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Book Review: Five Views on the Church and Politics

Black, Amy E., Editor. Five Views on the Church and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015.

Edited by general editor Amy E. Black and series editor Stanley N. Gundry, Five Views on the Church and Politics positions five critical thinkers in a conversation about the interaction and indeed the definition of church and state. All five contributors – including the book’s standout name, James K.A. Smith of Desiring the Kingdom fame – offer compelling analysis of their own position and that of the other authors. The book is just one of numerous entries in the Counterpoints Series being published by Zondervan, but is likely the most timely.

Organizationally, the book breaks into the titular five views: the Anabaptist (Separationist) view from Thomas W. Heilke of the University of British Columbia; the Lutheran (Paradoxical) view from Robert Benne of Roanoke College; the Black Church (Prophetic) view from Bruce L. Fields of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; the Reformed (Transformationalist) view from James K.A. Smith of Calvin College; and the Catholic (Synthetic) view from J. Brian Benestad of Assumption College.

The Anabaptist (Separationist) View

The Anabaptist view begins with the Swiss Reformation and the objection of some of Zwingli’s followers to infant baptism. As they urged adults to be “rebaptized” (ana- meaning again, hence the Anabaptists), they faced stiff opposition from the state church which viewed infant baptism as the means of entrance into the state/church covenant and the only guarantee of God’s blessing on the populace. In the face of violent persecution, the Anabaptists became a Jesus focused, tight knit, pacifist community that lived with radical dedication to the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. They rejected the sword of the state in favor of the sword of the Spirit. They formed a “visibly distinct community of believers over against the surrounding world” (37). For the Anabaptist movement’s chief modern spokesman, John Howard Yoder, Christians abstain from all political participation because to do so would be to act in a society “without considering faith as a decisive dimension” (37).

The Restoration Movement that forms my own heritage has a strong Anabaptist flavor to it both in soteriology and politics, so I was certainly prepared to agree with much in this section. The notion of a church – a community of faith – utterly distinct from evil is truly appealing, especially in our current era of lackluster political parties and candidates. However, it is Heilke himself in this section rather than his detractors who voices my strongest concern about this point of view: “it becomes the stance, not of mere separation, but of disengagement” (39). The church fully separated from the state is a church unable to influence the state. Many have tried to remedy this problem by articulating a pacifist vision of duty to society (see Hauerwas and Yoder), but ultimately the Sermon on the Mount itself defeats the purely separatist model. The call to be salt and light envisions a Christianity leaving no avenue of influencing the culture untried. We do not bury our talent in the ground; we take it to the marketplace of ideas and bring back fruit for the Master.

The Lutheran (Paradoxical) View

Lutheran political ideology is primarily shaped by the truly Lutheran position that salvation is a gift of God apart from human works. As such, politics is marginalized in importance because it falls squarely in the category of human achievement, not divine action. Law, unlike Gospel, is not salvific, and therefore must be separated from the loftier concerns of the church. Thus, Lutheran thinkers live in a sort of dualism, one part dutiful citizen and one part pardoned sinner. The two do not necessarily relate to each other. Following Reinhold Niebuhr, the Lutheran attitude believes the Christian virtue of agape does not fit into the world of nations. A Lutheran might be a participant in a dubious project of the state without risking his salvation because no human effort relates to salvation in the first place. “We cannot be gods in history. Indeed … great evil is done by those who try to complete history by their own powers” (74).

The Lutheran view is the one with which I was the least familiar before reading this text. I have to say that I am not particularly impressed. I am skeptical of Lutheran theology and therefore even more skeptical of Lutheran political theory. While I appreciate their emphasis on ultimate justice coming by divine and not human power, their dualism is troubling. Historically, it is precisely this sort of split-ethic that has allowed Christian people to commit atrocities for the state on Saturday and then worship the Lamb on Sunday morning. Benne calls this the “checkered history” of Lutheran churches (61). Checkered is bit of an understatement. “Lutheranism remained quiescent – except for a few heroic souls such as Bonhoeffer – amidst the rise of Nazism in Germany. There are also the recent cases of Lutheran quietism in the face of authoritarian and unjust governments in Soviet satellite countries, Chile, and South Africa” (63). A dualism that permits swastikas next to crosses is not a Christian ethic.

The Black Church (Prophetic) View

The view of the Black Church on politics is the most difficult to formulate and possibly the simplest to understand. The black community in America has a heritage of oppression and poverty. From Colonial slavery to Jim Crow, neither state nor church has been kind. As has been said, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the American week. Churches comprised of oppressed people found their voice in expressing both future hope and current outrage. Their ethic was one of resistance in the present even as their faith centered on trust in God’s world to come. Their view of life was holistic, recognizing “no inherent separation between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular'” (108). Leaders in politics are judged by the Word of God, and leaders in the church are expected to be socially active, righting wrongs in the community and state. For writers such as James Cone, author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “If contemplation about the future distorts the present reality of injustice and reconciles the oppressed to unjust treatment committed against them, then it is unchristian and thus has nothing whatsoever to do with him who came to liberate us” (110).

The strength of Black political theology is its twofold view that government should be a force for good and that the church must use its voice to shape that force. Black thinkers argue that “involvement in politics is virtually an obligation on the part of Black believers” (117). The Black church operates with a candid awareness of the historic evil done by both the church and the state, and as such Black churches have been places of “political information and mobilization” used for justice (117). I would however offer two critiques to Field’s chapter. First, in the words of Benne’s response, this view of the church and state might threaten “the transcendent character of the Gospel. While the Gospel may lead to political initiatives, it is not itself a political initiative” (130). By tying the church so closely to political activism, the church will struggle to reach out to those who might believe the Lordship of Christ but disagree with a particular political solution advocated by the church. What happens if a church’s activism for affirmitive action legislation mitigates its influence among those who disagree with this strategy? Second, prophetic outrage is powerful, but I wonder if it is sustainable. Of the five views expressed, the Black Church view is the least able to articulate what church and state should look like. Born of terrible injustice, this view is able to rebuke, but struggles to formulate a positive alternative.

The Reformed (Transformationalist) View

While there is no one “reformed” political theology, Smith articulates a meaningful synthesis of Calvinist political themes. He recognizes first that the Reformation was “essentially and immediately a political movement” (139). It reacted against the division of society into the sacred worshippers (monastic and priestly orders) and secular workers (lay people). The Reformation sanctified ordinary labor: “There is no ‘secular’ because there is not a square inch of creation that is not the Lord’s” (141). The Reformed view of humanity believed the world – including the state – to be fallen and in need of reform through the efforts of all people. “While the Reformers’ emphasis on ‘total depravity’ is often noted with respect to personal salvation, the Reformed tradition equally emphasizes the way in which sin weaves itself into systems and structures beyond individual choices and decisions” (145). As such, the Reformed political view is “engaged but not overexpecting” (152). The church engages the state, not to produce a nationalistic Christendom, but to be the core that radiates God’s goodness to all facets of society.

Of the five views, I found this to be the most helpful. The real weakness of the effort to reform fallen politics is in the fallen and sinful people who must carry it out. “The Reformed impulse to reorder and reform could easily give license to a draconian, almost fascist agenda: We are the reordered, regenerate elect; we know what God wants for society; therefore, we will impose it” (146). Certainly some of the Puritans drifted in that direction. Smith urges that this tendency be restrained by both humility and a recognition that God’s perfect world is still to come (“not yet”). Reformed political thought can be surprisingly pluralistic, as the Creation itself contains diversity. Reforming the state means order and justice, but not uniformity and authoritarianism. Kuyper’s motto applies: “A free Church in a free State” (153).

The Catholic (Synthetic) View

Catholic social doctrine (CSD) is drawn from the richness of Christian history. It is both supported by history’s greatest authors and marred by history’s greatest travesties. As Augustine would remind us regarding the command to love one another: “From this commandment arise the duties pertaining to human society, about which it is difficult not to err” (178). The social goal in this view is to make souls “free to receive the love and knowledge of justice, as well as the knowledge and love of faith and the other virtues” (183). Whereas Plato and Aristotle lacked the means of accomplishing this goal, Augustine recognizes the church as the means of justice and moral education. For the definition and distribution of justice, the Roman Church relies on Aquinas, who wrote that some must be “restrained from evil by force and fear in order that, at least, they might desist from evil doing, and leave others in peace, and that they themselves by being habituated in this way, might be brought to do willingly what hither to they did from fear; and thus become virtuous” (189).

The Catholic view is the only view in this book that I would carefully describe as “tempting.” What Christian has not wanted to raise Constantine’s sword against evil? Could we not by force of arms spread the reign of Christ across the globe? Have we not all been tempted by crusading? History reminds us that many have tried, and the world is much worse for it. Charlemagne imposed baptism under penalty of death, but he made no Christian disciples. With all do humility in the face of Aquinas and Augustine, it is precisely this overreach of the church, later exaggerated in the minds of the Enlightenment philosophers, that led to the counter proposal of the godless states under which we now languish morally. I want Christ to be Lord over all, but not with the sword. Not that sword.


I can partially recommend the book for those with an interest in these ethical and political theories. The authors do not accomplish the task of presenting an unassailable option, but each adds something to the discussion. The acknowledgement that all five views are rooted in some principle of Scripture is itself helpful. It is a reminder that the church’s relation to the state is no simple matter and should not be reduced to slogans. In an age of deep challenge in American political life, this discussion is needed. We should let Augustine remind us, “it is difficult not to err.”