The Missiology of Christian Nationalism
Though changing, historically, there has been a lack of missiology in many ministry training programs, Bible schools, and seminaries (especially Reformed seminaries), as well as within the discipleship plan of churches. Abe and I often lament the lack of required missiology in many seminary programs (both of us pursued degrees in missiological studies). There is a good and right emphasis on Bible and theology, and in some cases, pastoral care and leadership (though these two disciplines are often lacking as well), but far behind all these disciplines, you will find missiology. And while many institutions have missiology departments, people often need to opt into that training instead of requiring that training for all. But there are many consequences to this marginalization of missiology.
First, too often, theologians and practitioners of non-dominate cultures get relegated to missiology departments in the West. Reflections coming from “global Christianity” are often treated as secondary. This treatment is ironic, given that the church is growing faster in places once viewed as mission fields by the West. We should not find it sufficient for a student to go through an entire ministry training program having never read or learned from non-Western, non-dominate culture theologians or practitioners. That topic is for another day.
But second, not only does a lack of missiology undermine our ability to learn from and listen to those whom God is using around the world, but it can also undermine our understanding of faithful Gospel ministry, mission, and evangelism. (As a side note, even the missiology of Westerners in non-western contexts reveal problematic assumptions about Gospel ministry. See Melani McAlister’s, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals for problematic assumptions in the evangelical global missions project, particularly “enchanted internationalism” and “victim identification”).
Most concerningly––and what I want to focus on––faulty (or completely lacking) missiology often results in pursuits of power, influence, or even domination as a means of Christian mission. Time and time again, throughout church history, Christians have fallen into this pattern. And in recent days, the rise of Christian nationalism has emphasized these same faulty patterns of Christian mission.
Before I tread into the dangerous waters of debate around Christian nationalism, allow me to address some tension points. First, we must address the irony that many have rejected the notion that Christian nationalism even exists. Though sociologists and historians have studied Christian nationalism and its effects for years, in many Christian circles, the existence of Christian nationalism was rejected. Even personally, when I have confronted the problematic assumptions of Christian nationalism, I, too, was treated as though I was making a mountain out of a molehill. However, as has become clear, Christian nationalism has always existed in some form and has become an explicit pursuit in many circles.
Second, there has always been much debate about how to define Christian nationalism. Though that debate still rages––and though Christian nationalists have been making their case for decades––an abundance of clarity has come in recent years as Christian nationalists articulate their contemporary intentions/pursuits. I note this now in order to simply acknowledge there is still some debate, but at the same time, certain features of the movement can be confirmed and assessed.
Consider one of the most recent attempts to argue for Christian nationalism, The Case for Christian Nationalism, by Stephen Wolfe. This nearly 500-page book argues why Christian nationalism is necessary for our nation and beyond. While I cannot fully assess this book and its ideas here, let it suffice to say that while nothing in the book is particularly new for those who have studied and researched Christian nationalism, the blatant presentation of ideas––ideas that many previously caveated or tempered––and the popularity of those ideas, is of particular note (For a succinct, yet incisive critique, see Brian Mattson's article, "A Children's Crusade")
Concepts like the rejection of liberal democracy, the promotion of ethnocentrism, and the restoration of patriarchy (And I mean, actual patriarchy that rejects the need for women in leadership, inside or outside the church, and even questions the 19th Amendment) could all produce their own discussions. But alas, I cannot address those ideas in this article. Instead, I want to focus on Christian nationalism and mission.
Let’s use Wolfe’s definition of Christian nationalism to consider the faulty missiological assumptions embedded in the idea. He says, “Christian nationalism is a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ.” (9)
In other words, a Christian nation––a nation self-consciously Christian––should create laws and develop customs that promote, privilege, and even coerce people into Christian ideals and morality, even amongst those who are not “Christian” in a salvific way (i.e., the type of distinction may between the visible and invisible Church).
Also, as an important side note, one I cannot fully address here, Wolfe explicitly states that he does not argue his points biblically or theologically but rather assumes the Reformed theological tradition to make his points (16). This lack of biblical and theological engagement, however, is quite evident. For a meaningful biblical and theological critique of Christian nationalism, I cannot commend enough Paul D. Miller’s recent release, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism.
Christian Nationalism & Power
That said, I want to return to the point of tying Gospel ministry to problematic missiological assumptions. I want to argue that when proper missiological ideas and experiences are not present, power is the default expression of Christian mission.
First, Wolfe bemoans those who assume “cultural Christianity” is a problem. He says, “In a Christian nation, social power is placed in the service of the Christian religion. I call this power ‘Cultural Christianity…’” He goes on to say, “The Christian religion as delivered through culture prepares people to receive the Gospel and encourages them to stay on the path to eternal life” (208).
Second, he notes that the civil government ought to be involved in what can only be described as coercive practices to bring people into alignment with Christian ideals. He says, “civil government ought to direct its people to true religion,” and since “Christianity is the true religion…civil government ought to direct people to the Christian religion” (27).
Lastly, Wolfe argues the need for what he calls a “Christian Prince,” who is a man that can wield formal civil power to great effect and shape the public imagination by means of charisma, gravitas, and personality” (31), who embodies a measured “theocratic Caesarism” (279), and who is “not bound to any specific dictates of the people” for “he is bound to what is good, namely, the moral law of God” (280).
What do these ideas have to do with missiology? Promoting “cultural Christianity,” leveraging civil government, and honoring a “Christian prince” are all pursuits of power, influence, and even domination as a means of Christian mission. They supposedly prime the pump for true faith or “prepare people to receive the Gospel.” Such perspectives, in my view, first come from problematic historical assumptions of the Kingdom of God and the ways Christians are to live as citizens of that Kingdom. But they also flow from complete ignorance of how God works around the world amongst Christians with no cultural or social capital or power.
Plus, again, while I cannot address this fully here, we should at least note the complete rejection of liberal democracy above. I am certainly no political theologian and will not tread into those waters here. There is a good and healthy debate about the Christian’s role in civic affairs and how Christian ethics should influence governments and policies. And though I agree liberal democracy is not divinely inspired nor necessary for faithful Christian living, it at least is more likely to promote true Christian faith by allowing the free-will choice to trust in Jesus. This, of course, is juxtaposed with a coercive demand to submit to Christian (or particular types of Christian) dogma without true faith.
In the end, Christian nationalism seems to desire the curation of an environment where Jesus’ words in John 15 and Matthew 19 are null and void. Why live in a world that hates you, for Christ’s sake, if you can force the world (or nation) to submit to you? Why be last and at the mercy of the powerful when you can be first and be the powerful?
From that perspective, Christian nationalism is much like the disciples in Acts 1, who ask Jesus when He will restore the kingdom of Israel. After all their time with Jesus, their hearts and minds were still enraptured by national greatness. But what does Jesus do when His disciples assume they will reclaim power as a nation? Jesus tells them they are to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit, who will empower them to be witnesses far beyond their nation––to the ends of the earth. Christian nationalism has too small a view of Christ’s command, Christian mission, and the Spirit’s empowerment to achieve that mission.
This small view is why Christians, especially in the West, need the voices of the global church and their reflections on Christian mission. Faithful missiology shows us a way forward that does not depend on pursuits of power and domination but rather a deep trust in the work of the Spirit to present an accurate picture of Jesus and His mission––the missio dei.
For example, one prolific missiologist, Orlando Costas, was quite aware of the missiological issues amongst many in the West. Of consequence, during his life and ministry career, he attended Bob Jones Academy, studied at multiple institutions and traditions––institutions like the Missionary College of Nyack, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Wheaton Graduate School of Theology, Garrett Theological Seminary––and ended his education with a ThD from the Free University in Amsterdam under Dr. Johannes Verkuyl (an anti-apartheid Dutch Reformed missiologist). That history matters because it shows how Costas was quite aware of how missiology (or lack thereof) impacts various traditions––including the Reformed tradition––and their understanding of Gospel ministry.
While his thinking is far too comprehensive to address here, I highly recommend reading his book, Christ Outside the Gate: Mission Beyond Christendom. However, in short, he says,
I came to realize that there was a need in the United States for the interpretation of the Christian mission from the periphery––the perspective of the great absentees of the American missionary movement (oppressed American ethnic minorities: Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans). (xiii)
And why do these perspectives matter? To explain, Costas reflects on his work in Latin America, particularly in contexts on the margins. He says,
Contextualization and incarnation are basic to the Christian mission: The incarnation of Christ in the context of our racist, sexist, colonialistic, profit and warmongering, success-crazy, manipulative, and poverty-stricken world will enable Christians today to find Christ anew. But why should Christians need to find Christ anew?
Christians need to find Christ anew because, in the world in which we live, in this complex and confused ‘global village’ of which Christians are part, Christ's real identity has been hidden from the eyes of an overwhelming number of Christians.
The Christ propagated by the oppressive powers of this world is not the true Christ. It is, rather, the Antichrist of whom the New Testament speaks. It is imperative, therefore, that Christians learn to differentiate the true Lord from the false lords of this world. This differentiation can be done only when we discover Christ's real identity in our respective historical situations. Without such a discovery, it is possible neither to verify our knowledge of the biblical Christ nor communicate the gospel relevantly in an oppressed world. Since Christ is the heart of the gospel, it follows that effective evangelism is not possible where his liberating presence is not being experienced, and his true identity is being distorted. (13-15)
This is what the missiology of Christian nationalism gets wrong. Christian mission tied to power or coercion, even if that power and coercion are supposed to create a “Christian society,” presents a distorted view of Christ. The use of power and coercion are the tactics of the false lords of this world. Leaders and nations that function this way are a dime a dozen. And the use of such tactics is a sign of a profoundly fragile faith that does not trust the power of the Spirit––a power that can break through the darkness of culture while maintaining what is good, while sustaining all creation until Christ’s return. It wrongly places that power in the hands of the Christian and––even worse––the State to create a supposed environment for conversions.
In the history of the church, when Christians tied the propagation of the faith to power, that merging almost always devolved into horrific atrocities that distorted a true vision of Christ. Christians with absolute power––power pursued by Christian nationalists––do not produce a penultimate utopia slightly lesser than the Kingdom of God. Instead, such power results in idolatrous syncretism that leads to oppression.
On this point, Costas argues,
The idea of a Christian society is not only an illusion as far as the United States is concerned, but anywhere else in the world. All Christendom projects––from the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313) to the present––have been and will always be illusionary because the church has not been called to manage the world but, rather, to bear witness to the kingdom of God in the world. Nor does the gospel envision the establishment of a Christian society. Rather it announces a new world order that can neither be exhausted by historical structures nor be relegated to the beyond. The fundamental problem with Christendom projects is that they confused the kingdom of God with the institutional Church, the gospel with culture, and the power of the cross with the power of the sword.
For us today, these are prophetic words from Costas––words originally written over 40 years ago––as he realized the failure of the Christian nationalistic project and the idolatrous tendency of Christians in the West to pursue power as a means of mission. Pursuits of power will not produce faithful Gospel ministry, no matter how much we might wax eloquent about how those pursuits are for Christ’s sake. They have proven, time and time again, to reject Christ,
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)”
And who calls us to have the same mindset (v. 5).
Believe it or not, my goal with this article is not actually to debate Christian nationalism. There are many other places you can find that debate. There are people far more qualified than me who can argue why Christian nationalism is problematic, not only theologically but socio-politically (Again, I cannot commend enough Paul D. Miller’s, The Religion of American Greatness. Additionally, for an introduction on a Christian assessment of various socio-political ideologies, check out David T. Koyziz, Political Visions and Illusions. Finally, as already suggested, Brian Mattson's article, "A Children's Crusade"). Also, I am not seeking to legitimize a book with arguments that few trusted voices would affirm (though I am also not seeking to dissuade engagement either. I strongly believe that a refusal to engage with primary sources or ideas often disqualifies us from holding an opinion on a topic).
But I do want us to see the extent to which a Jesus-honoring, Spirit-empower missiology produces something radically different than Christian nationalism. Since this ideology has always existed and will only continue to grow, it is in our best interest to be aware that we must resist the seductive allure of power.
Let me close with words from Costas. In the epilogue of his book, he records a sermon entitled “Christ Outside the Gate,” which is a look at Hebrews 13:12. The passage states, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.” He notes that this statement harkens back to the prophets who challenged nationalistic Israel by telling them that God would make Himself known to the Egyptians and Assyrians and that “in that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria (Isaiah 19:24).”
He goes on to say such statements from the prophets,
...lay the foundations for Jesus's life and work. Jesus unequivocally shifted the whole concept of salvation from benefits and privilege to commitment and service. To be saved by faith in Christ is thus to come to Jesus, where he died for the world and gave his life for its salvation; it is to commit oneself to those for whom he suffered.
Salvation lies outside the Gate of the cultural, ideological, political, and socio-economic walls that surround our compound and shape the structures of Christendom. It is a ticket to a privileged spot in God's universe but, rather, freedom for service. This is why Jesus said: ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever saves his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Mt. 16:24-25)” (191).
May the Spirit of God make it so for us!