Over ten years ago, David Platt wrote his bestseller Radical, which encouraged American Christians to disentangle their faith from the American dream. In the years since, he and the church he pastors, McLean Bible Church in metro Washington, DC, have navigated their fair share of political and cultural tensions, including contentious elections, pandemic-era divisions, and debates on racial injustice. In Don’t Hold Back: Leaving Behind the American Gospel to Follow Jesus Fully, Platt reframes these events for discouraged leaders and disillusioned believers alike. Author Kaitlyn Schiess spoke with Platt about what he’s learned pastoring a church through treacherous political waters.
How has pastoring in the DC area shaped the kind of book you wanted to write?
Over recent years, our church has been at the epicenter of so many things, and not just because we’re in the nation’s capital but because we have over a hundred nations represented, which makes for a diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and convictions. Trying to hold all that together around Jesus has changed me in good ways, because it’s helped me see how inclined I am to prefer people or things a certain way. The question becomes: How can I lay aside some of my preferences and convictions on things that are less clear in God’s Word?
The subtitle for Radical mentions reclaiming faith from the “American Dream,” while the subtitle for this book speaks of the “American Gospel.” Why the change in phrasing?
Ten-plus years after writing Radical, I’m convinced that the unhealth goes a lot deeper. It’s not just an American dream that has consumed our lives as Christians but an American gospel that has hijacked our hearts. We’ve equated American ideals, values, and power with the gospel in such a way that we’re in danger of losing the actual gospel, the way of Jesus.
Instead of eagerly uniting around Jesus, we are quick to divide over personal and political convictions. Instead of enjoying the multiethnic beauty that Jesus has made possible through the Cross, we are still segregating by skin color. At its core, the disillusionment and discouragement we’ve seen in the church is a direct outcome of a faulty gospel.
What would you say to people who view this book as another mushy-middle, “third way” approach that recognizes political problems but avoids strong stances?
There’s a way to fight for what matters most and hold fast to God’s Word without sacrificing love for one another and the world around us. We don’t have to fight with each other in the body of Christ. We fight for each other, realizing that we’re going to disagree on a variety of things that are not clear and direct in God’s Word.
I’m not saying that these secondary matters are unimportant—only that we need to remain focused on what is infinitely, eternally important, like that fact that billions of people around the world have never heard the gospel. I’m not in any way for loosening our convictions around the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word. But we need to separate them from secondary and tertiary matters, so we can live for what matters most.
How can Scripture be a shared authority and a source of common ground when our conflicts are so often rooted in differing interpretations?
I’m idealistic enough to believe that if true followers of Jesus sit down with their Bibles open, pray together, and humbly seek God’s will together, then they can unite around core Christian commitments, even where there are disagreements on lesser matters.
To give one example: Part of our journey as a church over the past few years has been reckoning with Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and other episodes of racial injustice. For weeks, hundreds of our folks walked through praying, fasting, and studying what Scripture has to say about the gospel, the church, justice, and race. We started with the gospel and the church, so that before we got to justice or race, we had established a solid foundation of underlying unity.
At the end of the day people could say: I still don’t agree with you, but I understand you’re my brother or sister in Christ, and I understand how you arrived at your opinion. I love seeing that work out, but it doesn’t come automatically. It takes time, patience, and humility.
American Christians are known for prioritizing the nuclear family in public life, but you focus on how the New Testament redefines “family” in the context of the church. Has our misunderstanding of family contributed to our political idolatry?
To be clear: The Bible warns us to be very serious in our convictions about man and woman, marriage and family. But back to this picture of the church as family. This is a big part of the terminology in our church. When you enter the lobby, a sign says, “When you’re here, you’re home.” We have the phrase “We’re family in Christ” posted in multiple languages.
We try to emphasize family as the body of Christ in a way that supersedes ethnicity, country, politics, or matters of personal preference. We have the same Father, the same Savior, the same Word, and the same mission in the world. Which leads to some good family discussions and disagreements about other things, even as we’re united at the deepest level.
One of your prescriptions is for people to cultivate “community on earth as it is in heaven.” How can we seek that kind of community when our churches are often polarized, divided, and unhealthy?
I don’t know if it’s possible in every circumstance or setting. But it’s possible, period. We see it in the Bible, with Jews and Gentiles coming together, and there are many examples today.
Hold out hope—Jesus does make this possible. At the same time, realize what it takes to heed all the Bible’s “one another” commands. It means struggling to bear with some people, just as they might struggle to bear with you or me.
Most people aren’t in charge of a church or denomination, but they do have friendships, either within a church or among believers elsewhere. We can love each other and care for each other, not lob grenades at each other. This is what we’re destined for in heaven, so let’s live like it’s our destiny here.
Some Christians will worry that the history of missions from America is a history of exporting the “American Gospel” rather than challenging it. When American values are tightly joined with the gospel at home, can we faithfully bring it abroad?
This hits at the point of the book. As long as we’re exporting an “American gospel,” then I would be skeptical too. But we’ve got a biblical gospel centered on Jesus, his Word, and his love for the world. And if we don’t want to make him known among the nations, then I think we’ve missed the point of what it means to follow Jesus.
The Great Commission strikes at the heart of racial prejudice or pride. It goes hand in hand with doing justice. As believers, we go to all the nations, as the nations. As we make disciples of the nations, we’re going to encounter a lot of needs: orphans, widows, and refugees; poverty, sex trafficking, and the destruction of war. We live to do justice, which involves proclaiming the just King of the universe. That’s the greatestinjustice of all: that so many don’t know King Jesus.
As long as we have an American gospel, missions makes no sense—or is really unhealthy. But if we have a biblical gospel, then it’s nonnegotiable.
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