Secondary Theater and the Church’s Witness


I was recently made aware of a post John Piper made prior to the 2020 election.  I do not read Piper on a regular basis, but am generally aware of his work and ministry.  After reading the post entitled, “Policies, Persons, and Paths to Ruin: Pondering the Implications of the 2020 Election,” I decided to write up some thoughts prompted by my own study and Piper’s post.

A few months ago, I was teaching a class on cultural maturity in theological perspective. I suggested that words like “better” are less-than helpful when comparing cultures or values. That is the case, in part, because saying one culture is “better” than another is a generalized point that (a) does not suggest a willingness for robust evaluations of one’s own culture and (b) often allow for the wholesale dismissal of another culture’s strengths.

My point was not to say that there is no fundamental difference between living, for instance, in North Korea versus the United States. I was suggesting that often applying the word “better” to a particular culture becomes a way to cover over a multitude of the “better” culture’s shortcomings. I argued that we need to be quite nuanced in evaluating cultural matters because in a fallen world where we cannot escape our state of sinfulness and propensity for misdirected desire, even “better” things create moments in which we present a partial witness to God making him serve our agendas as opposed to allowing Him to set the agenda.

I think something similar might be said for the political arena and the policies that tend to flow from it. We tend to apply something akin to “better” to the choice of political candidates and policies. We focus on the benefits of a particular candidate or policy and, at times, fail to recognize that our choices will always have consequences. Perhaps more, our choices, especially in a democracy, reflect the character of the people within the nation. The social groups of which we are a part have more influence on who is or is not chosen to lead than we might assume. Thus, whatever benefits or alignments a candidate might offer, it would seem to me that as Christians we are obligated to ask what sort of people we must be to have the leaders we currently have.

So, in approaching Piper’s article, I would tend to agree with the relatively pedestrian notion that “no choice is perfect” and that each will have specific trade-offs. I say that because I don’t believe that backing either of the candidates in the 2020 election was particularly beneficial for the church. I am instead concerned that significant portions of the Christian community have adopted a politicized understanding of our social world and a privatized understanding of our life in Christ.

Policies and governance are certainly important, yet once we forget that the church is not a social service organization or community group with a humanitarian mission, but a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” we run the risk of privatizing our faith. To say that our witness is not tied to those who occupy a particular government office or the policies they promote is true, but insufficient. The church must learn to privilege Christ and proclaim him in the public square. We must be that alien community whose love, patience, faith, and hope distinguish us from advocacy groups and lobbyists who leverage and depend on America’s political machinery to advance into an unknown future with no clear sense of where it might lead.

After reading Piper’s article, I think Piper (like a good theologian) is looking beyond the evangelical taking points of the day. He is poking at what Charles Taylor has called the underlying “social imaginary” which refers to “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.” In other words, I would have appreciated Piper’s post far more had it been written as a comment on the church rather than framed as some sort of veiled explanation on his own political choices in 2020. Why is it that the church has honed in (almost exclusively) on policy issues as opposed to considering the character of those chosen to lead? Perhaps more importantly, why is it that the church seems so willing to overlook certain activities as if they are part of the “deeper normative notions and images” that shape our outlook on the world?

I do think Piper may have gotten caught up in some of the “fervor” of the election, which distracts from what I believe is an important topic: the relationship between people and leadership in ancient monarchies versus a democracy. In many of the monarchies of which I am familiar (e.g. those of the ancient Near East and early Greco-Roman period), leaders aren’t representatives of the people, but are often viewed as God’s (or the gods’s) appointee (if not somehow deity in human form). As such, the people are subject to the king or emperor who was destined by a higher power to rule. In a democracy, leaders represent the people and are chosen by the people. Leaders aren’t determined by biological succession or war, which were two mechanisms that, given ancient Near Eastern world views, reinforced the role of the divine in the choice of the leader. Rather, in a democracy, leaders are chosen by the citizens of the nation. As such, those who “choose” are (also) the problem in a democracy not (just) those who govern. Thus, the critique of a democratically elected leader, is, to some significant extent, a critique of those who elected him/her.

So, to me, I think Piper “pulls a punch” in saying that he “finds it bewildering that Christians can be so sure that greater damage will be done by bad judges, bad laws, and bad policies than is being done by the culture.” I tend not to like his phrasing. I think that “bad judges, bad laws, and bad policies” are part and parcel of the culture we have created. As such, I am less “bewildered” by individual discernments in a given election and more concerned that the body of Christ is losing the wherewithal to look beyond presenting problem to see the theological realities that lie behind them. In other words, I think we are losing the ability to have theological discussions as we surrender ourselves to prevailing notions of rationality and discussion.

I would tend to go further than Piper and question whether we have a church so committed to Christian unity that it is capable of showcasing a different way of being in the world. I would suggest that what we lack is not leaders, but a people so committed to being conformed to Christ’s image that policies and persons don’t become a crutch on which to lean, but ancillary structures that we hope will, in some more minimal way, sustain order within a fallen creation. In some sense, we get the leaders who reflect our values as a nation and, perhaps more troubling, as a church. Piper seems to gloss over the fact that in a system of government for and by the people, the people are their own path to ruin.

Our “path to ruin” is only exacerbated by the messages set before us that captivate our thinking. I hold a number of positions that some would likely label “conservative,” but I also believe that the political “machines” determine the talking points and agendas in a way that keeps us from taking a more comprehensive, not to mention theological, look at where the root of our problems lie. I think many of the issues that are thrown out before us are important, but, at the same time, they distract us from examining other, less sensational (but just as substantive) matters. In this sense, I think I am in agreement with Piper that person and policy are both important to consider. The challenge, perhaps, is not in saying that both person and policy matter, but in addressing this matter so late in the game. In a functionally two-party system, if we haven’t addressed policy and person before the candidates are chosen, I think the proverbial ship has sailed.

We tend not to go deeper than the prevailing issues of the day, which means that we are, in my estimation, less-than likely to see any real change to the system. I wouldn’t, for instance, rule out greed as a major problem within the American political system, yet we never really address campaign reform. We continue to reward those who spend millions on campaigns, may well have ties to special interests, or can generate the biggest buzz, etc. To what extent has greed become so normative in the church that we no longer care how much it influences elections? Why is it that we don’t consider more frequently how “greed, which is idolatry” might be playing a role in the other issues on which we so often focus? It seems to me that a more robust theological discussion of democracy and the issues associated with voting and choosing leaders is warranted. It just seems unrealistic when it occurs a month before the election (Piper published his post on October 22, 2020). While I think Piper’s article hints in this direction, I don’t see it as explicitly advocating for such a movement.

Admittedly, when it comes to policy and the political system, I’m no expert. I am swimming a bit out of my depth. While Piper’s comments, framed in terms of the 2020 election, are somewhat less than unbiased, I think Piper’s comments would have been differently received had they been given during the Romney/Obama, McCain/Obama, Bush/Kerry, or even Clinton/Dole races of years past. In some cases, I think many would have seen character as a non-issue as both candidates in a given presidential election would have been viewed as basically moral. Imagine, however, reading the same piece during the post-Lewinski Clinton years and arguing that policies are really more significant than character. In that context, character became the political leverage du jour. The main difference was that the “bad character” and the “bad policies” were aligned.

In this sense, I don’t think Piper was wrong so much as ill-timed. That is to say that Piper’s post read less theologically and more politically (even though he never reveals for whom he was planning to vote). So, in addition to referencing the idea that his post was “as close as you will get to an answer on how I will vote in the upcoming presidential election” (a comment that seems unnecessary given what I take to be the pastoral purpose of the post overall), he speaks into a polarized political moment in which even the church seems to be divided over a relatively mundane observation (i.e. character matters).

In the end, I don’t know that Piper was trying to make a political statement. In my most generous reading, I would say that Piper simply miscalculated how his work would be received within the political environment leading up to the 2020 election. Being relatively unfamiliar with him and his work, however, I really can’t speak to his motivations. I will say that his word to pastors sits closer to my own conviction that what is needed is a church that is a politics in and of itself. We need a church that demonstrates the sort of life made possible in light of a resurrected Lord. Had the post not been framed in terms of the election, but in terms of pastoral care, I believe it would have been more appealing to me. Though without the more controversial nuance, I’m not sure I ever would have read it, which speaks to the separate problem that too often what we here about has less “steak” and more “sizzle” than we realize.

So, what do I really think? First, I am not naive. I realize that a Biden presidency has the potential to challenge the church in America in new ways. At the same time, because I am not naive, I don’t think another four years of Trump would have been positive for the church in America despite certain alignments on a policy level. As much as I don’t want certain policy changes to be made, I am also leery of becoming a people so reliant upon the policies of the United States government that the idea of a “Christian nation” supplants the church. As O’Donovan notes in The Ways of Judgment, “…political leaders are not simply denied their authority, but are constituted, on these new terms, as a secondary theatre of witness to the appearing grace of God.”

We, as Christians, find ourselves in a situation where our representative leaders have values different from our own.  In thinking about religious freedom as a U.S. doctrine, we are justified in our concerns about what may come as a new administration takes the helm.  We are certainly right to do what we can to remind our elected officials of the U.S. constitution and the agreement within which we all live.  At the same time, we have a renewed opportunity to take the lead and to show ourselves to be distinct from “political conservatives.”  It is a moment in which (a) being pro-life may well come to mean more than voting for a particular candidate, (b) affirming a biblical view of sexuality and marriage will require us to show the world what it means to be in relationship with one another in accordance with the wisdom of God, or (c) practicing freedom of religion will require obedience to God in the face of persecution (becasue we are always free to obey the Lord).  I do not wish to be flippant about politics.  The government is not negligible…just secondary.  It has a specific role and scope that it is intended to perform.  The church offers the primary witness to God in Christ and to do so does not require that a particular party be in charge.

In the end, I think Piper’s pre-election post is relatively innocuous. I would have preferred, that it not be framed in terms of choosing between candidates. In doing so, Piper tends to surrender to the agendas of the political season rather than offering a more “Christian first” perspective. His post, in that sense, might be seen as confusing matters rather than clarifying a theological position on the relationship between the body of Christ and earthly politics.

The church is not aloof or isolated from the world. We are right to care about who is elected in every office (perhaps another issue is that we tend to focus too much on the president rather than attending to the other individuals who represent us). At the same time, I think we have to keep in mind O’Donovan’s description of political leaders as the “secondary theatre of witness.” This concept is important because it helps us remember that the body of Christ is the primary means of witness in the world. It’s posture in the world should, thus, be our primary concern. As we move forward under an ever-changing administration in the United States, we would be wise to keep Piper’s final words in mind because we do “have a kingdom that will never be shaken, not even when America is a footnote in the archives of the new creation.”


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