Culture Warriors: The Good and the Bad
Something called Christian Nationalism has been on the rise of late. Different folks define the phrase differently, particularly if they are a friend or foe of it. Some use the term to describe any form of political engagement from a Christian perspective. Others use it to refer to identifying a modern nation with Christianity, even as one would identify a Christian individual as a “Christian.”
Without presuming to offer a detailed analysis, it’s this latter usage that interests me in this essay. I will consider the phenomenon of Christian Nationalism from historical, global, biblical and practical angles and draw a lesson out of each.
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: THE KINGDOM ADVANCES THROUGH WORD AND SACRAMENT
The witness of the early church exposes us to a sort of culture warrior, but one who contrasts rather sharply from what’s usually meant by that term today.
According to the preeminent Roman historian Tacitus, Christians “got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator, Pontius Pilate, in the Reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition for a short time, but it broke out afresh—not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home” (Ann. 15.44). Suetonius refers to Jews and “other sects” (similia secantes) such as the Christians as “a body of people addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition” (Life of Nero 16).
Romans regard Christians as a sort of plague, spilling the banks of Judea and flooding the centers of Rome. Why? It wasn’t because Christians were more religious than the Romans but precisely the opposite. Everything the Romans did was religious, even entertainment. As the Epistle to Diognetus (130 AD) observes, Christians were not separatists. “For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity.” They look like anyone else, “following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest in their ordinary conduct [but] “dwell in their own countries simply as sojourners.” The letter continues, “As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.” They marry and raise families like everyone else “but they do not destroy their offspring. . . They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. . . They love all and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich. . . They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless.” The letter concludes: “no one can explain why they hate Christians so much.”
Christians were “atheists,” “impious,” and “haters of mankind” (Justin, 2 Apol. 3). Aristides, Marcus Aurelius’s tutor and a devotee of Asclepius, attacked them as unpatriotic and “impious men of Palestine who do not respect their betters” (Oration 46.2).” Hence, Christians were “mad,” perhaps even atheists. Minucius Felix faults Christians, “You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror from our sacred games (Octavius 12).” Opting out of these explicitly religious entertainments, Christians were seen as anti-social and unpatriotic fanatics. For the rhetorician Varro, theology is beside the point. Whether the gods exist or not and the stories about them are true is a matter of political cohesion. Most emperors were less cynical than Varro. While Christians were seen as arrogant (thinking they alone possess the truth), Roman piety was no less sincere or unyielding. Robert Louis Wilken reminds us: “As a Roman proconsul put it at the trial of a Christian in North Africa, ‘If you make fun of things we hold sacred I will not allow you to speak.’”
“By 150 AD,” Arthur M. Wolfson observes, “there were congregations as far east as Arabia, Persia, and India, and as far north as Britain.” At this time, Justin Martyr explains to the emperor what Christians do. First, the Scriptures are read. Then, he continues:
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through his Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the apostles [Gospels] or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we said before, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying ‘Amen’; and there is a distribution to each and a participation of that over which thanks has been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. . . [And] the president succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. . . [H]aving appeared to his apostles, he taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
Hardly the sort of gathering to incite the world’s mightiest empire to persecution, it is a wonder that such an apparently irrelevant movement spread like wildfire. Surely there must have been a hidden agenda, an aim to take control of the Roman empire. No, says Justin:
And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom; whereas we speak of that which is with God, as appears also from the confession of their faith made by those who are charged with being Christians, though they know that death is the punishment awarded to him who so confesses. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.
One more example will suffice, from Tertullian in the second century:
To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey, and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week. We take also, in congregations before daybreak, and from the hand of none but the presidents, the sacrament of the Eucharist, which the Lord both commanded to be eaten at meal-times, and enjoined to be taken by all alike. . . We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s Day to be unlawful. 
What could be less threatening to the greatest power on earth? In fact, critics mocked that Christians talk about “nothing but Christ and him crucified.” They preach nonsense, such as the “Trinity of persons,” the deity of Christ, and his complete humanity, subject to suffering like a common criminal. No wonder they go to the gallows so eagerly. Then they believe in the resurrection of Jesus—and through him, of all the dead—as if this could be good news! It’s all “foolishness” but evidently worthy of combatting with might and mane.
In short, Christianity exploded because believers proclaimed the gospel in Word and Sacrament, repented of sins considered normal, looked after each other’s spiritual and material needs with assiduous care—one-by-one—and welcomed outsiders. No revolution. No marches or insurrections. Just a consistent message and way of life that repaid evil with good.
Fast-forward to the mid-fourth to the early fifth century, and we have a quite different context. The so-called barbarians have sacked Rome. Jerome lamented, “What will become of the church since Rome has fallen?” In contrast, Augustine argued that in his providence, God had brought the mission field to the missionaries. To confuse the kingdom of Christ with any earthly empire is to miss the very nature of the gospel as the proclamation that joins people from every tribe and nation to one body with Christ as the head. The city of God, known to God as the elect but for now a mixed body, is on sojourn. Only when Christ returns will all be made right. Even believers remain sinful. There is no clearer evidence of this than atrocities committed in the name of Christ when professing Christians take the reins of public power.
This ongoing sinfulness of Christians has been evident not only in the infamous age of inquisitions and crusades but even when better principles prevailed. Despite his marvelous narrative of the “two cities,” Augustine pressed for the military suppression of the heretical Donatists. Luther wrote a vitriolic tract stirring the princes to battle against the radical Anabaptists in the Peasants’ War. Calvin defended Luther’s formulation of the “two kingdoms” and argued that the civil laws of the Mosaic covenant are binding on modern nations. Yet, after consulting Melanchthon and Reformed leaders, Geneva burned Servetus and afterward Calvin wrote a treatise defending Christendom’s long-standing practice of burning heretics who deny the Trinity. Quakers and Baptists were not allowed in Puritan Massachusetts. It was only by a long lesson of disenfranchisement that children of the Reformation came together with Unitarians and deists to form a nation that would never use its state power in religious affairs.
What’s the lesson of a historical perspective for us today? We must not confuse the kingdom of Christ with any earthly empire, and the kingdom advances through Word and Sacrament, not through the sword. Even as the United States arguably becomes less hospitable to the Christian faith, losing sight of this lesson can lead the saints to a sinful use of force when they do gain political power.
A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE: HURTING CHRISTIANS AROUND THE WORLD
Turning from history to the globe today, we find another reason to be concerned about talk of Christian nationalism: it risks putting on our own cultural blinders and, worse, jeopardizes Christians around the world.
Every culture is “colonialist” because every human being is filled with sinful pride—what Augustine called the passion to dominate (libido dominandi). We like people who are similar to us because we like ourselves quite a lot. I do not even know when I am imposing my own national history on brothers and sisters in a completely different historical context.
I have been learning this the hard way by annual meetings our organization sponsors in the majority world. For example, in India a leading evangelical Anglican presented a moving defense of “secularism.” Across confessional divides, everyone in the room agreed. I thought to myself, “How provocative that defense would have sounded in my context—to defend secularism!” Yet this Indian brother did not offer an apologia for atheism, but for a government that made no distinction between religions, allowing them to practice freely. Think for a moment about his context. The belief that “India is for Indians”—and that means Hindus—is more politically influential than at any time since independence. Never mind the fact that Indian Christianity goes all the way back to the earliest centuries, or that Islam has an ancient place in Indian culture, too. The ruling party today claims that Indian Christians and Muslims are not really Indian but represent the attempt of foreign agents to infiltrate and dominate. Of course, this claim caricatures the intentions of our Indian brothers and sisters, but it can be supported by the history of Western colonialism and missions.
For almost a century, evangelicals have countered this suspicion by their faithful witness—much along the same lines as the early church as described above. Christianity is not a political movement, but a global community created by the gospel. Yet the Hindu Nationalists feel justified when headlines of Christian Nationalism rear their ugly head.
A centerpiece of the American experiment, refusing the throne-and-altar confusion of the Old World, is the limitation of government interference in religious affairs. The first freedom enshrined in the U. S. Constitution’s First Amendment is precisely what Indian Christians pray for every day. Injuring the cause of global evangelization, however, headlines of Christian nationalism in American politics justifies Hindu Nationalism and a truly secular government seems to recede like a mirage.
The lesson from a global perspective? The aspirations to make America a “Christian nation,” which the global press love to pick and discuss, can hurt the freedom of Christian brothers and sisters around the world to share the gospel, gather as churches, and worship Christ as the Bible prescribes.
A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE: CHRIST IDENTIFIES WITH A HOLY NATION, NOT THE NATIONS
Yet we’re overdue in turning to Scripture. Worth attention is the relationship between the old and new covenants. And what’s crucial here is observing who fulfills all those old covenant promises and types: not the nations of today, but Christ and his church.
“In speaking of a new covenant,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “[God] makes the first one obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). Thus, like the legalists who opposed Paul, churches today that confuse the law with the gospel are in danger of being cut off—excommunicated—from Christ’s kingdom (Gal. 1:6–9). To imagine that any nation today can arrogate to itself the constitution God gave to Israel when he took her under his special care is, by implication at least, to deny the unique blessings of the new covenant.
Besides confusing law and gospel, Christian Nationalism strikes at Christian belief in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Peter Leithart argues that the Great Commission mandates the baptism of nations, not only people: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). However, the object of this baptism—“them” (αὐτοὺς)—is evident in the call to make disciples not only of Jews but of Gentiles—“the nations” (τὰ ἔθνη). All of the baptisms in Acts are of individuals and even when whole households are mentioned, each member is baptized. Nowhere do we meet a mission to baptize national entities. Leithart presses this eccentric exegesis further: “When a nation is baptized, the Father calls that nation ‘Beloved Son’ as he once said ‘Beloved Son’ over Israel (Exod. 4:23).”
From the earliest times, Christians have read such Old Testament passages as types that find their fulfillment in Christ at whose baptism the Father pronounced, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). It is a wonderful promise fulfilled in the new covenant when we read that God will say, “‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance’” (Isa.19:25). Yet this is fulfilled in a remnant from every nation. Amos 9:12 is fulfilled, James announces, in the outpouring of the Spirit on Gentiles as well as Jews: “that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things” (Acts 15:17). Does it not verge on blasphemy to apply “Beloved Son” to the United States or any other modern nation? Once the types reach their apogee in Christ, they have no further antitype.
The law was the constitution that created a particular nation, but the promise is the constitution that creates a worldwide family of Abraham. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). If the water of baptism is thicker than the blood of circumcision that separates Jew and Gentile, then it surely dissolves Gentile walls between Us and Them.
The covenant with Israel was indeed with a circumcised nation, but in the new covenant every person stands before God’s judgment, condemned or justified (Jer. 31:29; Ezek. 18:2). Nations do not exercise saving faith; they are not regenerated, justified, adopted, sanctified, and glorified. The new covenant God will make with his people is “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers” at Sinai (Jer. 31:31).
When nations assume a sacred status and mission, they assume a demonic character. And it is privileged religions that place this magical scepter in the ruler’s hand. The vicious aspect of lopping off the heads of infidels with the cry, “Christus est dominus!” lies not merely in the violent carnage but, above all, in its blasphemy. “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Rom. 2:23–24). But there was never a Holy Roman Empire. Besides fulfilling the Great Commission, the church’s most important role in society is to render Caesar his temporal due while refusing to yield to him even a single jewel from Christ’s crown (Matt. 22:21).
The lesson we take from a biblical perspective for Christian nationalism? Identifying Christ with any nation today risks blasphemy. Christ identifies himself with the “holy nation” of the church, who is comprised of peoples from every nation (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 7:9).
A PRACTICAL PERSPECTIVE: ENGAGE POLITICALLY, BUT DON’T PRESUME TO UNDERTAKE CHRIST’S FINAL JUDGMENT
What does all this mean practically?
God is the ruler of both kingdoms, but in different ways: in the temporary order through providence, common grace, and natural law; in the everlasting kingdom through saving grace and the means of preaching and sacrament. Wherever the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered, a colony of Christ’s empire appears. However, believers belong to both realms. The secular realm is neither everlasting nor contemptible. Common callings that believers share with their unbelieving neighbors are neither holy nor evil but are good and necessary gifts for us and, through us, for others (1 Thes. 4:11).
So believers do not sit by passively, withdrawing from the duties of citizenship. Especially in a democratic republic, they are called to politically engage while reminding themselves, each other, and the state itself that every nation belongs to a realm that will pass away and that only one kingdom will remain forever (Heb. 12:27). Believers seek the common good and justice for all, but they never assume the responsibility of Christ on the Last Day (Luke 9:51–56). Unlike Israel’s commission, instead of executing vengeance on their enemies, they are to love, pray for, and even extend hospitality to them (Matt. 5). We can leave Christ’s final judgment to him. This paragraph summarizes exactly what we found at the beginning of this essay with respect to the conduct of the early church.
In contemporary movements of a postmillennial tendency, there is not even a consensus regarding what the establishment of Christ’s kingdom over the nations might look like in practical terms. John Milbank’s Radical Orthodoxy advances “Christian socialism” and affirms gay civil unions (though not marriage) while American Theonomists sacralize “Christian capitalism” and their ideal state would execute homosexuals . The postmillennialism that was popular among the likes of Abraham Kuyper, B. B. Warfield, and Woodrow Wilson (whom Warfield nominated as president of Princeton) was anti-war and progressivist.
A key tenet of the Reformed tradition is Christian liberty. Where Scripture does not prescribe elements in worship, doctrine, or life, the church cannot bind consciences. Like faith itself, Christian liberty would be threatened by coercion. Even members of the same local church might hold widely varying political views, even on the same pro-life basis. Christians have to put up with some policies to which they object. Politics, after all, is a realm of negotiation and compromise.
However, Christian Nationalism seems to require a unified platform that binds consciences to particular policies that are not addressed, as the Westminster Confession puts it, “either expressly . . . or by good and necessary consequence” in Scripture. In short, Christian Nationalism is not only a nest of theological errors, presuming to undertake Christ’s final judgment, but it is impracticable and wrongly binds Christian consciences.
Allow me to close with what I see as the most practical solution to this impasse. Terms like “the two kingdoms” or the “spirituality of the church” have become lightning rods even in Reformed circles where they were settled doctrines. Even card-carrying premillennialists sound more like postmillennialists when it comes to the culture wars. So “amillennialism” can hardly be less controversial, although the magisterial reformers and Reformed confessions reject “the Jewish error” of Jesus’s day that the kingdom of Christ is a geopolitical entity before the return of the King. So lately I have been wondering about a new tack: What if we upheld the Sabbath? I am not talking about making a list of what can and cannot be done on Sunday. I’m talking simply about the principle that God made us for himself and commands us to find rest in him as his gathered people one day every week. Or have we lost this, too?
It may well be that a firefighter who gardens between services is making good use of this rest. Taking treats to the nursing home or fishing with the kids at the local pond may be as well. But why can’t we take a break from texting, tweeting, checking CNN or FOX, or talking politics in the narthex over coffee? Forget for the moment all the theory, differences over the relation of Christ and culture, and the millennium. What if we just all practiced the Sabbath—especially when we gather as Christ’s body for the means of grace? The powers of the age to come are breaking in on this present evil age here, not in Washington or in the statehouse or the courthouse. In the words of Luther’s famous hymn,
That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth.
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also.
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever!
* * * * *
 Tacitus: Annals 13-16, vol. 5, trans. John Jackson. Loeb Classical Library, no. 322 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937), XV.44, emphasis added.
 Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, trans. Alexander Thomson, revised and corrected by T. Forester (Burk Classics, 2013), , at XVI, 151; cf. 109. These notable Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, were friends of Pliny; in fact, Suetonius was in his employ.
 Epistle to Diognetus in XXXX.
 Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 68. Like his predecessor Trajan, Hadrian declared that Christians were not to be charged based on hearsay. “Legitimate” cases are to be tried in court. “But, by Hercules, if any one brings any accusation through mere calumny, decide in regard to his criminality, and see to it that you inflict punishment” (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.8.1-3) (Wilken, 69).
 Citations in this paragraph are from R. Joseph Hoffman, Epilogue to Porphyry Against the Christians: The Literary Remains (New York: Prometheus Books, 1994), 133, 140-43, 145.
 Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 66.
 Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 54.
 Judging by his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius felt deep piety (eusebeia) in spiritual matters, though he justified his persecution of Christians on the charge that they dishonored public observance (thrêskeia), were obstinate, and devoid of that proper self-control and calm that comes with being “ready to be separated from the body.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. George Long, revised and updated (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1997), Book XI, 85-86. His persecution of Christians was sporadic and local (especially Lyon, where Irenaeus’s senior minister shared with many in a gory death). “What a great soul is that which is ready to be separated from the body,” he wrote, “and then to be extinguished or dispersed or continue to exist.” “But this readiness must come from a man’s own judgment, not out of mere obstinancy, as with the Christians, but considerately and with dignity and in a way to persuade others, without tragic show.”
 Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 63.
 Arthur M. Wolfson, Ancient Civilization: An introduction to Modern History (New York: American Book Company, 1916), 101.
 Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 67.
 Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 11.
 Tertullian, De corona, ch 3-4.
 His True Doctrine (Logos Alēthēs) is preserved only in Origen’s Contra Celsum (c. 248) but was written between 175 and 177, probably in Alexandria. Celsus was a typical Middle Platonist and he seems to have considerable first-hand knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices. R. Joseph Hoffman, Epilogue to Porphyry Against the Christians: The Literary Remains (New York: Prometheus Books, 1994), 147. R. J. Hoffman notes, “Like Plutarch, he argues that there is one supremely good God who employs a vast array of daimones (some good, some evil) who act as influences in the material world.”