Public Discipleship and Spiritual Formation

Richard J. Mouw

My first book, Political Evangelism, written back in the early 1970s, was a plea for evangelical Christians to get involved in public life. Folks who were not around then might find it difficult to believe that a book like that was necessary. But it was a time when many evangelicals still believed — as they had for much of the earlier part of the 20th century, that we should be content to live on the margins of the larger culture, focusing primarily on evangelizing people who would then join us in our efforts to cultivate the kind of spiritual lives that could prepare us for eternity.

I do not disagree now with anything that I wrote in that book. What I have come to see, though, is that simply making the case for engagement in public life is not enough. Indeed, the very word “engagement” signals the need for a larger task. One way of getting “engaged” is to fall in love and commit to marriage. But there is also a military sense of “engagement,” where you go on the attack in the hope of conquering an enemy.

For Christians in the public square, neither of these senses of engagement is appropriate. We are not to “marry” the culture in which we find ourselves. But neither are we simply to go on the attack, in the hopes of conquering it. We need a third sense of “engagement”: taking our public life seriously, while being reflective as we think about the proper manner of our involvement. That third kind of certainly requires that we do careful theology.

A few years ago, when the topic of Supreme Court appointments was much in the news, a commentator observed that while evangelicals have a lot to say about such matters, when it comes to choosing justices who have conservative religious views, the nod typically goes to Catholics. On questions of legal theory, the commentator observed, evangelicals lack the requisite “intellectual heft.”

I agree with that assessment — for the most part. The fact is that many evangelical scholars have been doing their intellectual homework in this area. I am impressed with the growing body of literature on social-political-economic questions by scholars who are intent on making the connections between biblical and theological themes and topics relating to the public square. Evangelicals have been contributing to this project in a way that illuminates many important issues of public discipleship.

How do we do a better job of bringing the fruits of this scholarship to the front ranks of evangelicalism? An important part of the answer is that more “intellectual heft” alone is not going to solve the problem. While we continue to address the important issues of the mind, we also need to be working on the level of spiritual formation. We need more attention to the topic of a spirituality for Christian citizenship.

When I decided to write a book on civility in the early 1990s, I was stimulated in part by a brief comment that I had come upon in one of Martin Marty’s books (By Way of Response [Abingdon, 1981]). Many people today who are civil, he observed, do not have very strong convictions; and many who have strong convictions are not very civil. What the world needs, Marty said, is people with convicted civility. The challenge is to cultivate a spiritual outlook that is grounded in strong convictions. This is no simple feat. The Bible recognizes that civility does not come easy, but the writers do insist that we work at it. The author of Hebrews puts it in a straightforward way: We are to “pursue peace with everyone” so that we can display that “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14, NRSV). I like the older translation that tells us that we are to “strive for peace with all men” (RSV). The apostle Peter commends a similar pattern when he urges us to “honor everyone” (1 Pet 2:17), and to be sure that, when we are expressing our deepest convictions to other people, we do so “with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).

Again, though, this does not come easy. It certainly cannot mean compromising our deepest convictions. Rather, it requires that we draw on those convictions in our striving to show “gentleness and reverence” to all human beings.

There is a nice phrase that I learned from the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. We are, he liked to say, “living in the time of God’s patience.” I like that formulation. God will someday bring the final victory — but not yet. We must not try to rush him. But neither can we simply sit back and watch bad things happen, as if we have no responsibility for promoting public righteousness. While cultural passivity is not the answer, neither is a “culture wars” mentality. It is not our job to win the battle. Rather, we must explore the possibilities of being a force for good in public life — given those things we can be quite certain about — during this time of God’s patience.

The growth in spirituality that is required here is closely related to ethical issues, but not exactly the same. Ronald Thiemann, a Lutheran who teaches at Harvard Divinity School, points us in the right direction when he proposes, in his Constructing Public Theology: The Church in a Pluralistic Culture (Westminster John Knox, 1991), that local congregations function as “‘schools of public virtue,’ communities that seek to form the kind of character necessary for public life.” Thiemann is one of the advocates of “virtue ethics,” an important school of thought in moral theology, with laudable emphasis on the centrality of character-formation for the moral life. But as Christians we know that the forming of character requires more than ethical sensitivities and knowledge. It also has to do with matters of the spirit.

The fact is that the formation of moral character does not always proceed smoothly, because we are sinners who are prone to self-deception. The process must include transforming moments when we are forced to look directly at our own sinful ways. Often we need to be shocked into an awareness of the motives that really shape our thoughts and actions, and to respond to these revelations by pleading for the mercy that will allow us to repair our patterns. All of this must happen in contexts where the basic issues of sin and grace are openly displayed in the worshiping life of a community. And unless that community explicitly attends to the need for our lives to be formed — better yet, transformed — as citizens, there is little good that can be expected of Christians vis-à-vis the crucial issues of public life.

It is in the sacred space of our worshiping life that we can draw on the springs of spiritual renewal that can only be found by confessing our sins together in the midst of a people who have responded to the call to worship the living God. And it is in that space that we can experience character-formation in the deep places, as we hear the promise that “suffering produces perseverance; [and] perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).

What happens in our communal worship must spill over into our lives as citizens in a larger society. The Bible gives us some very broad assignments in this regard. One of my favorites is found in Jeremiah, where the children of Israel have been carried off into captivity in the wicked city of Babylon. This is a disorienting experience for them spiritually. They had grown accustomed to living in Jerusalem, where they had a temple for the true worship of God and where the laws of the land were based on what God had revealed to them. Now they had lost all of that, and they are wondering how they can still be faithful servants of the true God.

In Jer 29, the prophet brings them a word from the Lord about how they are to handle this new situation. They are to build houses for their families to live in and they are to plant crops for their livelihood. God also wants them to “multiply there,” he says, marrying and producing children. But then he gives them this assignment for their lives as citizens: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The Hebrew word for “welfare” here is shalom, which is often translated as “peace,” but it also includes the ideas of justice and righteousness.

In the NT, the apostle (1 Pet 2:11-12) describes God’s people — this time the Christian church — as “aliens and exiles” in the places where we live. And he, too, provides a broad assignment: “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles so that, though they malign you has evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds, and glorify God when he comes to judge.” There is no way around this. We have to care about the “welfare” of our fellow human beings. They should see us as folks who act “honorably” in their midst.

In our efforts to treat others with honor, of course, we must always be sensitive to the real possibility that our commitment to our own best understanding of “public” may on occasion be out of line with the visions of public life being bandied about by our contemporaries that the most we can hope for is a holding pattern in the present. Because we look “for a city that has foundations” (Heb 11:10), it is enough for us to await the coming transformation by engaging in modest and civil efforts in the public arena as it is presently constituted, for we anticipate something that is far better. Even so, we are obliged to seize the opportunities available to us as public agents during this time of God’s patience.

How to accomplish all of that, of course, is not easy to discern. Even detailed visions of what constitutes a healthy public order will not accomplish the whole job for us. We need those very personal resources for living out our lives in the midst of the tragedy of existence as we presently experience it in both our public and private interactions.

Here I must confess that for all of my own deep loyalties to the Calvinist tradition, I find myself turning these days to other sources on some very basic issues. I find, for example, that John Calvin, who is well-known for his emphasis on the ravages of sin in human affairs, shows a surprising lack of sensitivity to the tragic dimensions of public life. In recognizing this, Mark Noll has wisely urged Calvinists to inject a bit of “Lutheran leaven” into their schemes for reforming political life (Adding Cross to Crown: The Political Significance of Christ’s Passion [Baker, 1996]).

The contrast between Calvin and Luther on these matters shows up nicely in the Cambridge University Press volume setting forth essays by the two Reformers on matters of public discipleship. The volume’s editor, Harro Hopfl, observes that while Calvin fostered a systematic attention to the public-institutional ordering of life, Luther was far more interested in the character of the public leader and in the spiritual manner of the Christian’s involvement in the public arena. Luther’s characterization of the calling of the Christian prince is especially poignant, and it can instruct us as a more general word of advice for our callings as Christian citizens. The prince must be spiritually vigilant, Luther warns, if he wants to guarantee that “his condition will be outwardly and inwardly right, pleasing to God and men.” And in doing so, Luther quickly adds, the prince “must anticipate a great deal of envy and suffering. As illustrious a man as this will soon feel the cross lying on his neck” (Luther and Calvin on Secular Authority [1991]).

John Calvin’s more systematic views on public life have typically given him a higher profile than Luther for Christians who have looked to the Reformation for guidance on how best to shape political programs and movements. Luther’s political reflections are more in the genre of devotional reminders of the practical challenges and dangers of public life. Like all virtue-oriented accounts of the good life, it is easy to treat Luther’s discussion as merely a helpful supplement to the more systematic treatments of the sort that Calvin offers. Perhaps this is legitimate. But in a contemporary climate where tragedy looms so large in the patterns of our corporate existence — and yet when so many evangelicals are, ironically, still tempted by new moods of triumphalism — helpful supplements can sometimes provide us with our best sources of counsel.

Many Christians in the past have lived with a vivid sense of the tragic conditions under which they were called to serve the Lord. In a number of traditions it was common for believers to describe themselves, especially during periods of persecution and oppression, as members of “the churches under the cross.” Perhaps it is time for evangelicals to revive that category of self-understanding, applying it this time in a spirit of humility to our broader responsibilities as citizens who work with others for the common good. This can be for us a new exercise in shunning worldliness, giving new meaning to our prayers that Jesus will keep us near the cross as we seek the welfare of the cities in which we spend the time of our exile—albeit, ever watchful for the kind of large scale renewal that can only be ushered in with the sound of heaven’s trumpets.

Posted Feb 01, 2012