By Jake Meador
This article appeared in the 10th issue of Ad Fontes magazine.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day that I actually began to understand some of what Reformed theology means on a day-to-day basis. I was a sophomore in college, living near campus in a small one bedroom apartment by myself. One rainy evening I was sitting in my living room reading Far as the Curse is Found by Michael Williams. Williams was talking about the value of the physical creation to God, arguing that God isn’t simply saving human souls or even human individuals, but will actually, one day, restore all of creation. It was something I hadn’t heard before, having grown up in an old school dispensational church where it was simply a matter of common agreement that all of creation would one day be destroyed by God and, therefore, evangelism and Bible study was really all that mattered. “Only three things are eternal,” we were told, “God, his Word, and human souls.”
Williams’ book was dismantling that idea in front of me in ways that both disoriented and delighted me. It disoriented me because it seemed to reject, explicitly or tacitly, so much of the theology I had known as a child. It delighted me because it meant that the delight I took in created things was, in fact, a good thing. Indeed, thanking God for those things and the joy they gave me was suddenly an act of worship rather than the simple indulgence of weakened flesh. As I finished the chapter, I put the book down, put a kettle of tea on the stove, and grabbed Ted Kooser’s Delights and Shadows off my shelf. I had long been interested in poetry but had struggled to justify that love as a Christian. “Shouldn’t you be reading the Bible or some devotional book instead?” – people had asked me. I had asked myself the same question a time or two. But Williams was helping me to understand something about my love for poetry. And so I went out to the front porch to watch the spring rain. It seemed like the right thing to do.
The question of how the institutional church should relate to civil society is, of course, one of the oldest in Christian theology. In the contemporary West, a few separate schools have emerged. Several see the contemporary liberal order as being unsalvageable and thus in needs of some sort of fairly dramatic repudiation. Others want to work within the order to promote the common good, believing that liberalism is no better or worse than any other way of organizing society.
Let’s begin by defining liberalism and then we will briefly sketch out the various schools before developing the magisterial Protestant approach at greater length. A liberal social order sees each individual person as being a free, unattached, and self-defined whole. The true and just society is the society that allows or enables the maximal amount of freedom to each individual person. Consequently, liberal social orders will generally be suspicious of institutions that claim to have some level of authority to bind individuals or curtail individual freedom. Part of this is epistemological in nature—we have lost faith in our ability to know things about the world and especially about morality, metaphysics, or the supernatural with any confidence. Thus public claims that are based in those disciplines are viewed with suspicion. This epistemological uncertainty also means that, so far they go, our ethical deliberations cannot really progress beyond the “do no harm” principle because we simply do not trust claims about things like a human individual’s proper end, let alone the proper ends of human society.
The strength of liberalism is that it generally does resist most forms of social injustice or tyranny. The fierce individualism of the order causes its members to be sparked to action when something occurs which is seen as violating an individual person’s right to freedom and self-definition. Even this strength can be overstated, of course, as one glance at the number of aborted babies since Roe v Wade will demonstrate. But it is true that as America has become more deeply liberal, it has also become less tolerant of a number of social evils – racism most particularly. And that is not an empty point.
That being said, the weaknesses of liberalism are many. T. S. Eliot made the point well in The Idea of a Christian Society when he said that liberal democracies are defined less by a fixed central point and more by a trajectory. Liberal democracies accumulate a great deal of energy and wealth, but then have no means for telling its members what to do with that wealth. It is centrifugal rather than centripetal. Thus we see the sort of social decline and breakdown lamented across the political spectrum today by thinkers like Bob Putnam and George Packer on the left and Rod Dreher and Yuval Levin on the right. Liberalism does not really have a strong mechanism for shaping social life and so liberal orders tend to develop communal norms through a parasitical relationship with whatever order came before it in a given place.
With that introduction out of the way, we should review six distinct approaches to this question. We’ll describe the first five briefly before developing the final version, which will be magisterial Protestantism, in much more detail.
There are three distinct post-liberal strategies which all agree on one basic point: Liberalism has failed. The first school, Catholic integralism, would follow the lead of traditional Roman political theology and argue that the just society is a society ordered toward its proper spiritual ends and thus is a society existing beneath the authority of the Roman church, which is the instrument by which people can realize their proper spiritual end.
The second school, Radical Anabaptism, descends from the 16th century Radical Reformation and embraces a strict biblicism, a simple lifestyle, some form of Christian non-violence, and often some kind of shared living arrangement which sometimes goes so far as renouncing all forms of private property. For radical anabaptists, to borrow from their preeminent theologian Stanley Hauerwas, “the church does not have a politics, it is a politics.” The church is the true and complete society and so we commit our lives fully to the building up of that society. We are only involved in society outside of the church to the extent that necessity requires us to be.
The third post-liberal school is post-liberal retreatists. This category is something of a catch-all for Protestant Christians who basically share the Radical Anabaptist critique of civil society and perhaps even aspects of Radical Anabaptist ecclesiology, but do not embrace other aspects of their theology, such as their biblicism, non-violence, or denunciation of private property. For the post-liberal retreatists, the church might not be a complete society unto itself, but it is the safe society we have today and it is the refuge out of which the new post-liberal order will emerge. Thus we must commit ourselves to its life and well-being and mostly scale back our ambitions for society outside the church. If we must participate in that society, then we are best off to do so in purely defensive ways that will carve out as much freedom for Christians as possible so that we can better ride out the storm.
In addition to these three systems, there are two systems which hope to retain aspects of liberalism. These two groups are the Liberal Protestants and Liberal Revanchists. These two groups are similar in many ways. They both affirm liberalism as a social order, valuing the freedom it affords from previous oppressive regimes. Where they drift apart is, for the most part, generational. The older members of this group tend toward revanchism, which is to say they think that the West has lost its way in recent years, but that we can and should take back the ground we lost and embrace a civil society that basically affirms the core tenets of liberalism, perhaps with a few slight handbrakes included to ward off the most pernicious forms of liberal self-expression. The liberal protestants are younger and probably are more comfortable with the current order as is, provided said order does not become much more hostile to religious faith than it already is. For liberal protestants (and this is classical liberalism, not theological liberalism), the current order is mostly a good and healthy thing which protects individual rights by weakening the social institutions that can cruelly and unjustly abuse individual people. The responsibility for Christians, then, is to participate in the existing institutions of civil society on all levels, working for the good of all people by strengthening the institutions that shape our social life. (I have written in more detail on each of these approaches at Mere Orthodoxy, which you can read more about here.)
The final school, which we will now spend the remainder of this essay discussing, is the Magisterial Protestant answer. For the Magisterial Protestants, none of these schools get the answer quite right, although the Catholic Integralists come the closest. Magisterial Protestant political theology and ecclesiology begins with a simple idea: There are two separate governments or realms by which Christ mediates his rule over his people and over creation. Significantly, however, these realms are not “church” and “state” or the “public” and “private” spheres. The answer is more complicated than that and does not neatly map onto contemporary debates about the role of religion in public life.
The two kingdoms of the Magisterial Protestant school are the temporal or visible kingdom and the spiritual kingdom. If we are to understand how Magisterial Protestants relate church to society, we must understand this distinction rightly. In order to do that, we need to trace the distinction back to one of the core ideas of the Reformation: sola fide. When Luther said that man was justified by faith alone, his opponents were quick to accuse him of essentially destroying moral order. If our works have nothing to do with our salvation, why should we do good? Luther responded with his famous claim in “On the Liberty of the Christian” that, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” What is often missed by readers is how this teaching relates to social order. For Luther the two halves of that statement lay quite neatly atop the two realms he articulated elsewhere. In the spiritual realm, man stands before the face of God and, by faith, is justified. “Christ reigns mysteriously and invisibly over the kingdom of conscience, and no human authority may dare to interpose itself as the mediator of this rule.” The temporal kingdom, in contrast, is the realm in which the Christian is a servant to all as a member of the Christian commonwealth and as a person called to love his neighbor as Christ has loved him. This realm covers all human institutions, including individual local Christian congregations and denominational institutions.
The trouble many of us have in understanding this idea is that there is a natural inclination here to ask, “So if membership in the church has nothing to do with our justification, then what is the church for?” When we try to answer that question, there is a desire to sneak some sort of Romanism in through the back door. So you might hear congregationalists talking about the institutional church as an embassy for the Kingdom to come or Anabaptist radicals talking about the church being a polis. But these are simply muted versions of the same Roman error which elevates the institutional church to a place it was never intended to fill—as the center of the Christian life and a pivotal agent in the salvation of souls. But this cannot be the case—Christ is the center. The institutional church is one means, amongst many others, for helping to further his work in creation. It is a unique means in that as the institution entrusted to preach the Gospel we might say it is in some sense closer to the invisible kingdom, but it still part of the visible kingdom.
There are three ideas which follow from this basic insight into the true nature of the institutional church.
First, the institutional church becomes apostolic in the original sense of the term—being “sent out.” The church does not simply gather Christians into its bosom and shelter them from the storm nor does it somehow elevate those who belong to it toward a higher order of existence. The church largely exists to send people out into the world. Here reflecting on the traditional three marks of the church as defined by the Reformed tradition can be of help. The institutional church is defined by three traits: the preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline. Rightly understood, all three of these marks serve the purpose of equipping the saints to be sent out into the world to witness to the love and grace of God as they go about their daily lives. The thought of 16th century reformer Martin Bucer is especially instructive on this point. Bucer saw an intimate relationship between Christian love and Christian discipline. (I have written about Bucer on this point in particular in Beyond Calvin.) We might even paraphrase John Piper’s famous line, “Missions exist because worship does not,” and say that, for Bucer, discipline exists because love does not. The purpose of Christian discipline is to help shape us in such a way that we are capable of living in Christian love with our neighbors both in and outside Christ’s covenant community. Church discipline, thus, simply becomes an institutionalized form of Christian discipline to be used in emergency situations, as it were. Moreover, our reflection on the sacraments and particularly the Eucharist might be enriched by a closer attentiveness to the missional nature of the meal. The reformed tradition generally has held that the Supper is not simply a memorial, but that there is some real sense in which it unites us to Christ. Because he is spiritually present in the Supper, we are united to him. Indeed, you may even reverse the normal way we tend to think of movement happening in the Supper. Rather than Christ coming down to us, we are caught up with him in a foreshadowing of the world to come where we partake with him of the Supper of the Lamb. Having feasted with him, we are then sent out, strengthened, at the close of public worship in order to witness to the glory of God amongst our neighbors.
Second, the other institutions of the temporal realm take on new significance. There is not some sort of unique quality that the institutional church possesses which elevates it above other human institutions. It has a role to play in the Christian commonwealth, but so too do other institutions. This means that our work matters, not simply because it provides an income to support us and our families, but because it is a means by which we fulfill the divine command to fill and subdue creation. Likewise, vocation matters. The unique callings we are given carry enormous significance and should not be deemed as being less valuable simply because they are not formal, full-time ministry work. These realms become practical ways of showing love to neighbor and, by extension, love to God. In other words, there is no sacred/secular split in the way this term is often used.
Third, we recover the idea of the Christian commonwealth rather than a sort of hierarchically structured society existing under the church or a secular society in which freedom of religion is respected, thereby leaving “a place” for the church (but little more than that). This is a central idea in the history of reformed thought. Indeed, the legacy of this idea can be found in the official names of several American states, such as the Commonwealth of Virginia. Briefly stated, the idea is that human beings are inextricably social and so human societies must be understood as a shared enterprise amongst all the members of a community. Moreover, because all the institutions that shape society are part of the visible rather than the spiritual kingdom, society should not be understood as a hierarchical structure in which the church sits atop the rest of the social institutions. Rather, social power is diffused across a variety of different institutions and groups. There are roles within a society properly given to the institutional church, but also roles properly ascribed to the family, to schools, to the market, and to the magistrate. All these different social bodies together comprise the Christian commonwealth.
This idea of a Christian commonwealth, which clearly is not the same thing as an ecclesiocracy (as you might have in Roman Catholic states or even in Puritan New England), is a difficult thing to convey since the entire notion of a Christian commonwealth has been forgotten not only in the contemporary American republic generally, but even within much evangelical reflection on social order. This is not surprising—the notion of a Christian commonwealth is by definition a pervasive criticism of the way American social order is often defined and discussed. The American liberal order rests largely on the assumption that human beings are essentially private, self-enclosed individuals. At his most basic level, man is solitary. Thus the system of government exists to facilitate and enable that individual freedom as we have already said. But it also rests on an assumption that man is not an intrinsically political creature given to societies and communities he has not chosen. This, of course, is nonsensical. We are all born into a multitude of communities which we have not chosen but which will, nevertheless, do a great deal to shape and define who we are as individual people. A political system which fails to reckon with this fact will prove to be brittle and unsustainable, as we are seeing quite clearly in the contemporary United States. Understanding society not as a group of individuals knit together by a tacit social contract, but instead as people belonging to a shared commonwealth, helps us to understand concepts like solidarity more clearly – as well as why specific Christian teachings work in the way that they do. For example, Christian sexual ethics make far more sense if man is a rooted member of a commonwealth than they do if he is a detached and autonomous individual.
The relevance of this point in particular to contemporary American political disputes should be abundantly clear to anyone who pays a passing attention to the circus-like atmosphere that prevails in our nation’s politics. As the recent election of Donald Trump made plain, there is a large portion of our nation’s electorate which, whatever else you might say about them, desperately longs for someone in power to stand with them. The typical Trump voter supported President Trump not least because he believed, almost certainly falsely, that Trump would represent him and his interests in Washington. This is why so many of the people who flocked to Washington for Trump’s inauguration spoke of how they’d never been to Washington before. Trump was tapping into something real, a felt longing amongst a certain class of Americans to be seen. Of course, on the other side of the spectrum there is a similar sort of fear we might call solidarity anxiety: Consider the underlying fear that explains movements like Black Lives Matter. The fear for African Americans is that they will do everything America tells them to do and it won’t matter. They will still not belong, still will not be treated as a normal member of the American republic. The same concern drives a great deal of the activism from pro-LGBT activists. One friend of mine framed the debate about bathrooms and transgenderism as a debate about a person’s right to exist in public. You can (and should) disagree with that assessment of the debate, but the framing is suggestive. Once again, the longing is to be seen and recognized as one actually is. The irony, of course, is that in matters of sexual ethics in particular, we demand both the freedom to define ourselves however we wish and that society recognize whatever identity we land on – regardless of the costs to society entailed in such an act. It is incoherent, but in a way that tells us something about the base difficulty with liberalism. There is, in our deeply individualistic society, an undeniable longing for solidarity, for communal membership and recognition – for roots. A Christian political theology will recognize this longing and identify it as a function of living in a state that functionally denies those needs.
The magisterial Protestant vision of a Christian commonwealth is particularly equipped to do this work for the simple reason that belonging and social capital are diffused more broadly than they are in other social orders precisely because single earthly institutions are not privileged over others in such a way that the laity are second-class citizens or that one loses all rights as a citizen if one is under church discipline. The institutional church does not control social capital, nor does a small Christian community become a social body unto itself, removed from broader civil society. The magisterial Protestant approach sees a missional church integrated into the basic structure of a society, equipping people to love and serve their neighbors. This focus on outreach and the common good, as well as the proper placement of the institutional church relative to civil society, should all help to militate against totalitarian tendencies that could emerge in a movement.
Here we might return to that experience I had during a spring storm while reading Far as the Curse is Found. The reason I smiled, made some tea, and then sat on the porch to read some poetry is simple: As I began to understand what the reformed tradition teaches, I realized that my work as a student was valuable in itself. The university where I was studying was not simply a convenient tool for rounding up all the godless youths into a single place to facilitate easier evangelistic outreach, as many campus ministries seem to believe on a functional level. Studying literature and history (I was an English and History major) were worthwhile pursuits in themselves. In studying these subjects, I was learning about wisdom and virtue and politics and beauty and a host of other things which make life worth living and help communities live well together. This work was good because it equipped me to be a better neighbor, citizen, and churchmen and so it was work that God smiled upon. These interests of mine, then, were not simply personal proclivities that might be made into a career, as many of my peers in these programs believed, but were actually intimately related to the work God had given me to do in the place where he had put me. What better way to celebrate such a realization then by watching a spring storm and thanking God for the rain while reading a magical description of the storm like this? “I sat in the cellar / from six to eight while fat spring clouds / went somersaulting, rumbling east. Then it poured, / a storm that walked on legs of lightning, / dragging its shaggy belly over the fields.” That image, playing out before my eyes as I watched the storms roll in helped me see God’s creation more clearly and to delight in the goodness of God all the more.
Critics of the magisterial tradition might charge that it so dramatically curtails the power of the institutional church that the church loses its significance as a social body. But the reality is quite the opposite: It elevates the life of the commonwealth such that every honorable vocation is now glorious and worthy of pursuit. It makes accessible to all people the contentment and sense of eternal purpose in one’s work that the western church has far too often limited to only ministers and missionaries. Magisterial Protestant ecclesiology does not diminish the church; it exalts the commonwealth.
Therefore, in closing, we return to Luther: A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one. The first step in building a Christian commonwealth is a simple one: We look for opportunities to serve the places in which we live by promoting common life and, when questioned as to why we serve in these ways, “giving an account of the hope that is within us.” Such a payoff may perhaps seem too modest: “So you’re telling me that the first step toward social transformation is volunteering with a refugee resettlement group, starting a business to provide employment for local people, or leading a Bible study at the homeless shelter? That seems… small?” Answer: It is small. But we serve a king whose kingdom, by his own admission, is upside down, who tells us that the first shall be last and the last first. The first step to cultivating a Christian commonwealth is becoming a more thoroughly Christian citizen. And the first step toward that is serving faithfully in the “small” matters of life.
Jake Meador is the Vice President of the Davenant Trust and editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. His writing has also been featured in First Things, Books & Culture, Front Porch Republic, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, and The University Bookman. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife and two children.