of the ways in which human government makes our life good (Ro. 13:1; 1Pet. 2:13, 17). Some laws are more just than others. But there’s much to be thankful for, from local traffic laws to copyright law to federal regulations over the airline industry. It’s pretty remarkable all the bad things that never happen.

But don’t miss this: Peter probably had a second audience in mind when he wrote to Christians about the state’s job to punish evil and praise good, namely Roman civil authorities. His inspired words to the church were words for everyone concerning God’s purpose for the state, including governing authorities. That was likely Paul’s secondary purpose in his famous words to the church at Rome in Romans 13, “he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4).

This dual insight is significant for how Christians approach politics. Jesus recognized both the legitimate and limited authority of human government and governors. The state is from God, but the state is not God. The state is necessary, but it is not everything. There are certain things the state must do and certain things the state must not do. We are under the state’s authority, yet, more importantly, we are together under God’s authority.

That’s important to keep in mind as we consider how we engage politically. 

Three rules for political engagement

So, how should we go about engaging in the political process? That’s what I have in mind to address in this series,Give to God What Is God’s: Rules for (Political) Engagement. I have more in mind here than tone and manner, but we’ll get to that. What I have in mind is more comprehensive: a framework for thinking about, talking about, and engaging in politics. This series comes in the context of the 2020 election, indeed right on top of it. But I mean for it to stand apart from our immediate political moment.

Here are the three rules we’ll explore over the next three days:

  • First, understand what you’re doing as an American. Understand your civic context and your civic responsibilities, in particular the purpose of your vote.
  • Second, engage in the process as a Christian. Engage with a primary allegiance to Jesus, with biblically ordered Christian concerns, and with expectations calibrated by his promises.
  • Third, reserve your greatest energies for the most lasting society, the church. The church will last forever, so let’s be better church members than political party members.

As we work through these together, let’s avoid listening for what we think everyone else needs to hear. Doing that won’t help them hear it, and you might miss what’s in here for you. Some of us are exhausted by the noise of politics and need to hear that politics is important. Others of us are exhausting ourselves (and others) in the political process and need to hear that the church is more important by a longshot. Others are losing sleep in this unique election over what it means to vote and need some help to engage with a clear conscience. In short, I’m writing for all of us because I think all of us need this.

This three-part framework is comprehensive yet easy to remember and it grounds us in biblical priorities without getting into partisan politics.

Maybe it will make talking about politics not such a hard thing after all.