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How Should Christians Engage in Politics? Dr. Jonathan Leeman

Home » How Should Christians Engage in Politics? Dr. Jonathan Leeman

Guest: Dr. Jonathan Leeman | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Leeman about Christian engagement in politics. Topics of conversation include:

  • Defining the terms politics and the church
  • How your worldview affects your view of morality and justice
  • Steps for thinking through how to engage politically as a Christian
  • Distinguishing between “straight-line” and “jagged-line” issues
  • Resources for thinking through how to engage in politics as a Christian.

Dr. Jonathan Leeman is the Editorial Director for 9Marks. He teaches at several seminaries and serves as an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Washington D.C. Dr. Leeman is the author of Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule (IVP Academic, 2016).

 

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:18):

One of the most surprising things to happen in the last several election cycles is how the media has singled out evangelicals as a major voting block. It’s not surprising to me that evangelicals comprise a significant, and predominantly unified, voting block. But that people would be surprised by it—even many within the church—is curious to me. It seems fashionable as of late to suggest that Christians should shy away from engaging in politics. In part, this comes from a good place—we’re citizens of heaven, where our primary allegiance lies. But we also live in this present world, which is full of politics, and it’s hard to imagine a Christian abandoning the opportunity and responsibility of engaging in politics. So the real struggle is—how do Christians engage? If our hope is heaven, then certainly we don’t want to pursue politics as our chief end. But we can’t bury our heads in the sand either.

Brian Arnold (01:08):

We have a responsibility to see laws enacted that help our neighbors flourish. That even raises the question about what issues we should prioritize. And there are a lot of contenders—abortion, LGBTQ issues, racial justice, environmental concerns, healthcare, taxes, student loans, border control, gun control—or lack thereof—and a panoply of other issues. Well, to answer some of these specific questions, we need to first set the stage about how Christians consider themselves in relation to politics. Many people want to jump straight to specific issues, but we need to think first about how to think about politics and the church. So to talk with us today about how Christians can engage with politics, we have with us Dr. Jonathan Leeman. Dr. Leeman earned his PhD from Wales, and serves as editorial director for 9marks. He has written and edited over a dozen books, and edits the 9marks Journal and series of books. He also teaches at several seminaries, and serves as an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in the suburban area of Washington D.C. Dr. Leeman, welcome to the podcast.

Jonathan Leeman (02:07):

Thank you so much. You can call me Jonathan.

Brian Arnold (02:10):

All right, Jonathan. Well, I’m—go ahead.

Jonathan Leeman (02:12):

<laugh>.

Brian Arnold (02:13):

We always ask our guests one big question, and the question that we’re going to ask you today is—how should Christians engage in politics? And you’ve actually written a rather large book specifically on this topic, titled Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. I thought maybe we could start off by just talking about what made you write this book? What led you to that, and kind of what’s the main theme of the book?

Jonathan Leeman (02:36):

I think since I was a little kid, I was always interested in questions of politics. Don’t tell anyone, but when I was in high school, I was convinced I would be President <laugh>.

Brian Arnold (02:45):

I still have a lingering hope, Jonathan, that that one day… <laugh>

Jonathan Leeman (02:50):

That I would be president?

Brian Arnold (02:51):

Yeah, that’s right. Exactly. You got my vote.

Jonathan Leeman (02:53):

<laugh> Thank you. No, so I’ve always been interested in questions of justice, and good societies, and righteous societies. Even as a non-Christian, these things interested me. And so undergraduate I studied political science. That was my major, then I went to graduate school and I did a master’s in political theory. And then my PhD is in the area of political theology. I worked for a congressman, I interned for a congressman, in college. I interned in the House of Commons in Britain, and the European Parliament in Brussels. And so, had all of these experiences, ended up as a journalist in Washington, working for an international economics magazine. So this has just been a natural area of interest for me. And that book, Political Church, as well as the ones that followed after that, it came out of my PhD work. It’s basically what folks might call a political theology. What is your theology of politics? What is the state? How does it relate to the church? What is justice? How do all these things fit together? So that was my dissertation work, PhD work, in that area. And then other—hopefully more popular—titles, like How the Nations Rage have then come out of it in the years since then.

Brian Arnold (04:01):

Well, all those are important works, and I’m so thankful we have people like you who have actually studied these things. A lot of people will pontificate on them. They might be interested in them as kind of a hobby on the side, but to have somebody who’s really studied these things, as you have, and to bring them into the local church, I think, is what we are desperately in need of today as we think about these things. Will you define even some of these topics that I think we need to start with, of—what is politics, and then what is the church? I think if we don’t start there, we’re going to run into some problems. So how would you define those two terms?

Jonathan Leeman (04:34):

Yeah. Politics, we typically talk about politics as the area where we make decisions that impact the whole of society, right? I mean, in some ways, politics more generically is just—how do you you organize people together in the polis, in the city, taking the Greek root of that word. But the way we typically use the term today, just decisions that impact the whole of society. Governing decisions, you might say. And another way to look at it, is politics is the domain of justice. So far as your views of justice go, and what is just, so far your politics go. And that’s part of the reason why this is such a contested area of life. Justice and injustice are those things that provoke our anger, right? You look at injustice, a child being abused, and what’s the righteous emotion in response to perceiving of an injustice? Well, it’s anger—I oppose that! Right? When you see an injustice. And politics is the domain. And we work out these issues of justice and injustice in our society together, which is why it’s such a hot, you know, never talk about it at the dinner table, sort of topic.

Brian Arnold (05:42):

And maybe we can…maybe…let me just jump in and say—let’s take one topic, for instance, and just show how that goes. With the abortion, you know? Christian worldview would say—God is knitting people together in their mother’s womb. Every life is precious. They are, from conception, in the image of God, and worthy of protection and dignity. And then on the other side, it is—how unjust is it to have a woman carry to term a baby that she doesn’t want to care for? And so, both these sides meet and say—our side is more just, and your side is unjust. Every single issue we could talk about, even probably speeding laws, we could say are matters of justice, and how people think about those as matters of justice and injustice. And those issues have only become more polarized, I feel like, in recent years, as society’s becoming more secularized, grounds of authority are being questioned. And that’s only going to continue to magnify the problems I think we’re experiencing today.

Jonathan Leeman (06:41):

Well, think about your conceptions of justice, and your ideas of right and wrong, back up into your overall moral worldview. And your overall moral worldview backs up into your conception of God, or Gods. Or who God is, or what God is, and so forth, right? You can almost see the flow chart. Just think, your views of God or God’s—arrow, your moral worldview—arrow, your views of justice—arrow, what you think public policy should be. In that sense, every single one of us steps into the public square as governed by our God or Gods. That’s true if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, progressivist, what…hockey player, whatever, right? We all step into the public square, whether we’re talking those issues you named before, whether we’re talking about abortion, same sex marriage, immigration, federal housing policy. We step into the public square with certain moral views, certain views of what justice and injustice are, and behind that, a certain view of God or Gods, or whatever.

Jonathan Leeman (07:41):

So in that sense, the public square is necessarily a battleground of Gods, where we’re all there seeking to pull the levers of power on behalf of our God or Gods. That’s inescapable. Now I’m not saying I don’t believe in the separation of church and state. I do. That’s another conversation though. All I’m saying is, phenomenologically, if I could use a fancy word there, just like what I’m trying to do, and what the thing is, is me there seeking to pursue a particular vision of justice. And yeah, you’re right—on the issue of abortion, for instance, you have rival conceptions of justice at play. And so with every other issue we’re dealing with.

Brian Arnold (08:18):

Well, that’s a helpful, I think, background for the politics side. And then you’re about to define the church.

Jonathan Leeman (08:25):

Well, the church, in the Bible, if you’re a Christian, you understand it to be the society of people who have been born again by God, through his Spirit, in the repentance and faith in the gospel. Right? I trust the gospel. Jesus died for my sin and rose again in my place, and I’m now united to him in repentance and faith, and following after him. I’m declaring him King and Lord, right? All that’s the good news of the gospel. And my response to that good news. So he is now King of Kings, Lord of Lords. All authority in heaven and earth have been given to me. What is a church? It’s the society of people who have come together for the preaching of that gospel and the Bible, as well as the affirmation of one another through baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Jonathan Leeman (09:06):

We agree to gather weekly and encourage one another in following Christ together. So the church steps in, into society, right? As an outpost, call it that, or an embassy, of the kingdom of heaven on earth, right? So we go to the church, and we say to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, “Lord, how would you live in my family life? How would you live in my work? How would you live as a citizen? How would you have me love my neighbor as myself? Right? How do I follow you in all of these ways?” And so that’s what Christians get to do every week when they gather on Sundays, is they hear from their King, and then they go out, and they scatter out into the world, to live according to their King’s instructions, and according to the new life they’ve been given in their King.

Jonathan Leeman (09:52):

And so, in some ways, our neighbors should love the work of the church. They’ll see our good deeds, says Peter, and give praise to God, right? In other ways, however, they won’t like the work of the church. Because we go before the nations and we say—hey, by the way, he’s not just our King. He’s your King. He’s everyone’s King. You’re called to bow before him. And they don’t like that. So there’s a sense in which the presence of a church in a society is kind of good and bad news for that society. We’re kind of the ointment and the fly in the ointment. We’re going to have a mixed presence in that regard. But that’s what we do, is we gather and we seek to hear from our King, and then go live accordingly to his rule in our lives.

Brian Arnold (10:33):

And we’ve seen that mixed presence from the very beginning. We see it in the Old Testament, of the mixed presence as Daniel is in Babylon. We see the mixed presence throughout the history of the early church, where Christians are not willing to, let’s say, burn incense to the genius of the emperor. And they are now going to be put to death as a result of that.

Jonathan Leeman (10:53):

Exactly right. At the same time, you get these proconsuls writing to Caesar, saying—these Christians are not only caring for their own poor, they’re caring for our poor.

Brian Arnold (11:03):

That’s right. Exactly.

Jonathan Leeman (11:04):

They’re gaining popularity. We have to do something, you know?

Brian Arnold (11:07):

Absolutely.

Jonathan Leeman (11:08):

So, yeah, that’s exactly right.

Brian Arnold (11:09):

So this becomes a big challenge, and one of the people who’s helped me think through this the most is Richard Niebuhr, in his book Christ and Culture, as he’s trying to discern how Christians have responded to, how we are to engage in the culture around us, and if I may take an extra step and even say politically, if we’re kind of against politics, if we’re against culture, or full adaptation of it, kind of on the other end of the spectrum, and then lots of options in between. I don’t know if you found that to be a helpful heuristic tool for understanding these pieces or not. But certainly at play is, within even local congregations, different views on what Christians’ responsibility is to engage in politics. And I would love to hear you just talk through that, and how do you counsel people, and pastors, and people in the church on—how are we best, as believers, who do live in another world, and yet find ourselves in this world as well? How do we best engage?

Jonathan Leeman (12:09):

Yeah, sure. What’s helpful about Niebuhr’s book, as well as Carson’s, kind of—D.A. Carson did a follow up Christ and Culture Revisited—is what both of these authors do, is help you realize it is complicated. You know? And there’s some truth…so Niebuhr has these different paradigms—Christ in culture, Christ above culture, Christ under culture, Christ and culture and paradox, Christ against culture. And the thing is—and Carson really draws us this out well—there’s some truth in each, right? So there’s no simple formula I can give you. That’s the challenge. But we know from Jesus, we’re to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. We know from, you know, Jesus in John’s gospel, he says to Pilate—you would have no authority if it weren’t given to you from above. So Caesar and Pilate are very much under God, right?

Jonathan Leeman (12:55):

So it’s not like you have one domain, a religious domain, and another domain, a political domain. No, it’s not like two separate circles. What you have is a big circle—God’s stuff. And inside of that, a smaller circle—Caesar’s stuff. That’s the picture the Bible gives us. And working that out is hard. Let me put it this way. Politics, political engagement for the Christian is one area of our discipleship, right? It’s one area. And Christians need to be discipled and learn what the Bible says about these things, right? So when I become a Christian, every part of my life comes under Christ’s Lordship. My—as I said before—my work, my play, my family, my income, what I do with my wallet, what I do with my sexuality, everything comes under Christ, including my politics. It comes under Christ’s Lordship.

Jonathan Leeman (13:43):

So engagement step number one, let me just break it down practically, engagement step number one is study what the Bible says about this domain of government. What authority God has assigned to government. What authority hasn’t. What about religious freedom? Is that a biblical idea, or is that just a pragmatic, or what do we do with that? Right? So I need to study what the Bible says. Step number two, I need to seek what justice is, and seek to live a just life among my neighbors. Step number three, what does it mean to love my neighbor as myself? So I’m going to seek to love the neighbors in my cul-de-sac here in suburban Washington, D.C. in ways that God calls me to, right? Now, all of this needs to be set, however, within—as you said, or you suggested—sort of the eternal perspective that we have of the hope being in heaven.

Jonathan Leeman (14:29):

Now, does my hope in heaven mean that I can just like, “oh, this is all going to burn, forget it?” Well, no, it means everything in this world counts in some ways. Has eternal repercussions. So I care quite a bit about this world. But finally, my hope is not in this world and justice in this world. My hope is finally in God’s bringing his perfect final justice in heaven. So what that means is I seek to be responsible with the things here and now—neighbor love—yet always put that in the light of eternity—God love—right? Let me put it like this. I’m called to love my children. I have four daughters. I’m called to love them, feed them, care for them, teach them, and all of these things. The way I love them most of all, however, is to point them to Jesus Christ.

Jonathan Leeman (15:18):

So I feed them—for Christ’s sake. I clothe them—for Christ’s sake. I teach them right and wrong—for Christ’s sake. I’m doing everything I do in the here and now, in these temporal questions, for eternal reasons. You can’t separate the temporal and the eternal. They’re inseparable. But there’s an asymmetry there. I’m doing the temporal for the sake of the eternal. Okay, let’s go back to—what does that mean for our engaging in politics? It means I seek to love my neighbors. I seek to do justice. But I’m doing all of these things for eternal ends and with eternal hopes. Now, what that means you actually do, back to the nitty gritty, is very much going to depend on what stewardships you have. If you live in communist China or Muslim Iran, you have a different stewardship in the set of opportunities than you do as a democratic citizen in the United States. You know, if you’re the cup bearer of the king, what stewardship do you have? If you’re a voter, what stewardship do you have? If you’re a slave, what stewardship you have? You don’t…it’s different parts of the world. You just…we all have different stewardships, and we’re called to use whatever we can for the sake of justice and love, where the Lord has provided opportunity.

Jonathan Leeman (16:29):

I just hosed you a with a lot.

Brian Arnold (16:30):

Well, that’s great. And I think it’s a helpful paradigm. Let it walk its way out in maybe some examples. So here I am, talking to you today from Phoenix, Arizona, where the border is a constant issue and concern here. And you get these conflicting views on this, right? Of some Christians who would say, we need a borderless society. How would Jesus welcome the sojourner and the stranger? And let’s have a borderless country. And others who would say, well, I am a citizen in the United States, and it’s okay for sovereign nations to have borders. And that’s an okay biblical thing too. It doesn’t mean I hate my neighbor, but it does mean that I recognize that there’s national sovereignty. So how do Christians engage? Because you can—and I know you have to have seen this as well—that in the same church you’ll have people with those two radically different views. So even maybe with some pastoral sensitivity, how do you approach that as a pastor, knowing those two views are there? And then how do you disciple those people to think in a very biblical way?

Jonathan Leeman (17:33):

Yeah, great question. The first thing I want to do is talk about the two different kinds of Scriptures, or two different kind of issues that we can find in politics. We have what you might call straight line issues, and we have what you call my jagged line issues, right? Straight line issues are those issues that there’s a straight line, you might say, between the biblical text and a policy application. You mentioned abortion. In the Bible, you know—you shall not murder, you were created from your mother’s womb. There’s a pretty straight line, as a line of reasoning, to the policy application “abortion is wrong.” Or let’s think about racist policies. There’s a pretty straight line between the fact that we’re all created in God’s image, and Jim Crow laws, for instance, are sinful. All Christians, therefore, should—I would propose—be pro-life. All Christians should be anti-racist policies.

Jonathan Leeman (18:22):

Those are straight line issues. That’s only a few issues. Most issues, most political issues, aren’t that. They’re jagged line issues. Let’s talk about healthcare. Let’s talk about immigration at the border. Closed borders, open borders, how many immigrants through a year, that sort of thing, refugees, and so forth. Well, I have a number of biblical principles I’m going to bring to bear, but the Bible doesn’t directly say. I’m going to have to follow a line of reasoning that kind of moves from inference to inference, to judgements about certain circumstances, different kind of questions that Christians might disagree on, and yet still come together in the Lord’s table. Call these jagged line issues. Straight line issues, you can bind the whole church. Jagged line issuesm you have to leave in the domain of Romans 14—Christian freedom, right? You think we eat meat. I don’t think we can eat meat. But we can still love each other at the Lord’s table.

Jonathan Leeman (19:17):

So as you’re pastoring a church, or trying to live just as a church member, in all of these kind of contested areas, question number one is—is this a straight line issue that we really are going to make a condition of membership? Like, you cannot be a member of the Ku Klux Klan and join this church. You know, that’s a straight line issue. Or is this a jagged line issue? Where we can have arguments, have discussions based on biblical principles, but we need to do so charitably, recognizing that it’s a matter of Christian freedom, and at the end of the day, our unity in the gospel is more important than our unity across these difficult political issues. And I think, honestly, that those two different buckets—straight line, jagged line bucket—is crucial for the saints in two ways. One, maintaining the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace amidst elections and different issues. And number two, I think it’s also essential for our witness. We need to be careful about going before the nations and saying, “hey, nations, I know exactly what Jesus thinks on this issue.” No, you don’t! I remember driving in a car once with a political science professor, Christian political science professor, and I said, “so do you think you know what Jesus thinks on healthcare, immigration, tax policy?” He said, “yeah, I do.” I’m sorry, no you don’t <laugh>. You know what I mean?

Brian Arnold (20:32):

That’s bold.

Jonathan Leeman (20:33):

Yeah, I don’t think that’s good for our witness when we pretend like we do. We end up saying more than the Bible says, and that’s not helpful.

Brian Arnold (20:42):

Well, and it is amazing how much that line blurs. You know, to go back your jagged line/straight line, which I think is a really helpful way to understand that, is a lot of Christians don’t see many jagged lines. They see a whole lot of straight lines, and they think they’re right about all those pieces, and they’re not triaging these things well, or leaving Christian freedom for disagreement there. And it just causes tons of problems in the wake. And what I find is—I’m, I’m almost 40, I’ll turn 40 next month—and I see a lot of people in this generation who are really reacting against politics in general, because they’ve seen maybe, if I can broadly generalize, a lot of folks in the boomer generation who have maybe over-emphasized politics, and had more straight line issues, and seen it all that way. And it’s just…

Jonathan Leeman (21:34):

It turns up the temperature when you make everything a straight line issue. Let me make one qualification. I’m not saying, and I trust, Brian, you’re not saying, that over here in jagged line bucket—we’re not saying it’s moral relativism. We’re not saying this is Wheaties versus Cheerios, right? Some jagged line judgments really are better, wiser, even more moral. I’m just saying that you’re not an apostle. The Holy Spirit is not revealing himself to you as he did an apostle with the Word of God. It means you’re looking in the Bible. Okay, let’s, you know, let’s talk about immigration some. I understand the principle of moral proximity. I’m more accountable to my kids than I am to other kids in the neighborhood. And so I’m called to protect my kids, okay? That’s a biblical principle I’m going to bring to bear on questions of borders, right?

Jonathan Leeman (22:20):

So I’m going to bring that principle to bear, and say—look, a nation does have a primary responsibility to protect its own citizens, rather than the entire globe. If you try to protect the entire globe, you’re just going to commit all sorts of abuses. Okay? So that’s…I’m bringing biblical reasoning to bear. But again, I’m going to recognize I’m doing this with a little bit of a loose grip. Because I could be wrong. So I’ll make my case, but then I’m going to respect you and show you charity if you happen to disagree with me, and we’ll say—no, Jonathan, I think you actually have an obligation to those people, more of a moral obligation, as a Christian, to those people south of the border. What if they’re Christians coming across? Don’t you have a responsibility to your fellow Christians? Then I’ll say—oh, yeah, I hadn’t really thought about that. That’s helpful. Let’s keep reasoning together on this difficult matter

Brian Arnold (23:10):

And to torture the metaphor, if we can—it’s not even just straight line and very jagged line. I mean, there’s going to be lines all the way in between those, of some things that are more jagged than others, and really trying to reason through that. Well, one of the things that I think our listeners find really helpful is pointing them to some resources. What are some things that they could be reading to help think through how Christians engage in politics? And feel free for some shameless plugs about your excellent books as well.

Jonathan Leeman (23:38):

Thank you. In addition to Political Church, I wrote a couple of others. One called How the Nation’s Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics for a Divided Age. How the Nations Rage, that came out, I want to say in 2019 or 20. I wrote a little book, How Christians Can…How to Love Fellow Church Members Who Disagree Politically. It’s a little tiny booklet. How Can I Love Church Members With Different Politics? Other resources I would commend—Visions and Illusions, by David Koyzis. Just an excellent little book on the idolatry that’s common across different ideologies. The relationship with an ideology and idolatry. And shows how the kind of ideologies we take for granted can and quickly move in an idolatrous direction. Politics after Christendom, by David VanDrunen is an excellent political theology. It’s a little bit thicker. I could keep going, but that’s a start.

Brian Arnold (24:34):

Very helpful. And people will recognize as soon as they wade into this—the water gets pretty deep pretty quickly, in terms of the complexities of the issues and the different camps of thought on this. But I do appreciate your approach to it. What does the Bible say, first and foremost? And we need a biblical literacy for people to know what the Bible says, so as it becomes to bear on these political questions, they’ll actually have an idea of how to even frame that. So, Jonathan, thank you so much for being with me today, and for your work on this really critical topic.

Jonathan Leeman (25:06):

Thank you, brother. Good to be with you as well.

Outro (25:09):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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