On using political-economic power to convert people to "Gospel Values"

My buddy Matt over at Two Cities Blog has written a great article on whether Christians should boycott "Brokeback Mountain" to send a "message to Hollywood" supporting Gospel Values. I think this article highlights an implicit tension and contradiction in Christian mission and social action: Christians using coercive power to "make" people change into "good" people.

Specifically, is it ever effective or right to use coercive power to make people "convert" to the values of the Gospel? Let me explain:

I think that this is not only NOT effective, it may be wrong and a contradiction of God's love revealed in Christ. It treats the adherence to the Gospel as a social requirement for citizenship in a "Christian nation", rather than as a profound rejection of worldly power and status.

But wait, you may say, this is about Christians boycotting "moral evil", as private citizens making a public statement, to get the free market to reflect "Christian values". After all, we are not talking about using police to round up and arrest non-Christian dissidents!

Agreed. Christian Cultural Boycotts (hereafter CCBs) are not a use of the governments power to achieve Gospel ends. But, CCBs are uses of coercive social and economic pressure to make people outwardly conform to the Gospel, whether or not they have had Christ formed in them by faith. It is expecting non-Christians to reflect Christian values.

This makes me ask, under what circumstances did Jesus or the Apostles use coercive social pressure, and to what ENDS was this use of social pressure a MEANS?

Jesus advocated using coercive social pressure to resolve conflicts only WITHIN the brotherhood of believers in Matthew 18. Jesus used actual physical force and coercion to drive out of the temple money changers and animal sellers who were using their "monopoly" to exploit poor worshippers. Paul, especially in his correspondence with the Corinthians, Galatians, and Timothy, advocates using coercive social pressure on those WITHIN the Church to stop people who are practicing moral choices or teaching doctrine that injures the Body of Christ.

Yet, Jesus resolutely stays away from advocating use of coercive power in greater society to achieve Gospel ends. His preaching and teaching of the Gospel (and the moral life that flows from the Gospel) appeals solely to personal choice, and the future judgment of such choices by God (cf. Mat ch. 5-7, ch. 25). Paul, likewise, refuses to allow the Corinthians to use public governmental courts to enforce moral choices within the Christian community (cf. 1Co 6). Paul's discourses on whether or not to eat "temple meat" (sacrificed to idols!!!) is wholly ambivalent about the matter. His main criteria for involvement with pagan culture at this level (or abstinence from it) seems to be whether the believer will be "built up" and drawn closer to Christ, NOT whether such involvement will coercively make Pagan culture reflect Gospel values (cf. Rom 14; 1Co ch. 8, 10).

In fact, the only social pressure that either Jesus or Paul seemed to use to convert the "Pagan world" was love and acceptance. Jesus freely fellowshipped with whores, drunks, and other social rejects, proclaiming to them a Gospel of liberation from sin. It was only the Jewish believers, those INSIDE the community, that Jesus castigated and openly threatened with hell for their hypocrisy (cf. Matt ch. 23, 25). Indeed, Paul's thesis statement on how to interact with Christian hypocrites, as well as Lost Pagans is found here:

1 Corinthians 5:9-13 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler- not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."

In the realm of social interaction, it can be confidently said that the use of social discipline to enforce Gospel values only occurs WITHIN the community of believers. It is "family discipline", reserved for the training and growth of "family" members. Those outside of the family are not treated like family. Rather, they are loved and embraced and drawn into the family, and only trained once inside the family, in the context of familial concern and love.

As a side note, it is interesting to note that when the whole Church got together to discuss the perplexing problem of what basis the Gentiles should be allowed to partake in the "new Covenant" Community (cf. Acts 15), it confined its decree to expectations of those professing to be believers. It made no sweeping statements about expectations to be put on society at large. It gave the new Gentile faith communities a list of things to "abstain" from, but this abstinence was NOT for the purpose of changing society by coercive social pressure. It was only for the purpose of making the new family members healthy and whole.

I think the logic of the New Testament is inescapable at this point. Coercive use of social pressure is reserved solely for the formation of those who have already submitted to the society of the Church. In other words, we do not discipline someone who is not our own child. Social pressure is never used as a tool to enforce conformity of non-believers to Gospel values.

But- the rebuttal goes- this is only because the New Testament was written in a "non-Christian" culture and the whole early Church existed as a minority community in a Pagan empire. This has to change in a "Christian culture" when the majority of society is made of Christians!

Wait just a minute. Compare the New Covenant with the Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant, from the beginning, while Israel was still a nomad people, before they had "taken possession" of the land, they ALREADY had a blueprint for a theocratic society in "the Torah" (the Law of Moses in the first five books of the Bible). From the inception of Israel there was a concept of a whole society of enforced belief, with social and legal punishments to enforce "Torah values". Not only this, but in actual practice over 1500 years, this concept of a theocratic society with "Torah values" enforced by social and legal coercion, FAILED miserably and consistently.

My point is this: if God had intended the "New Covenant" to function from a position of social superiority and coercive power in a "Christian society", He would have programmed this from its inception, like He did for the Old Covenant. Instead, He implanted into the deep DNA of the Church a complete disavowal of secular power as a means to accomplish Gospel values. The Gospel subverts society through love and servanthood. It does not conquer society through power.

To take this back to the CCB phenomena: I know people who do this have the best of intentions to love and serve Jesus. But, to do this as a means to make culture more "Christian" is at best wrongheaded, and at worst, buying into a demonic subversion of the Gospel itself. If someone abstains from culture because it will not build them up and bring them closer to Christ, then that is a laudable step of Christian maturity. But, if the reason for abstaining is an attempt to boycott culture and make people "act Christian" by means of coercive power, I think that they are badly deceived.

My advice: Don't think that this type of social activism glorifies Christ. Instead, act like Jesus and Paul. Change the "lost" world through love, servanthood, and prayer, not through holding power over people. Speak out, in the Church, against those practices that deceive and harm Christians. Be careful and discerning about what you involve yourself and your family in, always asking the question: will this draw us closer to Christ or push us further away? But, if you abstain, do not do it to "force" people to be "good Christians". Do it because it helps form Christ in you.

The lost world will not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. And they will not know how much you care if you are trying to coercively force them to act like Christians when they are not. No one can act like a Christian unless they first freely accept Christ, and they will only do this as we act like Jesus to them: Pray for them, care for them, share life with them, and dare them to follow Christ as Lord. Only after someone accepts Christ can we expect them to live for Him.


Daniel McLain Hixon said...

ah, so you are saying Christians SHOULD go see Brokeback Mountain.

OK, let me play devil's advocate and rephrase: just as Paul commanded Corinthian Christians not to give their money to the prostitution industry - for the purpose of the spiritual progress of the Christians, should we not therefore boycott any movies/tv/radio whatever that will have a corrosive influence on our spiritual lives (no longer for the stated purpose of influencing culture). But if we do so, and if so many of the people who make up our 'culture' really are Christians (a point I might want to contend) then even by this non-political essentially individualistic decision we would end up having a tremendous influence on the entertainment industry (in this case) due to simple market forces and would therefore indirectly influence those who were not Christians. Isn't this essentially what caused the great riot of the idol-makers in the book of Acts?

Anonymous said...


I think I essentially agree with what you are saying in paragraph 2, while denying what you are saying in sentence 1.

While my friend Matt IS saying that we should watch Brokeback as a "good" moral choice, I am actually saying that the goodness of the moral choice depends on subjective, internal criteria (in this case- most choices hinge on objective factors). However, the choice in this case does actually hinge on a subjective good: whether or not the choice will draw the individual closer to Christ (cf. Paul's factors for saying whether or not a believer can eat idol meat). And, I guess there is another external factor as well: whether or not my choice to watch "brokeback" will cause a "weaker brother" to stumble and fall away from Christ.

IF both factors are positive, and I can watch "brokeback" as a "discerning critic" evaluating the messages in it from the point of view of the Gospel, and be drawn closer to Christ without making others fall away from Him, then YES, I can see it. IF however one or both factors are negative, and this choice will make someone stumble, then NO, I should not see it.

Compare this to other moral choices which have more objective criteria to judge by, such as whether or not to murder someone in cold blood, or commit adultery against my wife. Many other things are objectively wrong, without any subjective judgment involved.

What I AM excluding as a moral criteria for this particular choice is some type of wrongheaded idea that such a choice should be made on the objective basis of using coercive force to make others behave in a certain way.

If I read you right, I think we both agree that this is not a "Christian" culture made up of a majority of converted Christians. Yes, we may have a nation that is made largely of nominal, or "cultural" Christians, but not people who have made a conscious decision to follow Christ as Lord.

I grant you point that if a large numbers of Christians make moral choices based on their "individual walk" with the Lord, then that will have defacto effects on the culture at large (the idol-maker riot is a great example, along with issues behind why the Roman governor Pliny had write to the Emperor for advice about how to deal with Christians in 106 AD). YET this cultural pressure is a SIDE EFFECT of the choice, not reason in making the choice.

Let's take truth-telling as a counter example. Christians should tell the truth because it is right for a number of reasons (it draws one closer to Christ, it follows Jesus' example, it bears true witness, it portrays reality as it really is, it effectively conveys data, etc.) Yet, if millions of Christians tell the truth, society will become a safer, better place, right? What if we turned the tables and said that the primary reason for telling the truth was no longer because it makes one more sanctified or virtuous, BUT because it is a means to make society better?

That would degrade the reason for truth-telling, because telling the truth is no longer good because it makes me a better person, but only good because it makes society better for me. It is a subtle shift, but it reflects a shift from a motive of self-giving for the sake of Christ, to self-satisfying by using manipulation. If society-shaping becomes the primary motive for doing an action, then it is only a matter of time until any means is permissible so long as it effects society in the manner I desire.

For instance, I have seen this happen with this very issue in Evangelical circles: We tell the truth so that we have a nice world because that is what nice people do. But, the basis for this nice world is an air-tight Bible with no errors or real problems in it, which forms the foundation for an air-tight doctrinal system that tells us exactly what is black and white. So, in this culture we suppress hard questions about Scripture and doctrine, and even tell lies about the Bible and doctrine to simplify things and remove ambiguity, all so that we can keep our nice world with nice people.

That was a long way of saying that how we order our means and ends in decision making really affects whether our decisions can rightly be called good. The ends really do justify the means, but we must look at the ends quite carefully. In the case of Christian Cultural Boycotts, what is our end (or goal)? Is our goal to force people to ACT like Christians, or actually get people to BECOME Christians? If it is a proper end to merely force people to act a certain way, then CCBs are a good thing. But, I do not think that mere outward conformity is pleasing to Christ. All this business about an inner change and a new heart and all of that. IF the goal is conversion and interior change, then CCBs are simply wrongheaded.

To take it back to the idol-maker riot in Acts: As impressive as it was, I am not sure that it converted any of the idol makers.

We should see, or not see, the movie regardless of the effects it has on society at large. It all depends on making Jesus Christ the ultimate END toward which all of our decisions are merely MEANS.

Make sense? Thanks for the reply!

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Haha; Nate I mean this is the best way possible: you are extremely thorough in your writing. My first sentence was actually intended as sarcasm but for some reason I have not yet discovered sarcasm is not as well recieved online as in person ;)

But can I play devil's advocate again (?): What about cases where a large minority of Christians intentionally seek to change the policies and the values of the society around them to fight some moral evil: just as the Church opposed infanticide (and abortion) in the Roman world when it was common, just as Evangelicals (in the classic sense) led the Charge to change society's laws and values with regard to the slave trade in England (and who then used the military might of the British Empire to shut down the Trans-Atlantic slave trade altogether). Would these constitute examples of Christians going too far to influence others (who may not be Christians) to live according to gospel values?

I actually agree with your basic premise: what good is enforcing Christian morality on people who are not Christians, since it will not help them recieve eternal life and will more probably push them away from being receptive to anything that the Church has to say? But on the other hand - there might be some historical examples where, in hindsight, Christians did exactly that (the Civil Rights movement might be another good example in some ways).

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

And (to finish my last sentence above) we are glad that they did.

Anonymous said...


Great replies, and they lead directly in to my understanding of Church and State, which is more "libertarian" than anything else. You speak in this reply of moral acts which intentionally harm people who have not consented to involvement in the actions (i.e. Slavery where a person is held against their will; Abortion and infanticide, where the person cannot speak up for themselves or defend themselves; Civil rights, which sought to give legal rights of personhood to whole classes of people from whom it was being deprived without their consent).

For me, immoral acts are divided up into two types: consensual immoral acts (vices) and non-consensual immoral acts (crimes). The first is done between moral agents who are old enough and able enough to understand their actions, and who consent to the act. The second is done to someone (or a group of people) who either did not, or cannot (for reason of age or incapacity) consent to the action. So, with the distinction of vice and crime in hand, I actually think that there is a "More Biblical" way to view Christian participation in the State.

It is this: The goal of communal life is the "good society". Peter Kreeft has a very simple, commonsense definition of the "good society": it is a society that makes it easy to be a good person. Making a good society requires two complementary elements: restraining evil and releasing good. Thus, the State is God's primary instrument to restrain evil on Earth, and the Church as God's primary instrument to release good. It is a basic dichotomy in the roles of Church and State that are complementary, but also separate.

On one hand, it is the role of the State to maintain a safe society where persons, property, and contracts are protected from crime. It is the job of the state to stop those guilty of crime (whether they be individuals, groups, or rogue nations) and keep them out of society until they no longer constitute a threat. It is their job to protect the innocent, and reward those who do good (cf. Rom 13; 1Pe 2; 1Ti 2:1-2). The main tool of the State to do this is Top-Down Coercion: Force that is great enough to stop the violent with the least amount of collateral damage.

On the other hand, it is the role of the Church to release God's grace and healing into a lost world through Prayer, Word, and Deed. Through evangelism, formation, worship, sacraments, and other means the Church acts to encourage and enable goodness in the world around her. Her main tool is Bottom-Up Conscience: working prophetically in the lives of individuals and families to bring about consciousness of God's Kingdom, to convict where we have fallen short of that Kingdom, and enable us to live Kingdom lives.

Kreeft, in his book "How to Win the Culture War" speaks of the square of culture. Culture is about moving a group of people from chaos to community. To do this, two complementary forces work in society. From the bottom up, the conscience of individuals and groups moves them to live the "good life". From the top down, the force of coercion stops individuals and groups who would hinder others from pursuing the "good life".

The less conscience a society has, the more it must rely on coercion to stave off the forces of chaos. When a society goes "terminal", it either must have something like a religious and cultural revival to impart vision and conscience back to the society, or it will simply implode on itself, or be destroyed from without, or both.

The Square of Civilization:
Top Down: Coercion

Chaos - - - - - | - - - - - Community

Bottom Up: Conscience

One of the consequences here is that illegal and immoral are two separate but overlapping categories. For instance, murder is immoral (6th command), AND it should be illegal (because it is a crime). Coveting / lust is immoral (10th command), BUT it should not be illegal (because it is a vice, and frankly even if it was illegal it would be impossible to enforce). Not stopping at an intersection is illegal, but it is not immoral. So, illegality refers to actions which are crimes and do violence to non-consenting persons (or their property or contracts). Yet, immorality refers to some type of action that creates an unhealthy life for those who practice it.

Thus, an action may be immoral and illegal if it is both unhealthy and is a crime. It may be illegal, yet not immoral, if doing it unknowingly endangers non-consenting people. It may be immoral, yet not illegal, if it harms those who practice it, but no one else (i.e. it’s a vice).

In my view, it is only the job of government to legislate against actions which are crimes, regardless of whether or not they are immoral. Yet, it is not the job of the state to legislate that which is only vice. This is trying to establish the Kingdom of God by coercion and not by conscience, and this will simply not work. History is ripe with the failures of Church and State combining to legislate (or even worse, fight) to establish God's Kingdom on Earth. At best, the State becomes the secret police of the Church (which rarely happens). At worst, the Church becomes the religious puppet arm of the State (which is what normally happens).

The Church, on the other hand, is called to be the "bottom up" force which brings the Kingdom of God through people's imaginations and consciences. In Jesus' words, we are to be like "yeast" working through the dough, bubbling up from the "micro" level to the "macro" level. In the image of CS Lewis, we are to be the "good infection" which infects society at the cellular level, immunizing them from the infection of sin, and replicating Christ in the lives of individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

The tools of the world to bring about controlled society has always been top-down coercion and raw power-politics. While I do not reject this in its limited use to restrain evil, as Christians we must totally reject it as a force for releasing good. The tools of the world are of no use to establish the Kingdom of God, and must be utterly denied by those who are seeking to establish the Kingdom.

In my view, it is only by limiting the roles of Church and State, and refusing to confuse the ends and means of each, that we will be able to establish the "good society". The soldier, the policeman, the politician, and the judge have legitimate callings from God: to restrain evil. The missionary, the pastor, the bishop, and the teacher have a legitimate calling from God: to release good.

Thus, Christians can and should be involved in culture and politics to eliminate crime and injustice. They should bring the full, coercive force of the Law and the Government down on those that commit crimes and harm the innocent and unwilling. I think it was good for John Wesley and William Wilberforce to get slavery outlawed in England, good for Abraham Lincoln to eliminate slavery for the cause of Christ, good for Martin Luther King to march for civil rights, and good for Christians to fight politically for women's rights, equal pay for equal work, and an end to discrimination. All of these things were protests against criminal activity on the part of large portions of society.

Yet (and here is where I get real libertarian) the government has no right to define what marriage is or isn't, no right to stop someone from drinking or smoking (unless it hurts someone else), and no right to tell anyone what they can or can't do in their bedrooms, with whom (or for how much money!). The Church DOES have a prophetic and evangelical mission to call people out of sinful lifestyles and into relationship with Christ, and to call them to use their freedom to make good, faithful choices for Christ. But it is an immense mistake to make people do this via government coercion, and just a slightly less huge mistake to spend our time and effort boycotting Hollywood to make them make movies that do not offend us.

Likewise, I think government should get out of all social welfare programs and leave that to the private sector (specifically to the Church). I do not believe the government has the mandate from God, nor the ability, to be his tool of mercy (but this is another subject).

It all boils down to a very specific, libertarian view of Church and State where the State has the God-given role of restraining crime and protecting citizens, while the Church has the God-given role of releasing salvation, and promoting virtue.

This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.