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Evangelicals need a richer vocabulary of politics and better social values if we’re going to say anything worth hearing about “gay marriage”: a response to Barnabas Piper

by Thomas Holgrave (@hipstercon)

Barnabas Piper’s article for Relevant Magazine illustrates pretty well what often passes for thought among young evangelicals. Is this criticism too harsh? I am unhappy, not so much with what he says, which sounds compassionate and reasonable as far as it goes, but which doesn’t go very far at all. My objection is with what he assumes, what he doesn’t say, and doesn’t even realize he could say if he wanted to.

Piper observes, justly, that Christians need to be “clear, but kind . . . bold, but gentle.” Disagreement must never turn into hatred and nastiness. Our aim in talking about the “gay marriage” issue should not be to “win” in the sense of defeating a debate opponent, but rather to persuade, to win the other’s heart with Christ-like love and care.

So far, so good. But Piper is also impatient with the fact that this debate has to do with politics. Politics, to Piper, is a sort of sideline activity to what he believes should be the main occupation of Christians, evangelism. To his mind, engaging in politics can be a distraction from the only really important work of attracting souls to Jesus.

And you know what? He’s right. At least, the way many American evangelicals understand politics, there is a wide distance between political activity (the secular sphere) and evangelism (the religious sphere). This view is also wrong and extremely dangerous, as I’ll attempt to show.

Piper seems to be confused about the difference between compassionate, loving friendship, accepting people as they are, and public discussion and action. The aim of the former is to know, love, and help an individual friend come to knowledge of God and true self-knowledge. The aim of the latter is the public, common good of society. We cannot simply step away from this. St. Paul said to “have nothing to do with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them,” are we to believe that this only applies within the church? Surely it is not only within the church that darkness is to be found. Rather, the church exists (or ought to exist) as the light of Christ in the darkness of the world, inviting the world to enter the kingdom of light and love whose sovereign is Jesus.

Many in Piper’s and my generation–the “Millennials”–are political agnostics. We see a lot of corruption and not a lot of good in politics. I work close enough to Washington politics to know that, here, the gears of “progress” are lubricated by a disgusting slime of mindless egotism, ideology, bribery, and blackmail. DC politics resembles a whorehouse. Rob Portman, for instance, didn’t really change his position on marriage when he learned his son was gay. People in politics have known about that for years. Portman’s move was carefully timed and calculated for political advantage–either his, or someone else’s.

But politics is about more than Machiavellian machinations. Politics rightly understood is about living peaceably with our neighbors, seeking the common good, and pursuing, together with our neighbors, a shared vision of living well as human beings. Christianity has so much to offer in this pursuit. We know, for instance, that as human beings we all are made in the image of God, possessing intrinsic dignity and worth from conception to death, and that in between we are made to love and seek deep relationships with our fellow human beings and with God. We also know that our maleness and femaleness tells us something profound about ourselves and the way we are intended to live whole and fulfilling lives.

Laws show what a community aspires to be. They seek to protect the community from perceived dangers to the realization of its ideal of full, authentic human life, and encourage conditions which make this ideal attainable for as many as possible.

Laws teach. How can a Christian deny this when St. Paul says that “the Law was our pedagogue (tutor) to bring us to Christ?” Politics is not only about compelling people’s behavior, but also and even primarily communicating in a public way what is true and what isn’t, with respect to how people ought to act in order to attain the good life. Law is not the mere exercise of force. It sets boundaries and lifts up certain ways of living, to show people what is the good way to follow.

Christians can’t stop here, of course, because we understand that the vision of the good life aspired to in political community will always fall short of the perfection of the kingdom of God which we enter into by faith in Christ. But just because our citizenship in heaven is infinitely better and more valuable than our citizenship in the world, we should not act as if political life has no value whatever.

Piper’s political agnosticism resembles a sloppy Anabaptism, but lacks the necessary self-awareness that makes Anabaptism compelling. Now a person of Anabaptist tendency, hankering for martyrdom, might indeed be willing to let the world go to pot, the better to be persecuted by it. Barnabas Piper doesn’t strike me as this sort of fanatic. I have not heard that he has eschewed marriage and personal property, chained himself to abortion clinic doors, or sat in sackcloth on city streets with Shane Claiborne. I assume he pays his taxes to the government and recognizes that its authority comes from God.

If we’re to “seek the peace of the city” in which God has placed us, we must understand what is the common good–the political good–of the place we are in. We don’t have the luxury of abandoning our neighbors, their children, and future descendents to the destruction that is in the world because of sin. For one thing, “it is in its peace that you will find your peace.” We are, and will be, right there with them, suffering with them in bad times, rejoicing with them in times of peace. God is not going to separate the church from the world in our lifetime, as far as we know. (If you have a “word” from the Lord about this, I don’t want to hear it.) My generation is now having to ask our parents and grandparents, “Where were you when no-fault divorce and abortion were becoming the law of the land?” Now with millions of lives and families destroyed, we taste the bitter fruit, and we don’t want to answer to future generations for our own abandonment of the common good.

My Christian friends who put up an equals sign on Facebook are not going to hell. Nobody is saying that. Yet they are deeply confused about the nature and meaning of the public good of marriage, and they may be confusing showing love for individuals with endorsing a broad political agenda. But this agenda is perverse in that it explicitly contradicts and denies a truth that is necessary for the common good.

As Kristin Rudolph has recently observed, my fellow Millennials are an emotionally-driven and mostly unserious generation. This is cause for compassion, not condemnation. But Barnabas Piper has no such excuse. He is at least by virtue of parentage and having a blog which a lot of people read, a thought leader and respected person in our generation. (Whereas I, for example, am not.) His feckless public tomfoolery deserves a public response, for the common good.

Thomas Holgrave is an anonymous writer for the Hipster Conservative.