Fred Luter, the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, caused a theological controversy last week. On a radio show March 27th, the host asked Luter whether he believed that North Korea’s sabre rattling had anything to do with God judging America for debating same-sex marriage. Luter seemed to agree, responding:
It could be a possibility. I’m not that strong in prophecy, but I would not be surprised that there’s not a connection there simply because of the fact we’ve seen it happen in Scripture before. I would not be surprised that at the time when we are debating same-sex marriage, at a time when we are debating whether or not we should have gays leading the Boy Scout movement, I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that we have a mad man in Asia who is saying some of the things that he’s saying.
These statements naturally scandalized media outlets and leftist bloggers. I’ll leave you to find and read their condemnations if you so choose.
Many Christians probably agreed with Luter’s idea. His thoughts make sense if you take the promises of Old Testament Israel and apply them to geopolitical entities, such as the American state. However, Luter’s statements scandalized many Christians, and I’ll include myself in this group. If you read the entire Bible as testifying to the life and work of Christ, then Luter’s ideas don’t make sense. The promises and warnings to ancient Israel apply not to America, but to the church.
Luter’s comments remind me of the ideas of the Pharisees. The Pharisees kept looking for the Kingdom of God, and they felt that if they could teach the people to be good enough, then God would establish his kingdom in Jerusalem and everyone would be safe. Their ideas made sense to many people at the time, just like Luter’s ideas make sense to many Americans now. However, this guy named Jesus showed up, calling these things into question.
Jesus taught that the Pharisees were looking for the right thing but that they were looking for it in the wrong place. The Kingdom of God is not a political kingdom in space or time; it’s spiritual and eternal. Jesus’ own disciples had trouble understanding this idea. Even at the very end of Jesus’ time on earth they were saying, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Eventually the disciples would figure it out, and they spread the gospel that Jesus’ perfect sacrifice brings about the kingdom. The early church grew.
A few hundred years passed, and a Roman emperor decided to endorse Christianity. After Constantine, the church gained more momentum, especially politically. It seemed as though the church had “conquered” the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, Rome was a “Christian Empire,” and many Christians stared thinking in the same way those old Pharisees did. They believed that the Kingdom of God was coming, that it was going to be a kingdom in time and space, and that it was more or less the same as Rome. But Rome fell.
Augustine of Hippo had to remind Roman Christians that the Kingdom of God and the Roman Empire were not the same thing. God’s kingdom is eternal, while the kingdom of the Caesars must pass away. In the years since Augustine, however, Christians often fell into Pharisaical thinking, confusing the church with a certain geopolitical entity. Luter’s comments on March 27th seem to lean in this direction.
Thankfully, Luter has retracted these comments. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Luter admitted that he misspoke and that he didn’t really mean what he said. When pressed by Cooper, who is himself gay, Luter said he believes America’s problems stem from all its social ills: homosexuality, racism, abortion, and violent crime.
Luter’s right. These social ills should concern Christians, and we ought to work to alleviate them. Christians should involve themselves in the political process, working to end injustices and evils like abortion and human trafficking. But the church can’t forget its purpose. The church isn’t on earth to lobby Washington in an attempt to recreate the Garden of Eden in the Land of Nod. Jesus gave us our task: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
It doesn’t matter how much America cleans up its act because God will still judge America; Christ did not redeem a nation-state. He redeems his church. God builds his kingdom by transforming lives, not by refining America’s legal code. The Kingdom of God is at hand. The church is a colony or vanguard of the kingdom, and we wait patiently for its fulfillment on the last day. We wait patiently but not passively. We have a job to do, make disciples of all nations. I pray that more and more Americans will escape the coming judgment through having a dual citizenship in heaven.