Back in Feburary, Bruce Ashford, Jonathan Leeman, Steven Harris, and Hunter Baker held a casual conversation in Binkley Chapel on campus at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to discuss the ways in which we engage politics with the gospel.
By: Steve Noble
I got the call a few minutes after my radio show ended. There was a crew from Fusion Television in town filming a show called “Breaking Bread” that brings opposing views to the same table over a meal to hopefully have a civil dialog, despite the deep differences of opinion. The topic would be the controversial North Carolina “bathroom bill” HB2…but the cast wasn’t quite complete:
The Jewish Host/Producer – Dan
The Gay Activist – Ben
The Trans-Man (female at birth) – Calvin
The Trans-Woman (male at birth) – Candice
The Republican Strategist – Matthew
The Conservative Christian – ???
I wasn’t the first or second or even fourth pick. Others had agreed and then backed out. Would it be a fair fight? Was it a set-up to make conservatives and Christians look like henchmen of the Devil himself? Was I up to the challenge? Could I hold my own? Could I maintain my composure? Awkward media settings and having a mic shoved in my face is nothing new after 12-years of my Called2Action life…but this was an entirely new setting and one that I have been longing for more and more as my faith has deepened. Would I be willing to break bread with “the sinners” like Jesus did? I dropped my son off at basketball and prayed my way over to the location.
The restaurant was trendy. The room was well lit. The gear was in place. The cast of characters was assembled and quite diverse, to say the least. Before we got situated they motioned for me to step outside. The Republican Strategist wanted to know if I was ok with the set-up. It was essentially 2 on 3 with the assumption that our host was most likely liberal-leaning, making it 2 on 4. “I’m totally fine with that” I replied. I didn’t know where Matthew stood with the Lord, but I knew where I stood:
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6
I was pretty sure I knew from what direction every argument would come, and I certainly knew what my talking points would be on the HB2 bill, but “winning” that debate was not my primary concern…and not an achievable goal, anyway. For me, as a biblical follower of Jesus Christ, all of these cultural debates can be boiled down and fit nicely into the confines of the first chapter of the Book of Romans. For the sake of time, both yours and mine, here is the “skinny” on this concept:
- People who have yet to be born again don’t really like to hear about God and His teachings because it makes them feel judged and condemned.
- As a result, they instinctively do what they can to dull the noise…to blunt the assault…to turn off the hot spotlight of judgment.
- Some simply choose to ignore it while others choose to try and explain it away via science and philosophy. Some seek to re-define what the “Good Book” says, while others work diligently to silence every source via the rule of law, the court system, and/or outright intimidation. Sadly, they are unaware of the spiritual reality of their actions.
- The “noise” can be heard in every utterance of biblical truth, but especially when it comes to hot button issues like abortion, homosexuality, marriage, and now…gender.
- As a biblical follower of Jesus Christ, I know that I represent the source of that noise at the very least…and express it boldly at the very worst…and that is why so many people don’t like me or feel uncomfortable around me or avoid me.
I call those my “Five Points of the Culture War”, and I believe they capture the essence of the phenomenon at it’s base spiritual level…and that is the level that matters far more than the political ramifications. In the end, it ALL boils down to the fight over life and death…light and darkness…heaven and hell. In other words, the Gospel itself.
So what was my goal? It was two-fold and simple: Image Christ well and get the Gospel onto the table. A line I like to use these days, especially when dealing with the secular media, is to say, “I want to be the last uber-conservative Christian you ever expected to meet.” Invariably, the media person will ask, “What kind is that?” With a big smile on my face I reply, “Likeable!”
To you that may sound rude – like I’m agreeing that every conservative Christian actually IS a jerk – but to the outsider, who’s opinion matters more than yours at the time, it sounds curious. Winsome, even. Additionally, I have found it to be quite disarming, but it does bring with it the potential for failure. What if I become that jerk in the course of the ensuing conversation? Remember: The only people Jesus actually hammered were the religious bigmouths of the day. It took me years to figure that out, but thankfully, and by God’s grace, it has a huge impact on how I speak to the outsider now.
Back to the dinner table.
It was remarkably civil, but oftentimes uncomfortable and a few times it became downright awkward. Imagine that? “They” made lots of points that at first blush seemed quite powerful, but as my intellect kicked in, tempered by the wisdom and compassion of the Holy Spirit inside of me, their attempts to label the HB2 bill as hate-filled and discriminatory fell flat…at least from the perspective of the Republican Strategist and the Conservative Christian. By the way, Matthew, the Strategist, really knew his stuff on the legal and legislative side of the discussion and that was a great help and blessing to me. Knowledge truly is power and two have a better return for their work (I read that somewhere).
By God’s grace and power, I stood my ground (His really), and hopefully, did it with humility and gentleness and respect while having to give answers that I knew would upset the three people on the other side of the table. While the other five focused on the positions represented at the table, I continued to bring two people into the discussion that had no voice in the discussion: my 11-year old daughter along with the registered sex offender. One could pay a remarkably high price because of the depraved nature and activities of the other, fueled by the increased opportunities an open-bathroom environment would bring with it, and as much as it pained me to have to add to the rejection of the transgendered community, I had to choose to protect “the least of these”.
You see, the safety of the 30,000,000 girls 15 and under across America, including the nearly 1,100,000 in my home state of North Carolina, of which two are my daughters, HAD to trump (sorry) the rejection and awkwardness that the transgendered people would experience as they had to deal with the bathroom choice on a deeply personal level – something I have no way to relate to but that I am commanded to be compassionate about. My position, of course, was not accepted, but I did appreciate the calm and respectful way in which they listened and chose to respond…or say nothing.
The most powerful moment for me, however, was not some point my Republican Strategist friend (Matthew) or I made about the bill itself, but the opportunity God gave me when our host, Dan, showed us a viral video of an altercation between several police offices and a trans-girl or boy, I don’t recall, attempting to use the bathroom of their choice. Tempers flared. Harsh words were exchanged. A physical altercation seemed imminent. “What do you think about that, Steve?” Dan asked, seeming to imply that these scenes would increase and become dangerous as a result of the passage of the HB2 law. I placed my shaking hand out over the middle of the table and said in a quivering voice with tears welling up in my eyes…
“My hand isn’t shaking because I’m nervous or afraid to be here. After twelve years of being in the media this isn’t a hard environment for me to operate in. My hand is shaking because as a follower of Jesus Christ my heart aches over the brokenness I’m seeing in this video. Every single person on the earth is broken and in need of a Savior. The cops are mad. The kids are mad. Nobody is willing to have a calm conversation and nobody appears to have any regard for the other side. This drives me far more than the bathroom bill or any other issue we are discussing tonight. People need to be reconciled to their Creator…which is the only hope of them being able to be reconciled to one another. That is why I am here tonight. That is at the core of my message.”
With that I placed my shaking hand back in my lap and regained my composure. It produced one of those “awkward moments” I referred to earlier, but hopefully…God willing…it was the most eternally impactful moment of the night. You see, If I had been a jerk…if I had been argumentative or condescending up until that point in the night…my Gospel words of compassion and concern and love would probably have fallen on deaf ears. Instead, and by God’s grace, I believe they fell on softened ears…at least, that is my prayer.
As the evening wrapped up it was quite friendly…even fun. I gave out my radio show business cards and invited my “enemies” to join me on the show someday, soon. At least one of them probably will. We took some pictures…shook each other’s hands…and departed back into our respective corners of the ring. Did I prove anything? Did I win? Did I put them in their place? Did I force them to reconsider anything? I have no idea…but then again, that’s neither my problem nor my responsibility. My job is to be faithful and leave the fruitfulness to God, and that is what I am trying to do just 13-hours on the other side of the most awkward and interesting 3-hours of my life as a follower of Jesus Christ. I pray that YOU have some of that awkwardness in your life, too. Jesus certainly did.
Followers of Jesus find themselves in a unique and difficult situation when it comes to this year’s presidential election. Many of us see no qualified candidate for whom to vote. At present, that is my personal conviction and position, something I have been clear about on multiple occasions and through various channels. I cannot, as I currently see things, vote for either of the major party candidates. My conscience will simply not allow it, even as I consider the voting process to be a wonderful blessing and privilege we all have in America.
There are also faithful followers of Christ, many who are close and dear friends of mine, who feel they can (and even must) vote for a “lesser of two evils” candidate. This is because so much is at stake, particularly Supreme Court appointments. I can understand and appreciate and respect their position. This is a very difficult moment for all of us, and we should be both fair and honest about this reality.
The 2016 election is important, but it is too often divisive and open to unhealthy rhetoric. At Southeastern, we want to pursue the loving and civil discourse for which our school has come to be known. We know that brothers and sisters in Christ can hold and express differing positions even as they love and respect one another.
As a picture of this, I have asked two of our ethics professors, Drs. Dan Heimbach and Mark Liederbach, to share their personal positions and approaches to this timely and increasingly crucial question. They are brothers, friends, and colleagues, and they regularly show grace and respect for each other even when they have different perspectives.
Why Evangelicals Should Not Sit Out the 2016 Presidential Election
Dr. Daniel Heimbach, Senior Professor of Christian Ethics at SEBTS
The 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign season has just entered the general election period, and American evangelicals now face the repellent prospect of voting for one of the major party candidates—both of whom we think is terribly flawed and dangerous—or sitting out this election either by not voting or symbolically voting for a write-in we know has no chance. I am writing to explain why I think we must vote for one of the repellent major party candidates, and why I believe sitting it out is not what God desires. All Christians want to be Christ-like and faithful to the Word of God. But we differ sometimes on what that is. I will explain why being like Christ and following his teaching leads me to think we must not sit out this election. But I respect those who love the Word of God and reach other conclusions. The important thing is desiring to honor God and willingness to be corrected by what he says.
God does not call Christians only to vote for political candidates who reach minimal levels of acceptability. Rather he calls us to be a good influence within real world limits (Jer 29:7), which in our case means voting for a comparatively “better” candidate over a comparatively “worse” one from among those our governing system makes available. Candidates are never sinless and some are positively wicked. But that does not make those voting for an available candidate complicit in his or her flaws.
Jesus paid taxes supporting the highly immoral Roman government occupying 1st century Judea (Matt 22:15-22). That did not make Jesus complicit in its failings and neither will voting for one of the available candidates in this election, even though both are flawed and dangerous.
I think sitting out this election is a version of the mistake Jesus warned not to make in the parable he told about a field of wheat mixed with tares (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43). In that parable Jesus addressed how Christians should live in present society, and he warned against taking an all-or-nothing approach toward bettering life in common with unbelievers. The field represents mixed society under present world limitations (Matt 13:38). And, while God plans a perfect world to come (Matt 13:41), he does not make Christians responsible for reaching that perfection. Rather, for now, he only wants us to be a good influence while accepting present world limitations that are far from ideal. We are wheat, not tares. But we must accept living in mixed society with them and not weed them out (Matt 13:29-30).
We can strive for better candidates in the future. But in the 2016 Presidential race, that process is over. Our major party candidates are selected, and now all we can do is promote or undermine which is elected. Whether we vote in this election or sit it out, we must realize that whatever we do will affect the outcome. There is no option with no impact at all. Now the only way we have of influencing this election for the better is to assess which candidate is less flawed or dangerous, and then to vote for that candidate. I believe that is what Jesus expects. I believe that is what he would do in our place. And I believe that is the truest and best way to please God in this election.
Why Evangelicals Should Exercise Conscientious Objection in the 2016 Presidential Election
Dr. Mark Liederbach, Dean of Students and Professor of Theology, Ethics and Culture at SEBTS
When it appears neither of the two candidates running for president provides a positive option, questions abound about the proper way for Christian to think about voting.
There are some who would make the case that it is better to vote for the “lesser of two evils” candidate. Otherwise the chance to advance an agenda may be lost, or more negatively stated, the opportunity to slow a decline would be wasted. Such a position is not the same as mere pragmatism, though it is possible to construe it as such. Giving the benefit of the doubt to right-minded Christians taking this position, we should understand that there is a genuine desire to honor the Lord by using the gift of a meaningful vote to promote good or limit evil.
On the other hand, there are those that would make the case (including myself) that there comes a time when a person’s conscience will simply not allow a vote to be cast for either candidate. This position is sometimes critiqued as a form of misguided “perfectionism” in which the voter refusing to choose one of the two leading candidates is afraid of being complicit with evil. Critics will then point out that in a fallen world everything is tainted by evil, thus a demand for such “perfectionism” is not simply unrealistic of any candidate shy of Jesus himself. When taken to its logical extreme, such an argument would make life unlivable.
I beg to differ.
While it can be argued that the “lesser of two evils” choice is sometimes necessary, such a decision assumes that only option A or B has value. It also assumes that a clear “lesser of evils” can be determined.
But there is a third option, and it would be wrong to describe it as “throwing away a vote.” That third option is called “conscience.”
A choice to follow conscience arises when the two presented options both have such evil positions, platforms and legacies that a voter cannot in good conscience support either one. In that situation the voter can still choose to go to the polls and vote for other offices (Senate, Governor, etc) with a clearer choice, while abstaining from voting for the particular office that offers up wretched candidates (in this case President). Such a decision can be good and wise because it honors the right and privilege we are granted to participate in our governing process while also having the backbone to say: “The time has come when I cannot face my Lord with a pure heart by voting for either of these candidates.”
In this particular election, one candidate is in the midst of likely corruption and supports an agenda that includes abortion, gender confusion, legalized euthanasia and legalized marijuana. The other has built a life on the back of gambling, pornography, bigotry, divorce, abortion and amassing a fortune by preying on the poor.
These two evils don’t seem to have a clear “lesser.”
One can support a party platform (if the voter thinks one has long-term benefits) by voting for other offices while simultaneously abstaining from voting for one of the two most wretched candidates in history. There are times when conscientious objection grounded in an ethic of worship is the more responsible choice. I believe this election cycle is one of those times.
A position that argues “Never Hillary & Never Trump” may not be popular, but it may well be the highest act of worship a Christian can offer.
I am so grateful for these two men and the gift they are to our students. My hope and prayer is that this is a model for all those who live together under the Lordship of King Jesus. We can lovingly and graciously express our views, even when we disagree, and then join hands as we continue about the business of fulfilling the Great Commission until King Jesus returns! In all of this we must remember and never forget: our hope is not and has never been in a president. It is in a King.