How Should Christians Engage the Public Square? (1)
Written by Bruce Winter
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Reformed Worldviews - Government

Dr. Bruce Winter is interviewed by Peter Hastie of the Australian Presbyterian.

The Quebec LegislatureBruce, it’s not unusual to find some Christians with a very cynical view towards government in particular and non-Christian society in general. How should Christians think about the world of human society?

Christians must begin with the proposition that every aspect of human society is part of God’s world. God cares deeply for the world in which we find ourselves. We learn from the doctrine of providence that he upholds the universe and sustains it moment by moment. Jesus tells us that God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. In other words, the whole world belongs to God and he has mercy on believers and unbelievers alike. Although he shows saving grace to those who belong to the living church, he extends common grace to everyone. This means that God is interested in all of human society and he constantly shows his love and kindness to people everywhere. The Bible makes it clear that he cares for every nation under heaven.

How important should Christians consider their relationship to the wider society?

Christians must be vitally interested in their relationship to the wider society in which they live. This is one of the major points that the Apostle Peter makes in his first letter. After he warns believers about the danger of allowing fleshly lusts to wage war against their souls (1 Peter 2:11), he immediately turns to the important subject of how Christians must relate to the non-Christian community in which they live. he reminds them that their first duty is to be engaged in good deeds towards their neighbors (2:12). This is how they glorify God. In other words, Christians must be concerned about how their witness impacts the public square.

Christians often forget that God cares for the welfare of the city. We discover this principle in the book of Jeremiah where the prophet tells the exiled Jews to pray for the city of Babylon. he also tells them to do good in their new community (Jer. 29:7). The same principle applies in the New Testament. The Apostle Peter reminds believers that they need to respect governing authorities and those who are responsible for other institutions. he says it is God’s will that by doing right they silence the ignorance of foolish men (1 Peter 2:15).

Likewise, in Romans 13, the Apostle Paul issues a call to  Christians to respect the governing authorities and he commands them as individuals to do good to others. he says, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law” (13:8). I think it is quite clear from both the Old and New Testaments that  Christians cannot adopt an uninterested approach to their societies. They must be concerned for the world beyond the church.

There seems to have been some debate in the early church about how  Christians should interact with non-Christian society. what were some of the more prominent views on this subject within the early church?

One important point of view is represented in the Epistle to Diognetus which comes from the second century. The writer says that Christians “inhabit Greek as well as barbarian cities ...following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, displaying to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.... They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass those laws by their lives. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.” he goes on to say that while Christians find themselves in the flesh, they do not live according to the flesh, which is a clear reflection of the views that the Apostle Peter expresses in chapter two of his first letter. While Christians are in the world, they are not of it. This may seem to be a paradox in some ways, but we should not understand it as though Christians are meant to withdraw from the world altogether.

Given that citizens in the Roman world were expected to worship the gods and be paganism in their schools, was Terullian right to say in his apology, “Nothing could be more alien to us than the state?”

Tertullian was a very great apologist, but, at that particular point, he wasn’t reflecting Paul’s views about government in Romans 13. The Apostle Paul tells us that every person is to be in subjection to “the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (13:1–2). Nevertheless, we can also see that Paul did establish some boundaries with respect to idol worship. In 1 Corinthians 10, for example, he forbids them to participate in communal meals in idol temples. So we see that certain clear limits were established that governed how Christians should participate in this world.

Further, the ruling of Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, which identified  Christianity with Judaism, made it a lot easier for  Christians to cope with idolatry (Acts 18:12, 14–17). Jews were given certain exemptions under Roman law from participating in pagan idolatry. During this particular period, at least,  Christians enjoyed a certain measure of exemption from Roman rites.

Nevertheless, were there some “no-go” zones for  Christians in Roman society? For instance, given that pagan worship penetrated so many levels of society, could  Christians actually work in the government or fight in the army? If  Christians are meant to flee idolatry, how could they work in these areas?

The answer of the New Testament is that while it might have been difficult to have served in some of these areas, it was certainly not impossible. For example, a man called Erastus was in charge of the administration of the city of Corinth. Paul tells us that he was a Christian. It is estimated that the city of Corinth had a population of around 100,000 people. Erastus had obviously allowed his name to go forward for this position and had been elected to public office. We have a significant inscription from the period that records the benefaction he gave upon receiving public office. We know he was responsible for a whole year for the running of the city. He sends his greetings in Romans 16 to the Christians in Rome. This instance of a Christian standing for public office demonstrates that it was possible, in Paul’s eyes, at least, for Christians to stand for an important political role in the first century. I imagine that this opportunity existed for Erastus to serve his community because, under Gallio’s ruling, he would have been exempted from having to be involved in any pagan activities. Nor should we forget that Erastus is someone whom Paul commends.

Do we have any idea from documents in the first century, like social registers, which social class  Christians tended to come from? Some scholars have suggested that  Christianity sprang mainly from the lower classes.

Yes, but that’s incorrect. The view that Christianity was a lower class movement arose from a German professor of New Testament in Berlin. He proposed that idea when he joined the German Workers Party. He formed his view on a selective reading of the New Testament.

Interestingly, Professor Edwin Judge, a prominent ancient historian from Macquarie University, has performed a valuable service by showing that a large number of Roman names in the New Testament indicate that many of these people had significant status. For example, a man by the name of Gaius is the host to all of the church in Corinth and entertains them in his home. We have enough Roman names recorded in Paul’s letter to remind us that while Paul said, “not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called,” he did not say, “not any.” There were obviously Christians of significant status and great wealth in the early church. We meet people like Phoebe, who was a patron of many and supported Paul in his ministry. Again, we meet wealthy people involved in business like Lydia from the city of Thyatira (Acts 16). In other words, the church is made up of people from a number of different social strata. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that Christianity was a lower class movement.

How are we meant to understand some of the strong statements By church fathers like Clement of Alexandria in favor of disengagement from Roman society with other statements in the Bible that talk about seeking the welfare of the city and honoring the emperor?

We need to remember that the early church fathers were engaged in a substantial polemic against forces that were very hostile to Christianity. Given the intensity of persecution, it is not surprising that many of these  Christian writers dwelt on the more alarming aspects of pagan Roman culture. This is perfectly understandable. however, when you have your back to the wall, it is sometimes difficult to maintain a completely balanced approach. We f ind our needed balance in the writing of the apostles who are inspired by the Holy Spirit.

One aspect of a Christian’s responsibility to the wider society which is stressed by the apostles is the need for believers to be benefactors in the context in which they find themselves. The apostles do not call for disengagement of the church from their society. For instance, the Apostle Peter tells Christians that when they are being publicly discredited, they are nevertheless to do good in the public domain. he says that it is “with well-doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15). He reminds them that if they are publicly declared benefactors, that is, that they are helpful and noble persons, this will in many ways enhance the standing of the Christian movement. I think it’s quite clear that the apostles, at least, were not in favor of encouraging Christians from disengaging from their communities.

You have used the term “Benefactor” on a number of occasions. was it a specific term that was used in the ancient world to describe someone who had reached a certain status in the community?

Yes, it was. They were given the title “good and noble.” This title was given to someone who had actually given something to his community. Usually, this was in the form of money to erect buildings or enhancing public parts of the city.

I had a friend in the United States who took this idea of benefaction seriously. When he was constructing an enormous building in his city, he gave half the land it occupied to the local authorities and the city honored him for his generosity. The city was impressed that a Christian man should forgo the money that he could have secured if he had put the land up for sale. I think the principle of benefaction still holds today. If a Christian is generous towards his community, it speaks powerfully to non-Christians.

Is the idea of seeking the welfare of the city one that has a very long pedigree?

Yes, it has. It certainly goes back before the time of Jeremiah. We see the principle at work in the life of Joseph. In Joseph we discover that God really cares for the nations of the earth and that he provides for their basic needs. As you know, God raised Joseph to a position of great power and he took decisive action which prevented widespread famine in the ancient world and the economic ruin of Egypt. We have another example in the book of Daniel. There we see that God called Daniel to a position of high office within a pagan empire so that he could further the welfare of that nation as well as the welfare of God’s own people.

Was Daniel compromised in any way by this involvement?

I don’t think Daniel was compromised per se in accepting high office in the Babylonian empire. his prophecy makes clear that he drew certain parameters for himself, beyond which he would not go. For example, he was not prepared to compromise on the issue of emperor worship. Throughout his many years in office, he certainly helped the king and most definitely played an important role in God’s purposes for Israel.

Another prophet who reminds us that God is concerned for non-Christian cities is Jonah. We read in his prophecy that God says, “Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” ( Jonah 4:11).

So when did the idea that believers should disengage from their societies first become popular?

It was probably from around the end of the first century AD when Christians experienced terrible persecution under the Roman emperor Domitian. Domitian forced Christians to worship him as a god as part of the imperial cult. This hadn’t happened during the reign of the Julio-claudians in the first sixty to seventy years of the first century. During this period, the Roman Empire enjoyed a period of relative peace and the  Christians were able to contribute to their societies and become actively engaged in seeking their welfare. By the time that the apostle Peter wrote his first letter,  Christians were beginning to experience difficulties. Nevertheless, Peter never called upon them to withdraw from society.

The New Testament provides us with three perspectives on the state. First, in Romans 13 Paul seems to be speaking to a situation where the pax-Romana (the Roman Peace) prevailed. Second, in 1 Peter we sense that Christians are finding increasing problems in their relationship with the state. And finally, in the book of Revelation, the emperor seizes the throne of God and sets himself up in opposition.  Christians have to gauge which position they find themselves in and act accordingly.

Are you saying that a  Christian’s relationship with the state may not be the same in every society? For example, would someone living in Saudi Arabia have a different approach to resolving issues than someBody living in Australia under a secular government?

Yes. I think we would take a different approach to how we deal with the state depending on where we find ourselves. The differences may not be all that great but they will be determined by the degree of difficulty that we have in our dealings with the state. It is called a “refraction of ethics.” In favorable times, a Christian may be able to do more in society than in times of persecution.

Were there certain social conventions in the ancient world of which Christians had to aware?

Yes, there were a number. One of the most interesting was the patron/client relationship. Patrons were wealthy and powerful individuals who used their money to buy followers (who were called clients). Clients were basically “paid poodles.” The clients did the patron’s bidding. They were expected to be at his home in the morning when he came into the public area of his house. They gave him an official greeting and then followed him around wherever he went that day. They were his political agitators. They followed him even to the baths. The patrons were people who played a major role in the politics of the cities. clients were expected to spend their whole life involved in furthering the desires of the patron. They didn’t do any real work as such. This is why Paul says in 2 Thessalonians that if Christian people are not willing to work (because they are clients) then they shouldn’t eat.  Christians were meant to withdraw from this sort of relationship. The idea also comes out in 1 Thessalonians where Paul tells  Christians to get on with their own work and not be busy-bodies.

So Paul isn’t dealing with people who are unemployed when he says, “If any would not work, neither should he eat”?

No, he isn’t. Incidentally, Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, made the great mistake of misquoting this text at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church of Scotland. She said, “If a man doesn’t work, let him not eat.” She should have said that the actual translation from the Greek says, “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Thess. 3:10). Paul is addressing a very different situation to someone who is unable to work because he is unemployed. Paul was only referring to people who had made a deliberate choice not to work. This is a very different situation from a person who is unable to work because of a business failure, or who suffers a disability, or needs further training to obtain a job.

Continued here.

Dr. Bruce Winter is the principal of Queensland Theological college at the University of Queensland in St. Lucia, Brisbane. He has held this position since 2006 when he left Tyndale House, Cambridge, where he had served as warden since 1987 and as director of the Institute for Early Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World. He is also a Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, and a visiting research fellow (2006–2011). This article was printed in AP magazine of the Presbyterian Church of Australia and is republished here with permission.