Justin Taylor, on his blog, has quoted a very helpful and thoughtful clarifying statement from John Murray on the interplay between the church and politics, but more particularly about how Christians go about doing politics as Christians and also as members of the Church. Murray states,
“To the church is committed the task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God and, therefore, the counsel of God as it bears upon the responsibility of all persons and institutions. While the church is not to discharge the functions of other institutions such as the state and the family, nevertheless it is charged to define what the functions of these institutions are. . . . To put the matter bluntly, the church is not to engage in politics. Its members must do so, but only in their capacity as citizens of the state, not as members of the church.”
—John Murray, “The Relation of Church and State,” in The Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth, 1976), 255.
My initial reaction is to agree with little if no qualification. In my opinion, Murray rightly understands that the Church and State are assigned each their respective tasks—the Church, to preach the gospel; the State, to execute justice and order. And, contrary to individuals like John Yoder who would argue that God merely orders the state, but does not ordain it, Murray correctly asserts that the Church plays an important part in proclaiming the function of the State to the State itself. The Church is to stand athwart the sphere of politics and call it to its divine task. Murray’s paragraph is both concise and brilliant.
Here’s the question I have for the thoughtful readers of Mere Orthodoxy: What does it mean for members of the Church to engage in politics, but not for the Church itself to engage in politics. I believe there is no more important distinction to be made in evangelical political engagement than this qualification. Discerning the proper contours of engagement prevents Christians from over-stepping their boundaries or confusing the aim of political gains with the means of Christian proclamation.
It’s Murray’s use of “the Church” which is rather nebulous and raises important questions of ecclesiology. How, especially as Protestants, are we to understand our political actions distinct from our position as members of the Church? If the Church, collectively, is made up of individual believers, does Murray believe we can atomize our unity only in a voting booth? When Christians enter the voting booth, what should be our primary motive in voting? And, can our motives ever be separated from how we’ve been shaped from within our individual churches? I have my own position, but I’ll save that for later. I do wonder, however, what our fearless leader Matthew Lee Anderson would have to say on the subject.