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Exactly how the church should relate to culture is a perennial discussion—waters into which I cannot even begin to wade very deeply. Still, some reading I’ve done over the past few years made me want to put my thoughts into words.

God rules church and state differently. Although God is sovereign over all spheres, he exercises his Lordship over church and state differently. Government is a gift from God designed to promote and enforce order while simultaneously deterring evil and punishing wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–14). Christians pray for their governmental leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–2), honor their authority (1 Pet. 2:17), and submit to their authority insofar as their laws comport with Scripture (Acts 5:29).

In the church, however, God rules through his inscripturated Word and calls people to repentance and faith in Christ through the proclamation of his Word through recognized leaders in the congregation. Personal transformation happens through the power of God’s Word and Spirit as God’s people attend to the means of grace. Additionally, while Jesus authorizes the church to discipline its members (Matt. 18:15–20), they do not enforce morality by the power of the sword, but by calling members to repentance and appealing humbly to peoples’ consciences in light of God’s Word.

In sum, God rules church and state differently. Recognizing this fact helps reduce interpretive blunders—like applying Jesus’ ethic in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) to the war on terror or other national and international conflicts.[1]

Our earthly citizenship matters. Yes, we’re looking forward to a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10), but in the meantime we’re called to live in this world and to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jer. 29:7). Yes, we’re “sojourners and exiles” in the world (1 Pet. 2:11); yes, we’re to remain “unstained by the world” (Jas. 1:27), but Jesus also sent us into the world (Jn. 17:15–16) and calls us “salt” and “light” in the world (Matt. 5:13–16), those whose presence in society inevitably slows down the process of decay and who also promote truth and moral purity.

In sum, while our earthly citizenship is not ultimate, it’s still important.[2] This tension shows up in the Apostle Paul’s own life. While in his letter to the Philippians he points to believers’ heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20), he also didn’t hesitate to appeal to his Roman citizenship in the book of Acts (16:37; 22:25, 28; 21:38–39; 22:29). Thus, as Os Guinness notes, the Christian worldview is both this-worldly and other-worldly.[3]

Laws on the books matter. True, laws cannot change peoples’ hearts; but laws can save and protect lives.[4] Additionally, since laws function as “social nudges,” they invariably shape and form consciences, thus putting forth a specific vision of what a good citizen is, as well as a particular vision of the good life.[5] This follows from the fact that laws on the books reflect worldviews and worldviews reflect convictions about God, reality, humanity, truth, beauty, goodness, and happiness.[6] Those who insist upon a “naked public square,” therefore, fail to see that human beings are incurably religious and cannot remain neutral with respect to “culture war” issues.[7]

Given the fact that every viewpoint advances a vision of the good life and given that every viewpoint and vision of the good life shapes consciences, Christians should be involved in the political process. In short, Christians should vote, and their theology should influence how they vote.

Non-religious people sometimes perceive Christians as imperious for allowing their theology to influence how they vote. Such a position, however, stems from their (perhaps) unconscious conviction that religious beliefs are subjective and therefore do not count as items of knowledge.[8] In light of this conviction, they think Christians (or people of other faiths) cloak their biases in religious language, which is why they don’t want the state to make concessions to Christians (or people of other faiths) since any concession to these kinds of beliefs does nothing but feed bigotry.[9] My guess is Christians and non-Christians will continue to disagree on “culture war” issues since moral disagreements are largely irresolvable so long as participants in these debates share no agreement on first principles.

We must be realistic about how much change we will see. Here’s the reality: We’re sinners, our politicians are sinners, and we inhabit a world filled with sinners. This should guard against a posture of naïve optimism. At the same time we serve a sovereign God who rules over all things. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). And of course, as Calvin pointed out, Prov. 21:1 doesn’t just apply to kings, but to all people! (Institutes 2. 4. 7). God’s sovereignty, therefore, guards us against a devastatingly pessimistic outlook.


[1] See, e.g., David VanDrunen, “Bearing Sword in the State, Turning Cheek in the Church: A Reformed Two-Kingdoms Interpretation of Matthew 5:38–42,” Themelios 34:3 (2009): 322–334.

[2] This is one of the reasons why politics has turned into a religion for many. When we lose what is ultimate—namely, the Triune God—what is penultimate becomes ultimate. For more on this point see James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 19–53.

[3] Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 77.

[4] See, e.g., Justin Taylor, “Living as Dual Citizens,” Tabletalk 42:9 (September 2018): 16–17.

[5] On laws as “social nudges” see Smith, Awaiting the King, 10, 34. See also Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 141; and Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom (Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 2015), 39.

[6] David K. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 41.

[7] See, e.g., Francis J. Beckwith, “Legal Neutrality and Same-Sex Marriage,” Philosophia Christi 7:1 (2005): 19–25.

[8] To see how this plays out in the legal realm, I recommend reading Francis J. Beckwith, “The Courts, Natural Rights, and Religious Claims as Knowledge,” Santa Clara Law Review 49:2 (2009): 429–458.

[9] Charles J. Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017), 237–238.