Does Public Theology Have a Place in the Local Church?

One of the bedrock principles of the United States is the idea that the church and the state should be separate, and neither should attempt to influence the other. This view, which stems from the writings of Thomas Jefferson and interpreted into the First Amendment, has offered a dual kingdom approach to looking at the world, similar to the views shared by Martin Luther, who sees culture and the church in a paradoxical relationship. The church is part of the kingdom of God, while the government and its institutions are part of the earthly kingdom. Both are ruled by God, but have their differences. What results are seemingly separate spheres of existence for religion and for the public square, which influences the role the church can play in discussing issues such as poverty, the sanctity of humanity, the environment, and even the workplace. Even more, because of this valued position of two spheres, it is possible to find local churches whose engagement in the public square is guided more by ideology than theology. Instead of being grounded in the worldview of Scripture regarding public engagement, the local church is more defined by the worldview of the Republican or Democratic party. It begs the question: What is the proper role of public theology in the local church? This paper will attempt to answer that question through the lens of a local United Methodist Church in Kentucky.

In order to proceed, it is best to have a working definition and understanding of public theology. E. Harold Breitenberg, Jr. describes public theology as “informed descriptive and normative public discourse about public issues, institutions, and interactions, addressed to the church or other religious body as well as the larger public or publics.” Public theology seeks to make commentary from a Biblical perspective on the issues that face the world and our communities today. A public theology could help a local congregation wrestle with larger issues in a world in which the label “conservative” or “liberal” apply to members of many local congregations. However, public theology should not be seen as only limited to discourse on political topics. Public theology is much broader. As Breitenberg writes, it “is concerned with a variety of other publics, including economic, artistic, environmental, academic, medical, and technological publics.” William Schweiker even suggests that public theology is about providing a “moral outlook that is global in scope; it includes all peoples but it is always rooted in the resources of complex and particular traditions and their moral resources.” Even more, we know that Christ calls followers to go out into the world to serve and teach what it means to place our full trust and obedience in the Triune God. In seeking to engage the public structures, public theology points to the larger narrative of God’s work in the world through God’s concern for justice, truth, and salvation. Given all of this, we can define public theology as a theological engagement and reflection upon society which seeks to be evangelical and transformative. It is evangelical in that it seeks to proclaim the Gospel and its implication in the world, and it is transformative in that it seeks the church to reflect the message of Christ in its engagement, both locally and globally, by seeking justice, forgiveness, and, when needed, reconciliation.

Public theology helps the local congregation become a public church that engages the world, not just through a private living faith, but through a faith that is both personal and social. What does it mean for a local congregation to be a public church? It could simply point to church and denominations who perform public theology in its ministries. More importantly, it could help the local congregation, at the grassroots level, be a living witness of what it means to proclaim God’s justice and forgiveness in the world through new ways. E. Dixon Junkin writes that this includes the local church engaging in “revisioning” and “reinventing” the mission of the church. He suggests that part of the work of the church today “consists mainly in learning how to read the changing times and in seeking to create the conditions out of which a new consensus may emerge.” This reinventing the work, and mission of the church, can help the local church look beyond itself to think of the world beyond its doors and local communities. Frank Viola describes this, saying the “church is to stand for God’s eternal purpose. It’s called to live in the foretaste of Revelation 21 and 22.” This reinvisioned church cannot continue to do business in the ways of old – focusing on its own needs, power bases, and concerns for numerical growth. Public theology helps the local congregation understand God and the depths of the missio Dei, as well as think about what it means to be the church in the communities and world we live in. A reinvisioned public church, with the help of a public theology, points the church back to its roots, particularly in the Methodist tradition, which had a hand in ending African slavery and seeking justice from a Biblical foundation.

As the local congregation moves beyond its own concerns and needs, they are going to see a world it might not recognize. Globalization has created a sense of pluralism in the West, where multiple religions and cultures make up what was once dominated by Christendom. Postmodernism has created an arena of multiple viewpoints being acceptable. Instead of being the central focus for most, the church “is becoming just one more truth claim in the midst of a plurality of alternative truth claims, all of which are seen as relative.” Public theology can help the local congregation understand the place the church has in the world today. It serves an interpretive role which allows the congregation to understand the culture and situation the church is now in, helping the local congregation adapt to and engage in the world.

Public theology helps the congregation develop a missiology of engagement which takes into consideration gospel, church, and wider culture. George R. Hunsberger develops this use of public theology in commenting on Lesslie Newbigin’s “‘three-cornered relationship’” of how the church engages the Gospel and the culture. He argues that the church creates a missional philosophy which helps the church “be more attentive” than it has in previous generations. By using public theology, as so defined, the local congregation is able to engage in a “challenging relevance.” The church is called to be relevant by being the embodiment of the Gospel “in terms by which people of the culture have learned to understand,” and challenges the culture to proclaim Jesus as the “one who bursts open the culture’s models with the power of a wholly new fact.” Public theology does not mean being relevant from an entertainment and consumeristic mentality, but points to true engagement which comes out of relationship with God. Hunsberger also shows where Newbigin directs the church to be in a “reciprocal relationship” between the gospel and the church, which is “embodied in an active discipleship,” which in turn “enables the hermeneutical circle between Bible and church itself to become the hermeneutic of the gospel among the cultures of the world.” Here, public theology helps the local congregation apply Scripture to the world in which the church lives. It reminds the local congregation that faith cannot just be private; our faith must seek to love the world and proclaim God’s justice through our engagement, relationships, and other interactions. Finally, Hunsberger shows where the church is called to be missionary-minded, meaning that when the Gospel is embodied, it will “dictate the way conversion and discipleship” will take place between other churches.” Thus, public theology reminds the local congregation that while it is local, it is also a member of a global church, and the church must be in dialogue and ministry with the global body of believers. As Hunsberger writes, “We are one church in our common mission to represent the reign of God in a modern, secular, pluralist world.”

While public theology plays a role in helping the local church understand the global and pluralistic world we live in today, it also helps the local congregation understand the political institutions and structures we interact with on a regular basis. Many members of local congregations interact with government on a regular basis, or have some views on a myriad of local public issues such as, in Kentucky, mountain top removal, the future of coal in the state, and jobs. On a national level, members of a local congregation will be concerned with war, economic policies, and health care. Without a proper grounding in Scripture, it is easy for a congregation’s interaction with these and other topics to be grounded in an ideological discussion that looks more like an articulation from the Republican or Democratic parties, instead of a reflection on Scripture that seeks to engage the world. What public theology does for the local congregation in the world of political structures is best articulated by Jim Wallis. “The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or a loyal partisan.”

Public theology reminds the local congregation that our engagement with political institutions is not about winning power, but proclaiming God’s justice and will to be done. This has several implications for the local congregation. First, a public theology helps a local congregation challenge the basic positions and actions of government, considering all things through a Biblical perspective. With this, a public theology for a local congregation keeps the church from seeing its home country as the embodiment of moral good, and helps them see that governments are fallen institutions capable of both good and bad. As Vinoth Ramachandra points out, “A people convinced of their own innocence cannot make peace.  It is only if we are willing to take responsibilities for our own inhumanities that we can hold others responsible for theirs.” Second, a public theology helps the local church keep the government accountable to the people by ensuring that government is not just looking after its own needs, but is providing for the basic welfare of all people. It questionsthe actions of government, and takes a position, not based on political ideology, but based on a relationship with God that “calls nations to account in the name of a higher moral authority.” A public theology reminds the local congregation that it has a calling to speak for those who have no voice in the public square. Because of this, the church cannot keep silent. To remain silent means that justice is not being sought, jubilee is not being announced, and it “indirectly assists the existing power structures” maintain the status quo of oppressive actions towards the people of God. If the church does engage in the public square, the public theologian offers the local congregation a warning: it will be costly. It could cost social standing, friendships, or even power. But the cost of discipleship – a discipleship that includes engagement of the world and proclaiming God’s justice – often means that we take up our cross, and do the things we do not want to do.

The pastor plays a deep role of leadership. Pastors must be willing to understand the situations their churches inhabit in order to engage in public theology, which calls pastors to be apostolic. This requires the pastor to teach the congregation how to engage Scripture and culture. It also means the pastor must disciple and equip leaders and members. A congregation’s members cannot be expected to live this out without being formed and prepared for this type of ministry and engagement. On a deeper level, a public theology role for the local congregation calls the pastor to a be a prophet that “directs the poetic discourse of the people toward a vision of God’s purposes for them in the world at this time.” The pastor must be willing to speak to the situation the church is encountering, point the church toward God’s desires, and help the people to engage in new ways.

There are some cautions for the local congregation in its application of public theology. The local congregation would be wise not to see public theology as an extension of civil religion.  Civil religion is what is typically defined as the “beliefs that are commonly held and ritually celebrated with a body politic.” While a local congregation may seek ways to engage in civic celebrations, such as the Fourth of July, a public theology that is only a mirror of civic religion does injustice to God’s word and becomes a powerful supporter of the government’s actions, which may be in contrast with God’s will. Public theology should also not focus strictly on government structures or in globalization. To do so would ignore the vast number of areas people engage in on a regular basis, such as banks, schools, technology, and athletics. Public theology is not about seeking power or continued influence for the local church. The church that seeks power causes a polarized existence which ignores the deep engagement of the living embodiment of Jesus Christ. Even more, the local congregation would be wise to engage in a public theology, not through the uncivil discourse that dominates the arena today, but out of acting upon “the traits that are associated with God’s own kindness and gentleness.”

While the local church may see itself as only a small part of the larger global picture, thus having no influence, public theology will guide the church in understanding that it does have a voice. It is at the grassroots level where the local church can influence governments to seek justice and denominations to focus on living out a public engagement that adheres to Scripture. Even more, the issues many face and how to address them are local in nature, such as jobs and health care. Thus, there is no better place than the local church for public theology to be discussed and lived out. The local church that engages in public theology will have a deeper understanding and grasp of the ever-changing and global world we live in. The members of the local church will also be able to engage the institutions of this world in ways that follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ more than if it follows the examples of George Soros or Rush Limbaugh. A local congregation can be the voice of change, and it can be the voice of God’s justice. Public theology calls the local congregation, and all of us, to move beyond the walls of the church, to put faith into action, to live socially, and to proclaim the love and justice of the Lord throughout all the earth.

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