The Church as Model Nation

© 2015 Robert Osburn

I thought about titling this essay “The Magnificent Church,” but, to some folks, calling the church “magnificent” is like calling a trailer court an “estate.”   “Fractious, stumbling, squawking” may seem like better adjectives for an institution in which Americans have declining confidence. One reason for the decline may be that, although only a tiny percentage of church leaders abuse, sexually or otherwise, their flocks, the media widely report about such abuse.  But, there is something going on inside of our churches, at least evangelical churches: While in most of the world, especially the Global South, the evangelical church is vibrant and growing, by contrast, a weary, cautious, shrunken spirit has infected North American evangelicalism.

The church muddles along.

But, then, like a diamond that stubbornly glistens on the cloudiest of days, Ephesians 3:10 declares:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.

Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, precedes this declaration with the stupendous claim (believe me, it was utterly shocking at the time it was written in about AD 60) that Gentiles are now “heirs together with Israel” in a completely new institution, the church. By its presence and practice, the church stuns the world by revealing that God has more wisdom than the gangs of professors that roam the halls of academia.  God intends it to be a model nation.

The church?!

The way God shows He has a much better grasp on reality than Oxford’s dons and Harvard’s robed gods is to craft a Body (v. 6) whose Head bled to death so that He could end the hostility between ethnicities that are now reconciled by His blood (2:14).  God’s wisdom is not only multi-faceted (“manifold”), but He intends to make that wisdom known to those who are both spiritual and earthly leaders and authorities. (Please understand that the phrase “in the heavenly realms,” in this passage and Ephesians 1:21, was likely a metaphor for powerful authorities who reigned imperially over their subjects, though it probably also has secondary reference to the spiritual powers that animate much leadership in our world.)  Those with imperial authority desperately need a wisdom greater than theirs that is on full exhibition through the church that is envisioned as a model nation.  As such, the church has replaced Israel’s previous role as a model nation (Isaiah 60:1-3).

My friend Dr. Bob Moffitt of Harvest Foundation (and a co-founder of Disciple Nations Alliance, of which the Academy is a member) declares around the world that the church is God’s instrument for healing communities and nations.  But I think it is not only that the church, whether in its universal or local expressions, is the most effective institution for solving community problems; it ought also be a meaningful institutional example of how leaders should organize public affairs. 

When I spoke over a month ago in the troubled northeastern Indian state of Manipur, I told churches there that the leaders of Manipur aren’t finding solutions to the multiple systemic dysfunctions that plague their region.  I said that the only way Manipur’s leaders will find lasting, genuine solutions is by learning from the church (which is very pervasive in that part of India). What prevents Manipur’s churches from being effective models to government officials is their disunity.   

For too long, the church of Jesus Christ has pictured itself as either a social club or a social agency (mostly liberal denominational churches), or, in the case of 20th century American fundamentalism, a refuge from society.  In the former case, theological liberals have made themselves virtual appendages of government (as have many Christian social service agencies, for example); in the latter, fundamentalists made themselves irrelevant to government by solely teaching the personal dimension of Christian faith.   The former is the ever-shrinking mainline church, the other a marginal church.  I am suggesting that Paul’s vision in Ephesians 3:10 was that the church would be a model to the nations of the world.

Imagine a church whose vision is inspired by this verse in Ephesians: “We exist to demonstrate God’s multifaceted majestic wisdom to the leaders of our community.”

How will they impact the “rulers and authorities” in their communities?  Through them, political and other leaders will discover that leadership is best done by serving the community, that the central problem facing the community is spiritual (lack of forgiveness, reconciliation, and regeneration), and that politics is a necessary but insufficient system for solving community problems.  As did America’s founders, they will also learn from the church that a federal system of government best balances local, regional, and nationwide concerns and interests.  They should learn from the church a vision for public justice that takes account of both individual and collective needs by means of what is often called principled pluralismAnd, finally, they must learn that religious freedom, or freedom of conscience undergirds all other human freedoms of speech, assembly, and association.  In the final analysis, by proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus Christ, our churches will remind our international, national, regional, and local leaders that there is One Just Ruler after whom they should model their own leadership.

If our churches catch the vision as model nations, the church will increasingly be known as magnificent, not muddling.

Entrepreneurs and Environmentalists

In the next few weeks I will introduce professors, pastors, and other leaders in the northeast Indian state of Manipur to the story of Christianity’s contribution to the development of nations.  One topic I will address is finding the proper balance between entrepreneurship and environmentalism, a balance that, in the gloomy twilight of the early 21st century, clearly tips Green in the post-Christian West.  Finding the right balance not only concerns development, but has everything to do with what it means to be human.

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

In Part One, I proposed that key themes in a Christian vision for national development include the idea of God's reign over the nations (He is not a tribal God), the Kingdom of God (which is a “now, not yet” reality), and the cross and crown of Christ (courageous, gutsy servant leadership points to Christ’s Lordship over nations).  In Part Two, I suggest there are four more themes.

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

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.

Why the Incarnation Makes All the Difference

At Christmas, at least in the West, we are swollen with pleasant sentiment: gifts, lights, and music. We might, therefore, miss one of the most important questions that humans should consider in a world blasted and bewildered by terrorism, mistrust, and inequality: “Is the Incarnation the key to human flourishing?”  

The Failure of the Aid Model: A Surprising Discovery about What Caused Dependency in Africa

Most aid programs in Africa are moderate to spectacular failures. By contrast, all indications are that well-designed efforts built around income generation are the only way forward for those who want to escape poverty’s miry slough of despair.  But, how, in fact, did Africans end up in this terrible predicament in the first place?  Animism (the traditional worldview), endemic corruption, and terrible leadership are part of the answer, but…

What's Missing in the University of Minnesota's Strategic Plan?

You would think that a strategic planning document with this emphasis on big challenges would identify issues like “Finding solutions to religious-based terrorism” (anyone watched the news lately?).  Unfortunately, the reader will search the 85-page strategic plan without ever reading a single reference to religion.

Fighting for Marriages

Why have so many of us passively abandoned what God has established (Matthew 19:6) in favor of what he hates (Malachi 2:16)?  My concern is not so much with the party wanting the divorce as with his/her friends and associates who “cave” rather than aggressively advocate for the couple’s marriage.  One of the reasons we have caved is that we have bought into a faulty vision of marriage as a purely romantic relationship sustained by love, and only now are active Christians rejecting that faulty vision for a vision of covenant marriage with profound public consequences that include the parenting of children who will sustain the society and the possibility of human flourishing.

The Economics of Flourishing


Mass Flourishing by Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps is a phenomenal book about the essence of modern capitalism.  At its core, Mass Flourishing argues that the ability of a nation’s economy to deliver on its promises of employment, wages, and job satisfaction is based on its economic culture.  For Phelps, only a culture of vitalism, characterized by a humanist vision of "the good life", will supply the creativity required for home-grown innovation that consistently improves the quality of life for everyone.

Phelps’ approach to economics echoes that of modern theologians and Christian writers of the Faith and Work Movement; these view the economy as one system that interacts with both the political and, more importantly, the cultural sphere of life. These writers see the separation between sacred and secular as a false dichotomy, and their writing aims to close the unfortunate separation between spiritual life and earthly work.  While we should be very excited that a renowned economist is building economic models and arguments based on a robust vision of flourishing, we should also be wary of Phelps’ prescription for “the good life.”

A Holistic Way to Measure Economic Success: Dynamism and Flourishing

Phelps begins with a tour of nineteenth-century Britain, France, Germany, and America—a time of revolutionary change in those countries.  In addition to economic measures, he uses cultural examples from literature and art to argue that for the first time in history young men and women could seek careers that provided personal growth and meaning; Dickens’ hero David Copperfield and Brontë’s heroine Jane Eyre are young adults who can “get on in society.”  Phelps maintains that because the human experience is so much more than material, we must do away with the classical economic way of viewing the world through the alienating notion of material growth. Instead, we should measure the strength of a country on its dynamism, or “the drive to change things, the talent for it, and the receptivity to new things… the willingness and capacity to innovate” (Ch 1, p20).

An oft-mentioned but rarely understood concept, innovation is “a new method or new product that becomes a new practice somewhere in the world” (Ch 1, p20).  Working together, it is managers, laborers, investors, and consumers—with their practical knowledge, talent, and insight—who bring about endemic innovation year after year after year; this is how mass flourishing is created.  But what enables dynamism and creativity?  Phelps believes that the humanist view of self-fulfillment unleashed the modern economy.  Citing Aristotle, Voltaire, and Nietzsche, Phelps argues that people are most alive when taking charge of their own life through the processes of self-actualization and personal fulfillment. 

Modern Capitalism and True Flourishing

If Phelps is correct and economics is about providing bountiful and meaningful work, this carries implications for the movers and shakers of economy, politics, and culture.  Classical policies that focus on stimulating demand or supply miss the point that giving people wealth does not necessarily lead to flourishing.  In fact, the money culture in America appears to seek short-term wealth at the cost of long-term innovation.  To distinguish his system of dynamism and innovation from classical conceptions of capitalism, which limit free market goals to wealth-seeking, Phelps adds the qualifier of “modern” to capitalism.  This definition echoes the term “democratic capitalism” coined by Catholic scholar Michael Novak. Both authors stress the cultural spirit of the economy, but it is on the spirit of the culture that a Christian conception of flourishing departs from Phelps’ view.

The vocabulary Phelps uses to discuss work is tantalizing: dynamism, creativity, and flourishing.  As Christians we are given a robust view of flourishing throughout Scripture, where we see a creative and generous God fashion the earth and charge humans to cultivate it.  Unfortunately, Phelps sees “a life of duty to God” to be at strict odds with “a life of value to oneself”; he argues that because succumbing to a life of service for others removes the possibility of living the good life for yourself.  He cites domestic housework as an example, suggesting that a parent who sacrifices their opportunities in the economy outside the home is not living a full life.

This mutually exclusive dichotomy of sacrifice and self-fulfillment in no way reflects the beliefs and teachings of Christianity.  The gospel fundamentally replies that a life of duty to God is a life of value to oneself.  “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10 NIV) The Protestant Reformers (whom Phelps mentions only in passing) provided strong preaching on vocation, teaching us that God works out the flourishing of the earth through our acts of service to others—none of which we can accomplish on our own.  Consequently, living a life through the Spirit is the good life.  “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:25 NASV) Self-actualization is not found inside of us, but outside, in the finished work of Christ, whose identity we take on as adopted heirs into God’s Kingdom—which is surely an economy of mass flourishing. 

Nathan Trulsen is a management consultant at Accenture and graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.  The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of his employer, Accenture.

An Eye for What Others Failed to See

In early March 2009, Susan and I found our way through a maze of hallways into the office of Dr. Robert Woodberry, then a sociology professor on the University of Texas at Austin campus.  His mother had grown up in the Minneapolis area, and he was doing some interesting work on missionaries and their effect on societies around the world.  We were launching Wilberforce Academy, and had come to South Texas to introduce our new mission to some friends.

Surrounded by literally piles of research materials that covered virtually every inch of floor space, with soft-spoken intensity he began to tell us about his work.  “I’m looking for and finding all kids of data about religion and missionaries, the sort of thing that other sociologists just never see,” he said.  The results of his research were already becoming clear: What he calls “conversionary Protestant missionaries” have had a profoundly positive impact on nations’ prospects for democracy and economic growth. 

I co-wrote about his stunning research in an article recently published in Kairos, a Croatian theological journal, and David Koyzis has written a fine article on the exact dynamics that connect missionary behavior to democratic behavior. But far more significantly, the preeminent American Christian magazine Christianity Today has picked up the story in the January/ February 2014 issue.  The article title is “The World the Missionaries Made.”  This theme that Vishal Mangalwadi first articulated in the 1990s has now received enormous statistical and historical validation through Woodberry’s painstaking work: The Protestant missionaries who went around the world in the spirit of William Carey---sacrificially committed to Christ, hoping to win people to Him, desperate to help the people they served in any way possible, and almost always at odds with colonial authorities---have literally impacted nations in a much more positive way than almost every scholar imagined.

I have long contended that we evangelicals have not done a good job of telling the world about how we have, often unaware and always in simple obedience to Christ, made the world a better place.  We call ourselves salt and light, but we have little awareness of how profoundly true that is.  There should be no occasion to boast (we have far too much that is wrong with our movement), but we ought to get out this word in public forums and university classrooms.

Speaking of university classrooms, though Woodberry’s research has received top awards, the University of Texas-Austin refused him tenure several years ago.  Their loss was a victory for National University of Singapore where he now teaches.  As one blog writer noted, Woodberry is “an American who apparently found more academic freedom for his research in Singapore than the United States.”  



The Gospel Escalator


Social and economic inequality promise to haunt our globalizing world as it rockets forward through the first quarter of the 21st century.  The rich few get richer, while the middle class and the poor stagnate. This narrative of inequality not only has great appeal amongst the chattering classes of policymakers and journalists, but it will slowly gain more transaction amongst the masses.  Even conservative researchers like Charles Murray are sounding a warning bell, as he does in his 2012 book Coming Apart.  The conservative think tank leader Mitch Pearlstein is writing his second book on the subject (his first, published in 2011, is titled From Family Collapse to America’s Decline), and shows clear evidence that family fragmentation is correlated with poverty, under-achievement, and social stagnation. 

While Pearlstein is very sympathetic to the argument that a religious revival is the only way to turn around our social pathologies, most scholars and virtually all politicians ignore what was, until the mid 20th century, a socially-accepted and  powerful source of social mobility (the ability to move from a lower socioeconomic class to a higher one): Christian conversion.  In fact, my own research suggests that Christian conversion often operates in such a way that it provides a virtual escalator between the social classes. Sociologist David Martin has alluded to the phenomenon in his 1993 book Tongues of Fire, as has Robert Woodberry, the American sociologist who has studied the impact of missionaries on social outcomes.

Although the topic deserves much more research, we can suggest likely factors that drive the gospel escalator: 1) re-direction of finances away from self-indulgent activities to those that educate their and others’ children; 2) increased work productivity due to greater diligence and work focus; 3) increased trustworthiness with work tasks 4) refusal to steal from employers; 5) increased willingness to invest in business activities of fellow Christians, as well as to employ them; and 6) greater sense of efficacy, or the ability to make a difference in family, community, and public affairs. 

Politicians are likely to milk the theme of inequality for all the votes they can get, but the wise citizen will recognize that one of the finest ways that public officials can help reverse the rising tide of inequality is by encouraging citizens to seek out religious commitments that will make them into the kind of people who gain social mobility.  For most, this means welcoming Christian conversion and the community that comes with it.