“One Nation Under God”?

I’m re-posting this article I wrote back in May 2007.

In view of the May 14 midterm elections in the Philippines, and of the current presidential campaign in the United States, I have been pondering the age-old question of how a Christian should relate to the culture around him.

What must the Christian’s response be to ungodliness, unrighteousness, injustice, and corruption of both government and individuals in his own nation? In a country like the Philippines – full of despair, poverty, corruption, and hopelessness – must a Christian participate in a seemingly useless, rigged exercise? Who to vote for in an election – the lesser evil – when all the candidates are perceived to be utterly evil? Is there warrant for a Christian to be a church pastor and at the same time a senator or a congressman?

More than fifty years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr, one of America’s most well-known theological-ethicists, offered his answers in his famous work, Christ and Culture. Gene Edward Veith, World magazine’s Culture Editor, analyzes Niebuhr’s book in “Christianity and Culture: God’s Double Sovereignty.” Here’s a summary of Niebuhr’s five different Christian responses to culture:

1. Christ Against Culture. This view gives up on the sinfulness of culture and encourages Christians to separate from the world, either individually or collectively, as the monks, Anabaptists, and Amish do.

2. Christ of Culture. The church, for the sake of relevancy, should be defined by the culture. In successive eras, Christianity was revised according to humanist Enlightenment, emotionalist Romanticism, and finally, liberal theology. Today, liberalism in the church takes many forms – social action, political correctness, gay rights, feminism, contextualization, relativism, pluralism, and contemporary worship – in the name of relevancy and acceptability to the culture. “In the world” has given way to “of the world” (John 17:15, 16).

3. Christ Above Culture. God is sovereign over all, whether eternal or temporal, earthly or heavenly. Thus, the “best of both worlds” of Christianity and culture, of church and state, can be synthesized for the betterment of society. This is the experiment of the medieval age (Thomas Aquinas being one of its major advocates), when King and Pope struggled for power in the state. However, because of man’s sinful nature, this view often led to forcing the Christian faith on others, compromising Christian truths, and hypocrisy in the church.

4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. Martin Luther calls this the doctrine of the “Two Kingdoms”: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. Both kingdoms are ruled by Christ. He rules over the church through His gospel; He rules over the world through His law. The Christian is a citizen of both kingdoms, and as such, is to be subject to both. Only in case of conflict with obedience to God may the Christian disobey the earthly kingdom. The Christian must be diligent in his vocation because that is his portion in serving both God and man. In his work, he is “rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man” (Ephesians 6:5-8). To be sure, every aspect of a believer’s life, including the “secular,” is under the kingship of Christ.

The church’s function is the spiritual and diaconal care of its citizens, not meddling in the affairs of the state. The state’s function is the civil governance of its citizens, not meddling in the affairs of the church. As American theologian Charles Hodge explained back in the 19th century, “the state has no authority in matters purely spiritual and that the church [has] no authority in matters purely secular or civil.” More recently, Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger wrote that neither the Republican or Democratic political agenda “belongs in the pulpit, in the liturgy, or in any statements that claim to have the authority of the Gospel.” This is the view of most Reformed believers, and is sometimes referred to as “the spirituality of the Church.”

5. Christ Transforming Culture. Niebuhr implicitly supports this view, and various popular Christian movements such as Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, Promise Keepers, Christian Reconstructionists, Purpose Driven Life, etc., exemplify it. As well, it is embodied in such slogans as “Take America Back for God,” “One Nation Under God,” and “God Bless America.” The Christian must work, and is able, to better the culture by being “salt and light” to the world, working within cultural institutions, ushering in “heaven on earth.” However, because of sin, whole cultures or nations can never be completely transformed. Individual hearts, not nations, are transformed. This view is the most predominant in evangelicalism today.

It is obvious that I favor the paradoxical view of the Two Kingdoms (View 4). This view avoids the excesses of separatism (1), liberalism (2), legalism (3), and triumphalism (5). To be sure, there are biblical truths in each of these views, and biblical principles must address how we are to determine which aspects of culture should be received and which ones should be rejected. However, in our decisions, we are to take care not to go down the path of “situational ethics,” wherein actions are taken according to what pleases the majority, instead of what pleases God.


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6 thoughts on ““One Nation Under God”?”

  1. Kuya Nollie,

    My suspicions were confirmed. I learned that the local counterpart of the NAE, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC), is in fellowship with the NCCP. Yes, with liberals. Anyway, thanks for the answer. Hope to here more about this in the near future.

  2. Yes, the NAE has gone overboard, and those faithful to God’s inerrant Word should leave that organization with all its scandals and political activism. I think it’s on the way to becoming another NCC or WCC. Why don’t our Reformed denominations stay in the Reformed councils only?

    I’m reminded of my Westminster professors who have resigned their membership with the scholarly, academic Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) because it too has many doctrinal shortcomings. I think ETS has not asked its errant members who teach Open Theism (Boyd, Pinnock, etc.) to resign.

    I’m also reminded of the Unida denomination in the Philippines who left the extremely ecumenical and liberal NCCP, and also ousted those pastors who espoused NCCP’s liberalism.

  3. Thanks. The reason why I could not be a fundamentalist (in its modern sense) is its rejection of historic Protestant theology and confessionalism. What is more is that many modern fundamentalists have virtually lost any sense of history. But I believe that they have much to say about the current state of evangelicalism.
    My PCA friend (a Filipina mother) told me that there is a move within the denomination with the aim to terminate its relations with the NAE. This move is based on the belief that liberalism has already taken over many of the member bodies of the association.

    I agree with your response, but there is something I do not understand yet. We know that one of the marks of a true church is discipline. Now many NAE members are clearly defying the gospel, but the association has not disciplined them. I do not even think that the association’s leaders have any plans of doing that. In your opinion, should the Reformed denominations PCA and the RPCNA, and Reformed academic institutions like the RTS and the WTS leave the NAE because of the errors found in it (the association)? In my honest opinion, they should.

  4. Albert,

    Your comment reminds me of Dr. Robert Godfrey’s essay, “The Myth of Influence” written back in 1998. His thoughts in the article are basically also my thoughts on the matter of so-called “contextualization” and “separation.” He says about cooperating with other Christians of different persuasions:

    Now I am not opposed to the idea of trying to be an influence. The Christian community should not isolate itself from discussion with anyone or from common action with non-Christians where the faith is not compromised. Christians should hope, pray, and work to be a godly influence wherever they can in this world. Christians need to recognize that certain kinds of compromise can be appropriate. Christians and non-Christians can unite to oppose abortion, for example. And Baptists, Reformed, and Lutherans can join the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals to promote some basic truths of the Reformation.

    The danger comes, however, when Christians adopt a notion of influence derived from the world of politics or business. That world sees influence in relation to power, money, numbers, and success. Compromise, cooperation, and intentional ambiguity are all methods used to achieve influence in this world. But should Christians adopt strategies and set goals that compromise basic elements of their faith in the name of influence?

    He proceeds to give a couple of examples of the dangerous outcomes of ecumenical compromise for the sake of influencing others for Christ: Billy Graham’s ecumenical crusades, and “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” I and II.

    He then concludes with an affirmation of confessionalism over contextualization,”

    The only way to dispel the myth of influence is to commit ourselves anew to the importance of biblical theology as the foundation for Christian action. We must allow the Bible in its fullness to direct our thinking and doing. We must remember that Paul did not preach an abbreviated Gospel, but declared the whole counsel of God. When he said that he became all things to all men, he was speaking of things indifferent, not matters of basic Christian truth or ethics. He did not become a prostitute to win prostitutes, nor did he become an Arminian to win those addicted to the doctrines of the goodness of man or the freedom of the will. We need to follow the path of the Apostles and Reformers who accomplished great things for God, not by ungodly compromise, but by faithful declaration of the truth of God’s Word.

    See also my comments in my post, “All Roads Lead to Rome (or Rather, Heaven)” the ecumenism of the megachurch and emerging church movements.

  5. Kuya Nollie,

    When I was starting to realize the mindless state of modern evangelicalism, I considered two options for myself: (Baptist)Fundamentalism and Reformed Christianity. In my study, I learned that these two Christian groups view culture differently. Apparently, a Christian group’s view of culture somehow affects its understanding of Biblical separation. In your post, fundamentalists seem to fall under category #1. Now let me share what I observed. (This might be off the topic already, but is still related nonetheless.)

    For fundamentalists (i.e. of the Bob Jones persuasion), groups like the OPC and URCNA are “new evangelical,” i.e., they do not practice “second-degree” separation from culture and erring Christian groups. How did they arrive at this kind of conclusion? For one, the OPC and the URCNA are in fellowship with the PCA through their membership in NAPARC. As we both know, the PCA is also a member of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), a group advocating a “new evangelical” philosophy. The NAE is “new evangelical” because it is not militant in its separation from unbelievers. For instance, the liberal CRCNA and many other denominations in the NAE are members of liberal international Protestant groups (e.g. Baptist World Alliance, Reformed Ecumenical Council, World Methodist Council, etc.). The fundamentalist argument is that since the OPC and the URCNA are in fellowship with a “new evangelical” Christian group, the PCA, which is a member of another and bigger “new evangelical” group, the NAE (as evidenced by its failure to discipline member bodies in fellowship with liberal Protestant groups), they (the OPC and the URCNA) are not obeying the Bible’s teaching on Biblical separation. Bible-believing Christians should therefore separate from them. (NOTE: Some of conservative Reformed seminaries would also be identified as “new evangelical” because of their membership in the NAE.)

    Is this how we understand and apply the doctrine of Biblical separation? I have asked Christians about this. A few of them are even Reformed (paedobaptist) and are members of the PCA. So far, Fundamentalism vs. Reformed Theology from Monergism.com is what I have found. Though it provides some good observations, it does not answer my question.

    How exactly do Reformed Christians understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on separation? Aren’t our fundamentalist brothers being consistent in insisting that separation should be total and complete? After all, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” (Galatians 5:9 ESV) If the PCA were to remain in the NAE, it would not be able to sheild itself totally and completely from the errors of Semi-Pelagianism, Open Theism, Word Faith Theology, liberalism and ecumenism, egalitarianism, etc., views found among many of the members of the NAE.

    IF the Reformed Faith is the fullest expression of Biblical Christianity, it follows that people of our persuasion should be able to provide better answers about this than do our fundamentalist brethren. Honestly, I am confused. Please enlighten me on this matter. Thanks.

  6. Dad do you know of any good articles about Christians and politics? That’d be a good read.

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