The Bible, Theology, and National Development (Part One)

© 2015 Robert Osburn

Over the past week, I have spoken with two groups of students on the University of Minnesota campus, answering the question “Does Religion Help or Harm?”  It’s one of those trick questions that I wish had handled more deftly when I debated the same question a decade ago with Dan Barker, the atheist co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.   Unless we first define religion, and, secondly, develop criteria for identifying what makes a religion “helpful,” we’ll argue in circles.

But, that’s not the reason for writing this article.  In a little over a month, I have the equally satisfying privilege of addressing the question “How Have Christians Influenced the Development of Nations?” when I address a group of pastors in Northeast India.  The question’s answer, of course, is that Christians have, for most of history, powerfully and positively influenced the destiny of nations.

That last question, and its answer, raises yet a third question that I hope to address in this two-part blog: “What biblical and theological themes undergird a Christian vision for national (and international) development?”  Without clear answers to this question, early 21st century believers will flounder on the shoals of good intentions, paving stones for the road to hell.   There are seven different biblical and theological reasons why believers are called to be a healing, renewing force in our nations.

1.    God’s reign over all the nations

With shrill voices, the skeptics of our day claim that Yahweh (the Jews’ personal name for God) is merely a tribal deity.  There is, however, little evidence that the Jews of the Old Testament saw Him this way.  They knew Him as “king of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7), against whom “the nations raged” (Psalm 2:1).  Christians around the world honor his supremacy and celebrate His majesty, because they know He cares about the affairs of their nations and that the skeptics’ cries to the contrary ring hollow.  A God confined to the personal and private spaces of the soul would be like a caged tiger, restless until He freely roams the public squares and spaces which he created and which He longs to redeem.

2.     The Kingdom of God

Theologians over the past quarter century, thanks in part to the scholarship of N.T. Wright, have converged around the theme of God’s Kingdom (referenced 72 times in the four gospels) because it was central to Jesus’ preaching and is the framework for ordering our aspirations.  Rather than a distant reality unleashed by the Second Coming of Christ (which all true believers await), the good news of God’s Kingdom is that, under Christ’s Lordship, all of creation, broken and battered by sin, can be substantially but not completely healed and renewed in our era.  As Francis Schaeffer said, only upon Christ’s return will the healing be exhaustive. Thus, believers pray daily for the reality of God’s just and righteous reign to be experienced here on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).  Christians engage in national development because they believe that God’s reign, rule, and righteousness, however incomplete it is for now, will genuinely foster the flourishing of their nations. 

3.     The Cross and Crown of Christ

As the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus is lord of all creation, including our nations and our leaders.  What stunned His earliest followers still stumps the famous in our day: How could the portrait of powerlessness, in all His cruciform bloodiness, ever rule anything?  Few could ever imagine that three days later the One who had “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” would be the same One before whom “every knew should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:8-10; cf. Colossians 1:16).  When He appeared to the 11 remaining apostles after His resurrection, Jesus announced that He now had full authority (He had been crowned) and that they were to disciple the nations (Matthew 28:19-20).  Author Darrow Miller persuasively argues in his book Discipling Nations that this not only refers to individual discipleship but also to the larger task of making the structures, laws, and institutions of whole societies responsive to His leadership.

While His crowning defines the task of discipling nations, the method is defined by His cross.  Thus, shrewd, resilient servant leadership is the modus operandi of those who disciple nations that are filled with those who are His enemies (Matthew 20:20-21).  Servant leadership is not for the weak-kneed, but for those prepared to pay large prices for principled and righteous positions in the public square.   After all, the reason Rome became so agitated with early Christians was the fact that they affirmed, without qualification, the highly political claim that Jesus is Lord, that is, that He is the supreme ruler to whom Caesar (and everyone else) owed his allegiance.   

Secular Western leaders would like to keep Christianity tame and impotent so that we do not disturb the great liberal project of unrestricted personal freedom.  These leaders, and those in Africa and Asia who similarly want to keep the church in the shadows so that it cannot confront their grave injustices and cruelties, will never understand why Christians carry their crosses in order to help develop their nations.  It is because He first loved us, and we, in turn, love our neighbors, even at great cost.

In Part Two of this blog, I will offer further biblical and theological grounding for Christian engagement in the development of our nations.