Insights From The Presbyterian and Reformed Public Theology Conference
By Ben Whisenant

Political theory and engagement has always been a contentious issue. Theres a reason it is not considered a polite” topic of dinner conversation, and yet, the current social and political environment seem to be especially contentious. Political debate rages throughout the United States — debates not merely concerning arcane tax policy or legislative process but questions concerning truth and personal identity.

Christians are not immune from these trends, and increasingly, Christians are realizing the need to think prudently and biblically. That introduces the second topic that might be considered inappropriate” for a meal out with friends or family: religion. However, followers of the Lord Jesus Christ cannot shy away from these two difficult conversations, and there is a growing need for Presbyterian and Reformed Christians to find ways to faithfully live out their faith in the political realm.

On March 1 and 2, the PCAs Ministry to State and The Institute on Religion and Democracy co-hosted the Presbyterian and Reformed Public Theology Conference at the Church of the Resurrection (ACNA) in Washington, D.C. The terms public theology” and political theology” are often used interchangeably, but while public theology includes a theology of politics, it also encompasses theological reflection on institutions and society more broadly, not merely political theory or the relationship between church and state.

The idea was spawned over lunch between two friends: Will Stockdale of Ministry to State and Mark Tooley, president of IRD. Stockdale was discussing the rising interest in public theology and the need for Presbyterian and Reformed Christians to play a role in those conversations. Tooley replied, Well, why dont we do something!,” and the ball was rolling. The IRD is an ecumenical organization, and Stockdale highlights the need for Christians to work together for the common good across denominational lines where possible. He believes that the various Christian advocacy and policy groups serving in D.C. need not be warring factions but can be friends and allies as they seek to work with those in office and their staff.

Stockdale senses a growing desire among American Christians to have solid ground for thinking about what is the common good.”

Ministry to State primarily serves members and staff in Congress. They also minister to pastors and church members who are seeking a deeper theology of politics and those involved with other think tanks and advocacy groups in the D.C. area.  Stockdale senses a growing desire among American Christians to have solid ground for thinking about what is the common good.” Hence, the goal was for this conference to jumpstart these conversations more formally and engage with the spectrum of political thinking among Presbyterian and Reformed Christians.

Around 65 people attended the conference: a mix of students, pastors, think tank members, lawyers, and other interested individuals.

The conference began with opening remarks from Porter Harlow, founding pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Burke (PCA) and adjunct professor at George Mason Universitys Schar School of Policy and Government. Harlow drew on his experience as a lawyer working at the Pentagon and offered a perspective on serving in a secular political institution while being a Christian. Wrestling with how to be faithful in his career, Harlow was encouraged by Daniels service to King Nebuchadnezzar and John the Baptists instructions to the Roman soldiers and tax collectors. (Luke 3:12-14)

The next morning, Jennifer Patterson, director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., offered insights from her vantage point as both a scholar and a practitioner. Pattersons presentation covered themes such as the role of wisdom in public policy and how the biblical narrative provides the necessary grammar” for engaging in politics and society in a way that is faithful to the biblical narrative of the human condition. She encouraged those who were interested in public service to consider becoming policy area experts and finding ways to articulate specific policy recommendations which would contribute to real needs in our society.

Next, Dr. James Wood, professor at Redeemer University in Ontario, spoke on the historical and theological framing of a distinctly Reformed and Presbyterian public theology. In his talk, he discussed the consensus view on the relationship between church and state among the Divines at the Westminster Assembly. Wood explained that, at the time of the Assembly, Reformed theologians believed in the distinction between church and state but would reject the idea that the two have no relationship to one another. Acknowledging the American revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Wood went on to discuss how American Presbyterians may sometimes overstate the intention of those revisions and drew upon the work of Charles Hodge to argue that a strictly secularist and separatist” view of church-state relations is not entailed in the American revisions.

Following wood, Jake Meador, founder and editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy, began his address by acknowledging that for the last decade there has been an escalating sense that American social and political life is deteriorating. Meador put it vividly when he said, it can feel as if there has almost been a stake driven through the heart of the Republic.” He went on to discuss three rival visions for the path ahead before offering an fourth alternative vision, drawing examples from the life and work of the Reformer Martin Bucer.

The lectures continued with Dr. Scott Redd, president and Stephen B. Elmer Professor of Old Testament at RTS, Washington, D.C. Redd sketched out a Reformed case for religious liberty, contending that that there are, Biblical principles and patterns that would support the notion of religious liberty even if the notion itself is somewhat anachronistic in the biblical discourse.” Redd walked through themes such as the call for true and heartfelt belief, as opposed to merely outward conformity, and the use of persuasion, not coercion, towards wisdom in the book of Proverbs.

Finally, there was a panel discussion with more questions and answers from the attendees. The panel was moderated by Dr. Paul Marshall, chairman of the board at IRD and a Professor at Baylor University.

One attendee, a congressional staff person and a member of a PCA church, was encouraged by the variety of attendees and excited to see so many D.C. folks interested in public theology. One of his takeaways was the idea that the church is called to give a voice to broad Christian principles for engaging in political life, while those in office are called to wisdom in applying those principles in concrete policy. He hopes younger professionals and staffers will make it a point to come to conferences like this in the future.

Ministry to State, encouraged by the success of this recent conference, is already planning more for the future.

If youd like to hear the audio recordings of the conference, you can find many of them on Ministry to States podcast The Statement. Video from the event is available on the IRD’s Juicy Ecumenism website.

Scroll to Top