What does theology begin to look like when taken out of the ‘gathered church’ by the ‘sent church’ into the public square: the neighbourhood, the boardroom, the newsroom, the courtroom, the living room, the hospital ward, the studio, the cinema, the town hall and the street demonstration?
Theology for the public square is called public theology, and explores God’s purposes ‘for the life of the world’ (John 6:51). It involves ‘joining God in the public square’, adapting Alan Roxburgh’s phrase, ‘joining God in the neighbourhood’. The early church called itself ekklesia (meaning ‘public assembly’), and saw itself as a public society fleshing out God’s social order for the sake of the nations.
Public theology in general has been a neglected field among evangelicals. John Stott, chief framer of the famous Lausanne Covenant, has written about ‘half a century of neglect’ of the socio-political dimensions of the gospel among evangelicals, referring roughly to the years 1920-1970 when defending the historic biblical faith against theological liberalism met opposing its ‘social gospel’. The half-century of neglect had put us far behind in this area, Stott admitted.
Catholics by contrast developed a biblically-based social teaching late in the 19th century based on humankind as created in God’s image. The fathers of the European movement, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenaeur and Alcide de Gasperi, and the Christian Democracy movement were shaped by this teaching.
About the same time, in Reformed circles, Abraham Kuyper fathered public theology in the Netherlands towards making ‘God’s holy ordinances established in the home, the school and the state for the good of the people’.
Despite pride in the legacy of William Wilberforce, no evangelical equivalent was forthcoming. Instead we had ‘half a century of neglect’. While Christ’s lordship over all of life has been readily declared, evangelical focus on the individual and a ‘personal’ relationship with Jesus tended to displace social vision: ‘if only everyone were converted, the public square would take care of itself’.
Evangelical participation in public affairs has been without the orderly, political reflection embraced by Catholics and Kuyperians. Evangelicals come in all political stripes and colours. What we have in common, and what helps define us, is our high regard for the authority of scripture on matters of life and faith. Yet different interpretations and emphases can lead to different political persuasions: monarchist, republican, capitalist, socialist, liberal, conservative. There is therefore no one evangelical political position, per se. There is no evangelical ‘pope’ to declare official ‘orthodoxy’ in the evangelical world.
Stott’s ground-breaking book Issues facing Christians today (1984)introduced many to thinking biblically about society, peacemaking, the environment, equality, human rights, racism, work, sexuality and more. Yet one issue he didn’t address has polarised communities, churches, families and even marriages across Britain, and this week triggered riots in Northern Ireland: European unification.
As evangelicals, we have been notably absent from constructive engagement, firstly in the rebuilding of post-war Europe and more recently in the ongoing evolution of this historically unique experiment. Some have likened such involvement to ‘rebuilding the Tower of Babel’, ‘flirting with the whore of Babylon’ and ‘cavorting with the Beast’ of Revelation. Such teachings, popular on both sides of the Atlantic, have nurtured populist sentiments among evangelicals.
Thirty years ago, when I became the leader of YWAM Europe, I looked around for spiritual fathers and mothers to learn from about God’s heart for Europe. I made three discoveries. One, very few evangelical leaders even thought in terms of ‘Europe’, other than in negative and fatalistic terms. Two, a rich vein of biblical insight about Europe could be tapped from Catholic sources. Three, an evangelical blindspot in our worldview had resulted from ever-shrinking horizons (despite our ‘global mission vision’) expressed in the saying: Catholics see woods; Protestants see trees; Evangelicals see branches.
Here is where I would like your help!
Currently I am engaged in post-graduate research on evangelical attitudes towards the European Union, and the factors that have shaped them. Would you be willing to fill out a questionnaire about this topic drawing on your observations of the perspectives of evangelicals you know: relatives, friends, colleagues and contacts? What would you see as the primary shapers of these views? What formal training programmes are you aware of in Europe to equip evangelicals for such reflection and engagement?
If so, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you the questionnaire.
Our exploration of evangelical attitudes towards the European Union is a particular case of ‘joining God in the public square’. An evangelical missional public theology will equip believers to live as critical participants in the public square, promoting God’s purposes for humankind and justice for all.
P.S. If you missed Dr Peter Saunders talking about the Covid pandemic on this month’s Schuman Talk, you can still catch his excellent global survey here.
Till next week,