There are many differences between the United States and Africa’s southernmost country, as will be the case between any two countries in the world, including any two in Africa. However, America and South Africa share several similarities.
Both countries have a history of colonialism and institutionalized racism. On a more positive note, both are democracies (although not without their struggles and challenges), and both are known for attracting foreigners seeking better lives. It is what the majority of American and South African people share in respect of their religious professions, however, that forms the backdrop to this interview.
In 2018, Pew Research Center published a story titled, “The world’s most committed Christians live in Africa, Latin America—and the U.S.” Research conducted by Pew revealed that in both the US and SA, more than two-thirds of the Christian group in each country said religion is very important in their lives. The Pew study used frequency of prayer and regularity of church attendance as measures of commitment.
Christian commitment, including to church service attendance (as vital as this is), isn’t necessarily good in and of itself, however. Speaking to God is never a bad idea, but even then, we need to check our motives. A question that is more important than whether or not Christians are committed—and one that Christians need to ask themselves and one another—is what or who exactly are they committed to and why.
Who do we believe we are praying to and with what motive in mind? Is God the end of our activities, or is He the means to an end? Why are we attending church services, and what sort of teaching and preaching do we find agreement with while there? Although not discussed widely enough, well-known historical examples of heretical doctrine in both countries—each with legacies that continue today—are instructive. In the US slavery was very much an institution of the church. In SA, the country’s Dutch Reformed Church strongly supported the racist apartheid policy.
How does one assess commitment to God and His commands against the measures used by Pew (regular prayer and church service attendance) when these activities don’t necessarily yield, in and of themselves, the kind of fruit God wants His followers to bear? Is it fair to suggest that the more individual Christians, especially in Christian-majority democracies (where citizens enjoy freedom of religion), interpret and apply God’s transcendent word as He intended, the more the societies in which these Christians live will resemble righteous order?
Barrett writes, for example, “As the number and maturity of disciples increases, society and politics will change too.” He reminds Christians, furthermore, “In democratic countries, citizens have a share of authority through the right to vote, and Christians should exercise this authority seriously by praying and informing themselves on the candidates and issues.” In Matthew 7:17-20 (ESV), we read:
So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
There appears to be a lot of bad fruit in the US and SA—democratic countries where 65 percent and more than 80 percent of the populations respectively profess to be Christian. Who must Christians be committed to if they wish to bear good fruit? We find the answer in John 15:4-11 (ESV):
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
The Christian’s abiding in God is an all-or-nothing affair. God does not call us to submit ourselves to him partially, but fully. Jesus asks in Luke 6:46 (ESV), “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” We cannot call Him Lord, if we don’t recognize him as sovereign over every area of our individual lives, if we do not follow His commands with respect to every sphere of society, including the political.
It can be disheartening to see how some professing Christians—people called to serve a holy, loving God—treat and deride one another and non-Christians, especially when it comes to political matters. The issue here is not whether Christians should engage politics or not (we should), but how Christians engage politics. “Christians should be distinguished not so much by what they do but how they do it.” Barrett writes as follows, for example:
When Christians exercise their political rights, they must do so in a godly manner. The fruit of the spirit should mark Christian behavior in political circumstances like any other circumstance. Christians can boldly exercise their rights, but they should do so lovingly and respectfully and with the knowledge that evangelism rather [than] political change is the ultimate goal. When Christians inevitably fall short of this standard, they should acknowledge it and apologize.
The key question Christians need to ask themselves is this: What does our political activity do for our Christian witness; does it reflect or deny the glory we are designed to give God? It is of the church—not of any political party or political or ethnic nation—that Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world,” to be an example before others of His loving, merciful, and just character (Matthew 5:13-16, ESV).
What does it look like for the church to be “a city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14, ESV) in relation to politics? John Barrett’s book on church-state relations, which is applicable to the American and South African contexts alike, helps us answer this question.
Bailie: John, in the introduction to your book, you cite your PhD dissertation on the mutual impact between US foreign policy and evangelism as a pivotal moment in your career (p. 1). Further on you write, “A Christian authority is free to use military force to defend his own or his allies’ authority, but he should not use it to challenge the authority of a foreign state simply because that state is seeking its own interests or committing internal injustices.” What do you mean by, “Christian authority”? Are you referring to the president of a country who professes to be Christian, or you are referring to the more problematic idea of a Christian nation?
Whatever you may mean by “Christian authority,” I understand you must be referring to the state or one of its representatives. Are you saying that a “Christian nation” or a state led by a Christian president does not have the right to interfere in the affairs of another state? What about the secular state? What if non-interference means the death of millions of citizens, as was the case in the Rwandan genocide, for example?
On page 50 of your book, you argue the “Christian authority” must acknowledge and take “into consideration the interests of both domestic and foreign peoples.” Does this not contradict what you write on page 38?
In light of the ongoing fallout of America’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, do you have any thoughts or cautionary notes on the role that Christianity in the US played in the country’s extended military presence in the Middle East since its invasion of Afghanistan in 1999?
Barrett: Good questions. First, let me clarify my terms. When I refer to a “Christian authority,” I’m simply referring to an individual Christian who holds authority. As you noted, the idea of a “Christian nation” vs. a “secular nation” is very problematic, and it actually makes it harder to sort through these issues. The key distinction we should make is between Christians and non-Christians. Christians should follow biblical principles, but Christians should never expect a non-Christian to follow those same principles because they aren’t a Christian.
That said, how should a Christian wield power internationally? For me, one of the key biblical principles for politics is respect for authority. In multiple places, the Bible calls Christians to respect and submit to authority—Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, to give some examples. Those passages are written to Christian citizens, instructing them to respect and obey the authorities who rule over them. And yet, I think it also guides the relationship between a Christian authority and other authorities. In the same way that Christian citizens should respect the authorities over them, Christian authorities should respect other authorities. That means a Christian president should respect the authority of other heads of state and generally not circumvent it through military force.
Where does that leave us with regards to Rwanda and Afghanistan? First, let me acknowledge that I think these are complex issues and there is room for debate. I feel far too often Christians settle on a particular policy view and declare all other views a heresy. I don’t think the Bible is so definitive that there’s no room for debate. That said, my view is that the US was morally justified in intervening in Afghanistan because of the 9/11 attacks. That’s not to say we should have intervened—that’s a different question—I just think it was a morally acceptable option.
Here’s my logic. If one state challenges the authority of another state, through an act of war, then a Christian is morally justified in responding militarily—the Christian is simply defending the authority entrusted to them by God. I also believe that states are responsible for the non-state actors operating within their borders. In history, we’ve seen states work through non-state actors simply to avoid accountability, and I don’t think that tactic changes the moral calculation. Therefore, when a non-state actor like al-Qaeda commits an act of war against the US, then the US can hold the government of Afghanistan responsible because al-Qaeda is operating within its borders. If the Taliban had held al-Qaeda accountable and prosecuted them, then I think there’s an argument for respecting their authority and not intervening. But obviously that’s not what happened. The Taliban showed no sign of holding al-Qaeda accountable, and therefore I think it was morally acceptable to intervene given the act of war committed against the US.
Rwanda is a complicated case. In my view, it hinges on whether the Rwandan government was, or would have been, willing to allow peacekeepers into the country. It’s difficult to answer this question post-facto because there wasn’t much willingness on the part of the US or other countries to intervene once the genocide began. If the Rwandan government had been willing to allow peacekeepers in, then I think the US should have intervened. I don’t think the US had any strategic interest in intervening, mind you, but this is a case where I think the interests of others need to be considered. The prospect of averting or mitigating the genocide was worth the risk to American lives. On the other hand, if the Rwandan government had not been willing to allow peacekeepers in, then I think the US should have had to respect that, as tragic as the consequences would have been, and indeed, turned out to be.
Bailie: There are many records of war in the Bible, some of which you cite in your book. On page 43 you remind readers of how Jehu carries out a bloody coup d’état under God’s command. How would you respond to those outside of the Church, who, when reading the Bible, view God as a god of war?
Barrett: I appreciate how people can struggle with the idea of a God who kills people. The whole concept that we’re sinners deserving of hell much less death is a hard, humbling truth. But I think it simply is the truth. In the Old Testament, we see God killing people through hailstones, disease, and other means. Warfare was just one of many tools He used to achieve His ends. It’s hard to understand His ends—why this person and not that person or this people group and not that—but as it says in Isaiah, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are our ways His ways.
Bailie: In Part 1 of your book you present a number of principles “for a Christian perspective on politics.” The first of these is “God’s sovereignty.” In Romans 13:1 (ESV), we read “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
How do we understand free will in relation to God’s sovereignty, particularly in the context of democratic countries like the US and SA, where citizens are given the opportunity of choosing their leaders?
Moving outside of democracy, and using your example from the Old Testament, if God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to “establish the Israelites as an independent nation,” does this mean God suspended Pharaoh’s free will for His purposes?
Barrett: I can’t explain the free will vs. God’s sovereignty issue, and I’d be very skeptical of someone who says they can. There’s a mystery to it that we simply have to accept on faith. I do believe, however, that no one holds political authority without the consent of God, and therefore we, as citizens, need to respect that authority even when the authority is not a Christian.
Bailie: “No political, educational, or economic system can cure the world of the terminal disease of sin.” Do you concur with Winston Churchill that “democracy is the best form of government except all the others that have been tried” and that a democratic political system makes the best allowance for humankind’s sinfulness?
Barrett: Liberal democracies, states where civil rights and liberties are respected, are a wonderful form of government to live under. Checks and balances as well as separation of powers help restrain the sinful impulses of authorities. At the same time, liberal democracy is only possible in a civil society where loyalty to the system is higher than loyalty to individual leaders or parties. This requires a measure of societal trust, and in many countries, it’s simply not there and democracy isn’t viable as a result.
Bailie: You write, “Christians should have limited confidence in any political leader no matter the leader’s political or religious views.” American Christian author and church leader T.D. Jakes has said that Christians in America have become “prostitutes to politics.” The same can be said about some Christians in SA. Do you think Jakes’ statement is a fair one? If so, does this so-called prostitution reflect the excessive confidence in political leaders that you warn Christians against in your book?
Barrett: I really think it comes down to a question of grace. For over 200 years, the American church has argued over what constitutes “Christian” policy. We’ve argued with each other, we’ve condemned each other, we’ve even killed each other on occasion, but we’ve never achieved any kind of enduring consensus. This suggests that either the Bible does not offer clear-cut policy prescriptions or that we’re not able to discern them. And while the Bible is not very clear about specific policies, it’s very clear about how we should engage in politics.
Christians are repeatedly commanded to be gentle, loving, and respectful. We have to be gracious to each other. We shouldn’t let politics divide the church. We need to recognize that political views are heavily influenced by our experiences, circumstances, and the relative weight we put on differing but commonly held values. If we don’t, then our choice of political leaders becomes a litmus test on faith and we won’t accept a brother or sister in Christ who supports a different leader or political party.
Bailie: Thomas Sowell has said about the management of human affairs, “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” Something you have written about governments in your book reflects a similar sentiment: “They frantically seek wealth and power and see life’s inherent challenges as problems to be solved.” How does one best go about bringing citizens of a country to a point where they understand the difference between solutions and trade-offs, and that the former are very rare, if not entirely impossible?
Barrett: I’m not sure it’s possible to bring citizens in general to this point. I think the real question is how do we cultivate a healthy political attitude within the Church. At LeTourneau University where I teach, I try to do this first and foremost by facilitating frank and open discussion about political issues in class. I want my students to respectfully express their opinions, and more importantly, to respectfully listen to opinions they strongly disagree with. Civil dialog is crucial to address political problems. It’s also very important we understand why we, as Christians, engage in politics. We shouldn’t do it simply to win a political victory. Our political engagement should be an act of service, an evangelistic witness to society—it’s a form of the Gospel just like serving the poor or protecting the vulnerable. That means the way we advocate is extremely important. If we engage in politics in an ungodly manner, even if we’re advocating for good policies, we’ve failed.
Bailie: “The Great Commission is not a political or social project. Jesus did not command the church to go forth and make disciples because he wanted the church to reform government, politics, or society.” Does this mean Christians should steer clear of attempts at reforming any sphere of society?
Later in your book you write, “All Christians are called to challenge injustice,” and further on you remind the Christian reader that “we should love our neighbors as ourselves and seek the welfare of the societies we live in.” Does challenging injustice and seeking the welfare of our towns, cities, and countries not sometimes mean working to reform systems, and by implication, spheres of society?
Barrett: Yes, I think Christians should “seek the welfare of the city” where they live. They should be informed on the issues and candidates, they should vote, and be engaged in civic affairs. Again, this is an act of service to the societies they live in. At the same time, the motivation for engagement, the goal, is to minister to a fallen world, to be salt-and-light, to act as a witness. The goal is not to create a utopian, “Christian” society that’s essentially Heaven on Earth. This is a hopeless, futile goal. The difference greatly influences how we engage in politics. If Christians engage in politics merely to safeguard their own interests or to force non-Christians to live according to Christian norms, then we won’t be salt-and-light.
Bailie: “At times society as a whole grievously and collectively sins. When the church fails to recognize such sins, the consequences are devastating. When the church does recognize such sins, it should not judge non-Christians but rather corporately and individually acknowledge how Christians themselves have fallen short.”
This passage reminds me of a message that Timothy Keller has given on “Racism and Corporate Evil.” Thinking about racism in SA, I don’t believe the church in my country, or at least certain sections of it, has done enough to acknowledge and apologize for apartheid. I think the church as a collective body, and its individual members, can do more to engage racism. Is the same possibly true of Christians in America? If so, do you think this failure is partly what allows movements like “Black Lives Matter” to exploit a void that should ideally, from the Christian perspective, be occupied by the church?
Barrett: One of the most tragic failures of the American church has been its failure to confront the sin of racism. When the Montgomery bus boycott first began, Martin Luther King Jr. thought white southern Christians would be a key source of support. Instead, they turned out to be a key source of opposition. Imagine how history would be different if white Christians, north and south, had welcomed all their brothers and sisters in Christ into their schools, their businesses, their neighborhoods, and their families as social and spiritual equals? The church would have a much stronger voice to speak about the racial divisions in society today.
Bailie: Among the characteristics that you say should distinguish the church is the selfless use and restraint of power. You write, “The selfless use and restraint of power entails risk to the power holder and those under his authority but nevertheless provides an evangelistic witness to society that fulfills the Great Commandment.”
Are there circumstances where, for example, a husband or father is duty-bound to protect his family against an aggressor? What happens when there are multiple aggressors acting on behalf of the state, for example? See this example of what appears to be an attempt by traffic officers in SA to arrest a child for breaking COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
You have recognized in your book that “violence is one long-debated issue.” Is the Christian ever justified in exercising violence in defense of those he loves and against entities acting beyond their jurisdiction? To put it more explicitly, are Christians ever justified in taking up arms or exercising violence against the state or its representatives?
Barrett: We need to draw a distinction between rebellion and civil disobedience. There are many examples in the Bible of civil disobedience—where someone refuses to comply with state authority because they believe it is immoral. Daniel refuses to worship the statue, for example. The Bible makes it clear Daniel made the right choice and if the state asks Christians to sin, they should refuse. Likewise, if the state orders us to assist in an immoral act, I think it’s moral to engage in civil disobedience or flee from state authority. Take for example, when Moses’ parents hid him from the Egyptian authorities seeking to kill Hebrew children.
Civil disobedience is not rebellion, however. Rebellion is when we use violence in an effort to subvert the state’s authority. Here, there are few if any affirmed examples in the Bible—Jehu’s rebellion is the only one to my knowledge. On the other hand, there are multiple commands to submit to state authority—Romans 13, 1 Peter, 2, Titus 3—as well as many examples of godly people refusing to rebel—David is a good example.
Even if we accept Jehu’s rebellion as an affirmed example, it seems to be the exception rather than the rule. I don’t see a biblical argument for rebellion, which is hard to accept, especially when an injustice is being committed against a family member or loved one.
Bailie: “In politics, a favorable public image translates into political power.” Further on in your book you elaborate, “While the Christian authority will engage in political debate selflessly, they recognize that in a fallen world, politics will be a brutal, at times violent, sport. Grandstanding, demonizing, misleading, and lying are the native language of political debate.” Do you think it is possible, in today’s world, for a Christian politician to win a democratic election while maintaining his or her primary allegiance to God?
Barrett: I believe God appoints all authority so, in that sense, it’s possible for a Christian politician to win an election after campaigning in a godly manner. At the same time, we need to realistically recognize that ungodly techniques are effective—that’s why they are so commonly used. We shouldn’t have any Hollywood-style illusions that a godly candidate will always win because people will recognize their virtue. And yet despite the challenges, I think it’s good for Christians to run if they campaign in a godly manner because it’s an act of service and a witness. There’s part of us that wants leaders who are willing to lose the election for the right reasons. Christians can provide that.
Bailie: In the context of obligations Christians have to the state, you write, “Above all else, Christians are called to obey God, yet God’s commands vary by person, place, and time. Attempting to universalize God’s commandments is fraught with challenges.”
My sense is that many South Africans, and I would imagine especially the non-Christian citizens, view a Christian political party’s competing for the political authority to govern ultimately as an attempt at establishing “God’s law” over the land. In the conclusion to your book, for example, you refer to those Christians “who advocate for Christian theocracies.”
I was relieved, therefore, to read in your book that “the Christian authority considers the interests of not just their own constituents but of all people—particularly the most vulnerable: widows, orphans, the poor and foreigners.” Does this require then, of the Christian politician, that he or she support legislation in the interest of same-sex marriage as much as the kind of marriage conceived in the Bible, for example?
Barrett: Christian authorities need to meet the needs of society where they are at, not where they want them to be. Take premarital sex, for example. The Bible condemns premarital sex, so does that mean Christian authorities should criminalize it? I don’t think it’s that simple. We should recognize it’s a sin, but also that much of society, including many Christians, believe there’s nothing wrong with it. An attempt to criminalize it would be disastrous, and even if it wasn’t, are we going to criminalize lust next?
We need to look at these issues on a case-by-case basis and acknowledge there’s room for debate. Jesus noted how Moses granted the people certificates of divorce, not because it was right, but because the people were hard-hearted. Moses offers a good example of how, sometimes, authorities must concede that people simply aren’t willing to obey God’s commands.
Bailie: You have included the payment of taxes as an example of the ways in which Christians must submit to the state. You cite Romans 13:6—“Pay your taxes… For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do.” Given the extent of government corruption and poor policy choices in SA, it sometimes grieves me to think about whom I am paying money to and what they’re doing with it. Is it always the case that government workers are serving God in what they do? What about apartheid SA? I’m sure you could think of examples from the American context where you may feel government is not serving God through its policy enactments.
Barrett: Nero wasn’t a nice guy by any stretch of the imagination—Hitler had nothing on him—and yet that’s who’s on the throne when Paul writes Romans 13. It’s hard to understand how somebody like Nero was “God’s servant,” but apparently he was in some sense. We see many examples of God using ungodly authorities—you mentioned Pharaoh earlier—to achieve his ends. We have to chalk this up to the mystery of God’s will. In any case, Roman tax revenues were funding plenty of ungodly activities including idol worship, but Paul never caveats the command to pay taxes.
Bailie: You quote Matthew 5:38–45 to remind Christian readers that “Christ instructs his followers to peacefully endure injustices inflicted upon them by authorities or other citizens.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the death of two black-skinned men at the hands of abusive state security forces—one in SA and the other in the US—was widely publicized, although the former not as much as the latter. How do we understand Christian responses to the killing of Collins Khosa in SA and George Floyd in the US, neither of whom appeared to be challenging the state’s authority, through the lens of Matthew 5? Are Christians called to be passive in the face of state abuses directed at themselves or fellow non-Christian citizens?
Barrett: Christians are commanded to endure injustices peacefully but not necessarily passively. Paul asserted his legal rights on multiple occasions to confront the injustices committed against himself. Christians can do likewise. This was the chief strategy of Roy Wilkins and the NAACP during the civil rights movement. They used the courts to confront injustice and achieved many crucial victories, including Brown v. Board of Education. Legal protests and other forms of political expressions are also a key way Christians can actively confront injustices in society and the Bible calls us to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and to defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Bailie: In Part 3 of your book, you outline how Christian citizens ought to interact with their governments. You caution Christians against judging “non-Christians or society as a whole.” How does the Christian distinguish between passing judgment and holding government accountable for the sake of justice?
Barrett: Condemning sin isn’t passing judgment because God is the one who judged it to be a sin. Judging is when I assert that I’m “good” and you’re “bad” because I don’t struggle with the same sin that you do. This isn’t God’s judgment; it’s mine—God judged all people, including me, to be sinners deserving of hell. My sentence just fell on Christ rather than me, praise God. As a result, we need to be humble and gracious when we condemn sin. We can’t ever claim we would do otherwise if we were in someone else’s shoes. It’s only a miracle of the Holy Spirit that has set me free from sin. We condemn sin, because it’s an expression of love, but we should do it with humility, grace, gentleness, and love—not pride, self-righteousness, brutality, and hate.