I’ve found myself wondering of late how 1 Thess. 4:11-12 and 1 Tim. 2:2 pertain to our popular conservative Christian activity of “culture warring,” especially when election fever gets hold of us and we start pining after that old Puritan “shining city on a hill.” Both of these passages enjoin Christians to live in a way that seems opposed to the frenetic, gun-slinging ways of “culture warring.” To wit:
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thess. 4:11-12)
Pray for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Tim. 2:2)
As I’ve tried to think these passages through to determine what application they might have to our present cultural circumstances, it’s occurred to me that there may be a parallel between ourselves and the early Christians to whom these epistles were directly written. That parallel subsists in the fact that in both societies Christians were a minority voice in an overwhelmingly ungodly cultural stream. For the first 300 years of the Faith, Christians were not only a cultural minority, but were frequently subjected to terrific persecutions. “Christian culture” (to use today’s terminology) advanced by (to use that day’s terminology) the seed of “the blood of the martyrs,” not by the exercise of freedom in the voting booth. It was in the context of a governmental system in which most people had no voice that the early Christians were exhorted to seek to live “quiet and peaceable lives” so that they might win the respect of outsiders to the Faith.
At first glance this doesn’t seem all that parallel to our situation. For, as we all know, it’s quite popular for politically-active Christian leaders today to up-play America’s “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and to claim that we are a “Christian nation” in order to rev up the voting bloc to pull that lever for The Favored Candidate Who Will Best Move Us Toward Godliness. This seems to me to be mostly just the self-insulating rhetoric of a sub-culture rather than a reflection of the actual mainstream culture. We are a nation with many millions of self-professing Christians in it, but to take this fact, combine it with the historical situation of our having been founded largely by Christians, and deduce from these facts that we are a “Christian nation” in the sense of a culture permeated with Christian assumptions seems unwarranted.
As I look at the historical record, it seems clear to me that a real “Christian nation” will certainly have many sins, but it will, despite those sins, look far different than a non-Christian (or at least post-Christian) nation that just happens to have many Christians in it. And I believe we are the latter, not the former. The Roman Empire for the first 300 years of Christianity had many sins in it, but no one thought it was a “Christian nation” just because it had many Christians in it. After the conversion of the Empire with Constantine, Christians started treating the Empire like a “Christian nation,” and though it still had many sins in it, its fundamental course as a “Christian nation” was demonstrably different from when it had been just a pagan nation with many Christians in it. Christians gained real cultural power, and put it to good effect for the next millennium.
Contrary to the Roman Empire prior to Constantine, America started out as a real “Christian nation” and continued that way for a while. But history seems clear enough that step-by-step American Christians gave the store away to unbelievers, until at last we live in a so-called “Christian nation” that aborts millions of babies every year, demands that Christians keep their religion out of education, and the voting booth, pursues unjust wars all over the globe in the name of the god Demos, continually courts naked avarice in its domestic and foreign economic policies, and teeters on the brink of redefining marriage as including “LGBTs” (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered people). I don’t see how it’s intelligible to claim that this sort of country is a genuine “Christian nation.” At best it’s a nation with many Christians in it, but that doesn’t make it a “Christian nation.”
But regardless of how that debate (for it will surely be one!) might turn out, the question about seeking to live a quiet and peaceable life remains on the table. Christians who are gung-ho for “culture warring” seem often to pursue their war on the basis that this is, in fact, a “Christian nation” and that, therefore, we Christians ought to fight for it. We ought to use every weapon at our disposal, especially political ones, to war against the forces of darkness trying to corrupt our “Judaeo-Christian heritage” and replace it with “secular humanism.” They don’t believe the replacement has fully happened yet, and they think that culture-warring is the way to keep it from fully happening. The problem is that if one is spending one’s days conducting the cultural equivalent of World War I trench warfare, one is not aspiring to live a quiet and peaceable life that wins the respect of outsiders, as the Scriptures cited above say.
Is there a way to reconcile this seeming contradiction? I should make clear that I am not a political quietist. I do not believe we Christians should accept the demands of Modernity that we keep our faith private, locked up inside our hearts and the walls of our churches, never daring to bring it into engagement with the larger culture. Since I am Reformed and some of my readers are as well, I should also say that I am no fan of the so-called “R2K” theology of Westminster West. This inquiry I am making has nothing to do with the notion that we should be happy with what one professor at that seminary calls “A Secular Faith.” I am a firm believer in Christians being active in our culture and seeking to transform it for Christ. Many readers know well that I spend a great deal of time trying to apply classical Christian ideas about politics to our present political circumstances, so the last thing in the world I can be justly accused of is writing a post like this because I am some sort of quasi-gnostic who thinks only “spiritual” things matter. What I am asking in this post concerns the manner in which we work for cultural transformation. I am asking a how question, not a whether question.
So, this said, how do the above-cited verses pertain to our political activity as culture-transforming Christians? The early Christians, to whom those epistles were directly addressed, changed the culture over several centuries by living quiet and peaceable lives that more often than not culminated in martyrdom. There might be something to an argument that there is a parallel between us and them, and that the way forward for us, in this seemingly post-Christian culture, is also martyrdom – if not physical martyrdom, perhaps another form. But again, they lived under a governmental system on the operations of which they had little to no say. Although Scripture’s truths themselves never change, most thinking Christians realize that the applications of those truths might from time to time change. We don’t live in the same governmental situation as those who first read Paul’s epistles. Does (or should) that fact change how we apply Paul’s words to our own lives?
Is culture-warring an acceptable activity since our system of government allows us to mobilize and try to change the laws we live under? Or do those simple words from so long ago mean precisely the same thing for us as they did for Paul’s original readers? Or, perhaps a third way: is there a way actually to combine culture-warring with seeking a quiet and peaceable life? I have some ideas on the third possibility, but I’d like first to hear from others.