The public square

In pluralist democracies, ought Christians use their vote and whatever power of persuasion that they might possess to influence the character of society and its laws? This is an important matter to think about. Some people seem to argue that Christians who really trust Jesus  should let civil society go to (or stay with) the Devil and simply tell our neighbours, friends and enemies about Jesus in private conversation. To do otherwise, we are assured, is to use the force of law to oppress non-Christians.

It seems to me that Christians may engage politically as Christians to influence the direction of secular societies. The word ‘secular’, by the way, has nothing inherently atheistic about it. It simply refers to time and space – the here and now. Of course, the word’s extended use now includes the atheistic connotation, but there was a time when the church recognised ‘secular’ clergy – priests who were not monks attached to a religious order such as the Augustinians. Their job was to influence society rather than to hide from it. Whatever your view of priests and monks might be, our Lord Jesus urged his people to be in the world but not of it. I take this to mean that Christians must be engaged – as fully as our circumstances allow — in all the human activities of this world, and to do so as Christians. This includes attempting to influence public morality for the real good of people.

I suggest that the examples of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra support this view. These missionaries arrived at Lystra and presented the Gospel of Jesus to them. During this presentation, a lame man was healed. The people of Lystra utterly mistook the clear teachings of the apostles and intended to worship them as pagan gods (Acts 14: 11-18). The apostles were quite willing publicly to oppose the pagan worldview and to urge the people of Lystra to change their civic behaviour —  civil and religious behaviour was greatly intertwined in pagan society.

In fact the apostles made great and earnest arguments to prevent the people of Lystra from following their own ideas of worship and the good life. Paul told them directly that their religious behaviour was futile and wrong. He and Barnabas had come to turn them from “vain things”. Paul said that ‘in bygone generations [God] allowed all nations to walk in their own ways’ but now the gospel of Jesus has come. As he said in Acts 17 (after saying similar things about bygone generations), God now calls all people everywhere to repent (to change their thinking) as a day of judgement is coming.

It seems to me that Paul saw both belief and behaviour as things to be earnestly addressed in the public square and he made every effort to turn (by argument) people from the poor choices that they have made. Paganism was very accepting of multiple beliefs. You could believe whatever you wanted as long as you agreed that everyone else should believe whatever they wanted. Christianity cut across that worldview. Christianity asserts truth. Paul’s only weapons were arguments and truth statements about who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for us here and now and for the future.

Life in the secular ends with life in eternity. Eternal life will either be very good or very bad. If the Church does not make a clear public statement about human sin and does not identify what sin is in all its forms, then how will anyone see their need of the saviour which the Church is to proclaim? Our Lord Jesus made the sinful behaviour of church people clear as he spoke in synagogues, Paul made the sinful behaviour of pagans clear as he spoke in the streets of Greek cities. They both did this so that the offer of good news in Jesus would make sense. Jesus is the only remedy for our moral and spiritual failures.

(BTW, Paul did not have the vote, but he did have Roman citizenship, the force of which he was quite prepared to use on a number of occasions.)

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