Columns Opinion Richard Mouw: Civil Evangelicalism

Divine patience in confused times

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy calls Christians to keep pressing forward toward justice and equality. Photo courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

Growing up in evangelicalism, I often heard preachers talk about “the time of God’s patience.” They used it to encourage us to repent while there is still an opportunity for sinners to get right with God. When human history comes to an end, and the Great Judgment Day arrives, they said, there will be no more divine patience. We will be stuck with our basic choices — for or against salvation — for all eternity.

Those calls to repentance still shape my basic spiritual outlook. But when I participated in dialogues with Mennonites in the 1970s about political engagement, I heard them use “the time of God’s patience” in a somewhat different way. It is not our task as Christians, they said, to eliminate all the evils in the world. That will only happen when God decides to bring things to the final culmination. In the meantime, we live in the time of God’s patience. That’s not a reason simply to accept the social and political status quo. We need to be witnesses for peace and justice, speaking truth to those who are in power. But our calling for the present is not to be successful. Rather, we should act in a way that we will be found to be faithful when the final accounting happens.

This call to patience helped me much when many of my fellow evangelicals, having been content for over a half-century to stay on the margins of social-political life, suddenly declared themselves in the 1980s to be a “Moral Majority” — thus entering “the culture wars” with the confidence that they could win some significant battles. Some of those folks eventually became disillusioned with trying to shape public policy, although many of them have revived their warring spirit in the recent presidential election campaign.

I don’t identify with all of the causes of the religious right, and even when I agree I strongly dislike the warring spirit. A pluralistic democracy provides us with many opportunities to influence public life, without having to resort to “take no enemies” crusades.

The culture wars seem to have been heating up again in the past year or so, and as someone who has never signed up as a culture warrior, I have been thinking a lot about the present requirements for living in “the time of God’s patience.” Three decades ago that idea motivated me to encourage my fellow evangelicals not to be too triumphalistic. These days, however, I need to use it to encourage myself not to be too defeatist.

Martin Luther King was clear about the fact that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, things really are moving in the right direction. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends towards justice.” That’s a profound basis for keeping at the struggle in the time of God’s patience.

About the author

Richard Mouw

Richard Mouw is Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he also served as president for twenty years. He is the author of twenty books, including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

18 Comments

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  • “”The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the CONSCIENCE of the state. It must be the GUIDE and the CRITIC of the state, and never its TOOL. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” Martin Luther King

  • Mouw does not identify what “evangelicals” want in the article. If he thinks they want “justice,” he is mistaken as to what their motivations are.

  • WELCOME TO RNS, MR. MOUW!

    I’m an atheist who cares more about how people treat each other than about anything else. I value Equality, Respect, and Empathy, along with Familiarity (since when people get to know each other, they’re far less likely to mistreat each other). And I believe that, as a matter of human existence, one’s own spiritual/existential beliefs are and must be subject to others’ personal boundaries, not vice versa. So I’m sure you can appreciate how intrigued I am by the name you’ve chosen for your column: “Civil Evangelicalism”.

    I don’t know whether you’re comfortable replying to readers’ comments, but if you are, I’d very much like to find out how you balance the all-too-often painfully conflicting issues of religious liberty and others’ rights — how you personally mesh “Civil” with “Evangelicalism” — so here are the most important questions I can think of, in regard to how you think people should treat each other:

    How do you perceive yourself, your morality, and your faithful duties vis-à-vis those whose beliefs, values, concerns, and priorities differ from yours? And, if you’ll forgive my bluntness — I can’t think of a softer way to ask this — do you believe that you and your faith should have more “say-so” over others’ lives and beliefs than they have over yours?

  • You paint with rather too broad brush in this instance. “evangelicals” do not all fall into the same mold, though I imagine there is some divergence between most evangelicals and you on what constitutes justice.

  • I endeavor to approach all issues from an orthodox Christian perspective based on a traditionalist reading of the scriptures, engaging in spiritual warfare…absent a warring spirit as much as I may.

  • The evangelicals did not awaken in the 80’s with the so called Moral Majority. Up until the arrival of Billy Graham evangelicals and especially those in the SBC steered clear of politics. He took his 2nd rate tent show on the road while also supporting Nixon at his political rallies. You really need to look up just what President Truman thought of BG.

    BTW, just how do I know this? My paternal grandfather and his identical twin were both SBC preachers and had nothing to do with Graham. Today they would have even less to do with the heretical idolator Franklin Graham.

    So do not try to pull the wool over the eyes of us who are known as “educated Christians”. Our BS alarms are triggered by this rhetoric.

  • Richard J. Mouw, sir, it is pitiful, but I think I know why you’ve become pessimistic and downcast of late, when you said:

    “The culture wars seem to have been heating up again in the past year or so”. And though John Howard Yoder’s idea of “living in ‘the time of God’s patience’ … decades ago … motivated me to encourage my fellow evangelicals not to be too triumphalistic … (nowa)days … I need to use it to encourage myself not to be too defeatist.” (Richard Mouw, “Divine patience in confused times”, Religion News Service, March 20, 2017)

    It’s because 81% of those white Protestant Evangelicals behind President Donald J. Trump ARE winning, as you put it, “the battle” and you behind (I suppose) Hillary “Loser” R. Clinton AREN’T. Am I right? Of course, I am; you practically said so yourself in so many words:

    “While cultural passivity is not the answer, neither is a ‘culture wars’ mentality. It is not our job to win the battle … during this time of God’s patience.” (Richard J. Mouw, “Public Discipleship and Spiritual Formation”, Catalyst: Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives for United Methodist Seminarians, February 01, 2012)

    “It is not our job to win the battle”? Well, they sure disagree with you and that has made you “too defeatist” to even write this article. Totally. I know what you mean.

  • Billy Graham and Richard Nixon started this mess, at least what comes to mind in recent history. By “the 80’s”, though, there was the Evangelical Right on one side and the Evangelical Left on the other. Maybe you know, stan, so both sides of politicized Evangelicalism came out of Billy Graham’s tent, as it were? How did that work out in the beginning, then what caused them to split up? But I think the Evangelical Mess was already forming before 1950s. Politics was already infiltrating the bible-based organizations headed by Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday. And what about them New England Puritans and their theocratic experiments? Boy, what a mess this antichristendom!

  • What’s “orthodox Christian” left these days, seeing as the entire bible-based communities in America have been recruited by the Evangelical Right or the Evangelical Left, and in so doing have abandoned their assigned posts in God’s kingdom on earth. No one’s attending His vineyard. Politics of democracy is more appealing, the gospel of Jesus Christ less and less. No, I disagree. No one can call themselves “orthodox Christian” any more. Not even you, I bet. You like Trump, no? So, there you go, politicizing in your own way.

  • When has the church NOT been an irrelevant social club? Should the church become the conscience of the state, the innocent will always be subjected to the capriciousness of hierarchical patriarchy. History bears this out on this continent alone.

  • Your points regarding the evangelicals prior to the 50’s are well taken. Going back further to the Danberry Baptists who lobbied Thomas Jefferson to include the separation of church & state in the first 10 Constitutional Amendments one discovers the Calvinists/Baptists aversion to ever again combining church & state.

    The overwhelming majority of evangelicals have sold their souls to the reactionaries. Granted there are a few liberal pastors such as Jim Wallis, but they are virtually drowned out by the heresies spewed forth from the reactionaries. I grew up in the First Brethren Church commonly called German Baptist, but unlike any Baptist Church I’ve ever encountered. It was formed at roughly the same time & the same area as the Society of Friends, but has strayed far from its principles due to heavy influence by the “conservatives”. I cannot even recognize it as the church in which I was raised as it openly opposed the Vietnam War giving aid & comfort to those needing to escape to Canada and fully supported the Civil Rights Act & movement. I have since joined the Episcopal Church (20 + years ago) as it better exemplifies the teachings of The Christ.

  • I consider myself orthodox and any & all churches that follow the Common Lectionary the same. BTW, I’m a member of the Episcopal Church.

  • Actually, I’m not that fond of the man, and lately getting less so. And I’m becoming more convinced that the advance of the Gospel will be hindered rather than helped by political involvement, though individual Christians will have to choose as their conscience and the Lord leads them.

  • Doing studies using this, actually, stan – “Feasting on the Word: Curriculum: Teaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Winter 2016-2017 Adult” (2016, Westminster John Knox) – with folks from a local progressive-oriented church.

  • “We need to be witnesses for peace and justice, speaking truth to those who are in power.”

    I agree with this statement by Richard Mouw up to a point. Yes, we can be witnesses for peace and justice, and speak our truth to those in power. The problem comes when the balance tips toward advocacy of these, which seriously dilutes our advocacy for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The transforming power of the Gospel is the most potent transforming power on earth!

    It was life and Teachings of Jesus that first awakened in us the very idea of peace and justice, and an awareness of the abuses of power. When we spend all our time dealing with the EFFECTS of our alienation from God, we neglect to address the CAUSES of that alienation!

  • “…81% of those white Protestant Evangelicals behind President Donald J. Trump ARE winning …”

    “Houston, we have a problem.”

    You win nothing when you put your faith in the personification of the idolatry of money. For Donald Trump is the exact opposite of Jesus Christ in every way, shape and form. Yet you seem proud to cast your lot with him.

    MATTHEW 22 34-38

    34 And when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they themselves gathered together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested Him with a question: 36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the Law?”

    37 Jesus declared, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 THIS IS THE FIRST AND GREATEST COMMANDMENT. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.”

  • No, I’m “proud to cast … lot” – NOT “with him” but against her. Anyway, I don’t mind the huff & puff about this business with “winning”, P Donohue. But can you at least acknowledge that, as my original comment pointed out, that it was Richard J. Mouw who 1st brought “winning” up? It’s important for this discussion about John Howard Yoder’s idea of “living in ‘the time of God’s patience'”. Because Mouw takes that idea to mean that in the context of culture wars between conservative Christians versus American liberals and progressives, “It is not (the former’s) job to win the battle … during this time of God’s patience.” But did conservative Christians pay him mind? No, not only did they ignore the poor guy, but to his shock & horror in the aftermath of the November 8, 2016 election, they actually went ahead to “win the battle … during this time of God’s patience”! And so what’s he going to do about it? It’s ironic, but he’s now thinking of still using Yoder’s idea of “living in ‘the time of God’s patience’ … to encourage myself not to be too defeatist.” Which, of course, was never the intent of that idea in the first place. If only Yoder could see him now, wallowing in self-“defeatist”-ism. Reminiscent of Hillary Clinton during that one month period after Trump squashed all her own hopes of “living in ‘the time of God’s patience'”, doesn’t it? So, you’re right, P Donohue, “Houston, we have a problem” – because Richard J. Mouw isn’t feeling too good. You copy? Over? You had thought that the problem was my “faith” had been won over by “the personification of the idolatry of money (in) Donald Trump”. In fact, the problem is that Trump has won the culture wars for conservative Christians and it’s that “winning” that’s turning Richard J. Mouw into a “defeatist … living in ‘the time of God’s patience'”! Sad (to quote you-know-who).

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