A ministry recently posted an excerpt from a sermon in which Alistair Begg argues that the Christian’s “mandate in the world is not social, it’s not political, and it’s not economic.” Christians may be tempted to let political and social issues become the main thing, but for Begg, not only are they not the main thing, but “we were never invited to fix” them. Indeed, he says the mandate for God’s people is not social, but rather the Gospel must be separate from these things.
The whole sermon contains some statements which may appear to mitigate this, but even if they really did, this much is unfortunate enough. Granted, radical “two kingdoms”-trained preachers can be found all over who make undue separation between the word of God and the various areas of life for the Christian—law, politics, economics, government, family, history, etc. Such preaching is by far the norm. Begg’s sermon, however, is a remarkable example of preaching soul-only salvation even to the neglect of the rest, including social injustice—even slavery. There are a whole variety of issues he emphasizes which need addressing. Perhaps we can give a more thorough review in another piece.
Begg does acknowledge the basic truth that undercuts the whole idea: “When the Spirit of God comes to live in the life of an individual, it changes everything.” That should have prevented the dualism that followed. He does apply this in general ways, but the answer gets convoluted and large holes remain. I appreciate his attempt to go further and make the Gospel provide some kind of eventual answer for social problems, but what he says only creates further inconsistency and does not undo the damage contained in this clip alone. Perhaps saddest is Begg’s boast that he has avoided social issues purposefully in every single instance his whole career, because even though he cares about those things as an individual, his job as a preacher is only to preach the Gospel.
The truth is that the Great Commission, which is our mandate in this world, instructs us to disciple the nations and to teach those nations all things Christ commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). When individuals get saved, it does in fact change everything, including the Lord and standard of their social values, political values, economic priorities, etc. If these have not changed, then these were already correct to begin with, or there is much discipling left to do.
The moment I heard this clip, I was reminded of a similar situation almost ten years ago now, and from the same preacher. I wrote an article about it at the time, which follows below. The same arguments there apply to this newer episode from Begg today. I will address more of the problems with this article in future posts.
This article became a chapter in Inglorious Kingdoms: Saving the Public Square from the Tyrannies of Bad Theology, in which we cover many similar examples and issues from a more comprehensive biblical worldview.
We received a real shock when we heard an excerpt of popular preacher Alistair Begg blasting away at Christians for getting involved in politics. His rant—full of wonderful rhetoric—was generally aimed at some vague monster, but at least once singled out those Christians who want to “reconstruct” society. His arguments reiterate the same feelings as the radical two-kingdoms crowd, but take the rhetoric to an astronomical level. This article addresses his complaints.
Begg misrepresents Reconstruction, polarizes Christianity and politics as if the two cannot “mix,” and yet, with all of his criticizing he offers no answer at all. He speaks of “the only one who has the answers”—meaning Jesus—but he gives no form or shape to what this means. As some enterprising bumper-sticker writer noted: “If Jesus is the answer, what’s the question?” Indeed, if, as Begg argues, the foundations of society are crumbling all around us, then what does “the answer” that Jesus provides actually look like? He never answers. Amillenialist, retreatist types love to criticize us, and yet rarely offer alternatives. They belong to a certain mindset that, as one writer noted of certain Christians, “Having been saved by grace, these people have become paralyzed by it.” Begg offers a paralytic Christianity as far as social theory goes. He has no answer, and worse yet, apparently does not want one. And yet he criticizes. But with no alternative theory he’s left begging the question. My responses to his comments follow:
The foundations are crumbing . . . there are unique opportunities for the gospel . . . people are about to . . . seek a sensible answer . . . when. . . .
To all of this, I agree. However, he continues:
. . . the bombastic, ugly Christian is manning the battiers of right-wing politics… joining coalitions, endorsing political agendas, advancing legislative remedies, and in doing so, with every further move, losing the ability to say with Paul “we do not wage war the way the world wages war.”
Who does he have in mind here? All Christians who get involved in conservative politics? If so, then this is extravagance on his part. If someone in particular, then Begg owes it to his audience and his target to be specific.
Is it wrong to join a coalition? Is it wrong to urge laws against abortion, etc.? Would Begg have censured a Christian in Nazi Germany for calling upon Hitler to stop gassing Jews? What about slavery in the antebellum America? Explain to me exactly how anyone can avoid advancing a political agenda. To stay out completely, or to remain silent, is to endorse the party in power.
By ignoring our God-given right to speak out, and our blood-earned constitutional rights to free speech, the Christian who refuses to engage culture in political reform is among the fearful of Revelation 21:8. Who among you is fearful to speak out about the truth of the whole counsel of God? Cowardice in this regard is sin. The person who refuses to urge God’s word in culture is the one who “wages war the way the world wages war,” because they’re giving in to the lusts and fears of the flesh (2 Cor. 10:3) and not speaking the truth in faith.
[T]he truth is that since the foundations are being destroyed, and since activism is a very large part of this culture, the Christian then determines that they will become an activist; and it isn’t wrong to become an activist, but it is wrong to become a slanderer, it is wrong to be combative and ugly, it is wrong to forget that the only thing that separates me from the guy who is boozin’ it up in some saloon is not that I am smarter than him, but it is the grace of God to me.
Is this what really lies behind Christian activism? Truth is, the few Christian Reconstructions out there have reached that position through persuasion by the Word of God, certainly not because everyone else does it, because few do. Again, who does he have in mind as a slanderer? If you see an instance of slander, point it out. Don’t just imply it for rhetorical effect. Else, you’re verging on slander yourself.
So until the church learns to cry, the church loses any right to shout. Until we learn to do what we’ve been asked to do, we dare not start to do what has been granted to us no mandate at all.
What are Reconstructionists doing for which we have “no mandate at all”? Applying God’s Word to all areas of life? Is that our particular bombastic ugliness? What really angers people who adopt Begg’s position, I believe, is the fact that we actually believe in doing something. Begg’s position seems to be, in the name of “what we’ve been asked to do,” to do nothing at all, and then accuse us doers with acting without a mandate. Well, for those familiar with their Bibles, they will find the mandate for cultural dominion in Gen. 1:28, and in Matt. 28:18–20, among other places.
You know, here’s the strangest thing . . . Conservative Christianity hammered for the longest time mainline churches in America, because of what? Their desertion of the Gospel and their commitment to politics. . . . “These people do not preach the Gospel because they are so involved in politics. . . . They’re arm-in-arm with the Sandanistas; they’re arm-in-arm with the liberators; they’re arm-in-arm with the freedom fighters.” . . . Don’t we see ourselves in the mirror? For the last two decades we’ve done the same thing. It’s not left-wing liberalism, it’s right-wing radicalism. . . .
This is only “strange” when crucial information gets suppressed. Begg might have mentioned that the “hammering” conservatives did on liberals was not merely because they engaged in politics, but because they completely replaced the Gospel with politics. One of the chief critics among conservatives at the time was James Gresham Machen, whose Christianity and Liberalism (1923) provides one of the lasting criticisms. Yet Machen himself testified before the U. S. Congress on the subject of state-controlled education! Would Horton, Begg, et al, have criticized Machen as “bombastic, ugly . . . . right-wing radicalism”?
Here also we see precisely the false dualism play out: why, for Begg, could not the Gospel and politics exist together? Do God’s standards stop at the steps of the court house? Or should we expect God’s word to apply to the bench and Congress as well? If so, then why refuse to say so?
Begg parodies a Reconstructionist’s position:
[W]e’ll link arms with all these strange concoctions. We will reconstruct society by coercive legal and political means. We will establish some kind of little political misrepresentation of God’s kingdom.
Again, who’s he talking about? What Reconstructionist, for example, has promoted “coercive” means? This is the same criticism that comes from men like Horton and T. David Gordon—that Reconstructionists allegedly want to steal seats of power and install an American Taliban (the same rhetoric I have witnessed from atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens). If this is not an uneducated misrepresentation, it is a lie.
Then he rhetorically goes off the cliff:
We are like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: out with the swords, ready to chop the people’s heads off . . . Jesus is putting ears back on all around us saying, “Guys, have you learned nothing in 2000 years? . . . My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, my servants would fight.”
What?!? What Christian Conservative anywhere has advocated pulling out swords and chopping off heads? Are you kidding me? This came from the pulpit of a Christian leader? Aimed at other Christians? Please name me one. Apart from some serious evidence, this claim is pure extravagance (I wonder if he forgot his condemnation of slander a few minutes ago).
[B]ut the reason they don’t is because the very crushing of my body is going to be the blood that fueled the birth of my Church.
And in every generation it has been the blood of the martyrs that has been the seed of the church . . . but in this generation we are determined that no blood flow save the blood of these dreadful people with their wicked bows shooting from the darkness. “They will not have this country. They will not have our schools. . . .
Is he really saying that more Christian blood must flow before the kingdom advances? If this standard holds, then the Gospel can only progress when the church is physically persecuted to death. We should all be looking for ways to get our blood spilled for the cause of Christ. Forget families, children, business, discipleship; just seek martyrdom. If you don’t, the Gospel will stagnate and God’s work will not be done.
This is worse than rapture theology, this is literal slaughter theology. And Reconstructionists are the ones who are being ugly?Listen: God has no special countries. Read the history books—the history of the British Empire. Down the flag comes over Hong Kong, and up goes the Chinese flag. And over Zimbabwe . . . great chunks of Africa . . . the continent of Asia . . . India . . . And in part largely because they made the mistake that I can’t believe we would now make so soon afterwards. . . . What will the righteous do?
Here Begg disappoints me most. Just as his rhetoric reaches a peak, just when he begins to reveal the great “mistake” these nations made and that we must avoid . . . he changes the topic. He asks, vaguely, “What will the righteous do?” Pardon me for assuming he would at least hint at an answer, but in the end, he never answers. We are left with a mere negative criticism and a vague call to nothingness. Whatever you do, stay out of politics! Don’t think for a moment that God blesses or punishes whole nations, despite what changing flags may imply for everyone watching.
According to Begg, when it comes to political activism, “You can’t justify it from Scripture. . . . ” Yet he never says why you can’t, or what Scripture says we should do, he just condemns those who want to “reconstruct” society.
Begg’s empty social theory comes alive in the end, all in the name of Jesus. Describing the “greatest tragedy” of modern culture—people in culture know the foundations are crumbling, and they want an answer, but they refuse the only answer—Begg concludes,They will cry themselves to sleep for want of a savior, but they will not come to the only one who has the answers.
Well, don’t we all agree with this on a personal level? How does this act as a conclusion to the rest of what he said? Why does he switch to a sermon about personal salvation when the subject he originally criticized was Christian involvement in culture and politics? The reason is, he has nothing to add on Christian social theory. In his truncated worldview and eschatology, and his limited view of redemption, he cannot fathom a reconstructed society. So it must be bad; it must require criticism. Meanwhile “the only answer is Jesus.”
Well, I agree. The only answer is Jesus. Now, let’s apply that answer to specific problems, including politics, economics, social issues, etc. You have to conclude that either Jesus doesn’t care about these things, or He does. Perhaps you can make a case that He does not, in which case we could have an interesting discussion. But until you actually provide an answer one way or the other, you’re just begging the question. I would find it helpful if you did so without condemning those who don’t.Notes:
* I should note that I cannot find the original source for this sermon; I do not know when or where Begg preached it. His content and confidence in the face of having no alternative concern me, so I write. Additionally, I note that in my title and in the body of this article I use the phrase “begging the question” in the sense of popular speech—“raises the question”—not to refer to the informal fallacy of petitio principii which differs slightly.