Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

An Unexpected Agreement on Church and Politics

I’ve just finished reading a fine article in Christianity Today: “Carl Henry Was Right” by Richard J. Mouw. In this article is discovered that my views on the role of the church in partisan politics are largely the same as those of Carl Henry and Richard Mouw. That doesn’t mean we’re right, of course. But it does encourage me to believe my perspective on this issue has some strong supporters.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the players, let me say that Carl F. H. Henry was, until his death in 2003, one of the leading evangelical thinkers in the world. He was instrumental in the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals and was the founding editor of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelical Christian thought.
Richard J. Mouw is the President of Fuller Theological Seminary where he is also a professor of philosophy. He is a prolific author and engaging speaker. Mouw has been on the forefront of evangelical Christian efforts to engage our culture in a meaninful way. You can find many of his writings at his blog, Mouw’s Musings.
In his article, “Carl Henry Was Right,” Mouw tells the story of his first effort to publish an article in Christianity Today.  The topic was Christian social ethics and how Christians ought (and ought not) to be involved in society and politics. At that time, Mouw believed that churches ought to take stands on specific political issues, whereas Henry believed that churches should not take such stands except in extreme cases (like Nazi Germany). For Henry, the church did not have a mandate to speak beyond the clarity of biblical truth. For Mouw, the church as called to be more specific, even if this involved endorsing positions that went beyond what Scripture clearly teaches.
As Mouw describes it, he and Henry had a series of conversations, as Henry tried to get Mouw to edit his article enough so that it could be included in Christianity Today.  In the end, the two men found a compromise, though Mouw wasn’t altogether happy with the conclusion.
Now, more than forty years later, Mouw has fessed up and agreed that Henry was right. In his article, he cites positive Henry’s five principles that had guided his editing of Christianity Today when it came to politically sensitive issues:

1.    The Bible is critically relevant to the whole of modern life and culture—the social-political arena included.

2.    The institutional church has no mandate, jurisdiction, or competence to endorse political legislation or military tactics or economic specifics in the name of Christ.

3.    The institutional church is divinely obliged to proclaim God’s entire revelation, including the standards or commandments by which men and nations are to be finally judged, and by which they ought now to live and maintain social stability.

4.    The political achievement of a better society is the task of all citizens, and individual Christians ought to be politically engaged to the limit of their competence and opportunity.

5.    The Bible limits the proper activity of both government and church for divinely stipulated objectives—the former, for the preservation of justice and order, and the latter, for the moral-spiritual task of evangelizing the earth.

Today, Richard Mouw agrees with Henry’s view, for the most part. He would see things in a little more nuanced way, however. Where Henry viewed Christian activism in terms of church and individual, Mouw sees room and need for something in between. He writes:

Christians must form a variety of organizations that focus on specific areas of cultural involvement, in order to engage in the kind of communal reflection necessary to develop a Christian mind for the area in question.


This means that it is important, say, for Christians who are deeply involved in policies and practices relating to concern for the poor to develop specific proposals building on the general principles proclaimed by that church, by deliberating on these matters in groups that have the expertise to struggle with them. And it is even appropriate to present those policy proposals as Christian-inspired specifics, even if they move well beyond what the church—as church—has a right to say.

So, according to Mouw, the church as the church should not get involved in political matters that depend on specific, extra-biblical convictions. But individual Christians do not have to act alone in such matters. Rather, they can and should get together with others of like mind to make a difference.

The Henry-Mouw view of church involvement in politics is very similar to my own. I did not get it from these two thinkers, but formed it through years of study Scripture and pastoring a politically-diverse congregation in Irvine, California.  If you’re interested in how I see the church’s role in politics, you might read this blog series: The Church and Politics in America. In that series, I used the example of the church’s concern for the poor to illustrate my basic thesis. I’ll close today’s post by citing three paragraphs from that earlier series:

What accounts for the difference between Christians who are united in their concern for the poor, but divided in their understanding of the best political solution to the problem? Often it has nothing to do with theology. Rather, the difference has to do with personal political and economic theories, as well as with personal experiences and observations about what actually helps overcome the problem of poverty. So a solidly evangelical faith can lead you to support either the Democrats or the Republicans, depending on your ideas that have little to do with the core of Christian belief and practice.
When I preach about poverty, therefore, I call all people to open their hearts to the poor, to care personally for the poor, and to work for social and global change to eliminate poverty. But I do not tell my people that they should do this in either Democratic or Republican forms. Why not? Because I don’t believe I have the expertise or authorization to draw out these implications as a preacher. Now of course I have my own personal views on these matters, and I express them when I vote in private or when I argue politics with my friends. But when I preach, I’m called upon to deliver God’s truth as it is revealed in Scripture, not to share implications that depend upon my pet economic or political theories. I know very well that some of my members will take what I hand off to them from Scripture and run in Republican directions, while others will run in Democratic directions. This is just fine with me, just so long as they run in some positive direction. I happen to believe that if both Democrats and Republicans would care more and do more to end poverty, the world would be much better place for all people, especially those who are now poor.
The role of the church is not unlike mine as preacher. Rather than telling people, “You must care for the poor, so support Democratic causes” or “You must care for the poor, so vote Republican,” the church’s task is to teach and proclaim biblical truth, including biblical truth concerning poverty. The church’s job is to call our members, and, indeed, all people, to care for the poor. It is to point out the distressing reality of poverty, both in America and throughout the world, and to inspire action that will lead to the alleviation of poverty. Moreover, our task is to work for the transformation of human hearts, so that people might be less materialistic, more generous, and more compassionate. This last task, one that the church uniquely embraces, is perhaps the most important of all.

  • Thomas Buck

    Dear Rev. Roberts:
    Thanks for the post. The ideas of Henry, Mouw, and you are helpful to guide what belongs in church and what belongs elsewhere.
    I know some solid Christians who are of an entirely different political stripe than I am.

  • Evan

    There is certainly a danger of claiming to have “the” Christian solution for any political situation, and is well noted. There is another very dangerous position, and that is to espouse a political solution and shoehorn it into “Christianity.”
    I think what I mean is best explained (in tangent) by an exchange between a Unitarian minister and our Favorite Atheist, Christopher Hitchens:
    “Maryiln Sewell: The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take
    the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and
    distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?
    “Christopher Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by
    his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”
    My point being that we are warned that any number of people will do laudable works “in the name of Jesus” and be told by Jesus that He never knew them. First things first. Even Christopher Hitchens understands THAT point!

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