Nicholas Wolterstorff: 13 Theses on Faith and Politics

Most of the time as I study for different preaching series there is a good amount of preparatory work that never makes it into a series and sermons. One of the hardest decisions as a preacher is what not to include in a sermon, even if you think it is so good that everyone should hear it.

That reality was abundantly evident to me than in the most recent preaching series on the kingdom of God that we recently concluded here at Eastbrook. In preparation for the final message in that series, “Faith-full Public Engagement,” I ran across an excellent essay, “Theological Foundations for an Evangelical Political Philosophy,” by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. While the entire essay is worth the read, near the end of that essay Wolterstorff shares thirteen theses on faith and politics in relation to government that I found particularly helpful. Here they are:

In conclusion, let me state some theses concerning government that a broad range of evangelicals can agree on—acknowledging that at some points, those representing Anabaptist tradition would disagree.

1. Government is not a merely human creation, nor is it a work of the devil. Government is instituted by God as part of God’s providential care for his human creatures.

2. The task assigned by God to government is twofold: to promote justice, both primary and corrective, and in its coordinating activities to enhance the common good.

3. Government, thus understood, belongs both to God’s providential care for us as creatures and to God’s providential care for us as fallen.

4. When government acts as it ought to act, it acts with genuine authority. That authority is to be understood as not merely human but as mediating Christian authority.

5. The corollary of the exercise by government of genuine authority is that its subjects are obligated to obey that authority.

6. Among the things that governments are authorized to do is apply retributive punishment to wrongdoers—provided that the punishment is itself of a just sort.

7. Though government, along with such other social institutions as marriage, family, and economy, is instituted by God as part of his providential care for human beings as creatures and as fallen, government, along with these other institutions, is itself fallen. That is to say, government and other social institutions never fully carry out the tasks assigned them by God.

8. Though not every failing on the part of government—or any other social institution—justifies disobedience, all too often governments do fail to such a degree that disobedience is required. The starkest examples of such obligatory disobedience are those cases in which government demands that something other than God be worshiped.

9. The Christian may serve in the offices of government; in doing so, he is mediating the rule over the state of that very same Christ who is the ruler of the church.

10. When the Christian occupies some governmental office, he or she must not be guided by customary practice but by the God-assigned task of government: to promote justice and the common good.

11. It is the duty of the Christian always to call his or her government to its proper task. Especially is this true for those of us who have some degree of voice in our governments.

12. Such calling of government to its proper task will ordinarily include proclamation. But whenever possible, it will also include the promotion of governmental structures that make it less likely that the government will fail in, or violate, its task.

13. Christians will honor and respect government; they will not talk and act as if government has no right to exist. And they will support government by paying taxes. They will not talk and act as if government, in assessing taxes, is forcefully taking from its subjects ‘their money.’ Financial support is owed government.

From Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Theological Foundations for an Evangelical Political Philosophy,” in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy, eds. Ronald J. Sider and Diane Knippers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 160-161.

Book Review of Compassion and Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement by Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler

“If there’s one book I should read about faith and politics, what should it be?” Who could really provide an adequate answer to such a question? Should it be voluminous classics like Augustine’s City of God or Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica? What about Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and other writings? Or perhaps we should look toward more recent contributions such as Oliver O’ Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations or Richard John Neuhaus’ The Naked Public Square. Finding the one right book would be at best a project of great difficulty, and at worst an exercise in futility.

That being said, if you are looking for one brief book to help you find direction for Christian engagement in the public sphere at this moment in the United States, let me turn your attention to the recent work by Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, and Chris Butler, Compassion & Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement (IVP 2020). In contrast to Augustine’s mammoth work in City of God, the authors here provide a crash course in basic civics and Christian political engagement in under 150 pages.

Helpfully rooted in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Great Requirement (Micah 6:8), Giboney, Wear, and Butler outline a political engagement for Christians that holds simultaneously to love (including justice) and truth (including moral order). It is from this framework that the book takes its name; that is, Christian political engagement involves compassion and conviction.

Building out from the framework constructed in the first chapters, the authors carry forward by exploring a range of topics: how we approach partnerships with those who do not hold our belief system, understanding and utilizing rhetoric in a Christian manner, the thorny topic of politics and race, appropriate advocacy and protest, and the need for civility in the public sphere. Each chapter brings together well-considered biblical and historical thought on the topic with a series of very practical ways to step forward practically in relation to that topic.

Underlying the entire book is the belief that as Christians we can meaningfully engage in the public sphere, even in politics, for the glory of God in a way that does not either forego compassion for others or surrender biblical convictions. While it may not be the first book to recommend from all time on faith and politics, it is certainly an extraordinarily helpful book for our time in the United States as we approach the November election.

Vincent Bacote on “The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life”

In case you missed it, here is the video from last night’s Leadership Community event at Eastbrook on the intersection of discipleship and politics with Dr. Vincent Bacote. Vince joined us for this session to augment our current preaching series on the kingdom of God, offering theological perspectives on our public engagement as Christians.

Dr. Vincent Bacote is an Associate Professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. He is the author of the The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life (2015), The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper (2005), and has contributed to numerous other books. He serves as a theological editor for Christianity Today wth the “Race Set Before Us” series and has contributed to other magazines and journals, such as Comment MagazineBooks and CultureChristianity TodayThink Christianre:generation quarterly, Christian Scholars ReviewUrban Mission and the Journal for Christian Theological Research. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Christian Ethics. Learn more about Dr. Bacote on his website, vincentbacote.com.

When Kingdoms Collide: the martyrdom of Polycarp

Along the western seacoast of Turkey there is a beautiful coastal town known as Izmir. Tucked amidst the high-rises and minarets is a Roman Catholic church built in the 17th century and dedicated to an early Christian many of us no longer remember from a time when Izmir was known as Smyrna.

There, nearly 1900 years ago, lived an early Christian named Polycarp, a convert during the ministry of the apostle John. Serving the Lord over the course of his life and well-respected in the church, Polycarp was wholly committed to the Lord Jesus at a time of great persecution for the church. The influence of the Roman Emperor appeared unlimited, and the basic declaration of allegiance to the Emperor was: “Caesar is Lord.” For the early Christians, the basic declaration of faith also reflected their allegiance: “Jesus is Lord.”

When Polycarp was dragged before the Roman Proconsul Statius Quadratus on trumped up charges, Polycarp was thoroughly interrogated and asked to swear allegiance to Caesar. “Swear, and I release you; curse Christ,” said the Proconsul.

To which Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Again, the Proconsul said, “Swear by the genius of Caesar.” To which Polycarp responded once more, “If you vainly imagine that I would ‘swear by the genius of Caesar’, as you may say, pretending that you are ignorant who I am , hear plainly that I am a Christian.”[1]

It is this bold statement that eventually led to Polycarp’s execution by burning in public in AD 156. Polycarp’s situation sets in bold relief one of the greatest challenges of any discussion of the kingdom of God. We live as citizens of earthly kingdoms by birth or by decision, even while we live as citizens of the heavenly kingdom through faith in Christ.


[1] The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom is found in many places but I relied on James W. Skillen’s telling from The Good of Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 47-48.

July 4th: 4 Considerations for the Church

As we celebrate the independence of our nation, here are four thoughts that we would do well to consider as believers in the United States.

  1. Remember: When we come to July 4th, we remember. We remember our history as a nation; we remember sacrifices given over time; we remember who we are as Americans. The concept of remembering is important. It is important to remember good things, so that we might not take them for granted. It is also important to remember things that are not good, that we might work toward change on them. As an increasingly rootless society with little to no sense of our past, we need to move into the future and face the present in light of our past. Memory is important for us as people. July 4th gives us a time to stand in the living memory of our nation. It is a practice that should be normal for those of us who consider ourselves Christians. As Christians we are called to run the race of life within that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1)—the saints past, present, and future who have gone before us. We need to remember who we are.
  2. We Are Citizen Exiles: As we live on earth, we are legally citizens of specific nations and states. I am a citizen of the United States of America. I am thankful for the many benefits I enjoy as a citizen of this country, while also recognizing the shortcomings of our country. I work for change where it is needed, and I also savor what is good. However, as the Apostle Peter wrote in his first epistle, we are “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11). Even though we are legally citizens of certain countries on earth, we will never truly belong here. Because the great confession of the Christian faith is “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9), we also remember, as Paul writes elsewhere, that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).  So, as we mark this holiday with fellow citizens of the United States, we do well to also remember to live in the tension as citizens of heaven whose primary allegiance is to King Jesus and ultimate home is in the presence of God.
  3. Seek the Common Good: When the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiled Israelites in Babylon, he gave these instructions: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). Although we are citizen-exiles, we exist here for God’s glory by seeking the common good of the city and nation in which we live. We do not belong here, but we must steward our lives here to the glory of God and the benefit of those around us. Our nation, the United States of America, is the place where God has ‘exiled’ those of us who are citizens of it. We honor God when we seek the common good of this place. The common good is developed by recognizing the benefits and shortcomings of this nation, and seeking to bring them to all equitably. We fail to honor God when we seek only our own benefit and not the benefit of releasing the resources God has given us into the community around us.
  4. Celebrate True Freedom: As we mark the freedom we enjoy as a self-governing democracy in this nation, we must simultaneously not lose sight of the fact that political freedoms—even freedom of religion—cannot compare to the true freedom that we experience as followers of Christ. Paul writes to the Galatian church, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Paul is speaking to that early gathering of believers about the essential spiritual freedom we experience through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While many of the early disciples and contemporaries of Jesus expected Him to institute a new earthly kingdom, He instead started a revolutionary movement of living free with God in the fully available Kingdom of God. Any celebration of freedom within our nation is small compared to the boisterous celebration of freedom available in Jesus Christ for now and unto eternity.