The Danger of Privatized Christianity
“In terms of Christian theory, privatization means that the grand, global umbrella of faith has shrunk to the size of a plastic rain hat. Total life norms have become part-time values. In terms of Christian practice, watch your average Christian business person or politician. Are there family prayers at home before leaving for work? The private sphere. Are there Bible studies with colleagues at the office? Still the private sphere.” — Os Guinness
Christianity has been described as “Socially irrelevant, even if privately engaging.” Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace to You, a Christian organization that features the preaching ministry of John MacArthur, writes that it’s wrong for Christians to lobby, rally voters, organize protests, and harness the evangelical movement for political clout. Is it any wonder our nation is a mess?
Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), homeschooled by his father, minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, prime minister of the Netherlands, editor of the newspaper The Standard, president of the Free University of Amsterdam, founder of the Anti-Revolutionary Party, and prolific author, said, “there is not one inch of creation of which Christ doesn’t say ‘Mine.’”1
There are many Christians who believe that a personal, private faith is all the gospel requires. Os Guinness described this as “The Private-Zoo Factor,” a religion that is caged so that it loses its wildness. When true Christianity is applied to any part of the world, it blossoms far more fully and colorfully than we ever could have imagined.2
Over time, Christianity ceased to be a comprehensive, world-changing religion. “[W]here religion still survives in the modern world, no matter how passionate or ‘committed’ the individual may be, it amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare-time hobby, a leisure pursuit.”3
No one I know believes that government can save us. Most Christians I know who get involved in politics do so to restrict the power of the State. They believe they have a responsibility to check and balance the authority and power of the State.
Consider what happened in the decades prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Christians were being taught that “Religion was a private matter that” only “concerned itself with the personal and moral development of the individual.”4
These ministers believed and taught that the church’s sole concern was man’s internal spiritual life. Here’s a sample of German theological thinking that shaped the mindset of the nation and brought Hitler to power:
- Christian Ernst Luthard wrote in 1867: “The Gospel has absolutely nothing to do with outward existence but only with eternal life, not with external orders and institutions which could come in conflict with the secular orders but only with the heart and its relationship with God.”
- Rudolf Sohm (1841–1917), speaking to a convention on the main Christian social action group, the Inner Mission, asserted: “The Gospel frees us from this world, frees us from all questions of this world, frees us inwardly, also from the questions of public life, also from the social question. Christianity has no answer to these questions.”
- Wilhelm Hermann declared in the 1913 edition of his book on ethics that once Christians understood the moral significance of the state, then they “will consider obedience to the government to be the highest vocation within the state. For the authority of the state on the whole, resting as it does upon authority of the government, is more important than the elimination of any shortcomings which it might have.”
With Christians out of the way, Hitler had no real ideological opposition. Many Christians fell in line because they believed the nonsense (heresy) of these social philosophers. It’s unfortunate that there are well-respected theologians in America today who spout similar dangerous nonsense. It all sounds so “spiritual,” but in the end, such thinking only opens the gate wide for tyrants to enter and oppress the people.
The following are some of the theological reasons many Christians use to justify not getting involved politically. They believe there are sound biblical reasons why they should avoid the endeavor altogether:
- We should just preach the gospel: Paul told the Ephesian elders that he did not shrink from declaring to them the “whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). Being a new creature in Christ is the first step in a whole new life. Being born again does not stop at infancy. We are to grow up in the faith so every area of life is impacted by God’s Word (Heb. 5:11-14).
- Politics is dirty: What isn’t dirty? Our job is to clean up the things that are dirty. Diapers are dirty, and we change them. If a politician is dirty, then change him or her.
- Jesus didn’t get mixed up in politics, so why should we?:There are many things Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t get married, have children, or own a home. Should we follow His example in these areas? The civil magistrate is said to be a “minister of God” (Rom. 13:1-4). It’s the same Greek word ( διάκονός) used to describe a deacon in an ecclesiastical setting (1 Tim. 3:8-13). In neither of these governmental offices are these ministers to “lord it over those allotted to [their] charge” (1 Peter. 5:3; see Matt. 20:25-28).
- Our citizenship is in heaven: We have multiple citizenships (commonwealths), with our heavenly citizenship being a priority (Phil. 3:20; see Acts 5:29). The fact that Paul was a citizen of heaven did not stop him from claiming his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:25-29) and appealing to Caesar (25:9-12).
- There’s a separation between church and state: The Bible teaches that there is a jurisdictional separation between church and state, but there is no separation between God and government, and that includes civil government.
- Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world: God’s kingdom does not derive its power and authority from this world, but His kingdom is in and over this world whether people acknowledge it or not. We are to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 7:10). Doing God’s will is the manifestation of kingdom living.
- Politics is not spiritual: If civil government has been ordained by God, then it is spiritual as is every area of life when governed by the Word of God.
- Satan is the god of this world: Satan is no more a god than a person’s stomach is a god (Phil. 3:19). Paul is describing what some people choose to be their god, a limited creature who has been defeated.
- We’re not supposed to judge: We are admonished by Jesus to be consistent in judgment (Matt. 7:1-2) and to “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
- We must render to Caesar what’s Caesar’s: We don’t live under Caesar. We live under a Constitution, and we can remove and replace people in office and “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The people in Jesus’ day could not. We do not have to settle for the political status quo.
- Christians should remain neutral: Neutrality is impossible. Jesus said, “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Matt. 12:30; also see Rev. 3:16).
- We can’t impose our morality on other people: All law is the imposition of someone’s view of morality. The question is, What areas of life are the civil magistrate given the authority to legislate?
- We’re living in the last days and Jesus is coming soon to rapture His church so why polish brass on a sinking ship?: How many times have we heard this claim? Even today Christians are pushing the canard that the “rapture” is near, that the antichrist is on the brink of revealing himself, and there is no reason to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. Those in the world are wiser. Shipbuilding did not stop with the sinking of an unsinkable ship. sometimes “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8).
There’s so much more that could be said on this topic. I’ve covered the above topics and more in my book Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: How Misreading the Bible Neutralizes Christians and Empowers Liberals, Secularists, and Atheists.
- Quoted in Douglas Groothuis, “Revolutionizing our Worldview,” The Reformed Journal (November 1982), 23. [↩]
- Os Guinness, The Gravedigger File: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 79. [↩]
- Guinness, The Gravedigger File, 72. [↩]
- Richard V. Pierard, “Why Did Protestants Welcome Hitler?,” Fides et Historia (North Newton, KS: The Conference on Faith and History), X:2 (Spring 1978), 13. [↩]