Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Political Discipleship?

Vincent E. Bacote


Few Christians in the United States would dispute that we are in vexing times when it comes to politics. Confusion, perplexity, and exasperation are typical responses to the truly circus-like national election; we have lingering frustrations on stubborn issues like race, poverty, and war; and many have buyer's remorse (or at least “buyer’s ambivalence”) about politics. While few have called for a full-scale retreat, there is considerable conversation around stepping back from vigorous political engagement and rethinking strategies of public engagement.

Should we heed the voices telling us "there is no salvation in political life?"

My answer? Only if we are really seeking salvation... But we aren't. Besides that, as Christians, we can't just head to the bench; the call of discipleship beckons. Because conversations about discipleship are not typically linked to politics, let’s explore what this really means. 

Discipleship is More Public than Advertised

Discipleship. We tend to see it primarily as internal or individualistic. While sensible, this limits our understanding of discipleship by making it almost exclusively a matter of gaining knowledge about God without extending it into the fullness of our lives as social beings who experience life in public as well as private domains.

Why might this be the case? Could it be one way of unwittingly falling prey to modernity? While not unique to what we call “the modern world” (the last 400-500 years), the dominant philosophical influences in the Enlightenment intensified the bifurcation of theology and ethics, putting transcendent matters in one realm and concrete matters in another. Bible-believing Christians resisted this and emphasized a high commitment to the Bible. But this emphasis on revealed truth also yielded uneven approaches to "lived theology." Perhaps we can ask:  Is a commitment to knowing the truth of Scripture unwittingly a pathway to a "gnostic-haunted" faith that leads to problematic attention to concrete life? At least to some degree, an argument can be made that this is true, and it helps explain approaches to discipleship that are in tension with public engagement.

Another reason could be that there are competing great commissions. Matthew 28:18-20 is clearly a great commission and is one of the main texts cited for global mission.  Some views of this great commission are in tension with what I and others have called the first great commission in Genesis 1:26, 28, also called the creation mandate or cultural mandate. Certainly the task of stewarding the created order well is a great commission, one that includes matters such as political life. There is no immediately obvious tension between these commissions, but the first one is either not taught, neglected or de-emphasized, or in some cases, seen as a challenge to the priorities of the great commission as explained in many churches and parachurch ministries. 

A better idea: Discipleship that brings the great commissions together. We can get there by recognizing that creation and redemption are not at odds, that the incarnation reaffirms the importance of our responsibility to creation because of Christ’s embodiment. Most importantly, Jesus commands us to teach everything he commanded, which includes his emphasis on not abolishing the revelation that came before the incarnation. If this is true, then it includes the creation mandate-- that first great commission.  And if that is true, then it means we always have had "permission" for a public faith. 

Discipleship properly includes much more than knowing; it includes a practice of life that is social and public. Of course this includes evangelism, but also so much more because our life is public and political for this simple reason: we participate in a world where we perpetually consider how to manage our life together. This “management” is politics. In the end, discipleship is more public than advertised because this is what it means to have a truly Trinitarian faith: we live for God in his world, compelled by the Spirit who preserves the world in spite of sin and gives us eyes to see opportunities to obey both great commissions.

Another reason to remain politically engaged connects to our eschatology. Make no mistake, ever since Genesis 3, we have lived in a world that constantly tempts us to be in despair. The Fall introduces horror into our world and frustration is a characteristic experience. One way we currently experience this is when there are changes that don't come when we want them, and other changes occur that we wish didn't happen. In moments when this is particularly acute, checking out of public engagement can be a great temptation. But before concluding political engagement is largely fruitless, I think we should ask, “Do we have an expectation problem?” What is our understanding of the typical path of political and social change? Could we be suffering from a distorted eschatological perspective framed by mythic American expectations? Do we expect political figures and public policies to be so effective that they accomplish messianic levels of transformation?

Hope in the “Long Take”

How do we contend with life in a haunted world? A confession: I often find myself wanting to look away. However, sometimes we must not only notice the horrific and frustrating realities of our world, but also do "long takes" similar to what occurs in some films. Long takes direct our attention to a place or scene of action, sometimes difficult events like the whipping scene in Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. As that film makes staring at ugly history inescapable, we sometimes have to look at the exasperating and horrific realities of our society for a while instead of running away.  When we do long takes, we better understand the challenges we face in society. 

If long takes were all we had, we could truly become hopeless, but this is where a proper eschatological perspective encourages us to "stay in the game." While eschatology can be a divisive topic, a generous eschatology acknowledges the importance of fault lines while placing emphasis on the most important elements such Christ’s return and the established kingdom of God in the new heavens and earth. While for some, eschatology might be reason for withdrawal, a better perspective might be to recognize that God expects us to pursue fidelity to Him in all circumstances. That God will finally establish the kingdom gives us liberty to keep trying different strategies of public faithfulness without the burden of thinking full establishment of the kingdom depends on us. As we remember that creation and redemption are together in the fullness of redemption, we continue our obedience to the first great commission, aware of the hope that God will ultimately set things right.

This hopeful approach also avoids the temptation of triumphalism. In my book The Political Disciple, I use the phrase “cruciform transformation” to convey that while suffering is no surprise while we wait for the kingdom’s full arrival, it does not mean that we are committed to futility. Our hopeful faith is intimately connected to all of life, truthful about the despair that sometimes attends public engagement, but resisting the temptation to retreat from this engagement.

The opportunity to participate in God’s world is always before us, and the horror show that is the roller coaster of history between Fall and Consummation will always tempt us to opt out, but the call of discipleship calls loudly to us to remain in the game.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Before reading this article, what did you think “political discipleship” meant? Did this article change that understanding? How?
  2. Which great commission do you tend to respond to more? How does bringing the two great commissions together deepen your discipleship?
  3. Where is there an area in public life where you feel convicted to do a “long take?” What is difficult about doing so, and how could you approach the challenge?


-- Vincent E. Bacote is an Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College. He is a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”