On Private and Public Christianity

This past week, within a 24-hour period, I had two experiences which have fundamentally augmented how I think about this site, the Bible and Business as well as Evangelical Christianity in America more generally.

The first experience was with a ministry that is content-driven and has a consistent influence in their vertical. They have significant talent on staff who are able to produce original thinking and articulate that thinking in a compelling and culturally relevant way. But they shy away from the integration of our Christian faith with topics and issues that are being discussed in the public square today. My second experience was with a ministry that is also content-drive and has an emerging influence in their vertical. They have talent on staff who are able to integrate Biblical Theology with current events in a way that is challenging and relevant.

Combining both experiences, I came away with the realization that American Evangelicals are very good in articulating private life theologies, such as honesty, integrity, purity, holiness, prayer and so forth. But when it comes to articulating public life theologies, such as understanding what the Bible has to say about politics, economics, public policy, war, voting, business, the environment and so forth, most American Evangelicals often don’t know what they believe.  Worse, many see these topics as political only – topics that are to be avoided lest we offend a Christian brother or sister who disagrees. On some topics, Evangelicals are deeply divided and we lack a coherent starting point in discussing them. We avoid public policy discussions since there is such disagreement that all we’ll accomplish through engagement is to deepen the divide.  Our sin is not putting unity ahead of our differences.

More recently, new theologies – such as social justice or reproductive justice (to which millions of lives are now tethered) – have supplanted more traditional Christian theologies .  As one politically liberal Evangelical Christian said to me not too long ago: “Jesus Christ came to free the middle class from the rich oppressors.”  (That quote is not out of context.)  I always thought that Christ came to save the lost – to take those who are dead and make us alive in Him.  He didn’t come to make bad people good – He came to make dead people alive.  But if you start with a social justice lens, you’ll end up with social justice conclusions.

Entire churches are built with social justice (and other politically based theologies) as the organizing principle for how they interpret the Bible. Living out these newer theologies, we find people who claim to love God and be disciples of Jesus Christ who will enter into a mixture of politics and theology that results in the government implementing policies to bring about the outcomes their theology demands.  One can see why it’s easier to avoid than it is to engage.

Moreover, some moral issues in the Bible – such as abortion or gay marriage – are cast in such political and civil rights terms that Christians remain silent on them. We’re told to stay out of the public square by those who command the narrative of the day.  Our religious views are not welcome. Since we want to be viewed as loving, not divisive; as harmonizing, not dividing; it’s better to not engage.  Let’s not divide.  Let’s not speak up.

So good people who love the Lord focus (nearly exclusively) on topics of the private life. It’s safe. It’s a known commodity. We purchase new books that re-hash what has been written by others. While pastors in the 1700s preached sermons on freedom and voting and taxes and pastors of the 1800’s preached against slavery and other current issues their day, you’ll be hard pressed in today’s world to find any Evangelical pastor who will tackle current event issues such as abortion, gay marriage, taxes, entrepreneurship, self-defense, entertainment, pornography, running for office or sports – just to name a few. Most won’t ever touch tithing (they don’t want to be seen as money-hungry). Stewardship is such a misunderstood topic that most think it’s mainly about money management (it’s not). Some Evangelicals view the wealthy with such disdain that one wonders if they could lead one of them to Christ. You’ll be hard pressed to find a pastor or elder who can articulate a Christian theology of any current issue such as social security or free college tuition for 2-year institutions.  Money, sex and power are topics that revive strong feelings (both positive and negative) across a wide swath of our congregants – again, it’s better to not stir the waters.

Perhaps there are a few college or seminary professors who can and do address these topics, but they are few and far between. Christian media won’t touch this stuff – especially Christian TV. Their audiences would rather see healings or hear the latest band or hear another sermon on prayer or talk about how to improve their marriages (all good and needed topics). But public life topics are not safe and we don’t know what to believe anyways. Best to not engage. Let’s not create unnecessary swirl.

Because the vast majority of Christians don’t traffic in the public life topics, they don’t have a box to put this site (and other public topic-focused ministries) into because they don’t have a public life box to begin with.  Their choice is a false dichotomy:  It’s either private life Christianity or public life politics.  Without a public life Christian box, many Evangelical Christians – including pastors – believe we should remain silent on these and other public life issues. Some go so far as to remind us that we could lose our 501c3 status – as if that’s relevant to proclaiming the entire counsel of God.

So I ask my fellow Christians – with love, respect and humility – how do we live as salt and light in a lost and broken world without having relevant, well-thought-out Christian theologies to offer in the public square? For example, how do Christian business owners honor our government when they ask us to violate our Christian beliefs? How can a Christian be a lawyer who honors God in an increasingly unethical legal climate? How should we view end-of-life issues? How should Christians engage professional sports? How do Christians running for public office explain what they believe and how their beliefs are good for society as a whole if their own theological leaders can’t (or won’t) do this? Questions like these are not inconsequential and they do apply to the masses because if we don’t engage, the narratives of our culture will eventually conclude in an intolerance of Christianity. As a result, those who are disciples of Jesus Christ will experience persecution of one type or another. Part of our role on this earth is to slow down the decay of our culture, but if we don’t engage in the public topics, we’ll not be the salt God intended us to be. Seemingly niche topics have long-term effects for the masses.

It might sound like I’m bitter. I’m not. God has called me and I’m working within His calling. But I’ve come to the realization that the vast majority of Evangelicals are content to learn more about the private life topics, but will shy away from engaging in the public life topics. With this arrangement, they are comfortable and happy.

In my opinion, we avoid an engagement in public life theologies to our own peril.

Bill English