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Lessons for the Church: Beyond Trump?

Friday, 26 March 2021  | Charles Ringma


In times of relative goodness there is always the danger that we, and our institutions, fall into an accepting and uncritical slumber.[1] Unfortunately, this slumber is fundamentally self-focussed, and does not see the pain of those who miss out on this goodness.

This kind of setting is also dangerous for the faith community. Like others, we also can easily fall into a spiritual slumber where the church basically reflects the broader values of society and fails to be a prophetic community.

But thankfully, there are times when all of this gets disrupted in some way. And turmoil, while so disturbing, becomes a gift, providing an opportunity for re-evaluation and repentance.

This is the case in the USA with the departure of Donald Trump from public office. The opportunity for re-evaluation lies in the disturbing reality that around 80 per cent of Evangelicals supported the Trump presidency.

It is not my purpose here to point out the many failures of Trump. And it is not primarily to ask why Evangelicals supported Trump. Instead, it is to ask the much more pressing question: why did Evangelicals look for getting political support for their life and ministry in the first place?

That the church in its long journey in history has tended to do this is partly due to the impulse of the Constantinianisation of the church, where the church gained power through the support of the Roman Empire.[2] But the church has often continued to seek political support, and more tragically has, as a consequence, been shaped by political interests. Jacques Ellul has repeatedly pointed this out. Christians become ‘monarchist under a monarchy, republican under a republic, socialist under communism’.[3] So often, he says, ‘the church has simply adopted wholesale the ideas and manner of modern society’.[4] Or in the theme under discussion, the church has adopted a particular political agenda.

In the light of this dominant narrative and the support of Evangelicals of the Trump presidency, it is my purpose to suggest that the church should not seek or align itself with a particular political agenda, and especially not when this is done so that the church can gain social influence.[5] Instead, the church should most basically live by the power of the Gospel, the work of the Spirit and the fellowship of the faith community, and be a witnessing, healing and prophetic community in society.

Having said this, a number of clarifying points need to made. Firstly, the church is to accept the reality of government. Secondly, the church should teach its members to respect government and to fulfil their responsibilities as members of society. Thirdly, the church should encourage some of its members to serve in government for the common good. Finally, the church may seek direct government support for its social programs, providing its life of service and prophetic witness is not compromised.

At all times, the church should pray for the government that it may preserve peace, foster justice and promote human flourishing. But the church does not align itself with government or a particular party.[6] The church is a different entity in the body politic. It is the Spirit’s insertion into society for the purpose of promoting, through peaceful means, a way of seeing and living life differently. This different way is unashamedly the way of Jesus, the God-man, the iconic human being and the saviour and healer of humanity.

This way promotes forgiveness and reconciliation. It challenges all hierarchies. It lifts up the needy. It exposes idolatry. And above all, this way is the way of self-conversion, institutional renewal, humility and ever seeking the face of God for the sake of the world.

In all of this, and back to Trump, I am not seeking to make the point that Evangelicals in the USA should not have supported the Republicans. That is not my point. But they should not have looked to Trump as a saviour figure. That is idolatry. And they should not have hitched their hope for influence to the Trump bandwagon. That is not living by the power of the Gospel.

Maybe what has taken place in the USA can be reminder of what the global church should be and how it should respond to politics. Maybe here again we are all called to conversion and renewal.

Charles Ringma is Emeritus Professor at Regent College, Vancouver, and Honorary Associate Professor at The University of Queensland, Brisbane.




[1] Timothy Snyder points out that in the 1930’s the dominant attitude to Hitler in Europe, England, and elsewhere was one of ‘accommodation and admiration’, and that people failed to live with the sense that institutions need to be defended, On Tyranny (London: Bodley Head, 2017), 52, 22.

[2] For a critique see Chris K. Huebner, A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, and Identity (Waterloo, ONT: Herald Press, 2006).

[3] Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 18.

[4] Ellul, 8.

[5] C. Norman Kraus is of the opinion that USA ‘Evangelicalism enjoys without a scruple a new social-political acceptance which approaches a reestablishment of it as the dominant civil religion’, and ‘has no clear-cut critique of American culture’, Evangelicalism and Anabaptism Ed. C. Norman Kraus (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979), 176, 178. Nothing too much has changed since this was written. In fact, this is now more relevant than ever.

[6] The Barmen Declaration (1934) states: ‘We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and must recognize yet other happenings and powers, images and truths as divine revelation alongside this one Word of God’, and ‘[w]e repudiate the false teaching that there are areas of life in which we belong not to Jesus Christ but [to] another lord’, Creeds of the Churches Editor John H. Leith (New York: Anchor, 1963), 520.


Comments

Ian Hore-Lacy
April 20, 2021, 5:51PM
Good article. But in answer to the question of para 5 it is surely concern about appointments to the US Supreme Court that drove a lot of evangelical support for Trump. This is to shape the political context of life in that set-up. All despite the odious nature of Trump himself.
Of course beyond that overarching consideration there are points to be debated re political priorities, same as anywhere.

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