Michael Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, wrote an article for Christianity Today entitled “What are Evangelicals Afraid of Losing.” It is garnering quite a bit of attention online. After committing myself to respond to it, I had to decide, with some trouble, how to respond. It is not clear to me what is so effective about this article. Does Horton actually demonstrate his points? He seems not to in my estimation. He moves from the imprecise to the conjecture to the bare assertion with ease. But then what makes this such a popular article? It seems that this article merely follows a winning formula, one that we’ve seen numerous times in the past three years and which authors at this website have tried to describe and document (see here and here). The article gives to its readers a set of twitter-sized quotes with which to headline their tweet, such as Jesus is not “a mascot for a voting bloc,” some of which are borderline calumnious against Horton’s fellow evangelicals.
But that is unfortunately the way “principled” evangelical argumentation works today: state either what no one believes or what no one denies, but imply that your abstract opponent does believe it or doesn’t deny it, respectively. (You’ll find this all over NeverTrump evangelical Twitter). This is done with perfect civility, of course. I am disappointed in Horton, to be honest. Though I’ve always disagreed with his Westminster California political theology, I expected solid argumentation from Horton—an argument that demonstrates his conclusions and avoids the common NeverTrump evangelical rhetorical devices. This article does not live up to my expectations.
But I’ve chosen to treat the article as if it is serious. As a rebuttal, I try to be as precise and concise as possible and most importantly I try to demonstrate my conclusions to the best of my ability. Though I don’t prefer the method, I will discuss Dr. Horton’s argument piece by piece. Much of what I offer here I’ve already summarized elsewhere, such as in this article; and also, if possible, see my articles in Modern Reformation.
Dr. Horton begins with this:
In a Monday meeting with evangelical leaders at the White House, President Trump reportedly warned of violence against conservative Christians if the GOP loses in November. Evangelicals, he said, were “one election away from losing everything.” As evangelicals, we would do well to correct the president on this point. If an election can cause us to lose everything, what is it exactly that we have in the first place?
Trump’s use of “everything” here frames much of Horton’s piece. He takes it as literal and imputes that meaning to Trump-supporting evangelical thought. In other words, Horton attributes to Trump-supporting evangelicals the belief that elections can cause the loss of everything they have, which includes the preaching of the gospel, the institutional church, and seemingly their citizenship in heaven. He continues:
Surely we can be grateful for any public servant who upholds the First Amendment. And we should applaud fellow believers who ply their education and experience as lawyers to defend religious freedom (as long as they don’t seek to privilege Christianity legally above other religions).
However, the church does not preach the gospel at the pleasure of any administration or decline to preach it at another administration’s displeasure. We preach at Christ’s pleasure. And we don’t make his policies but communicate them. It’s not when we’re fed to lions that we lose everything; it’s when we preach another gospel. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26).
Horton hints that he actually sees Trump’s point with “everything,” namely that it refers to specific political gains in the last couple years, particularly in regard to securing religious liberty. The November election is important to secure those gains in religious liberty, and a Democratic takeover could cause violations of religious liberty that disrupt the ability to worship and follow Christ without harassment. The “everything,” which ought to be received as hyperbole from a politician, should not be construed to include the existence of the church, but rather its unhindered operations, which (as I discuss in detail below) is a matter of civil law.
But Horton suggests that civil action to secure the church implies existential dependence on civil government. This however confuses the government security of religious liberty with the granting of religious liberty. In other words, Horton suggests here that the advocacy for government-secured religious rights is the same as advocacy for government-granted religious privileges. Horton fails to recognize a basic distinction in the Western political tradition: the protection of pre-political rights as opposed to the granting of post-political privileges. Securing rights is simply not the same as granting rights, and I know of no one who claims that the church exists at the pleasure of the civil government. Seeking the civil protection of rights by government action does not imply existential dependence on government.
Wouldn’t the most reasonable take be that Trump-supporting evangelicals see the civil order as the means by which civil rights, and therefore religious liberties, are protected and secured? And perhaps they see the Democratic Party as a threat to those rights. The question therefore is not whether evangelicals should look to civil authorities to secure their civil rights (for that is one role of civil authority), nor whether the church exists by permission of the civil state (for it has and will always exist apart from the state), but whether voting for GOP candidates is the best means at present to secure those rights to worship God without harassment. This is the question that Trump’s evangelical audience most likely thought he was addressing with “everything.” (Frankly, you’d have to have a callous and bitter attitude towards your fellow evangelicals to think otherwise.) But as we see later in the text, determining that the GOP is most likely to secure those rights makes Jesus, according to Horton, a “mascot” for the GOP. This twitter-friendly remark is unhelpful and entirely misses the point. I’m surprised that Horton would sink so low.
And yet, swinging from triumphalism to seething despair, many pastors are conveying to the wider, watching public a faith in political power that stands in sharp opposition to everything we say we believe in. To many of our neighbors, the court chaplains appear more like jesters.
Christian political participation that express an interest in securing one’s pre-political right (though secured politically) to religious liberty is “triumphalism.” For Horton, voting in civil elections to secure a civil right shows “faith in political power.” The logical consequences of this position are extreme: either Horton must deny that pre-political civil rights exist or that Christians are so set apart by grace from the natural principles of the civil realm that they no longer can claim them; and the latter would imply that the rights granted to man by his Creator no longer apply to those under a state of grace. Grace has undermined or destroyed nature; God the Redeemer has set himself against God the Creator. Something has gone wrong.
The Christian pursuit of civil rights by means of civil action is “in sharp opposition to everything we say we believe in,” say Horton. I’m eager to see what we believe in then, for it seems that Horton wants to deny Christians the use of civil action to achieve civil ends—ends that secure what we used to consider God-given.
Let’s continue in his text.
Something tremendous is at stake here: whether evangelical Christians place their faith more in Caesar and his kingdom than in Christ and his reign. On that one, we do have everything to lose—this November and every other election cycle. When we seek special political favors for the church, we communicate to the masses that Christ’s kingdom is just another demographic in the US electorate.
So, Christian civil action to secure their civil right to religious liberty places “faith more in Caesar and his kingdom” than in Christ’s kingdom. First, we should recognize (seemingly contrary to the view of Horton) that civil order and administration is God’s order and administration, and he reigns by means of the civil magistrate who is a sort of vicar mediating God’s rule (hence, the magistrate has the authority to formulate, enact, and enforce civil law). So the civil kingdom and the office of civil magistrate are not evils in themselves, but evil in accident or on account of deficiencies arising from the fall of man. Horton seems to suggest that God rules only over the ecclesiastical order in opposition to the civil, which is dominated by the usurper, Caesar. This is not consistent with classical Protestant political theology, which states that both the civil and ecclesiastical are species of divine order even after the fall. As John Cotton (following Franciscus Junius) wrote,
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. (A Discourse about Civil Government)
Each administration, civil and ecclesiastical, has a specific role in the life of the believer, as Junius writes,
The political administration [is] a human order appointed by God to men for a civil society of human things….[and] the ecclesiastical administration is nothing but a divine order appointed to the faithful for a holy communion of holy things.1
For this reason, the civil administration is the most proper means to secure civil ends. Indeed, it is the only authority in those matters. Hence, if religious liberty is a civil end, then the civil authority is the most appropriate means of securing it, and therefore one ought to expect (not have religious faith in) that authority to secure that liberty. Neither this expectation, nor acting to secure rights, places one’s salvific faith in the civil realm, nor makes the church’s existence dependent on the civil government. If it did, Horton’s claim would strike equally against practically the entire Reformed tradition on the role of civil government in religion.
Second, Christian civil action to secure civil rights does not imply a conflation of the civil and spiritual kingdoms. Rather it simply recognizes that religious liberty is a matter of the civil kingdom and therefore this kingdom is the realm in which Christians must act to secure it. And since humans are political animals and Christians remain fully human, Christians can act politically (and one might argue must act politically in order to fulfill their nature). That is to say, they have every right to act to secure their civil rights because they remain, as fully human, rights-bearing creatures—rights granted to them by God the Creator. The God of Grace does not destroy what he, as God the Creator, has already given. Horton continues,
Let’s face it. Liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant, have courted political power and happily allowed themselves to be used by it. This always happens when the church confuses the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this present age. Jesus came not to jump-start the theocracy in Israel, much less to be the founding father of any other nation. Even during his ministry, two disciples—James and John—wanted to call down judgment on a village that rejected their message, but “Jesus turned to them and rebuked them” (Luke 9:54–55). He is not a mascot for a voting bloc but the savior of the world. He came to forgive sins and bring everlasting life, to die and rise again so that through faith in him we too can share in his new creation.
Why must Christians avoid political power? Isn’t civil power the principal means by which civil order, justice and rights are established, upheld, and enforced? That is, is not civil power the chief instrument for the proper ordering of human society? Since Christians remain fully human, why must Christian humans avoid civil power? Furthermore, isn’t religious liberty a human right? And if so, is not the act to secure it seeking a human end, not a particular Christian one. The fact that it helps Christians in consequence or even in intention does not change what it is in itself—a human end.
But the assumption at work in Horton’s article is ultimately an Anabaptist one. Not only does grace seem to destroy nature, the visible church in his thought is the kingdom of Christ, which ultimately seems to pit the Christian identity against the human one. The ecclesiastical is in necessary conflict with the civil, for they require competing identities. So the Christian’s relation to the non-ecclesiastical sphere is one of necessary and perpetual foreignness, for Christ’s kingdom, to which a Christian belongs on earth, cannot extend to the civil. Again, in Horton’s thought they are competing earthly identities, for they are both political identities with conflicting principles. This seems to follow from Horton’s two kingdom theology, the kingdoms being the institutional church and the civil state—both essentially earthly institutions. This leads to a sort of political atheism: the Christian efforts for the civil recognition of the Christian God in the civil realm is wrong and futile, because God’s program of restoration operates only within the kingdom of God, which is the institutional church on earth.
I don’t want to get too deep into political theology. I’ve addressed this topic in detail here and Bradstreet has discussed it here. (See this article for a summary of Calvin’s 2k theology.) I’ll just say here that Horton’s 2k is not the historic Reformed view. Reformed two kingdom theology is not institutional church and civil state, but refers to the inward, invisible kingdom of Christ and the outward, visible civil kingdom. The church as institution administers to the soul, but it is not itself the spiritual kingdom of Christ. The institutional church is outward and temporal. As Francis Turretin stated,
Now although the word ‘church’ popularly speaking denotes an external and visible assembly, it does not on that account follow (speaking accurately of the church of Christ) that its proper and natural signification implies simply a visible assembly or a simple external profession: for a spiritual and internal communion constitutes its essence. (Institute of Elenctic Theology 18.6.4)
Calvin also writes, “The nature of [Christ’s] kingdom…is not external, but belongs to the inner man; for it consists of a good conscience and uprightness of life, not what is so reckoned before men, but what is so reckoned before God.” (Commentary on Isaiah 42:1). The civil administration however has jurisdiction over the outward man. As Turretin writes, “Civil power is earthly and natural, reaching only the external man; but ecclesiastical power is spiritual, regarding the internal man and the conscience.” So the institutional church (or the ecclesiastical administration) is not heaven-on-earth, but rather an outward institution that points believers to heaven. The institutional church therefore is part of the outward order (though it was established and exists apart from the civil state) and as such can be an object of civil action, being itself an outward entity.
Why does this matter? It matters because once we realize that Christian heavenly citizenship is not located in the visible church (for the visible church merely administers to the citizen located spiritually in heaven), we have no reason to set the visible church and the civil state in necessary opposition. For a Christian is not a citizen of the visible church, but rather a member. Hence, in terms of the outward order, a Christian has full citizenship in the civil kingdom with no outward oppositional citizenships. There is nothing on earth that opposes the Christian use of civil means to secure his civil rights. For although the Gospel secures the believer’s citizenship in the heavenly, spiritual kingdom, this kingdom does not, nor does the Gospel, alter the natural principles of the civil kingdom, for as Calvin said, the heavenly and earthly kingdoms are
always to be viewed apart from each other. When the one is considered, we should call off our minds, and not allow them to think of the other. For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside. (Institutes III.19.15).
One’s belief in Christ has indeed transferred him into heavenly light, but this does not in effect destroy his humanity, nor anything related to human life. Hence, while a Christian ought always to be heavenly minded, this does not preclude him from acting to secure what is his earthly right in accordance with creational principles. For this reason, the Christian can wield civil power to secure civil ends, including the right to worship the true God (the Christian God) without harassment.
This also means, as stated above, that since the institutional church is an outward institution, it can be the proper object of civil protection in the interest of securing the religious liberty to worship the true God. In other words, since the institutional church is not heavenly, but in itself a temporal and outward entity, civil law can legitimately look after its good, for the civil authority has within its jurisdiction the outward man and all his outward relations.
So the Christian use of civil power to secure civil ends, including ends pertaining to the protection of the institutional church, does not necessitate a conflation of the spiritual kingdom and the present, civil kingdom, for Christians being fully human remain full, unhindered participants in the civil realm. Horton, by restricting Christian involvement in the civil realm, is actually confounding the two kingdoms by forcing the Christian to act in the civil realm as if he were already physically in heaven. He is also confounding the two outward administrations, civil and ecclesiastical, by insisting (at least it seems up to this point) that Christians use only ecclesiastical powers in their civil life. Hence, Horton has failed to separate both the two kingdoms and the two administrations.
At his trial, Jesus told Pontius Pilate that he was indeed a king—but the heir to a greater throne than the Roman prefect could imagine. “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). In it, yes. Even for it. But not from the world. Thus, it is not Pilate who decides Jesus’ fate. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and a long period afterward that would be marked simultaneously by persecution and expansion of his kingdom. How? Armed with nothing more than his gospel, baptism, and the Supper, fueled by the freedom of grace and love of all people, the low and the high, who need to hear this saving message.
As stated above, Christ’s kingdom is heavenly and yet-to-be-made-visible. It is not of this world. And Christ’s kingdom comes only by means of preaching and administering the sacraments. But this is an expression only of ecclesiastical power, not civil power. The proper order of the civil sphere, which would include the right to worship God in a public assembly without harassment, is secured by different means, namely, civil law. This is a basic distinction in Protestant political theology. Seeking civil means to achieve a civil end is not immanentizing the eschaton, even if the end in consequence provides civil freedom for Christians to conduct distinctively Christian practices. Again, Horton is the one confounding the two separate realms and the administrations. He continues,
Then why does the appeal to fear work so consistently with many who claim to stand in the line of Jesus’ disciples, to whom he said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32)?
Because of Horton’s confusions this otherwise important piece of pastoral advice is completely misapplied. It is true that regardless of the state of the outward kingdom (including the ecclesiastical administration) Christians are secured in heaven. There is nothing to fear in that regard. But why must this truth call into question any or all Christian political activity in the civil sphere? Why shouldn’t Christians strive, by the legitimate means they have, to secure for themselves a peaceful and quiet life? And why shouldn’t Christians strive, by the means granted them in the US political system, to ensure their liberty to worship God without harassment? He continues:
This is not to say we should have no concern at all about the state of our nation. Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians called to avoid the responsibilities of our temporary citizenship, even though our ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). However, many of us sound like we’ve staked everything not only on constitutional freedoms but also on social respect, acceptance, and even power. But that comes at the cost of confusing the gospel with Christian nationalism.
Horton seemingly backtracks. We are not called to avoid our responsibilities as citizens, he claims. Then what are our responsibilities? Might one responsibility be to act such that civil governments secure the civil right of religious liberty?
Whatever our responsibilities are, the problem, Horton tells us, is really that we’ve “staked everything” on our rights, respect, acceptance, and power; and we’re confusing the gospel with Christian nationalism. We see the word “everything” again. That is, evangelicals think that their security in heaven and the existence of the institutional church relies on the security of their rights on earth.
It’s more likely however that Christians see voting for the GOP in November as the best way to secure a peaceful and quiet life. Moreover, the comment about social respect and acceptance is strange, given the fact that voting Trump has had the exact opposite effect. The vilification of Trump voters is unprecedented. And actually the concern about respectability and acceptance has been, from the beginning, a NeverTrump issue. They are the one’s constantly talking about their “moral witness,” and even Horton seems to share this concern, saying above that to our “neighbors” the “court chaplains appear more like jesters.” As for power, civil power is a necessary feature of civil order and administration; and since Christians are political beings by nature, they can wield civil power for civil ends. The question then is not whether Christians can or cannot wield civil power; rather the question is what is and is not a good wielding of civil power, as dictated by the God of civil order.
Or maybe.. it’s all about Christian nationalism.
The only Christian nation in the world today is the one gathered “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9) to be addressed by its king. In his Great Commission, Jesus gave authority to the church to make disciples, not citizens; to proclaim the gospel, not political opinions; to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, not in the name of America or a political party; and to teach everything that he delivered, not our own personal and political priorities. And he promised that his presence with us is something that the world can never take away.
This is Horton’s political atheism showing. For if the civil realm ought to recognize the true God (for God is the creator of civil order) and the true God is the Christian God, then the civil order ought to recognize the Christian God. Horton seems to deny that the divine ground of civil order and administration requires the civil recognition of the Being of that divine ground, namely, the Christian God. But I won’t go further into it. (I already did here.) But I will say that Christian civil action for the security of a civil end of religious liberty is not necessarily motivated by Christian nationalism, nor does it spiritualize of the civil realm, nor is it a misapplication of the Gospel. Again, the fact that some civil action helps in consequence Christians more than others does not mean that the right secured is in itself distinctively Christian, nor that it doesn’t follow natural principles.
Anyone who believes, much less preaches, that evangelical Christians are “one election away from losing everything” in November has forgotten how to sing the psalmist’s warning, “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save” (Ps. 146:3).
Horton repeats his misinterpretation of Trump’s words.
It is true that the Church of Christ does not preach the gospel and administer the sacraments by permission of the civil government. It is true that at least a remnant of the true Church has always and will always exist on earth until Christ returns. But these truths have little to do with whether Christians can and ought to use civil power to protect the institutional church. As I’ve argued, Christians can and ought to use civil power to secure their liberty to worship God peacefully. That does not make the Church dependent as to its existence on the civil government, but it does improve the conditions in which the church administers—by ridding it of civil disturbances that distract worshipers from their heaven-directed worship. Many evangelicals, right or wrong, see in Donald Trump and the GOP a means of securing their civil right to religious liberty; and it is within their right to elect civil officials to that end. Whether Trump and the GOP are the right choices is the most pertinent question, and Horton fails to address it.
1. Franciscus Junius in Ecclesiastici Sive De Natura et Administrationibus Ecclesiae Dei, 186-187. (see here).