A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars by Jonathan Merritt

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Let’s start with the unique value of this book, A Faith of Our Own. The big question of this book is how should Christians’ faith influence our political views and how we engage in political discourse? More importantly, how do we as Christianity instigate meaningful change in this world in a way that is in tune with the kingdom over worldly political processes? What makes these questions so important is that they are questions more and more young people are asking. What makes Jonathan Merritt’s perspective unique is that he grew up in a family that was entrenched in Christian conservatism. Just to give you an idea he starts the book with a story as a senior in high school having lunch with Jerry Faldwell trying to get him to come to Liberty University. His family has connections with the Religious Right.

By reading Merritt’s thoughts you gain insight into the struggles and questions of many young adults today in regard to faith and politics (I am still wondering how the word politics didn’t make it into the title of this book). The biggest concern is trying to find consistency in faith and politics by wading past all the junk to the core of what is really most important. Reading Jonathan’s perspective will help you understand where many young adults are coming from, what they have had to wrestle with and will make you, no matter what your political leaning, consider your own approach to faith and politics.

As has already been mentioned, Jonathan Merritt grew up in the inner sanctum of conservative Christianity. He has seen the inner workings of how previous generations have tried to put faith and politics together and reflects on how there can be a better fit than what he experienced growing up. He saw inconsistencies (and plenty of them) in how Christians of previous generations seemed to seamlessly and effortlessly interweave faith and politics in a way that seemed to be more about politics than it was about faith. That incongruity didn’t sit well with Jonathan and it doesn’t sit well with many today.

One of the issues I have with the book is that in dealing with these inconsistencies Merritt has a tendency to overgeneralize various demographics to a particular view. It is all very black and white. You get the feeling that all older people have problems buying into conservative politics and put politics over faith and young people have found the difficult balance. Here is another example. When talking about the perspective of young Christians he says,

“More than being central to their theology, the gospel has become integrated into their entire lives.” Well, has it? That is an overgeneralization. Is there some truth in that statement? Sure but you could say the same thing about older Christians as well. Taking faith seriously is not exclusive to young people.

Jonathan believes Christianity has bought into the game of politics hook, line and sinker rather than mapping out a more biblical approach to how Christians engage their lives in what really matters. Merritt argues that for far too long Christians have allowed the political parties to use us as a voting block to move their agendas through while we mistook our partnership with politicians as a means to advance and engage in God’s mission. His contention in this book is that our identity as Christians must shape our politics and not the other way around. He also believes that our identity as Christians overcomes the dividing lines between parties as the commonality we find in Christ can bring those who disagree on the issues together worshipping the same God.

Do you think the church has bought into political agendas (his conclusion is usually right wing ones) at the expense of God’s mission and our identity in Christ?

Starting in chapter five there is a turn in the tone of the book. The gist is that there are more important things in life than politics. There are needs and hurts in the world that need healed that the church must be a part of and cannot let anyone or anything (including politics and culture wars) distract us from being involved in those things. These issues transcend politics and political parties. These issues bring Christians of various political views together in harmony. When you help the poor, serve the hurting, and reach out to the lost there is a unity those things bring to those who practice them together. Politics get put aside.

So how do we make this change? Merritt argues the change will never come from the top down (we have tried that over and over and failed). The change must come from the bottom up and the inside out (p.123). In other words, if we are going to change this world, we cannot depend on the tools of the world to get the job done. The primary way the world tries to get big things done is through politics. Leveraging politics to the advantage of Christianity is too small. There is a greater power at work in people of faith that can and will bring about significant and eternal change to this world.

One of the ways Merritt attempts to give a solution is through a discussion of their church plant, Cross Pointe Church. He talks about their unity in diversity and how they are attempting to be the church God wants them to be. They are trying to make a difference in the world. This all led me to wonder if it really takes church plants in order to make the necessary changes. He makes a big point out of having to split off of their 125 year old church that was “steeped in tradition” (p.156). What do you do with those who are left behind? How does that congregation go about doing the work of making the transition to being more mission minded? There are many churches in that situation and I would like someone to share some thoughts on how to bring them hope without having to split off to make the necessary changes. I am not being critical of church planting at all. We need more of it but we also need to help existing churches grow to a healthy place as well.

These are difficult waters to navigate and I am grateful Merritt wrote this book to start the conversation. I believe both young and old are starting to see the inconsistencies that have been in the church for years when it comes to these issues and that more and more people have a burning desire to be in the mission, making a difference. We have much to learn and much room to grow.

12 Responses

  1. How can a church be a “church God wants them to be” if the secular humanists use the force of government to prevent the church from being the salt and light? Believing politics is “dirty” and belongs to the “secular” realm denies the sovereignty of God. Politics is sacred. Everything belongs to Christ.

    By pushing Christianity out of politics the liberal theologians and secular humanists (Francis Schaeffer would argue they are one in the same) ensure a humanist monopoly on making policy. Therefore the Church should not be involved in the policy of abortion, or same-sex “marriage,” or forced charity through taxation, or environmentalism, etc.

    The conservative Christian is denied a voice in the political realm because Jesus apparently is all about using the force of government to make sure we do our charitable duties to feed the poor and the lazy; and to protect creation from man’s exploitation; and to establish rabid egalitarianism when it comes to people’s choice of favorite sexual practices.

    The liberal theologians/secular humanists have simply replaced the church with the government. That is why they insist biblically-based Christianity (which gets labeled “right wing” or “conservative” in political parlance) should have nothing to do with politics.

    1. Some have tried to keep Christians out of politics due to the belief that we are aliens and strangers in this world. Others have tried to keep Christians out of politics for political reasons. I would have less problem with the first and more problems with the second. The first is at least an honest attempt at reconciling scriptures through decent exegesis. The second is hypocritical and manipulative at best. Merritt is not pushing Christians out of politics. He is putting politics in perspective in the broader context of life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will have a look at your link.

  2. Matt,

    A good review that points out the tension between Caesar and God. I think we are to quick to identify Jesus and the early church as apolitical. While it is certainly true that they did not challenge Rome in the traditional, human way (with marching armies to challenge the hegemony of the Roman Legions), they nevertheless challenged the authority of human systems when those conflicted with Divine Decree.

    When Jesus asserted that “all authority in heaven and in earth” was His and that we should pray that God’s Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, there was a challenge to the authority of Rome. While Rome was open to freedom for all religions to worship as they pleased, they persecuted Christians who refused to confess, “Caesar is Lord” while sacrificing a pinch of salt on the altar of the Divine Emperor. Why did they refuse this simple thing? They believe that “there is one Lord” – and that this is Jesus.

    Today, I see an imperial president demanding this same obeisance as he demands that religions “adapt” to his dictates. Perhaps our metal as disciples of Jesus is again to be tested as it was in the first three centuries of the life of the church. I pray that we may endure the fire of persecution when (not “if”) it comes.

    One thing is sure: seeing Christianity as a branch of one political party or another will not enable us to withstand in such an evil day. Indeed, we must see ourselves as citizens of heaven who are in a colony on earth.

    1. Yes, yes and yes. You nailed some extremely crucial points in your comment Jerry. The New Testament is our example yet again. I don’t think we are ready for a day like you describe. There would be many who would fall away. The question is, do we have those people in the first place?

    2. Ravi Zacharias pointed out when Jesus asked for a coin with Caesar’s likeness on it that the Pharisee/Herodian failed to ask the follow up question. Jesus asked “Whose image is on the coin?” The reply “Caesar’s.” Jesus’ answer “Then give to Caesar’s the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

      The Pharisee should have asked the next logical question “What belongs to God?” Jesus, no doubt, would have answered “Whose image do you bear?”

      We are citizens of a heavenly kingdom, but we are here on earth to “Occupy” until Jesus returns. We are to be busy about the kingdom work, which also includes the political realm. God used the British empire to set captives free in India (wife burnings); he used America to set the captives free from the Third Reich and Soviet communism. God has a purpose for the Church in the political sphere.

      I find a misconception in the church all over the country. As a member of the military, I travel a lot. Too many Christians misunderstand Romans 13:1 and I Peter 2:13- “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers….” What people fail to realize is that in America “We the People” are the higher power, even as we obligate ourselves to follow the rules set down by our government. The government, likewise, may only act within the rules we set for it. When it abuses its authority, the representatives in our government are not being “subject to the higher powers.”

      A government not subject to the authority placed over it by God is a tool for oppression and tyranny. We as Christians have an obligation to work to prevent that. That obligation necessitates the Church’s involvement in the political realm.

    3. Exactly! Since we bear the image of God, we are to dedicate ourselves to the Kingdom of God instead of to the pursuit of the Kingdom of Mere Man. Thank you for pointing out that in a constitutional republic, “we the people” are the ones responsible for the correct functioning of the government.

      How do we do this? In Nazi Germany Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood against the Nazi terror by calling the church to faithfulness to God. (Jay Guin at oneinjesus.net has a couple of posts on Bonhoeffer here, here, and here. This is a call to faithfulness to our God, not a call to partisan politics.

      Faithfulness to God involves standing tall for Christian values, even when it involves speaking truth to power. The early church did this and in three centuries won the heart of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, that “victory” turned out to be a mirage, for the church abandoned its values as it, in its ruling classes, took on the values of the Empire instead of the values of its Lord.

  3. When you say the Church is not called to “partisan” politics, if you mean the Church should not partner with the Democrat or Republican parties I agree. If you say the Church shouldn’t be involved in endorsing or supporting candidates or initiatives, then I will disagree with that. The Church should be developing people to cultivate the kinds of virtues our political leaders need for the healthy survival of our republic, and then publically back them from the pulpits.

    1. Partisan politics means siding with one party with reckless abandon and complete commitment. So yes, your first definition.

  4. Seems to me that you can use the example of NT here. Jesus had a Zealot and a member of the establishment in his apostles. Those extremes seems greater than any Republican/Democrat differences. The solution is to let God’s word rule, not the ideology of any party. Parties are man-made and have flaws.

    The problem I have with many of the views held are interpretations or traditions, not necessarily from God’s word. For example, views like when life begins and whether to ignore the poor have scriptural guidelines and not a “thus saith the Lord.” (especially Creationism). We seem to turn away away from “speak where the Bible speaks and silent where the Bible is silent” more and more.

    In the example used above, Jesus and his disciple were “apolitical”. When Christianity became political (i.e. Roman Catholic Church) a monster was created leading to indulgences, inquisition, and religious wars.

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