The premise of Left, Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics is simple enough. One evangelical from the right and one from the left discuss various political topics in light of their evangelical faiths. And with perspectives from The King’s College on the right (D.C. Innes) and Sojourners on the left (Lisa Sharon Harper), a reader might assume his options are pretty much covered.
But not so fast, says Richard M. Gamble, Hillsdale College professor and Orthodox Presbyterian elder, who reviews the book in the current issue of Ordained Servant. While it is true that “they follow the trajectory that evangelicals have followed since long before the social gospel of a century ago and that they travel along to this day,” and they both ground their approaches in the story of creation, fall, and redemption, there’s something missing in both their approaches. That missing element is the church:
Harper and Innes also display a troubling disregard for the institutional church, preferring to talk instead about “faith.”…This is an unfortunate omission because a proper political theology can emerge only from a proper ecclesiology. The church is central to the Christian life through the ministry of Word and sacrament. There is no way to sort out the right relationship between faith and politics without first acknowledging the church’s unique and exalted role in the history of redemption. And it shares that calling with no other institution. The church, not America, is God’s holy nation, chosen people, and treasured possession (1 Pet. 2). With this distinction firmly in hand, it would be impossible to misapply apostolic teaching outside the bounds of the church and to turn true kingdom ethics into social ethics…. Only with the church in its fullness and glory fixed in our view can we hope to think rightly about how to enter into the political sphere with a due sense of proportion, modest expectations, and the transience of earthy accomplishments, and armed with the means to combat any confusion between God’s purposes for the church and the nation.
In other words, giving due consideration to the church isn’t just a tweak, it’s a profound re-orientation of both approaches. It puts everything else in perspective:
Politics is an important but temporary and ordinary thing. Like economics and war, and the arts and sciences, politics belongs to the common life that Christians share with Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and atheists. American Christians are at liberty to vote their values, run for public office, campaign for the party of their choice, subscribe to policy journals, serve in the military, and lobby for or against legislation. But they do so, if they choose to do so at all, as citizens of a particular nation at a particular moment in time and under historically conditioned circumstances and institutions. Paul and Peter offered first-century Christians scattered in the Roman Empire no advice on how to do this.
Note that Gamble isn’t prescribing political agnosticism or a retreat from the world. That’s not the kind of thing that comes out of Hillsdale College, after all. What he does prescribe is a prominent place for the church, which doesn’t seem at all unreasonable for Christians to do.