Tuesday, February 14, 2012


I ended the last entry with a question:

What is and ought to be the relationship between Christianity and politics, between church and state, now that the secularist vision of the Radical Reformers has taken its current form in “Western” nations?

In the Introduction to his Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (1992), Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder describes a common view: that a chasm divides “church” and “politics”, “worship” and “ordinary life”, and that a bridge is needed to cross this chasm.

He then describes two perspectives on how this chasm is to be bridged.

On what Yoder calls the “liberal” perspective, and what I will call the “head” perspective, from worship we gain concepts, ideas, understandings, or insights. The way we act outside of church, in politics or in other aspects of ordinary life, is then informed by these thoughts. The practical import of worship for ordinary life is cognitive.

On what Yoder calls the “pietist” perspective, and what I will call the “heart” perspective, worship transforms our insides: our “heart”, our feelings, our motives, our will. Christians thus internally transformed by worship behave differently outside of church. The practical difference worship makes for ordinary life is affective.

So, on the “heart” model, we see that the Christian worshiper has a Christian impact on the world because she is a godly person. Good deeds flow naturally from a heart changed by Christ. The worshiper is also, outside of church, a philanthropist, politician, social worker, activist, professional, parent, or teacher, or has some other secular, “political” role in the world. How she performs her worldly role is affected by her changed heart. Worship may make her, for example, more compassionate, or more ready to forgive herself and others—this will affect her relationships in the world.

And, on the “head” model, the worshiper has a Christian impact on the world because she applies ideas (propositional concepts) to her secular activities, such as: “Every person I meet is my neighbor, whom I am to love as part of my self,” or “God demands that God’s people do business justly, without deception or favoritism”.

The “heart” model is more akin to an ethics of character virtue; the “head” model is more akin to an ethics of principles. Yet both models see the individual worshiper as the bridge between the realm of the church (where “worship” happens), and the realm of the world (where “politics” happens).

I am tempted for a moment to regard the “heart” model as better fitting a form of worship that is less socially engaged, and the “head” model as better fitting a form of worship that explicitly tackles social issues. But in fact, whether the focus of worship is changing the head or the heart, worship may or may not limit itself to “spiritual” things (such as grace, forgiveness, and the adoration of Christ), and may or may not directly and explicitly engage “social issues” such as global warming, the presidential election, health care reform, or the wealth gap. We might engage our emotions, not our principles, while showing photography that depicts economic or ecological injustice. And we might intellectualize about theological ideas with no reference to this-worldly concerns.

I suspect, then, that there is little if any difference in pragmatic meaning between these two models. The distinction depends entirely on the cognitive/affective dichotomy, a philosopher’s artifice that has in my opinion a limited usefulness.


Yoder points out that it is more important what these two perspectives have in common: the notion that the “nonpolitical” realm of the Word of God, the realm of worship is both (1) wholly separate from and (2) prior to the “political” realm of this-worldly social issues.

Yoder also points out that in many Christian ethicists’ discussions of politics, the values, principles, and rules of the political realm are seen as autonomous (self-governing). That is, the Word of God preached and received in worship is unnecessary for the right functioning of the political realm outside of the church. He calls this “the doctrine of creation” (page viii). The idea is that that God has given human beings two vehicles of revelation: the special revelation of the Word (Christ and/or the scriptures), and also the natural or general revelation of the World. Moral and political norms, according to “the doctrine of creation”, are grounded in Nature, and these norms thus may be known apart from receiving the Word in Christian worship. (Proponents of this “natural law” view may often cite Romans 2:14-15: “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the [Mosaic] law, do by nature things required by the law…they show that the requirements of the law [ethics] are written on their hearts….”). 

We have two rather different perspectives, here: on one view, Christian worship makes a difference in what it means to rightly engage in political/social/this-worldly concerns, whether because worship changes our heads or our hearts. On the other view, natural law is the source of right and wrong in this world, and so Christian worship has nothing to add to the realm of politics.

Yoder responds to this potential confusion not by taking one side or the other on the questions: “How do the separate realms of worship and politics relate to one another?” and “Does worship make a practical difference to Christians’ political engagement in this-worldly concerns or not?”, but rather by taking the position that the confusion is prior to our asking these questions. The problem is in the way we have conceived of “politics” as something that is separate from and not immediately relevant to the activity of the church.

Instead, we should begin by recognizing that the church itself is a political reality.

This, then, is how Yoder begins his project in Body Politics:
Instead, this study will pick up the topic of the church as body, for its own sake, from the beginning. The Christian community, like any community held together by commitment to important values, is a political reality. That is, the church has the character of a polis (the Greek word from which we get the adjective political), namely, a structured social body. It has its ways of making decisions, defining membership, and carrying out common tasks. That makes the Christian community a political entity in the simplest meaning of the term.

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