Jesus described the world as a mixed-up place—a place in which the Word of God can have quite different results depending on the soil on which it falls, a place in which wheat and weeds grow up in the same field so closely intertwined that the latter cannot (yet) be uprooted without damaging the former.
The economy of the world as it is requires that these two sets of inhabitants and, indeed, neighbors be allowed to become fully themselves, maturing until the time of harvest when all is uprooted, judged, and rewarded with blessing or curse. As Augustine warned, now is not the time for apocalyptic confrontation with the enemies of Christ, who might yet become his friends before the end of the age.
The world is already corrupted by the effects of the Fall. The enemy is inspiring human agents to divert the earth's resources to their useless endeavors and to entangle themselves with those who are being inspired by God to pursue shalom—in short, acting like "weeds." Given this, what should we expect of the next election, of the government to follow, and of all life on earth until Jesus returns?
We should expect sin. We should expect some politicians to accept graft, and some officials to accept bribes. We should expect some executives to sell out their companies and shareholders and customers for personal gain. We should expect drunk driving and drug pushing and cartels and sexual assault and stock manipulation and terrorism.
Expecting sin does not mean accepting it, much less ignoring it. Expecting sin means being practical: It means planning for it. It means refusing to live as if we are in the New Jerusalem, and instead intentionally structuring our lives, individually and corporately, with the expectation of evil.
Beyond sin, we should expect waste. It should not shock us that governments, armies, and corporations waste money. It should not shock us that schools, hospitals, and charities waste people's time and talents and the earth's resources. For Genesis 3 tells us that work will be harder to do than it should be, that "thorns and thistles" are everywhere. Indeed, beyond sin and waste, we should expect stupidity and absurdity, vanity and promiscuity.
Within this landscape of evil, weeds can look like wheat and vice versa, so that the way forward is not immediately evident and results are hard to predict. The field does not only present us with evil, but with ambiguity as well. Many Christians have not taken the reality of ambiguity seriously enough to expect it and plan for it. Both liberal and conservative Christians tend to see the world in stark polarities of good and evil. But the field is mixed, and ambiguity is a dark fact with which we must reckon.
The Enemy Within
As we peer into the world's ambiguity, we must also peer inward to see our own ambivalence. Like the world out there, we ourselves are mixed, with motives great and small, good and evil. We in fact hate our enemies, we crave luxury, power, and fame, and we turn away from light and prefer darkness—at least a little bit all the time. The line distinguishing good and evil does not, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned us, run between countries or peoples or classes (or political parties), but through our own hearts.
We must reckon, then, not only with what is bad out there, but with what is bad in here: in our individual selves and in our most sacred institutions. "Reckoning" means acting accordingly, thus structuring and conducting our lives so as to restrain the evil within us and the evil without us as best we can, and to respond properly when those restraints give way.
Reckoning also means that we do not wait until our motives have resolved into perfect purity before we attempt to do God's work, since few of us consider ourselves "entirely sanctified." Furthermore, such reckoning means that we presume impure motives in others. Doing so, we yet will decide sometimes to support them, cooperate with them, and praise them for their successes.
Particularly when it comes to power brokering, we ought to expect politicians and parties to engage in crass practices, in repellent compromises, and in strange alliances. We will always wish it were otherwise; we will demand legality at least and high principle at best, but we will not merely wring our hands and despair of politics until Jesus appears on the ballot. For if we wait until then, we will remain useless politically, except perhaps in the limited role of chiding everyone else for failing to be as good as he is.
We must simply expect our leaders—in state, commerce, the professions, and also the church—to be tempted by power, money, and fame. We then will construct the healthiest possible hierarchies, which will both help them resist temptation and protect the rest of us from their expected failures. We will expect school boards to be assailed by widely and wildly conflicting agendas; families to be riven by various interests; courts to be abused by various forms of social engineering; universities to reflect the views of the powerful; and corporations to seek financial success over community service.
One of the oddities of so much of American evangelicalism is its simultaneous commitment to American political institutions and to an ecclesiastical culture of populism. To reverse the order, American evangelicals typically lionize the entrepreneurial spiritual leader who leads an institution boldly by force of character, vision, and talent. These same Christians typically also revere the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Yet these documents articulate a vision of leadership that is profoundly at odds with the paradigm of the populist leader responsible only to his followers. For the Founding Fathers—despite their general lack of Christian orthodoxy—shared a much stronger expectation of sin among the powerful and feared above all a concentration of power that would enable tyranny. They built the distinctive American political system of checks and balances with this fear in mind. Yet evangelical leaders typically head organizations with precious few such curbs on their authority. (Billy Graham is a notable exception and an example of the clear-eyed prudence I am recommending here.) Scandal after scandal has resulted, to the ever-renewable shock of evangelical constituents whose theology of sin is not put to work in a preventive way in their own organizations.
These negative expectations, however, need not prompt despair. Our theology contains a robust doctrine of sin, yes, but also robust doctrines of providence and redemption. God set up institutions to bless us, despite their corruption, and he continues to work through them. God aids those who press for greater shalom in those institutions.
God is not discouraged by the evil in us and our world. He is sad about it, angry at it, and grieved by it, but God is not discouraged. He works away at it, knowing that his labor is certain to produce fruit. And he has called us to do the same.
Hope and Prudence
Christian realism requires hope. Jesus is Lord—now. We should expect good results. But until his kingdom comes fully in glory, we do not expect perfect results. The combination of evil, ambiguity, and our own ambivalence should keep us from utopianism. Jesus told us to expect persecutions and progressions, sins and successes, accidents and accomplishments, resistance and renewal.
With this realism guiding us, we will not always hold out for "all-or-nothing" policies—in government, on school boards, in our workplaces, and in our homes. Yes, sometimes one has to draw a line and say a simple yes or no. Some decisions—such as whether to confess the faith, preach the gospel, support fellow Christians in need, and care for the poor—are simply binary.
Yet even in these categories there is a need for prudence: How do we confess the faith and preach the gospel in this context? What means do we use to support fellow Christians in need or to care for the poor? Must we advertise what we do as loudly as possible? Jesus and the apostles sometimes "went public" and sometimes stayed private. Must we be as confrontational as possible? Sometimes Jesus and the apostles directly confronted their enemies and sometimes they didn't.
A good cause does not justify just any choice of means—although those who think of themselves as "prophetic" tend to feel this way. Instead, Christians ought to select means carefully, in order to do the most good possible—to maximize shalom. And that means we must learn to think politically, for politics is, indeed, "the art of the possible."
Many Christians refuse to think in terms of "half a loaf is better than none," "pick your battles," and "live to fight another day." They see such compromises as derogatory toward the holiness of God and faithless toward the power of the Spirit. Only total victory will do. And such Christians are right—but not about the penultimate stage in which we currently serve God. In this era, we live in a mixed field still growing, not yet ready for the harvest.
Pastors and Politics
Some Christians clearly are gifted and called to various kinds of campaigning. Others may not feel so gifted, but are thrust into advocacy through experience and therefore opportunity: Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, for example, or parents of victims who then champion criminal justice reform.
Just because a particular form of service is good, however, doesn't entail that everyone should be involved in it. Pastors particularly must have a clear sense of what they can and cannot do well.
Christian politicians and political scientists will usually have the most helpful advice about politics. Christian educators, social scientists, and parents will think most critically and creatively about schools. Christian medical professionals, chaplains, and patients will have the most to offer regarding health care.
Pastors serve such Christians well in two modes: teaching them fundamental principles of Christian engagement, such as the nature of Christian mission and vocation, and exhorting them to pursue their particular callings with courage and perseverance. It is the rare pastor who has genuine expertise, insight, and opportunity to enter realms such as politics, education, or health care, and to do or say something better than fellow Christians who work full-time in that realm.
Furthermore, when pastors speak out of their depth, they undermine their credibility and usefulness in their primary calling. Pastors hardly want to have congregants musing in the pews, "Well, since I know this particular subject pretty well and this pastor clearly doesn't know what he's talking about here, how can I trust him in spiritual matters about which I am not expert?"
To be sure, lots of people seem to want clergy to address political matters. Why? Because we want biblically grounded answers. We want truth and honesty and righteousness without mixture or compromise.
The crucial point is that such unambiguous clarity is precisely what is not on offer in most political situations. The calling of pastors is primarily to call the rest of us back to God and to walk in the way of Christ, to forswear evil and cling to good, to be born again and to march steadily forward toward the celestial city. But this binary mindset, which is completely appropriate in pastoral work, cannot be realistic and effective in politics. The quest of the pastor to think, speak, and act as purely as possible, and to call the rest of us to uncompromising holiness, is at odds with the politician's ability to see things in shades of gray and to broker temporary, partial solutions as the best now available, with hopes of working out something better next time. It is the rare good pastor who can function effectively as a good politician.
If pastors long, then, for Christian voices to be raised and Christian hands to be employed in this or that cultural challenge, they must be clear that their particular calling is not to charge in themselves but "to equip the saints for the work of ministry" (Eph. 4:12, NRSV).
Church's Many Modes
Let us now expand our field of vision. Christians can act as individuals, as families, as congregations, as denominations, as ecumenical fellowships, in Christian special purpose groups (such as World Vision or Focus on the Family), in interfaith coalitions, in secular political parties, and through other secular channels (e.g., neighborhood associations, charities, labor unions, or advocacy groups such as Amnesty International).
We need to consider what each individual and group can do well and what other individuals and groups can do better. On vexed issues, there is rarely a particular policy that is "just plain Christian," that flows directly out of the Bible and Christian tradition. Sometimes, to be sure, we do face such an issue: campaigns for the care of children or for the end of religious persecution can be such causes. Protecting the Jews was one such cause in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's time, such that he could call such an issue a status confessionis—a basic matter of faithfulness. But even in these cases, people of equal fidelity and competence sometimes can disagree about just what is to be done in a given circumstance—as Karl Barth disagreed with Bonhoeffer. Pastors, congregations, denominations, and ecumenical fellowships need to distinguish carefully between proclaiming principles to guide such decision-making and advocating particular decisions themselves, which may serve only to confuse the situation and even impede the work of more competent Christians.
It would be far better for pastors, congregations, denominations, and ecumenical fellowships to encourage each Christian to take his or her proper place in these other modes and to work with other Christians and with other citizens of goodwill as best he or she can—even as that will often mean that members of the same family or church or congregation will end up in different parties or otherwise advocate different policies. We therefore can be very glad for Christian special purpose groups that represent various outlooks, participate in various cultural sectors, and offer various solutions. These organizations represent Christian diversity: They let us focus our energies in particular and diverse ways, as no single congregation or denomination can do.
In the midst of all this pointed advocacy, then, our congregations, denominations, and ecumenical fellowships should represent the crucial reality of Christian unity, as they "maintain the bonds of peace" among us in our common life in Christ: sacraments, preaching, liturgy, mission, and mutual service.
When someone looks at a current controversy or area of need and asks, "Where is the church?" therefore, the answer is not to be couched solely in terms of the actions of clergy, congregations, and denominations, as if Christ deploys his church only in these modes. The answer instead should be: "Here, and here, and here: indeed, everywhere there is significant, useful action by Christians on behalf of shalom."
John G. Stackhouse Jr. holds the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. This article is adapted from Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (Oxford University Press).
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