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Christian Moral Pedagogy and Penumbrae of Power

December 13th, 2022 | 10 min read

By Matthew Loftus

I think most Christians these days who are thinking about culture, society, and politics agree with Leslie Newbigin that Christians in the West today face the challenge of being missionaries in their own culture, and that the post-Christian pluralist West has unique challenges facing the proclamation of the Gospel:

Human beings only exist as members of communities which share a common language, customs, ways of ordering economic and social life, ways of understanding and coping with their world. If the gospel is to be understood, if it is to be received as something which communicates truth about the real human situation, if it is, as we say, to “make sense,” it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed and has to be clothed in symbols which are meaningful to them. And since the gospel does not come as a disembodied message, but as the message of a community which claims to live by it and which invites others to adhere to it, the community’s life must be so ordered that it “makes sense” to those who are so invited. It must, as we say, “come alive.” Those to whom it is addressed must be able to say, “Yes, I see. This is true for me, for my situation.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)

I think that the different interlocutors in the discussion that’s been unspooling over the past few weeks about this question are feeling different parts of the elephant rightly: Alan Jacobs is right when he says that the world, the flesh, and the devil are always against us, the question is always about how to be a faithful Christian in whatever context we find ourselves, and being a faithful Christian always means being a missionary in some sense. Kirsten Sanders is right that the Church’s witness to the world is often unintelligible and we need not measure our faithfulness by our persuasiveness. James Wood is right that it is entirely appropriate for Christians to exercise political power on matters of prudential judgment, and that acquiring this power or exercising it might not always sit well with people inside or outside the Church. Tim Keller is right that the normative mode of engagement with people outside the Church (at least on matters of faith, and quite frequently on matters of political or social change) is going to be persuasion. Derek Rishmawy is right when he says that there are different ways that the world, the flesh, and the devil make our task difficult, requiring different strategies for faithfulness. Brad East is right that the world we’re living in now poses some unique challenges to Christian witness.

Where I hope I might try to draw some of these themes together is to emphasize some distinctions about our speech and our goals for that speech. The more localized, focused, and relational that any context for speech is, the more specific we can be. Broad abstractions about culture, society, and politics are inevitable and can be good, but they will necessarily lack the specificity to be true in all situations because there is no such thing as “the culture” that can be engaged, impacted, fought with, persuaded, overcome, witnessed to, overtaken by, or (Lord help you) loved on.

Perhaps the most commonly confused distinctions are the following:

  • The proclamation of the Gospel to those who do not know Christ.
  • The work of Christians to do the good works God has prepared for us.
  • The work of exercising political and social power in a way that would glorify God and demonstrate love to our neighbors.

The first is a clear mandate from Scripture, the second is diffuse in its application but still a necessary part of Christian life together, and the third is an outworking of our theological and Biblical commitments to honor God, but without any sense of conscience-binding to any particular Christian or church.

A second set of distinctions among Christians as corporate bodies helps us sort out the first: local churches (gathered bodies of believers for worship), Christian households (groups of Christians organized around families or otherwise living in close proximity to one another), and the Body of Christ or the Church Universal. These distinctions aren’t sorted by size, but by the clarity and expansiveness of their responsibilities.

It is the role of local churches to preach and teach the Scriptures in their own congregations, send out people to proclaim the Gospel distantly, disciple their members, gather to worship God, and administer the sacraments. It is the role of Christian households to perform acts of mercy or otherwise work for justice in their communities, while also discerning the Scriptures for other callings they may have or other moral injunctions they must follow. It is the role of the Church to call political leaders to account for their submission to God’s law and to be salt and light in a world which desperately needs both, diffusing God’s common grace through the affirmation of God’s truth and the practice of Christian morality.

To distinguish between actual churches, Christians in their households, and the Church Universal allows us to assign different responsibilities to each; while all three represent what is mostly the same group of people, binding them equally without distinction leaves us without a full picture of our life here on earth. Many times what we want to say about the duties of Christians leads us to lay up impossible burdens for local churches and the overwhelmed pastors in charge of them, and there are other times when we want to appropriately narrow the scope of any one church’s responsibilities we find ourselves shaving off passages like Romans 15 or Isaiah 58 as we do so.

The place I have assigned to the Body of Christ at large (and thus no one in particular) is where I think we find the most controversy. The wedges of disagreement that I see so far are whether the Church ought to intentionally be doing something as it relates to culture, society, or politics at large and what kind of strategy it ought to pursue if it were to do so. Christian moral pedagogy to the culture is hardly the most important thing that Christians can do and it can only “fashion an oblique and indirect witness to the created order”, as Oliver O’Donovan puts it (Resurrection and Moral Order, 97), and thus it will not be easily susceptible to definitive claims of the right or wrong way to do it.

However, Christian moral pedagogy to the world by word and action is still worthwhile and necessary. It is not the responsibility of any particular church; a gathering of any body of believers to worship God bears witness to a heavenly kingdom whose goods may or may not be intelligible, compelling, or appealing to the people around them. However, Jesus speaks quite frequently about the advancement of the kingdom of God in word and deed through his ministry and the ministry of his disciples, which is to say that these outward-facing activities are the means by which that heavenly kingdom invades our world from the eschaton where it is fully realized. In the words of O’Donovan, the church “participates in the coming of the Kingdom and witnesses to it.”

So we have some kind of responsibility to a watching world, though we are not judged by the world in this regard but by God. Sometimes faithful witness will get you flogged, sometimes it will get you a church full of newly converted city officials (as Paul can attest). And while this responsibility is about as ambiguous an injunction as we can get, it’s still ever-present. It’s perfectly right to build cultural bunkers to protect our kids from the world, the flesh, and the devil as long as we’re honest about the fact that these bunkers are forward operating bases for a missionary life.

In diverse contexts, Christian moral pedagogy to the outside world will obviously look different. Besides the fact that nonstop doomsaying is corrosive to the soul, it’s also incredibly annoying to hear people speak about our post-Christian culture as if it is all one thing. There are some penumbrae of cultural, social, and political power where anti-Christian attitudes and beliefs are pervasive and dominant; a few might be as inaccessible for a faithful believer as a seat in the Iranian Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution. There are other penumbrae of power where Christians do have influence for good; it is difficult for me to say that the best word for our world is “negative” when conservative Christians form a majority on the Supreme Court, are able to clearly state Biblical truths in most major media outlets (even if they’re in the minority), and can be found in numerous elite institutions (most of the latter aren’t on social media, which is why you rarely hear about them). Most domains of cultural influence are neither one nor the other, and simply by virtue of being small are just places where Christians must simply seek to live faithful lives where they find themselves.

These situations will sometimes call for strategies and sometimes not. A church planter in an impoverished area will struggle without some level of strategic planning, though it is best not to invest too much hope in any one strategy. A professor at a university may simply wish to do the work in front of them and be faithful in their commitments, or they may seek to write and publish research that is deliberately meant to influence public opinion on a particular subject. Both are valuable, and the latter strategy is worthwhile, I would argue, because of the diversity of listeners among the penumbrae of power: many people can be persuaded to affirm the truth and perhaps practice it.

In Christian witness, persuasion is a good worth affirming because it can punch a hole in the wall that Satan has built around someone’s heart. Someone I know heard once on the radio that families who go to church together are more likely to stay together, inspiring a cascade of events leading to the salvation of that family. The intelligibility and appeal of certain results of Christian faithfulness will fluctuate based not only on cultural whims, but also the context in which those Chistians are worshiping and obeying God. Recognizing that such fluctuations occur requires hope that the eternal and unchanging God will bring us home out of a world that is often hostile to his Word and his works, but it also requires that we continually strive to think about what kinds of communication and works will be most effective at breaking down those barriers. Only the Holy Spirit regenerates hearts, but we have the power, however fragile, to help change minds.

What about power? Should Christians seek to exercise it? Should they try to be extra nice about it so as to be most successful? There is a strain of Christian thought that recognizes—quite rightly—that power corrupts and the pursuit of secular power for Godly ends is a minefield that often ends with the Body of Christ losing a foot. Similarly, this tradition recognizes (rightly) that civil religion and Christian culture can be dangerous to true faith, fomenting legalism. These are true risks and dangers any time we try to do any kind of broad-spectrum moral pedagogy.

I have already argued, vis-a-vis Kichijiro, that cultural Christianity is worth those risks and dangers. Following Oliver O’Donovan, I would also argue that politics is one realm where (in an extremely limited, contingent, and messy fashion) Christians can and should advocate for certain structures and institutions to punish the evil and praise the good. Some would prefer for Christian political witness to be perpetually “prophetic”, except (as O’Donovan points out) Elijah cannot simply denounce Ahab, he also has to eventually anoint Hazael and Jehu. The exercise of power, however dangerous, is still a responsibility we find ourselves stuck with.

How do we go about doing so? Well, it depends. I would look at the debate over gay marriage for lessons: there were aggressive political measures, a refusal to compromise on civil unions, a firm political alliance with the Republican party, and an abundance of Christian public affirmation that gay marriage was without a doubt a sin that would cause harm. I would argue that these were the primary means by which Christians tried to prevent gay marriage from becoming legal, and any alternative approaches were marginal. And not only did these primary means fail spectacularly to accomplish any of the political, social, or cultural objectives that they intended, but they are also quite frequently cited by young people as reasons why they’ve chosen to leave the church.

Would a more winsome and persuasive approach, had it been more widely adopted, been successful? It’s hard to say. It is harder, though, to imagine a more aggressive approach available to Christians than the one that was taken. Reacting to how our arguments are perceived can be a form of weakness, constantly seeking the approval of cultural elites and mimicking their thought patterns with a Christian veneer. It can also be a form of wisdom, asking, “What is the best way to convince people to vote for what we think is just?”

Some problems require a strident and forceful approach, and I wouldn’t rule out mockery or verbal pyrotechnics in very small doses. (When people whose primary means of communication are mockery and shouting attract a small following of other people who like to think they are intelligent and brave because they are listening to someone else shout, watch out.) Other problems with equal moral weight may require different methods of persuasion because simply seizing power and passing a law won’t fix the problem. The law can be a teacher, but most of the time it is only one front in a culture war that requires a great deal of self-sacrifice. Sometimes that self-sacrifice is recognized and appreciated, sometimes it is not. We must choose our battles carefully.

Finally, we must reaffirm that the appeal to persuasion or power are at best tertiary concerns for Christians. No Christian should be seeking to do moral pedagogy to other believers or the world at large if his own house is not in order, for many families and souls have shipwrecked on the rocks of ministry (even good ministry) and attempts at “engaging the culture.” Our first priority as a community of believers is to worship God together and our second is to love our neighbor—and yes, that primarily means the neighbor who is physically close to you. If anyone finds themselves out of control on these basics, they should cease speaking to the world at large until that’s sorted out.

The kingdom of God finds many similes and it advances in many ways. We ought to want the good of our neighbors and cannot help but be self-conscious about how they perceive our attempts to work for their good. As we worship God in community we cannot help but be sent out like the disciples were as ambassadors of the kingdom, but too much self-consciousness about our witness to the watching world will rot our faith, destroy our hope, or poison our love. In the end, we must continually ask ourselves what faithfulness to Christ requires of us in any particular situation and then pray for the grace to do so.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at