Q & A with Australian Pastor Murray Campbell on Trumping the faith and global churchNovember 4, 2016
As part of our Trumping the Faith series, we are exploring from a variety of angles how this election has exposed something deeply unsettling in the relationship between the Christian witness and politics in America. But the Church is not any more “American” than it is Canadian, Syrian or African. We are part of One Body, which transcends national boundaries. So then, if the public witness of Christianity is affected in one place, how is that influencing the Body in other places?
We wanted to get the perspective of Christians outside the US about this question. We talked with Murray Campbell, a pastor in Melbourne, Australia, about how the overidentification of evangelical Christianity and politics influences ministry clear across the Pacific Ocean. Find out more about Campbell and read his writings at MurrayCambell.net.
During the all-encompassing coverage of a presidential campaign, Americans get so engrossed in what is happening inside the country, we are even worse than usual when it comes to considering what is happening outside our borders. What is the perspective in Australia about the election? What kinds of perspectives are we missing when we only think domestically?
Murray Campbell: News of the Presidential election is featuring on Australian news every day. For some Aussies, this Presidential campaign is better than a new season of House of Cards. For others, we are watching with a sense of dismay and concern, because American politics has some impact on our own country, politically and culturally. Put it like this, I don’t think anyone in Australia is thinking, wow, look at how great the USA is right now:
One candidate eagerly supports abortion and can’t be trusted with state secrets. The other candidate abuses women, uses refugees as political fodder, and is capricious and unstable in character. It’s more strange than a B-Grade sitcom.
Most of the time Aussies see Americans as a good neighbour, even as distant cousins. It’s also true that Australia has close cultural, commercial, and military ties with the US, and so we’re not only interested because of its ‘entertainment’ value, we envisage that there will be some fall out for us, although what that looks like remains to be seen.
Like many Christian leaders here in the US, you note the word “evangelical” has lost its original meaning and become synonymous with a branch of American politics. What does that mean for doing ministry in Australia?
I very much agree with D.A Carson and John Stott before him, who define evangelicalism as a theological movement, not a social or political movement.
To be evangelical is nothing less than being someone who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, the very word from which we get evangelical is euangelion, which means Gospel. But that’s not how mainstream society understands the word any longer.
The evangelical branding problem didn’t start with the rise of Donald Trump; it goes back to the 1980s when Christians hitched their wagon with the Republican movement.
Indeed, the issue is even broader than North America. In Europe many denominations continue to use the language of evangelical, as a eulogy to the past, even though their theology often bears little resemblance to that of their forefathers.
In Australia, ‘evangelical’ has had branding kudos, but increasingly it is being fused with right wing American politics, and even now with some forms of conservative Australian politics. Not that Republican politics is altogether bad; I’d imagine that agreed with much of their platform, but evangelicalism is not republicanism. But our media are not savvy enough to make these distinctions.
Australian media love an opportunity to debunk Christians, and this election is giving them more supply than they can print. My interest in the Presidential race relates to this. My interest is less about whether Americans vote for Clinton or Trump. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t envy your situation; from where I stand in Melbourne this is an impossible election, with two untenable candidates.
The reason I have written about this election across the Pacific Ocean is because of the way evangelicalism is being portrayed in the media, and also by some evangelicals.
I understand that there are notable evangelicals speaking up (Al Mohler and Russell Moore for example), and they are helpfully showing us the disparity between Donald Trump and Evangelical beliefs, but the Australian media doesn’t pick up those voices. Rather, the only message our media presents in relation to Christianity in American politics is that evangelicals are Donald Trump supporters.
For us in Australia, this has become a branding issue; we have an identity issue because of this gross fusion between conservative American politics and Evangelical Christianity.
As part of our “Trumping the faith” series, we know we are talking about more than just nomenclature here. We are exploring how politics has usurped the public Christian witness in America. How do you see this witness influence the wider, global church?
How it’s reading in Australia, is that evangelicals overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. Donald Trump says crazy things, he wants to introduce harsh policies on refugees, and he talks about assaulting women, and still evangelicals want to support him? See the hypocrisy of evangelicals; here’s another reason why Christianity is bad for society.
At a time when society is rightly suspicious of churches because of the appalling cases of child sex abuse, we now have self-identifying evangelicals supporting a candidate who talks about sexually assaulting women.
Aussie Evangelicals have been talking for some time about whether we can still use the language of evangelical. The current Presidential election is making it even more difficult for us to use it. Now, I’m not yet prepared to lay it aside, because rightly understood, evangelical is a beautiful word, holding precious and life changing truths. I am, however, sympathetic with my Christian friends who are turning to alternate language.
If I were to make a change, I quite like Russell Moore’s suggestion, that he now calls himself a “Gospel Christian”. At the end of the day, a Gospel Christian is an evangelical Christian!
But as evangelical leaders put up their hand in support of Trump, we must realise how the unbelieving world is reading this: The media and the broader public don’t differentiate between the political ideology and the Gospel.
At the end of the day, the danger is, we end up confusing the good news of Jesus, we give an undue hope on a particular political group, and we confuse our neighbours as to the real message of Jesus Christ.
Please don’t misunderstand, we want Christians involved in politics, and we want Christians holding onto their theological convictions in the public square. But the State is not the Church, and the Church not the State. Jonathan Leeman has recently written an excellent volume on this subject: Political Church: The local Church as Embassy of Christ’s Rule.
There is a moral and political dimension to the Gospel, but evangelicalism is not moralism, and it is not a political ideology. We don’t preach the Gospel of how my views trump yours, but the Gospel of grace. The Gospel says, no matter where I find myself on the political spectrum, before God I am a sinner, and this same holy God sent his only Son in the world to die on a cross, so that I may be forgiven and reconciled to him.
What might American Christians learn from the global church about how to engage in politics but not be defined by political identity?
By all means, associate with a political party, and be engaged in the political process, but if you’re a Christian, don’t let your identity be defined by it. If we are a Christian, our ultimate identity is in Christ, and so we must, at least in principle, be ready to distance ourselves from our chosen party when they advocate policies that are wrong and unloving: whether it is abortion or same-sex marriage or the mistreatment of refugees.
We may offer allegiance to a party and to a candidate, but surely our greater allegiance is to the Lord Jesus?
We know there isn’t an American Church, and an Australian Church, or a Western Church and persecuted Church. We are all one body and one Church, which transcends national borders. What words of encouragement do you have for your brothers and sisters in the US, who are seeking to navigate this election season in way to glorify God?
While this elections is causing us to cry and laugh at the same time, there is also a sense in which we are genuinely concerned for our Christian brothers and sisters in America. If I may encourage you,
First of all, be clear about the Gospel.
Second, remember, nothing takes God by surprise. No matter who wins the election, God is still in charge, Jesus is on the throne, and his Gospel remains true and good.
Third, when it comes to evaluating Christian theology and politics, the Bible has much to teach us. We’re not pitching for a theonomy but neither are we completely removed from the political domain.
My mind turns to passages such as 1 Timothy chapter 2, where Paul gives Timothy a set of encouragements. Speaking of life under the rule of government, Paul reminds Timothy to pray for those in authority (and keep in mind the authorities in the First Century AD weren’t always particularly favourable toward Christians).
In this context, Paul encourages Timothy to live a life of godliness and holiness, for this pleases God our Saviour.
Paul also reminds Timothy that the hope of the world is not in any form of Government or in political figures, but our hope is Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and humanity. Yes, Government’s have a role to play, but neither Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton mark the end of Christendom. The fact is, cultural Christianity has been declining for decades, and yet Jesus remains on the throne, God is good, the Gospel is true, and through the preaching of the Gospel God will keep growing his Church.
In light of this, we are praying that the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, will keep his people faithful, humble, and bold, and that no matter who wins next week, that they will find their hope and peace in Christ.
Thank you to Murray Campbell for sending us his thoughts all the way from Australia.
For a second perspective on the US election from a non-American Christian, we also spoke with Carey Nieuwhof, pastor of Connexus Church north of Toronto Canada:
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