How Should Christians Approach the Public Square?

How Should Christians Approach the Public Square?

on March 3, 2017

Activism and withdrawal have characterized Christians in their approach to the wider world in recent decades, with neither really succeeding in recovering American society for Christ, nor successfully insulating a Christian subculture from the wider world. Yet the fact that believers must live in a wider non-Christian world, and are commanded to be salt and light in it, continues to present the question of the proper approach of Christianity to the public square. Greg Grooms, co-director of the Christian study center Hill House in Austin, Texas discussed different approaches for Christianity in the public square at the annual conference at the L’Abri Fellowship in Rochester Minnesota on Feb. 3-4. In particular, he discussed the goals people believe Jesus has set for them, their relationship to other players in the square, different strategies of approach, and different themes in the Christian life to which the world is called.

The first approach, separatism, Grooms called the “us/them approach.” Grooms said it is informed by the question of the apostle Paul, “what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness,” (II. Cor. 6:14) and that of St. Augustine “what does the city of God have to do with the city of man?” To these questions, Grooms said, some believers have said “Not much, we are different than they are.” Non-believers are not considered to be enemies, but at times are considered to be “antagonists.” Contact with others, both for individuals Christians and corporately, is limited to evangelism, and the Christian life to which people are called is a life of personal holiness. Another term for this approach, Grooms said, is “fortress evangelism.” It recognizes the saving of souls for Christ and from eternal punishment as the chief duty of Christians, and assumes that the fall has corrupted people so much that we must evangelize unbelievers before we address other problems. An advantage to this approach is that it avoids bad influences on Christian life. It was, however, more characteristic of the Evangelical world in the twentieth century than today. It was observed that it may continue to characterize some campus ministries. Grooms believes, however, that it makes evangelism much harder in the public square.

The second approach to relating Christianity to the world is Constantianism, an effort to achieve a Christian political order, or short of that, to implement Christian ethics in some particular part of the political and social order. In this approach, the “game we’re playing is a competition, and our calling is to win.” Such Biblical admonitions as “running races and fighting fights” are key references for this approach in the public square. Christians should be trying to make “the kingdom of this world the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” Christians relate to non-Christians in this approach through politics, and the goal of Christian political activity is attaining and exercising power. Grooms said that in contrast to the bottom up approach of fortress evangelism, the Constantinian approach is a top down approach, “taking over the centers and institutions of power.” The political efforts of the pro-life movement and Christian political involvement in the past generation were identified as typical implementations of a Constantinian approach. Grooms saw these first two approaches as problematic not for what they embrace, personal holiness and a righteous social order, but for what they tend to overlook, our duty to love non-Christians as neighbors.

The third approach Grooms called “the selling of the faith.” Whereas the first two approaches are different ways to convert a non-Christian world to Christianity, this approach identifies something valued by the secular world and promotes Christianity as best supplying it. The relationship of Christians to non-Christians is that of “fellow consumers.” Some things identified as selling points are “wealth, intelligence, standing, power.” While, “in the end,” what Christians want to do is to promote the gospel, acceptance of the gospel is tied to whatever it is that is identified as valued. The initial approach to the wider world is through marketing, and the Christian life to be enjoyed will involve the thing identified as valued in the wider society. Grooms gave two examples of the selling of the faith in the public square. In late Middle Ages, scholars tied Christianity to the renewed interest Greek and Roman philosophy and culture. In our own day, the “health and wealth gospel” offers the Christian faith and community as suppliers of the desired good life. Grooms believes that Evangelicalism has lost some of its distinctiveness by taking the gospel and tying it to what is already popular in American culture and the public square. “If you lose sight of the responsibility to be in the world but not of it, you’re going to fall off the wagon,” Grooms said.

The fourth approach Grooms called the “two-worlds,” or privatization approach. This is essentially the opposite of the “fortress evangelism” approach, in which the tension that believers “keenly feel” between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of earth is relieved by disengaging from the world. In the two-worlds approach, people relieve the tension by disengaging from the city of God. “The assumption is that the gospel is a personal and private thing that really doesn’t have much cultural implications at all. The gospel is meant to be celebrated in the company of other believers, people who share the same faith,” but outside of this, one is considered to be no longer in a Christian framework, and faith is left at home. One wears “one hat at church,” and “another hat in the world,” and as long as one remembers to wear the hat of the kingdom which one is in fact in, it is expected that there will be no trouble. Believers approach the world by privatizing their faith. The Christian life is then characterized by its irrelevance to the wider world and the public square. Thus, faith is pushed “into a private, personal corner … in the end.”

Grooms gave the example of Robert Sloan, President of Baylor University and his proposal to integrate Christianity and secular disciplines such as economics, sociology or mathematics, in Baylor’s curriculum. This was opposed by many faculty, who thought that Christianity should be celebrated at church, but should not influence academic disciplines. Christianity is only supposed to shape people “personally and privately.” This approach is driven partly by the fear of conflict resulting from the historical conflicts between Christians, Grooms said. It is also now being pushed in the public square by the fact of pluralism. “The United States is less uniformly anything now than it was” when he was born, Grooms said. Now people of different religions are found by Christians to be similar to themselves “in a lot of really, really important ways.” The tension of radically different beliefs is relieved by saying that religious beliefs are “a personal and private matter.”

This writer would add that in the current conflict over liberty of conscience in accommodating the sexual revolution, privatization of religion means that legal and social requirements to accommodate sin must be complied with. Effectively what is being proposed is “Sunday Christianity,” which is not Biblical at all. Additionally, conscience is the sense of right and wrong, and it cannot possibly be right to act against it. This approach involves such a radical change in Christian faith that it cannot reasonably be called a Christian approach to the world, but rather largely eliminates Christian faith and morals from life and the public square.

The fifth approach, perhaps the one drawn most explicitly from H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ and Culture” typology, is the “transformation of culture” approach. This is the approach favored by Grooms. In this approach, “we are to be engaged in every area of life and culture. Separation is not our calling.” Our approach should be, as Francis Schaeffer called it, “living in the mud, but not getting dirty.” This, Grooms said, “is only possible for someone who is saved by grace, through faith. Unlike Constantinianism, our goal isn’t simply to win politically.” Grooms believes this approach is at least similar that that found in the work of James Davison Hunter, who has in recent years advocated what Hunter calls “faithful presence” in the public square – being present in an essentially non-Christian world, but living faithfully as a Christian in that environment. “If you’re goal is winning rather than faithfulness, the temptation will be to be discouraged if you don’t win.” The goal instead should be “to be faithful, and to look forward to the return of Christ in the end.” To do this, we must be “in the world, but not of the world.”

The trump card of the transformation approach is the expectation of the new heavens and the new earth. “All of life and culture” will be transformed, and we are to anticipate this transformation “in our actions now.” Grooms said he asks graduate students at the University of Texas what God’s original purpose for their particular discipline was (e.g., mathematics, sociology, biology, etc.). The Bible doesn’t spell out what a particular culture should be. The best context to answer that question is with “other believers who are in the same field, trying to figure out what faithfulness should actually look like.” The implementation of this approach begins with involvement in the world, and the hope of the life to which Christians are called is the expectation of the new heavens and the new earth. “We can’t change the culture from the outside,” Grooms said.

Better films, for instance, can be made by first learning good theology, and then taking the time to make films well. Grooms quoted C.S. Lewis that what we need “is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects.” Similarly, in Lewis’ illustration, books about Hinduism are not likely to disturb Christians, but books on other topics with Hindu implications would be disturbing. Books on materialism do not make people materialists, but books on other subjects with materialist assumptions do. Likewise, a book attempting to show the agreement of Christianity and science is less likely to affect an unbeliever than scientific topics in which the only good introductions are by Christians. Grooms noted sociological evidence showing that missionary activity was positively correlated with “the rule of law, the availability of education, the availability of health care, the treatment of women and children, the development of democracy.”

The attitude of non-Christians about the acceptability of Christian involvement in society and the public square has changed with time. Enlightenment thinkers wanted religious contributions to public morality. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wanted “a civil religion,” which would involve “the moral input of religion to function … as a glue, to hold all the diverse pieces [of society] together … in the end.” That idea has recently dramatically changed. Grooms pointed to the opinions of physicist Stephen Weinberg, who sees religion as an evil influence on people. Grooms asked, how would we respond to Weinberg?

Grooms said he devotes much time to preaching and teaching. People do not remember his sermons, but do remember that he shows up at the hospital when they are hospitalized. Charitable service, he said, is still commonly accepted as a valuable contribution by religious people. There is a view in the wider world that religion is about acts of compassion. When we “go beyond acts of compassion” and offer the gospel, “this flows from a particular set of convictions … rooted in the character of the God who really is there, the Holy Spirit who is working here and now; there is a spiritual reality” at work behind Christian faith and action. Even though people think “you have changed the subject” when you start talking about the gospel, nevertheless, “the practical application of the gospel … [is] always necessary.” Francis Schaeffer identified the mark of the Christian as Jesus’ teaching that “by this all men shall know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). Love, Grooms said, is a strong apologetic. “It is the one thing without which we can’t expect anybody to listen to us.” Grooms said that “this is what buys me … a hearing, and gives my message some creditability.”

Grooms reported an encounter at which he was present between Weinberg and a Christian leader, after which the leader, having faced a difficult dialog, told Grooms that he wanted to interact with Weinberg in such a way that Weinberg would want to talk to him again the next time he saw him. Grooms offered this as a good approach to non-Christians. In particular, “learning how to ask questions well and thoughtfully is the place to begin.” Grooms again quoted C.S. Lewis to the effect that every interaction we have with another human being helps him or her along to either heaven or hell, and this includes our actions that necessarily affect other people in the political arena. And so transformation may involve political action for a more righteous social order. Grooms said “we have let the world define the terms and the way we’re going to” behave in the public square. We have assumed that “if they’re nasty, we’re justified in being nasty too.” But “we are not” called to be hostile, but “to speak the truth in love.”

  1. Comment by Barnabas on March 3, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    Rick- Interesting options,.. on living in the world. I think the one thing missing in the discussion,.. and rarely if ever discussed/preached,.. is the “in the world baseline” as described in the Bible. We Christians are not supposed to win/be successful,.. as you point out,.. only faithful. If you think the outlook appears bad now,… just wait- it’s going to get a lot,.. lot worse. (Many years ago, at least 20, a Christian brother said to me,.. as we discussed the direction the world seemed to be headed then,..(and it’s worse than we imagined then),.. he said, “Don’t worry,.. you know,.. I’ve read the book and we win in the end” :-). I think we need some honest, open discussion as Believers,..of our truly hated and despised position- that may not now be fully manifested- but’s coming; Get ready- tough minded & wearing the “Full Armor of God;- it’s foretold- don’t downplay or fool yourself; that we must fight the good fight,.. and eyes open realize a) the plan & outcome is in God’s hands; b) the first priority, as both James and Paul say, is to ready and grow/mature ourselves individually as Children of God; then c) (in my words),.. taking the faith & courage of conviction,.. Walk the Walk & Talk the Talk. Our mission as Christ’s ambassadors,.. is akin to the oft told story of the little boy,.. encountering thousands & thousands of Starfish on the beach,.. stopping to throw first one,.. then deliberately choosing another,.. back into the sea. And old man observes this behavior & endeavors to convince the boy,.. “It’s a waste of time. There are too many. It doesn’t matter.” The little boy ignores the old man,.. taking his time selecting a starfish,.. and throwing it back into the sea. Slowly turning to the old man,.. he points out to the sea and says,.. “It mattered to that one.”


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