What is Special about Neo-Calvinism?

One of the things you hear from neo-Calvinist critics of 2k is that a view that strongly distinguishes between the church and civil magistrate, or between Christ’s redemptive and creational offices, or between religion and culture (as 2k does) winds up limiting faith or piety to one day out of seven. Or it denies the Lordship of Christ over all areas of life. The breakthrough of neo-Calvinism, apparently, is to overcome the dualism of fundamentalism or pietism and show how Christianity pervades all things.

And yet, this insight is hardly the sole possession of neo-Calvinists. In fact, you see it come in all shapes and sizes from believers who want to see Christianity have a wider scope of influence. Even Michelle Obama,editors at Sojourners, and missional Christians agree with neo-Calvinists (thanks to John Fea):

Last week, the First Lady spoke to the quadrennial General Conference of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church. While the speech was a get-out-the-vote plug, it also shed an interesting light on both her personal faith and the theological tradition of the nation’s oldest independent, predominantly African-American congregations.

In reading the First Lady’s speech, I was intrigued to see a strong emphasis on some concepts I often associate with “missional” churches.

Within the church world, especially among those who are planting them, the term missional has become ubiquitous. It critiques existing church models that focus on creating programs, services, and marketing campaigns intended to draw people to the church instead of encouraging members to go out and serve—to be on “mission.”

Here’s a good example of the type of thing my pastor says all the time when he talks about being missional from the mouth of the First Lady:

“Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday for a good sermon and good music and a good meal. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well — especially in those quiet moments, when the spotlight’s not on us, and we’re making those daily choices about how to live our lives.”

One of the signs of a missional church is a de-emphasis on the Sunday-morning worship service put on by professionals. Instead of focusing on a 60-90 minute performance in which most people are passive attendees, increased time and attention are given to the active work believers are doing to further the mission of the church throughout the week. Some churches have abandoned what would be thought of as traditional services all together.

Mind you, Mrs. Obama and this writer at Sojourners don’t have the philosophical apparatus to support this view. Still, how fundamental an insight is neo-Calvinism’s cultural engagement when so many other Christians pursue cultural engagement in such similar language?

If Dr. K. is now receptive to taking a less antagonistic attitude toward 2k, if he believes that radical (as opposed to representative) neo-Calvinists need to hear important criticisms from 2kers, then perhaps he can point the way by showing where so many of the 24/7 Christians go wrong. I have a suggestion: start with Scripture and the confessions of the Reformed churches; second, leave the activism to believers’ consciences and vocations; and finally, resist all efforts to turn cultural engagement into a program or even a paradigm.

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42 thoughts on “What is Special about Neo-Calvinism?

  1. And then maybe take note from a lecture at the 1979 conference on Liturgy in Reformed Worship at Calvin College entitled, “Choir & Organ: Their Place In Reformed Liturgy” in which Nicholas Wolterstorff stated the following:

    Characteristically we Reformed people think of going to church as going to sermon. And we think of the sermon as marching orders. In what we do Monday through Saturday, we say, lies the proof and worth of Sunday. For us, the fundamental question to put to the liturgy is always: What did we get out of it?

    But in biblical perspective there is clearly a second fundamental reason to assemble for the performance of the liturgy. It is right and proper—in the words of the old Latin Mass, dignum et justum—for us to acknowledge God’s majesty and goodness’s right and proper to sing praises to God for his works of creation and redemption, and for our status as new creatures in Jesus Christ. It’s right and proper to confess our sins. It’s right and proper to continue celebrating the supper of our Lord in memorial of him until he comes again. I know of course that it’s also right and proper to care for the poor of society, to work for peace, to build bridges, to create paintings. It must be said to the Reformed person—emphatically, because he’s so much inclined to forget it—that it is also inherently right and proper to perform the liturgy. This too is obedience. There’s profound truth in speaking of what takes place in our assemblies as a worship service. Worship, let’s not forget it, is part of our rightful service to God. Not only is liturgy for building us up unto obedience. Liturgy is for acknowledging God, in a tone of chastened celebration.

    I said that one question to ask of the liturgy is: What did we get out of it? In light of what I’ve just said it’s clear there’s another, namely, How did we do? How did we do in our attempt to acknowledge God with praise and confession, with thanksgiving and intercession? Did we do it at all adequately?

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  2. My daughter is going to college in a week and is thinking about getting involved in an evangelical student ministry on campus. I have a warm spot in my heart for this ministry because I met my wife there 20 years ago. Once students get involved they put a fair amount of pressure on the kids to be involved in weekly meetings, Bible studies, prayer meetings, leadership team meetings, retreats, reaching out to other students, etc. When my wife was in college the leader told the kids, “I’ve met a lot of people who said they spent too much time studying while in college, but no one has ever come back and told me they spent to much time with (blank).” My advice to her is to go to class, study, work, worship on Sundays, and then if she has time left over get involved in things like this group. I think too many Christians split activities between sacred and “secular” and in so doing de-value the secular activities (I would rather label them “common”) too much. If we’re faithful in our daily tasks (as the Bible tells us to be) God can use that to “transform culture” if he so chooses.

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  3. It may be (as I think) that only a robust Reformed theology can support a transformational (or Christian) framework and worldview, but even some Anabaptists, Lutherans, and dispensationalists are happy to support the same conclusion. (Ditto for F.D. Maurice.)

    So to the extent that Mrs. Obama exemplifies a transformational framework, nothing would follow from her except that she stole good Christian capital for her benefit. Too bad she doesn’t also accept what it takes to get there.

    I appreciate the fact that DGH at least acknowledges the existence of the claim that Escondido 2K denies the Lordship of Christ over all creation.

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  4. One typical response to anabaptist-types like me who want to submit to the powers instead of attempting to transform or replace them is to say that we must have a death wish, that we think we are on a ship we can’t wait to sink. But I don’t have a death wish at all. I want to live. I won’t be
    with Jesus any better than I am now after I die until Jesus comes again.

    If the Republicans or the Muslims kill me, that’s on them. But it’s NOT me commiting suicide because I fail to have a gun to do for God what I think God should be doing. Jesus did NOT
    commit suicide by telling his disciples that two swords were enough.. The transformationalists tempt the Lord God by putting on our conscience commands and duties God never gave

    Hebrews 11:39 “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not
    be made perfect.”

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  5. mark mcculley: One typical response to anabaptist-types like me who want to submit to the powers instead of attempting to transform or replace them is to say that we must have a death wish, that we think we are on a ship we can’t wait to sink. But I don’t have a death wish at all. I want to live. I won’t be with Jesus any better than I am now after I die until Jesus comes again.

    If the Republicans or the Muslims kill me, that’s on them. But it’s NOT me commiting suicide because I fail to have a gun to do for God what I think God should be doing. Jesus did NOT
    commit suicide by telling his disciples that two swords were enough.. The transformationalists tempt the Lord God by putting on our conscience commands and duties God never gave

    RS: Notice that the Psalmist (see the Psalm below) tells the kings and judges of the earth to take warning and to worship with reverence and do homage to the Son. Do you see that as transformationalism? When we pray that God’s name be hallowed, are we just to pray that it would be hallowed with believers and not unbelievers as well?

    Psa 2:4 He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them. 5 Then He will speak to them in His anger And terrify them in His fury, saying, 6 “But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain.” 7 “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. 8 ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession. 9 ‘You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware.'” 10 Now therefore, O kings, show discernment; Take warning, O judges of the earth. 11 Worship the LORD with reverence And rejoice with trembling. 12 Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, For His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!

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  6. Phil, how could I ever deny the existence of the claim? My ears bleed from hearing it so many times.

    But doesn’t it say something that so many Christians come to the same conclusion irrespective of their theology? It could be they are borrowing capital. And it could be the neo-Calvinists are baptizing a generally popular view.

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  7. Hi Brothers! I sinned again this AM! 🙂 (my sweet wife’s definition of my visiting OLT). I repeat myself— surely not a sin for DG and many commentators here. This is my Father’s World, and His Son’s. Colossians 1:16, John 1 and elsewhere. I don’t think He wants us to accept His (Their?) enemies and ours, family’s & friend”s (much used word in Scripture!) in silence. “Sing a little louder!” as the death trains passed by German churches, 1930s and 1940s! We must FIGHT! DG doesn’t like my use of this word! OK. So how ’bout “resist”? “Oppose’? “Speak out”. “Insist that silence may be “yellow”? Was it wrong for my NJ ancestors to oppose our evil ENEMY King George III with VIGOR? A small minority of enemy-fools now kick Chick-Fl-A around for saying what good OPC, etc. pastors sometimes say in defense of Biblical and plain common sense marriage. Say: “We Bible believing folks ain’t gonna put up with Roe v. Wade, Obama lies!” On and on! FIGHT! No wonder we have a hard time with spreading SPIRITUAL truth! (Our record here is not too good!) Words and Deeds? We could be working here rather than wasting God’s time on JoePa, smoking stogies and sipping booze, etc.! It is our DUTY to “rescue those (babies) being led to the slaughter” and their Moms. I resent it when some silent, Lazy? Christians ask my wife (CPC rescue center worker AND Christian for most of her 82 years on God’s favored planet— “How many souls does THAT save? 😦 Doggone it, find a way to FIGHT between our evangelistic efforts. (Church hats OFF). Now I have to tell Elaine that I sinned again! Love (tough, Biblical) Old Bob PS DG I was thinking of your challange that you could be a better Bible studend than Old Bob. Maybe so but aren’t you even a little impressed that I graduated from WTS before you were born?

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  8. Bob, I don’t know what Bible they were teaching at WTS when you attended, but the one I read says that Paul fought not Nero and his lies and persecutions but Judaizers and Christians who pursued a theology of glory (Corinth). I agree we need to fight. I disagree with you about the significance of our enemies. As I’ve tried to remind you several times, liberal Protestants fought violations of the Sabbath, alcohol, the destruction of the family. They fought to preserve a Christian America. And they lost the gospel. By the way, those liberal Protestants fought Machen and he fought back. And Machen lived before you were born.

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  9. “Mind you, Mrs. Obama and this writer at Sojourners don’t have the philosophical apparatus to support this view.”

    There you go again, DGH, throwing a bone to the neocals to prop up their self-esteem. Problem is, the philosophical apparatus of Ms. Obama and Sojourners does support such a view. But if their philosophical apparatus supports such a view AND the neocal apparatus supports such a view, I’m not so inclined to think it’s divine philosophy.

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  10. Thanks, Darryl, for VERY quick response. 7 minutes! How ’bout a longer, more thoughtful one?— more respectful of my 84 years, 4 of them with Machen’s buddies as friends and teachers, grandpa of 4 great Christian kids, 25 grands, 4 g.grands, some of these older ones with PhDs, Law degrees. A Covenant College BioProf since 1995. Whoops! Sorry about this mini-bio! Maybe also show a bit of knowledge about great fighter (opposer?) John Whitehead and his work, including his defense of Chuck McIlhenny in his ordeal with perverts in San Francisco years ago. Some real silent OPC folks vis a vis Chuck then. Even very harsh criticism from otherwise silent Brothers! Disgusting! Have you read Chuck’s “When the Wicked Seize a City” Think this exchange of ours should be less public? Love in Jesus, Old Bob

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  11. Bob, believe it or not, after studying the history of Christianity for almost thirty years — and even getting paid for it — I have actually thought about your points. I have actually encountered them many times. When will you thoughtfully think about my points without making this personal?

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  12. Darryl, a poscript. I am looking into the Kloostermann-Tuininga thing. Matt has preached in our ATL OPC church recently. Attends occaisionally with sweet wife and 2 tots. Nothing like a complete family to round a fellow out! Just a few weeks ago Matt and Old Bob had a friendly chat. I try to keep up with things, even though my life is (mostly) behind me! Love in Him, Old Bob

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  13. Can we agree that some forms of “engaging the culture” are just fine — like Bob’s wife working at a crisis pregnancy center, while others are more troubling — like Cary Gordon, a pentecostal minister in Sioux City, Iowa, holding press conferences on the issue of gay marriage? Is anyone here criticizing individual Christians getting involved in their communities? It seems to me that people who are against 2K are way quicker to make extreme arguments than those who are for it.

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  14. If 20th & 21st century Christian political activists had more successes they could point to I might be more convinced of their views. How do you change cultural views on issues like abortion and gay marriage without people’s hearts being changed? That’s what the church does — preaches the law and gospel which may change the hearts of some. As hearts change, the culture may change – slowly. When the church tries to change the culture through political activism I fear they are trying to shortcut a much longer process. It may have been more effective in earlier centuries when more people were churchgoers, but I don’t think it is today.

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  15. Erik, we choose our cultural engagements for various reasons, and 2k isn’t passive. The dealbreaker comes when particular battles are promoted as necessary Christian responses, and, conceptually, I suppose, when such actions are seen as redeeming the world.

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  16. Erik Charter: Can we agree that some forms of “engaging the culture” are just fine — like Bob’s wife working at a crisis pregnancy center…Is anyone here criticizing individual Christians getting involved in their communities?

    Erik Charter: How do you change cultural views on issues like abortion and gay marriage without people’s hearts being changed? That’s what the church does — preaches the law and gospel which may change the hearts of some. As hearts change, the culture may change – slowly. When the church tries to change the culture through political activism I fear they are trying to shortcut a much longer process. It may have been more effective in earlier centuries when more people were churchgoers, but I don’t think it is today.

    Erik’s Points (shortened?):
    1. Individuals engaging culture is not getting to the points of 2K and no one is really
    arguing against that type of work.
    2. The best way to change culture is when hearts are changed and hearts are only
    changed by the preaching of the law and the Gospel.
    3. When the church tries to change culture through a political process, they are
    trying to shortcut the best and really only way of changing culture.

    RS: Erik, is this a fair way to put your points? Your points made in your two posts have clarified a few things for me if indeed 2K proponents agree that these are generally accurate. Thanks

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  17. Richard – I think you have accurately summarized my points. I can’t speak for other 2K proponents. I have read D.G.’s “A Secular Faith” and have started Van Drunen’s shorter book on 2K. I am coming at this from the perspective of one who largely became Reformed through the preaching of Doug Wilson, but later came to reject Wilson’s postmillennialism and methods of cultural engagement. I think some people are suspicious of 2Kers because they suspect they are Obama-loving Democrats who are just ticked off because most Christians are conservative Republicans. I neither love Obama, nor am I a Democrat, so that is definitely not my motive. I think 2K teaching more accurately reflects what the Bible teaches about how we should engage the culture — worship God, mind your own business, do your work, and trust God to sustain you in the midst of a hostile culture.

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  18. Just read this in the local paper. See the 2nd to last paragraph for relevance to our discussion:

    Boone pastor charged with harassment
    Greg Eckstrom

    Boone News-Republican

    A Boone pastor was arrested and charged with harassment by communication – a simple misdemeanor – after allegedly making a sexually suggestive comment to a male Boone resident last week.

    Eugene Jipson, 57, pastor of Church of the Nazarene in Boone, was cited and released July 17 after allegedly showing up at a Boone property and making the sexually suggestive comments to a male resident.

    On Monday afternoon, July 16, the Boone County Communications Center received a call in reference to an unwanted subject at a property on South Story Street in Boone, according to the certificate of probable cause filed by Boone police officer Dave Ades.

    Ades wrote that an investigation into the complaint revealed that Jipson, who is unknown to the alleged victim, went to the man’s residence, unwanted and uninvited, and made sexually explicit verbal overtures to the man. According to the report, the man was “alarmed, annoyed and offended by the comments made by the defendant,” and told the defendant to leave his property.

    Ades wrote that during the investigation Jipson admitted to making the comments to the alleged victim and agreed that the comments were inappropriate and should not have been said.

    Jipson was one of three Boone clergy or church leaders this year who sent a petition to the Iowa Legislature from Iowa clergy and church leaders strongly urging the Legislature to “restore Iowa’s legal definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.”

    Jipson will make a court appearance on Aug. 13.
    .

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  19. Erik, I have no idea why 2k critics would assume 2kers are Obama-loving Democrats. Have you not read From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin? It’s a case for political conservatism without all the unnecessary claptrap of biblicism or w-w.

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  20. Erik, with regard to the question of culture, it’s interesting to me how you assume transfornation. But some of us are more interested in preservation. It’s usually good for getting collared with all manner of ire. On your transformative idea about hearts, I’d highly recommend Hunter’s “To Change the World.”

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  21. Darryl, I recently and unwittingly (doh!) donated my copy of FBGTSP to the local library. Who says 2kers don’t sacrifice for their local communities?

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  22. D.G. – I don’t assume it, but I’m telling you a lot of laypeople suspect it – especially of those in the 2K camp who are academics. Many Reformed laypeople went to Christian colleges where the only Democrats in the county were the college professors. I haven’t read that book yet but would like to. I’m actually teaching through your Machen book in Sunday school this fall. I need to read through it again and take notes.

    Zrim – Thanks for the book recommendation. I don’t assume transformation, but am merely talking about how it could take place (and how it probably won’t take place through overt political activism.)

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  23. Erik, isn’t suggesting how transformation could take place to assume the category? But to a preservationist mind, cultural transformation is dubious whether it’s through overt political activism or covert gospel preaching. The reason has to do with abiding sin, a basic doctrinal staple in Calvinism that the neos gloss over in breath taking ways.

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  24. Zrim – You make a good point about abiding sin. Maybe the “good old days” really aren’t any better than things are today. It’s hard to deny that societies rise and fall, but maybe that doesn’t have all that much to do with their “spiritual condition”. Rome probably wasn’t any more upright during its glory days than it was when it fell. I think people look at the founding of the U.S., though, and the number of settlers who came here for valid religious reasons and conclude that we have somehow fallen from our more noble beginnings. They want to renew the culture to where it was when we began. It is hard to deny that some societies as a whole have been more in line with the law of God than others in various times and places.

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  25. Erik, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems. But if human beings have been the same sinful creatures ever since they were sent packing east of Eden, and if human beings make up society, I’m not sure it’s so hard to deny that any society has been more godly than another. Isn’t to think so the social version of self-righteousness?

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  26. MM said “One typical response to anabaptist-types like me who want to submit to the powers instead of attempting to transform or replace them is to say that we must have a death wish, that we think we are on a ship we can’t wait to sink. But I don’t have a death wish at all. I want to live. I won’t be with Jesus any better than I am now after I die until Jesus comes again.”

    This is a typical refrain that comes from the OLT crowd: the assertion that to consider a ruler unjust or even evil is somehow the same as not submitting to him.

    I just had a thought today, though. America has a system in place that is supposed to facilitate changes in laws or the constitution when necessary. Isn’t it failure to submit to authorities if we refuse to follow the proper channels to reform government? Especially considering that these channels were set in place by the same government? In other words, failure to act may itself be considered lack of submission.

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  27. And, Jon, the anti-2k crowd likes to suggest that to submit and honor tyrants is a tacit approval of evil (as in, the confessional churches under the Third Reich who didn’t get behind rebellious movements are as guilty of genocide as those who actually committed it).

    But have you ever considered how American polity and Christian piety really don’t mesh very well? How do you really harmonize a culture and magistrate that esteems, invites and even rewards civil disobedience with a sacred text which esteems only obedience? Don’t get me wrong, our system has its upsides for sure. But I always wonder if, in light of the Bible we want everyone else to live by, we seriously consider the spiritual downsides to having a political system that tends to nurture calling vice what the Bible calls virtue–civil obedience.

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  28. Zrim,

    Expand on civil disobedience, please. What do you mean? I could see the culture supporting it, but where does the government or constitution do so?

    I know you might refer to the War of Independence (I don’t call it the American Revolution) but it was nothing like the French revolution.

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  29. Jon, he’s sworn off Old Life in a huff, but there used to be a fellow who came by that claimed to be a civil rights attorney. The long and short of his interlocution was that per the American legal arrangement, in order to get certain laws changed there actually had to be acts of civil disobedience. The upshot as I understood it was that before it could become illegal for our black friends to be barred from lunch counters, it was up to brave and moral people to break local laws and sit where prohibited (or encourage such law breaking from afar). His argument seemed plausible but I wondered how Christian people could biblically justify doing what it prohibits.

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  30. Zrim,

    The only thing I can think of is if the state makes you disobey God (ie, if it mandated abortions). Perhaps that was the point the attorney was trying to make? Who knows.

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  31. Jon, no, as I recall his point was that some 2kers who hedge on the virtues of civil disobedience pursuant to the social doctrine of individual rights lack moral character. Then it got ugly.

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  32. Zrim – It would seem hardcore 2Kers are more suited to live under a monarchy or a dictatorship if what you say is true. Can we not draw some lines between what is required of the church/ministers and what is required of individual Christian citizens? Voting in an election to change a leader or a law is not “rebellion against authority” is it? Should 2kers only vote for Obama since he is the man currently in power?

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  33. Erik, that’s a painfully awkward interpretation. I’d rather say that consistent 2k should be able to equip believers to live under any sort of political arrangement. Like I said, our system has its upsides, but my point here has been to throw some skepticism on a particular arrangement believers tend uncritically affirm as built more or less on biblical principles. But it’s actually built on pagan notions of polity, which isn’t at all to say evil and to be categorically opposed. Rather it’s to take the Bible seriously when it says worldly systems always pose a danger to spiritual creatures. That has to include political systems. If dictatorships are prone to invite believing citizens to worship magistrates, liberal democracies seem to invite them to undermine authority, neither of which are biblical virtues.

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  34. Zrim – I’ve heard of some Reformed folk who do not vote in political elections out of conviction. Is the reason you are citing what is motivating them? What Reformed group(s) would this be?

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  35. Erik, you’d have to be more specific. I’m not sure what you may be referring to. But I’ve heard of people abstaining from voting for all sorts of reasons, not least those burned out culture warriors who placed so much faith in the power of politics, came to see that what has been will be again, and then swing so cynical that they throw their hands up. But lowering political expectations might actually encourage less abstention and more participation.

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