Resident Aliens: Chapter 2, Christian Politics in the New World, Part 2

We’re working our way through Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Williamson, published in 1989.

Yoder distinguishes between the activist church, the conversionist church, and the confessing church.

The activist church is more concerned with the building of a better society than with the reformation of the church. …

On the other hand we have the conversionist church. … Because this church works only for inward change, it has no alternative social ethic or social structure of its own to offer the world. Alas, the political claims of Jesus are sacrificed for politics that inevitably seems to degenerate into a religiously glorified conservatism.

The confessing church is not a synthesis of the other two approaches, a helpful middle ground. Rather, it is a radical alternative. Rejecting both the individualism of the conversionists and the secularism of the activists and their common equation of what works with what is faithful, the confessing church finds its main political task to lie, not in the personal transformation of individual hearts or the modification of society, but rather in the congregation’s determination to worship Christ in all things.

We might be tempted to say that faithfulness rather than effectiveness is the goal of a confessing church. Yet we believe this is a false alternative. … For the confessing church to be determined to worship God alone “though the heavens fall” implies that, if these heavens fall, this church has a principle based on the belief that God is not stumped by such dire situations. For the church to set the principle of being the church above other principles is not to thumb our noses at results. It is trusting God to give us the rules, which are based on what God is doing in the world to bring about God’s good results. (p. 46).

You’ll now sometimes read about the “confessing church,” being a church that confesses faith in Jesus as its primary ethic. Faith in God prevails over self-reliance.

The confessing church, like the conversionist church, also calls people to conversion, but it depicts that conversion as a long process of being baptismally engrafted into a new people, an alternative polis [city-state], a countercultural social structure called church. It seeks to influence the world by being the church, that is, by being something the world is not and can never be, lacking the gift of faith and vision, which is ours in Christ. The confessing church seeks the visible church, a place, clearly visible to the world, in which people are faithful to their promises, love their enemies, tell the truth, honor the poor, suffer for righteousness, and thereby testify to the amazing community-creating power of God. The confessing church has no interest in withdrawing from the world, but it is not surprised when its witness evokes hostility from the world. The confessing church moves from the activist church’s acceptance of the culture with a few qualifications, to rejection of the culture with a few exceptions. The confessing church can participate in secular movements against war, against hunger, and against other forms of inhumanity, but it sees this as part of its necessary proclamatory action. This church knows that its most credible form of witness (and the most “effective” thing it can do for the world) is the actual creation of a living, breathing, visible community of faith.  (pp. 46-47).

Now, this is a tough claim. The authors argue that the main thing the church can do is be the church, that is, to live the Kingdom parables and Sermon on the Mount, to be the Kingdom of God. Long before we can bring the Kingdom of God to earth in its fullness, we must first become the Kingdom of God, meaning we must start acting like Christians.

And that means understanding that our church is not our tax-deductible social club but our true nationality and our true tribe. It’s our identity much, much more so than being American or white or rich. Our true family and true nation is the church.

Thus, the church is ultimately seditious and dangerous —

The cross is not a sign of the church’s quiet, suffering submission to the powers-that-be, but rather the church’s revolutionary participation in the victory of Christ over those powers. The cross is not a symbol for general human suffering and oppression. Rather, the cross is a sign of what happens when one takes God’s account of reality more seriously than Caesar’s.  (p. 47).

In other words, we adopt a Christian worldview, which is not the Republican Party’s worldview. Rather, we try to see the world as God sees the world.

Here’s a telling story —

Sometime ago, when the United States bombed military and civilian targets in Libya, a debate raged concerning the morality of that act. One of us witnessed an informal gathering of students who argued the morality of the bombing of Libya. Some thought it was immoral, others thought it was moral. At one point in the argument, one of the students turned and said, “Well, preacher, what do you think?”

I said that, as a Christian, I could never support bombing, particularly bombing of civilians, as an ethical act. “That’s just what we expected you to say,” said another. “That’s typical of you Christians. Always on the high moral ground, aren’t you? You get so upset when a terrorist guns down a little girl in an airport, but when President Reagan tries to set things right, you get indignant when a few Libyans get hurt.”

The assumption seems to be that there are only two political options: Either conservative support of the administration, or liberal condemnation of the administration followed by efforts to let the U.N. handle it.

“You know, you have a point,” I said. “What would be a Christian response to this?” Then I answered, right off the top of my head, “A Christian response might be that tomorrow morning The United Methodist Church announces that it is sending a thousand missionaries to Libya. We have discovered that it is fertile field for the gospel. We know how to send missionaries. Here is at least a traditional Christian response.”

“You can’t do that,” said my adversary. “Why?” I asked. “You tell me why.”

“Because it’s illegal to travel in Libya. President Reagan will not give you a visa to go there.”

“No! That’s not right,” I said. “I’ll admit that we can’t go to Libya, but not because of President Reagan. We can’t go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did.”

We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.  (pp. 47-48).

And this leads to a very hard question. Many of us would be willing to let our children join the US military and go fight in Libya. We understand that they might die, but if the cause is noble, we’d suffer that risk for the good of the country.

How many of us would be willing to let our children go to Libya as missionaries, understanding they might die? How many would suffer that risk for our true country, the Kingdom of Heaven?

And that question, to me, tells us whom we really worship.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to Resident Aliens: Chapter 2, Christian Politics in the New World, Part 2

  1. Enterprise says:

    Well, once again, you are hitting some good points. I am not sure that the confessing church can avoid being a conversionist church since the transformation from the world’s ways to Christ’s ways does take time.

    However, I like the description given in that the confessing church is more concerned about its service to Christ than to the world. The church is the pillar and ground for the the Truth.
    The world is not.

    We should work to support it.

  2. Adam says:

    We fight and we fight and we fight to not have to live like this, because it is far, far too difficult. And Christ would never call us to something difficult. Right?

  3. Tim Archer says:

    “How many of us would be willing to let our children go to Libya as missionaries, understanding they might die? How many would suffer that risk for our true country, the Kingdom of Heaven?”

    Great quote. It’s considered noble to risk your life for your country, foolish to risk your life for your church.

    Things have certainly gotten turned upside down, haven’t they.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  4. Jeff B. says:

    This reminds me of a recent Sunday at my church when a soldier who was about to leave for the Middle East was called to the front to be prayed over. Our large church spontaneously gave him a lengthy standing ovation. Immediately following, another individual was called to the front who was going to be leaving for the mission field. A much less enthusiastic, seated applause was given.

  5. Alabama John says:

    I’ve always admired the simple uneducated native religions dedication and simple standards. No divisions. This is what God (by whatever name) requires. Simple.

    Everyone believing the same thing and the only question is when will you do what is asked and at what age.

    Much harder to be a part of and give your life for a religion that has 3000 plus denominations and many of those with divisions like the churches of Christ with approx 25.

    What I hear today when asked what religious affiliation do you want on your dog tags and many are just putting uncommitted or none


  6. Charles McLean says:

    It seems to me that the challenge of the “confessing church” is that its formation and development is much more difficult than the formation of the other two alternatives posed. This is because those two are about what we do. The activist church positions itself to change the world by that which it does or that which it opposes. Members of the conversionist church seek to change themselves by what the do or what they disavow.

    The confessing church, it seems to me, is not oriented toward “doing” but first toward “being”.. This requires more effort, more integrity, more authenticity, more constancy than undertaking protest or crusades or a pious isolation of ourselves from our society. Being also is harder to measure, to quantify in the natural, especially at first. But the end result is that the members of the church live in its society as who they are, which is far more effective and legitimate in the long run.

    Possibly the most effective test of this dynamic would be opposition. The confessing church cannot retreat in the face of opposition, because that would require changing its identity. (Luther said at Worms, “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”) The activist church can rationally retreat to fight another day on the grounds of expedience, and the conversionist church can withdraw from the field, using the opposition as a reason to further separate themselves.

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