The Myth of a Christian Nation, Ch 4 & 5

Greg Boyd’s new book is very much a plea for Christians to make a sober assessment of their political aspirations. While many Christians will take issue with Boyd’s flat-out demonization of all government, we all should agree whole-heartedly that what we’ve seen recently from the Religious Right is not the way of Jesus. It is, in Boyd’s words, the way of Constantine.

In chapters 4 and 5 of his new book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, Boyd looks at the history of Christianity’s involvement in politics and responds that when the church gets too involved in power politics, it damages both the church and politics. He not only points to Constantine’s Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades, but every time in history when the church saw itself as “The Church Militant and Triumphant.” The Reformers were just as guilty of this, martyring what they called “heretics” through a warped sense of fulfilling God’s call of the Kingdom.

America, in its founding, was often seen as the New Israel, a “promised land” for European Christians. But this thinking allowed them to conquer native Americans through bloodshed in the “name of Christ.” This history of oppression of peoples continued when Christians reasoned that the enslavement of Africans was a means of establishing this new land for Jesus.
“This tragic history has to be considered one of Satan’s greatest victories, and the demonic ironies abound. In the name of the one who taught us not to lord it over others but rather serve them (Matt. 20:25-28), the church often lorded it over others with a vengeance as ruthless as any version of the kingdom of the world ever has. In the name of the one who taught us to turn the other cheek, the church often cut off people’s heads. In the name of the one who taught us to love our enemies, the church often burned its enemies alive. In the name of the one who taught us to bless those who persecute us, the church often became a ruthless persecutor. In the name of the one who taught us to take up the cross, the church often took up the sword and nailed others to the cross. Hence, in the name of winning the world for Jesus Christ, the church often became the main obstacle to believing in Jesus Christ."


So it is also true for those who say they want to “take America back for God.” There is a myth in evangelical circles that this nation was once a nation founded for Christ by those who followed Christ for the purpose of being a beacon of light of Christian righteousness.

To this, Boyd asks some disconcerting questions:

“Were these God-glorifying years before, during, or after Europeans ‘discovered’ Ameica and carried out the doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’—the belief that God (or, for some, nature) had destined white Christians to conquer the native inhabitants and steal their land? Were the God-glorifying years the ones in which the whites massacred these natives by the millions, broke just about every covenant they ever made with them, and then forced survivors onto isolated reservations? Was the golden age before, during, or after white Christians loaded five to six million Africans on cargo ships to bring them to their newfound country, enslaving the three million or so who actually survived the brutal trip? Was it during the two centuries when Americans acquired remarkable wealth by the sweat and blood of their slaves? Was this the time when we were truly ‘one nation under God,’ the blessed time that so many evangelicals seem to want to take our nation back to?"

Whether or not you agree with Boyd’s view of the Kingdom of God, we must affirm his contention that the Great Commission is never fulfilled through political means. When church leaders forget this and proclaim that they want to take America back for God, they are severely misled by the Devil.

Posts in this series:
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapters 4 & 5
Reflection: Boyd and Colossians 1
Chapters 6 - 8
Chapter 9
Wrap-up Review

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DLW said...

What do you mean by fulfilling the Great Comission by political means?

We are told to go and make disciples of all nations. The bottom issue for me is whether a critical part of those disciplines involve our habits of political deliberation/action.

I see the Christianity that took root in the US through the lense of Mark Noll. Evangelicalism’s strengths and weaknesses are intertwined and reflect the historical circumstances of the 18th century which were strongly affected by the 30 years war in Europe. It was a singular incarnation/ adaptation of Xty into the cultures of early modern Europe that adopted Xty to the extant nationalism and individualism of the enlightenment, that emphasized the personal facets of life over the institutional, structural facets.

At the end of the day, Boyd is right in countering the RRight's spin on our history, but he over-generalizes.


Bob Robinson said...

I agree much with Mark Noll's assessment of evangelicalism's history in the US and its interactions with political events.

By saying, "we must affirm his (Boyd's) contention that the Great Commission is never fulfilled through political means," I mean that what I see is the Religious Right implicitly believing that they might help evangelistic efforts merely by creating a Christian society ruled by Christians in governmental power. This is a faulty premise, I believe, because it does not honor the separation of the spheres of differentiated authority that God places in our society (my words, not Boyd's - he doesn't speak in these terms, but rather in terms that equates demonic forces to all human government).

DLW said...

I guess some of the heat is over what is meant by politics.

Part of me would like to see a bit more attention dealing with political ontotheological issues in more depth, but I know that Boyd's book was written for popular consumption, oft by folks whose understandings of the political process are limited.

I think I think that this limited understanding is more of the problem than a violation in the separation of spheres. The acid test I use here wrt politics of abortion is whether the language used could also be used to justify a lack of opposition to infanticide.

more later,


The Bose said...

Perhaps it would be better to say that the Great Commission can never be fulfilled through the policies and initiatives of earthly government.

Discipleship cannot be legislated. This is a concept that many people in the Religious Right fail to grasp. Using the "power of the sword" to force or even encourage people into Christianity and its values is not only hypocritical but, as history has taught us, produces a half-hearted, insincere brand of faith. This was a big part of the tragedy of nations in the past which claimed Christianity as the state religion.

The other tragedy of using the "power of the sword" in combination with a desire to spread Christianity was the Crusades and other attempts to spread or "protect" the "Christian realm" primarily by the use of military violence. This has always been an ugly blot in the History of Christianity.

There are lots of things we can do to enact Christian social ethics through government, of course. That's why it is very important for Christians to be involved politically. However, such initiatives should not be directed towards legislating morality, but rather to enact social reform programs that reflect Jesus' teachings in Matthew 25.

It is my belief that the Great Commission is best carried out in the most individual way possible. Effectively spreading the Gospel is directly related to how direct the relationship is between the person spreading the Gospel and the person receiving it.

The ministry of love, however is very different and, in many cases, can have the greatest effect carried out in large organized groups.

Bob Robinson said...

The Bose and dlw,
Thanks for those words. The gospel entails both evangelistic and social reform aspects. This is why this conversation is so very important!

Anonymous said...

And it's not likely a coincidence that so many skills that help with evangelism also help with political activism...


RonMcK said...

We can learn from the past, but our aim should not be to go back, but to go forward to something even better.

The great commission involves more than just sharing the gospel. It also involves teaching the nations to obey everything that Jesus taught (after they have received the gospel. Obeying Jesus is the same as doing God's will on earth, so part of the great commission is working with the Holy Spirit to establish the Kingdom of God.

If the gospel is effective, that might one day mean teaching politicians how to obey Jesus. We must not use political power to force people to become Christians or to behave in a Christian way, but we must be ready to teach those who sincerely want to obey Jesus.

Last year, I asked the following question at Blessed Economist. What would you do if the Prime Minister (or President) of your country decided to become a Christian and asked you to disciple her? Would you tell her to resign because politics is evil and Christians should not be joined with evil? You would need to be very sure before doing this, because God may have put her in a position of authority for a purpose (This was true of Queen Esther.)

Or you could tell her to keep on implementing party policies while keeping her Christian faith personal and private. The problem with is that after a while she would start feeling like a hypocrite.

What would you do? You would have to start thinking about what it means to be a Christian Prime Minister. If we are praying for our rulers as required by the scriptures, we cannot assume that none will ever become a Christian. We should be prepared to answer the question when it happens.

Here is another tough question. If the gospel has great success and we find that 90 percent of the population of our nation is Christian, should we start implementing a Christian legal system? What would that be? What would the new society look like? Or would we leave politics to the other 10 percent, so the church does not get dragged back into Christendom?

When Constantine became a Christian, the church did not have the answer to these questions, so we got Christendom by default.

We should start thinking now, as it will be too late when it happens.

Bob Robinson said...



Those are some EXCELLENT thoughts. Well worth pondering.

After writing that "we must affirm his (Boyd's) contention that the Great Commission is never fulfilled through political means," I've had second thoughts. Those are Boyd's words; he meant that government cannot be an evangelistic thing. I'm more along the lines of what you're saying - that "making disciples" must include, as you so well said, " teaching the nations to obey everything that Jesus taught (after they have received the gospel). Obeying Jesus is the same as doing God's will on earth, so part of the great commission is working with the Holy Spirit to establish the Kingdom of God."

Bob Robinson said...


Your questions about Christians in politics gets to the root of the issue that I have with Boyd. He unequivocally states that government can never reflect the kingdom of God since it is of the "kigdom of the world." Therefore government is a necessary evil, nothing more.

DLW said...

Ron, those are good questions.

I emphasize habits/deliberation as I do not expect Xtn unamity on what is God's will for our political/economic relations. I do expect that if we all deliberate on the matter that the final outcome will be more akin to the will of God.

I wd tell the leader that they need to love their opponents, not cling to power at all cost and foster greater transparency and civility. I would say that they need to bear in mind whether their leadership will ultimately make others more willing to give Xty a hearing or not. I would say that we shd not put our trust in state-based violence to deal with our problems. I would want her or him to give an apology for much of the US's int'l manipulations from the past sixty years. We never shd have put our faith in our use of force to overcome Communism. The domino theory along with a racist unwillingness to see that Vietnamese Communism was more like Yugoslavian Nationalistic Communism was what cost us a war that led many USAmericans to stop trusting their gov't and to get into some very personally harmful stuff.

Anyways, Bob I responded to your comment you made re: my pragmatic prolife manifesto. I truly believe that is the only way forward. I hope and pray that Boyd will listen to me and hope and pray that Boyd will write a sequel to his book with me that will involve more dialogue between different Christian perspectives.

We personally go back some and it would be the sort of thing I've longed to do for more than the past two years. But it's in God and Boyd's hands...

Ted Gossard said...

Bob and company,
Very good stuff here.

In trying to think of this more from my angle, I really don't have an answer for Ron's good questions. I would like to see that addressed from someone (or a number) committed to, and steeped in more of an anabaptist tradition.

I can't see how one can simply wave their hand and dismiss the station they're in, because they've become a Christian. They certainly need to seek to obey Christ as they remain in their station, seeing it as part of their calling.

Daniel served, and he served very well, and with significant authority. But as part of an empire (the first one, most of his life) which was judged by God because it was not righteous. He did, in God effect it for good, as far as his witness to Nebuchadnezzar.

I am challenged by the notion of what to do if a nation professes Christianity (a vast majority). Wouldn't government seek to fulfill its clear calling to provide order and peace, so that the Church could proclaim in life, deed and word the gospel? The government can't take the place of God's calling to the church, which is Christ's body on earth.

The Bose said...

First of all, it should be noted that even though Constantine converted Christianity, he was not the one who made Christianity the empire's official religion. Constantine made Christianity legal, but it was emperor Theodosius later in the 4th century who made Christianity the official state religion. Some would say that the church has gone downhill ever since.

Second of all, I would argue that "Christian legal system" is an oxymoron. This is because any legal system that relies on laws and judgements that come from man is inherently imperfect. If we look at the example of the earliest Christian communities found in Acts 4 and 5, we see that operated in what was basically a literal, pure communist system, sharing all their possessions in kind. The only "justice" served to people (Ananias and Sapphira) came in the form of direct punishment from what seems to be supernatural forces (their deaths aren't attributed to God striking them down, though I think we can assume that God at least allowed for their deaths to happen). The disciples had political dillemmas early on in choosing what to do about distributing food to widows and deciding what commandments to give to churches (especially gentiles in those churches) in other parts of the world (see Acts 6:1-7 and all of chapter 15).

The big difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world lie in their purpose and responsibilities. Earthly kingdoms have the purpose of not only preserving order within their borders, but protecting the people and their property from invading peoples. This is why Earthly kingdoms are said to weild the power of the sword because ultimately their enforcement of laws and their defense of the territory depends on the power to destroy. This does not solely come in the form of weapons either, because the power to tax is another form of destruction. Earthly kingdoms have the priority of providing for empirical, tangible needs with empirical, tangible things. An Earthly kingdom is nothing without earthly resources, so it is forced to do everything in its power to protect and even expand on those resources. The economic phenomenon of scarcity leads to greed and coveting which often leads to violence as all of the world's nations seek to expand their earthly resources.

The Kingdom of God is different. As the Kingdom of God, we are called to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33) and not to care so much about having the things we need to survive. We have been told that "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if a man wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well." (Matthew 5:38-40) These are almost in direct opposition to what the very purpose of earthly government is. Even if there could be such a thing as a "Christian Nation" that actually put these commandments into practice, it wouldn't last long because it would give away all of its resources to anybody who demanded it.

This is precisely what I am talking about when I say that the will of God for the Kingdom of God cannot be enacted through kingdoms of this earth. I think this is the kind of stuff that Greg Boyd is talking about in terms of kingdoms of this earth being "power over" people while as the Kingdom of God we are called to be "power under" people.

Ron does pose a good question that I will rephase as follows: "How should a member of the Kingdom of God act as a leader in an earthly kingdom?" My answer would be that, just like all of us, they should do the best that they can. Being in a place of leadership is certainly not evil, it's a wonderful thing. People in places of leadership have a great ability to affect positive change for a great number of people. However, they also have great responsibility. People in government take on the responsibility of earthly government to protect the general welfare of the people they have power over. One way they protect people is through law. After all, unless every single person is a true Christian who loves everyone and attempts to live with everyone in peace, then laws are necessary to preserve order. Enforcement of the law through the "power of the sword" prevents vigilanteism and furthur violence. As Ghandi once said, "An Eye for an Eye only ends up making the whole world blind." The most difficult part of their job is making decisions on how to distribute limited resources. This has been the main dillemma of governments that manage resources since the beginning of History, and is summed up in the term "economics." Together with law, economics defines the true meaning of politics: "What is the best way of managing things?" or "What are the best decisions we can make to improve the quality of life (on earth) for our people?"

We don't have a specific, definitive answer about this from the Bible. In my opinion, that's because it's beyond human understanding. God is the only one who knows and the only one with the power to help us overcome the limitations of this world and the imperfections of ourselves that drag us to death. That's precisely why the best advice that you could give to someone in the political realm is to seek first the Kingdom of God in their personal lives and continually ask for his guidance through prayer about the difficult decisions of how to do their job and serve the people who they have power oer. None of us can do everything to help everybody, but we can do a lot, and even more as a group. Earthly governments will always, like the rest of us, fall short of the glory of God, but just like us they can strive to do God's will and make decisions that will be pleasing to him. Some leaders have done this very well, and the people who they led prospered as a result.

I would say that a democratic system like ours facilitates this quite nicely because our leaders stay relatively humble, knowing full well that their power is only temporary. Freedoms granted to us allow for the type of open political debate that is so important for helping good decisions to be made.

Wow! Even as I write this I just get so excited about making the comparison between the Kingdom of God an earthly governments. I could go on and on about it. Perhaps I'll have to write extensively on it myself.

Anyway, I agree that part of the Great Commission is teaching other people to obey the teachings of Jesus. However, as I stated beforehand, to do so through earthly government using the power of the sword is a hypocritical and counteractive means to that end. Earthly government cannot be an effective teacher of Christian living because it is, by its purposes, incapable of setting an example and practicing these things itself.

Separation of Church and State is good for government, but even more important for the Church.

RonMcK said...

Thanks for your comments.

I would be appreciative, if you could sometime post some more thoughts about how common grace affects this issue. When I read Kuyper many years ago, I found his concept of sphere sovereignty helpful, but did not pick up on common grace.

I can see how common grace provides a motivation for getting involved in the political dimension. I also see how it provides a basis for working with those who are not Christians. Does it do more than that. Does it provide criteria for assessing political programmes? Does it help with developing poltical policies?

I have this mischevious picture in my mind. These two neo-platonic forms are struggling with each other. On one side is "the structures". On the other side of the battle is "common grace". :-) However, I cannot see how this all works out in practice?

More seriously, I would like to hear more of your views on this, or perhaps you could point to an article that develops the common grace concept more.

RonMcK said...

You comment that "We don't have a specific, definitive answer about this from the Bible" worries me. I would be surprised if the Bible was silent on this important aspect of life. Seeking the kingdom is a useful slogan, but it does not provide many a definitive answer to many political issues.

You seems to be implying that democratic processes will lead us to God's will. I am not so sure. Democracy produced the golden calf and sentenced Jesus to crucifixion.

The Bose said...


I can understand why that might sound a bit worrisome. Perhaps I should elaborate more.

When I say that we don't have a specific, definitive answer from the Bible about what are the best decisions to make to improve everybody's quality of life, what I mean is that God has not listed out for us a step-by-step process for establishing a perfect, utopian social structure here on earth. The Bible doesn't say "oh, if you make sure there are no abortions or homosexuality in your country then God is going to make your people healthy, wealthy, and wise and punish everybody else." The reason is that it's not our job to set up utopia on earth. When Christ returns, _He_ will do that. Until then, there will be no lasting peace, there will be hungry and poor people in the world, and there will still be all sorts of things that cause pain and death. The Bible doesn't tell us how to bring this about ourselves because not only are we incapable, but we aren't expected to.

What the Bible _does_ say is how to live in God's kingdom on Earth. There's lots of stuff in the Bible about that. Love God, Love Your neighbor, Love your enemies, don't repay evil for evil but try to live in peace with everyone. Yeah, there's a lot of things that we are commanded to do. Yes, things things will help prepare the world for Christ's second coming and help bring people closer to him and to everlasting life in fellowship with God. Yes, these things can even be brought about in part through public policy.

I certainly did not mean to imply that the democratic process will lead us to God's will. It can, but that depends on how many of the people involved are seeking God's will. Some of the founding fathers such as James Madison were wary of democracy fearing what they called the "tyranny of the majority." Basically they were afraid of a faction of people large enough that they would gain control of the government and pass laws to benefit only their faction. For instance, they thought that if enough farmers got together, they would vote people into office who would tax the rich and forgive debt they had on land. Fortunately this degree of selfish political ambition didn't occur (or has it?)

I was merely saying that an American-style democratic system is one of the best systems History has shown for producing leaders who use their position in government to serve the people rather than serve themselves. This is the first step towards having leaders that try to do God's will because the Bible teaches us that we have to serve others and think of others as better than ourselves. Democracy certainly has its weaknesses, not only for the reasons you stated, but because the polarization and devisiveness of the people can often prevent a lot of good from being done.

Bob Robinson said...


Here's a few quick links:

The Radical Life and Thought of Abraham Kuyper

Academia Coram Deo-Convocation Speech 2004 by Gaylen J. Byker, President Calvin College

What Is Common about the Common Good? A Review of He Shines in All That's Fair: Culture and Common Grace by Richard J. Mouw

Bob Robinson said...


Here's an article from Comment that you might be interested in:

Kuyper's Sphere Sovereignty and Modern Economic Institutions

RonMcK said...

Thanks for the references, Bob.
I will do some reading.

RonMcK said...

The Bose
You say that "Yes, these things can even be brought about in part through public policy." I think this is what this debate is all about. Greg Boyd is saying that we should not use public policy to advance the kingdom. Others are saying maybe we can. However, if you have no guidance from the scriptures, I am not sure how you will know what aspects of the Kingdom can be advanced by public policy. How will you know what that public policy will be, if you do not base this on the scriptures?

I think there is more thinking to be done.

The Bose said...

Is Boyd saying that we should not use public policy to advance the kingdom? I don't think that's what he's trying to say. I think what he's trying to say is that there is no such thing as a Christian political platform. I agree with that. As Christians, Jesus commands us to serve others, but doesn't really specify how because there are lots of different ways of doing so. This is the dillemma when trying to apply Christian social ethics to public policy. Governments have limited resources to work with, so they often have to make the choice to help some people instead of others. In effect, it can operate a lot like economic triage. Does the Bible offer guidance on how to choose saving one life over saving another?

Governments also have the primary purpose of protecing their resources and serving their people, which often goes in opposition to serving people in other countries. This is one big reason why the purpose of government is counteractive to the work of God's kingdom. Earthly government is automatically partial to serving its own people above serving people in other parts of the world. It's possible that earthly governments can enact social reform in a non-discriminitory, Christ-like way, but it's not very likely because of their dependency on resources. Even a person with a heart that seeks after God will find it difficult in deciding how best to manage and distribute resources in order to serve the people.

For a look at what kind of things can be done through public policy to advance the kingdom, let's look at the closest model we have to Christian government: Churches. Churches as institutions are basically a form of government. There is leadership who's purpose it is to serve the people, manage resources of all sorts. A lot of churches do a very good job of serving people outside of their membership and even spreading the gospel. Even the best churches, however, are far from perfect. It's been my experience and observation that as churches grow larger in scale and attendance, they generally get farther from the mission of what a the church as Christ's body. This is deeply rooted in the constant conflict between wholeheartedly serving God and the selfish desire for worldly security.

This conflict is what is going to prevent there from ever being a "Christian Nation" in the sense of what we think of a nation as today with territory and borders. As Christians we are called to give up what we have for the sake of others, and even more so to give of anybody who asks of us. This is a tall order for individuals and especially for nations with vast human, capital, and natural resources to manage.

So when I say that the type of love that Christ commands us to show to othrers can only be brought about in part through public policy, what I mean is that it can only be a half-hearted attempt at best without giving up the responsibilities that a government has to its people. As for spreading the Gospel and teaching people to obey the teachings of Jesus, as I have already said, government cannot do this properly with the power that it weilds over people mainly because it would be hypocritical. Just look at the struggle that institutions of church have had in attempting to do so!

I think the point that Greg Boyd is trying to make is that you cannot base public policy on Scripture because the Bible calls us to do everything in service to God, even if that means giving up all of our belongings. Since government is dependent on resources, such a system just cannot exist in a world where not everyone attempts to live in service to God.

Bob Robinson said...

The recurring statement by Boyd about our social action in culture and government is this. As citizens of the USA (a kingdom of the world), we have the opportunity to influence government (we can vote, we can lobby, we can debate issues like budgets, taxes, laws, etc.). But this activity is NOT kingdom-of-God activity; it is kingdom-of-the-world activity.

"But our unique calling as kingdom people is not to come up with God’s opinion of the right solution to these issues. Our unique calling is simply to replicate Christ’s sacrificial love in service to the world." (p. 65)