The latest theological trend in evangelicalism is the belief in a gospel mandate for multiculturalism in local churches. The view arises from a particular ecclesiology that needs to be brought to light. Put simply, the visible, institutional church is, according to this view, the site of new creation. The church is, or ought to be, heaven on earth. Jonathan Leeman of IXMarks, for example, says that the earthly church and its pastors are “the institutional structures of the new creation.” These structures are “eternal” and therefore enter into the eschaton. Hence, the visible church, the ecclesial institution on earth, will not pass away; it is not temporal. The civil state, however, is passing away; for it is temporal and represents an old order lacking the gospel justice of the new creation revealed and exercised upon the institutional church.

As the locus of new creation, the church is the “new” invading, confronting, and challenging the “old,” having heavenly political principles in competition and opposition with the “old” order’s principles of order. The old civil state orders by coercion (claiming for itself the natural authority to compel obedience to prescribed human law), but the new creation orders by gospel power, which is the spiritual force of Christ Himself, according to the law of Christ. The two orders, church and state, are not different types of order from which mutual harmony and support could arise (as you find in classical Protestantism). Rather they are the same type of order and, having incompatible principles and means of order, are therefore mutually exclusive or at best in perpetual and necessary tension.

In this view, the church has exclusive and immediate access to the true political principles of justice by which it must order itself. It is exclusive to the church because the church is the only site of the Word’s proclamation and the sole object of Christ’s spiritual ordering. It is immediate because the church receives these principles through no other institution. That is, it receives them directly from God. In relation to (old) creation, these principles are foreign, for they are heavenly, and they make the institutional church both foreign vis-a-vis the old creation and the embassy of Christ’s reign on earth. The church is the place from which these principles invade the non-church realm (or civil realm).

But the church’s first concern is the implementation of these principles visibly in the church in order to show off the otherworldly power of the gospel. When in accord with these heavenly principles, the church pictures and declares heavenly life to the world and the extraordinary greatness of the power of the gospel in creating and sustaining such an order. It is a sort of prophetic witness to the gospel’s power. The church, by these principles and by the power of God, is (or ought to be) necessarily counter-cultural, different, and politically superior to the competing political, juridical, and social systems outside it.

One way that the church visibly declares the gospel is by anticipating the eschatological congregation described in Revelation 7:9: “a great multitude…from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne.” The worldly order, which sets boundaries between peoples and distinguishes on the basis of ethnicity, shows that it lacks the power to bring about true justice and righteous political order. Having the power of the gospel, however, the church can reconcile ethnicities by rallying around the mutually shared gospel identity (which is a heaven-on-earth identity) and thereby witness to world the extraordinary power of the gospel in accomplishing what the old creation cannot. This unity is possible because the gospel identity transcends and trumps racial and ethnic identities and empowers to overcome all rival earthly identities by Christ’s power. The church then can and ought to form a gospel-community of many ethnicities.[1] It is a spiritual conquest with markedly visual effects that abrogate or significantly subordinate all earthly identity-attachments.

On this basis, multiculturalism in the church is a “gospel issue.” An issue is a gospel issue if and only if it has some relation to the church’s moral and political prophetic witness fulfilled by means of a visual display of the new gospel order located in the church. Gospel issues come with gospel imperatives. As a gospel issue, multiculturalism in the local church is a gospel imperative. Local churches ought to strive to maximize its diversity in the interest of displaying the otherworldly work of the gospel.

From Church to World

But this gospel imperative of multiculturalism does not stop there. Because the Christian’s gospel identity trumps all other earthly identities, his presence in the non-church realm (or civil realm) is always as a Christian with the gospel identity. The church laymen acts as if he were formally sent on a prophetic mission to the civil realm, and he must act in the civil realm prophetically by means of those gospel principles that originate in the church. Those principles are mediated to the civil realm as prophetic witness by gospel-formed people engaging the culture. One’s status as citizen of a country is but the means or mechanism of expressing one’s gospel identity.

It is crucial to notice that this view denies the legitimacy of the civil realm’s principles. They are part of the “old” pre-gospel order and therefore Christians cannot adopt them. Knowledge of true principles of political righteousness and justice originate in and from the church, and the church is the site from which Christians go, as if commissioned, to conduct political activity. Independent of the church’s teachings, there is nothing epistemically reliable in the civil realm. So there is nothing reliable in natural law, the consent of the nations, or traditions of civil law, etc. Furthermore, there is no distinction, according to this view, between proper ecclesiastical order and proper civil order such that each is to order itself by its own exclusive principles. No, there is only one true order for both church and state, and the church is the exclusive source of it. The state ought to take its guidance from the church, for the church on earth considered in itself is Christ’s actual kingdom. Hence, for the civil state to be truly just it must derive its principles, authority and power from the church.

Since the ultimate goal of Christian political activity is gospel witness, the civil effects of such activity are of secondary importance. The Christian, for this reason, should never adopt the “world’s” principles of civil power, justice, and order—for this would betray an allegiance to what the gospel has superseded—even if the “old,” temporal principles seem necessary to ensure civil peace and human flourishing. If the church on earth is Christ’s visible kingdom, then Christians can have no political allegiance but to it, and they must therefore engage the world as a “witness” of its Christ-wrought visible glory. Achieving actual political ends in the world is much less important.

For this reason, the church can be selective in the content of that witness. For example, while the advocacy for multiculturalism outside the church can be absent from the message, a Christian cannot reject it. That is to say, a Christian may or may not advocate for multiculturalism, but he cannot affirm its opposite, viz. some form of anti-multiculturalism. This explains why the designation of “gospel issue” often seems so incomplete and selective and why evangelical leaders are willing to question the ultimate allegiance of Christians who violate these new principles.

This brief sketch of contemporary evangelical political theology should explain the categories, distinctions (and lack thereof), and conclusions of many evangelical leaders, especially Russell Moore, the ERLC and The Gospel Coalition. This is the framework through which they operate and construct their platform of witness. It explains why some issues are chosen and others not. In light of societal sentiments, those chosen meet the criteria for potential winning issues in gospel witnessing. This explains why Moore would in 2016 accuse so many of nativism, being on the “wrong side of Jesus,” and failing to place one’s Christian identity first. Moore and associates’ political theology is rooted in a particular ecclesiology that sets identities, principles, and spheres of life in conflict, which are resolved by centering the bases of all Christian activity in the institutional church with an ultimate end of public moral witness.

There are numerous problems with this view, and I think they were definitively dealt with by Joseph Minich (see here). The purpose above however was to clarify the neo-evangelical theology that is concealed by the surface rhetoric of many popular evangelical outlets. This also allows me to juxtapose it with classical Protestant theology, which I do below.

The Classical Protestant Alternative

In classical Protestant theology, both the ecclesiastical order (or the institutional church) and the civil order (or the state) are separate and equal administrations, each having its own principles of order and each having a distinct object of concern. The ecclesiastical concerns itself with the inward man and the civil concerns itself with the outward man, as New England minister John Cotton wrote (following Franciscus Junius):

The members of the churches of Christ are considerable under a twofold respect answerable to the twofold man, which is in all the members of the church while they are in this world, the inward and the outward man. Whereunto the only wise God has fitted and appointed two sorts of administrations, ecclesiastical and civil. Hence they are capable of a twofold relation, and of action and power suitable to them both; viz. civil and spiritual, and accordingly must be exercised about both in their seasons, without confounding those two different states, or destroying either of them, while what they transact in civil affairs, is done by virtue of their civil relation, their church-state only fitting them to do it according to God….

This last sentence states that Christians conduct themselves in the civil realm as Christians and in accordance with “civil relations,” not according to ecclesiastical relations. Put differently, Christians are to act in civil society according to the civil order’s own principles, for each order has its own principles of order. Cotton continues:

Let us distinguish between the two administrations or polities, ecclesiastical and civil, which men commonly call the church, and commonwealth. I incline rather to them who speaking of a Christian communion, make the communion to be the genus, and the state ecclesiastical and civil to be the species of it.

Since both orders are species of the genus “Christian communion” Christians act as Christians in the civil realm, not because they’ve taken the ecclesiastical administration’s principles with them into the civil, but because Christ’s reign is not exclusive to the ecclesiastical administration. It extends through both administrations, civil and ecclesiastical. And since both are different species (not the same species), each one is a Christian communion, though not in the same way and certainly not in a competing or oppositional way. For, as Cotton says, the “ecclesiastical administration [is] a divine order appointed to believers for holy communion of holy things: Civil administration is a human order appointed by God to men for civil fellowship of human things.” The former deals with sacred things and the latter with secular things. Hence, there is a clear sacred/secular distinction. (“Secular” traditionally referred not to non-Christian things, as many think today, but simply anything concerning this life—a life still before God and ruled by Christ.) The administrations’ differing roles are the basis of their institutional separation (i.e., the separation of church and state). That is to say, the ecclesiastical and civil are not to be separate because one is Christ’s and the other is Satan’s or the “world’s,” but because each exclusively has the role of administering to one of the two parts of man, soul and body.

Cotton continues with important distinctions that help clarify the need for separation and mutual support between the dual administrations:

  • While the ecclesiastical order has only ministerial (or “oeconomical”) power, the civil has “lordly power, authority, and dominion.”
  • While the ecclesiastical serves those who “by grace [have been] called out of the world to fellowship with Jesus Christ,” the civil concerns man, [who] by Nature being a Reasonable and Sociable Creature, [is] capable of civil order.”
  • While “Christ…is the fountain of civil order & administration,” he established ecclesiastical order as “mediator of the new covenant and head of the Church.”
  • While the “end of civil order and administration [is] the preservation of human societies in outward honor, justice and peace…the ends of church order and administration are the conversion, edification, and salvation of souls, pardon of sin, power against sin, peace with God.”
  • Finally, while “the things about which the civil power is primarily conversant are bodies, or the things of this life, as goods lands, honor, the liberties and peace of the outward man…the church power is exercised [on]…the souls and consciences of men, the doctrine and worship of God, and the communion of the Saints.”

All these distinctions, which admittedly take some time to fully grasp and process, follow one central doctrine, that the twofold nature of man, inward and outward or soul and body, has two different orientations, one to earth and the things of this life and one to heaven and the life to come. Heavenly life is eschatological, invisible, and not-yet, and the ecclesiastical administration itself is an outward and temporal entity (viz. it will pass away), facilitating man’s orientation to heaven through the ministry of the Word and Sacraments.

This World and the World to Come

The differences between the contemporary view of evangelicals and classical Protestantism should be (at least somewhat) clear. The former sees the Christian life as bound up with the ecclesiastical and restricted in its civil engagement by the ecclesiastical order’s “new” principles—principles that are otherworldly and in opposition to the “old” principles of the civil realm. Classical Protestants however argued that the old order is nothing but the good principles of creation, which remain operative and relevant and concern directly only the things of this life. The “new” (or the new creation) refers to the life to come, which is the eschatological life not realized in either the present civil or ecclesiastical orders, though such life is inwardly and spiritually experience by all true believers. In no administration, civil or ecclesiastical, is heaven realized visibly on earth, nor should Christians attempt to.

The revelation that Christ reigns over the civil realm does not alter the essential features of the creation ordinances, including those pertinent to civil order; nor has Christ abrogated or superseded them. Nor has the ecclesiastical become some embassy from which the “old” is challenged by higher heavenly principles. Rather the ecclesiastical administration orients the faithful to heaven. It is an embassy of Christ’s reign only in the sense that it most publicly proclaims the eschatological reality of Christ’s kingdom, which comes visibly only in the eschaton or last days.

Moreover, the distinctive features of heavenly life, such as its visual multicultural congregation, are not normative in earthly life, for as stated above the heavenly life is not realized visibly in the ecclesiastical or civil orders. Again, as outward orders, they are temporal. Again, the ecclesiastical order in relation to heavenly life is simply the place that facilitates the believer’s spiritual (viz. invisible and inward) experience of heavenly life in worship. It directs to, but is not, the place of heavenly life.

Therefore, the question concerning multiculturalism on earth is not answered by an appeal to heavenly life. The question concerns whether multiculturalism, in light of the nature of man and the nature of each of the two administrations, is conducive to maximizing the achievement of each administration’s set of ends—one whose ends are civil fellowship, honor, and tranquility for the things of this life and the other whose ends are holy fellowship around sacred elements oriented to heaven for the life to come. This whole discussion has led to a clarification of the question, however, and has not provided an answer concerning multiculturalism. But now that it is clarified, the typical evangelical answer misses the point, for it assumes a false ecclesiology and from it a false political theology.

Multiculturalism has already been dealt with elsewhere. But I will say, that if the evangelical has already admitted that multiculturalism has failed in the world and must fail under the “old” order’s principles, then given this clarification there is good reason to reject multiculturalism as a suitable arrangement for a well-ordered human society.

Now, the fact that civil order is not well-suited for multiculturalism doesn’t mean that the ecclesiastical lacks some possible means of good order and tranquility with a multicultural fellowship. Indeed, I would argue that the ecclesiastical order is better suited for a multicultural congregation, for it orients itself towards a holy fellowship not of this world. But this does not produce a “gospel imperative” for a multicultural church. Being eschatological and spiritual, the church considered in itself is already radically multicultural, for its spiritual members span the entire globe. Every Lord’s Day, Christians from across the globe commune with each other spiritually as fellow members of the one holy catholic church. The geographic proximity of these members, as embodied people on earth, is in principle irrelevant to that higher and spiritual communion.

So while I affirm that the ecclesiastical administration, as an order orienting people to heaven, can peacefully exist as a multicultural congregation, this does not imply an imperative for multicultural local churches and certainly not for a multicultural civil society. For this reason, the question of multiculturalism does not concern an a priori imperative for multiculturalism for either order, but rightfully concerns prudence and policies conducive to good order and the achievement of ends.

This actually empowers local churches to prudentially consider how they can serve as places of reconciliation and contribute to civil peace and tranquility. After all, local churches, despite administering to the inward man and facilitating heavenward worship, are outward, public assemblies and as such can serve to promote outward peace, harmony, and civil fellowship between diverse peoples. But, at the risk of appearing to disparage such causes, I must say that serving these roles is not an a priori imperative of the ecclesiastical order, but is a potential good arising consequent to its nature as a public entity principally oriented to heaven.

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[1] This doesn’t mean that the church is colorblind, for gospel love would require attention to the various ways that marginalized groups continue to face structural and social disadvantages.

Thomas Bradstreet
Contributor

Thomas Bradstreet is a Ph. D. candidate in political science and teaches at a university in the southern United States.

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