What would Newbigin have said if he’d been invited to that White House dinner?

Last week, President Donald Trump hosted a White House reception for 100 Evangelical leaders, including such figures as Paula White, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Darrell Scott, Robert Jeffress, Eric Metaxas, Ralph Reed, and Tony Perkins.

The president was lavish in his praise for those leaders who had supported his presidency. And he was equally lavish in his self-praise:

“We’re here this evening to celebrate America’s heritage of faith, family, and freedom. As you know, in recent years, the government tried to undermine religious freedom. But the attacks on communities of faith are over. … The support you’ve given me has been incredible. But I really don’t feel guilty because I have given you a lot back, just about everything I promised. And as one of our great pastors just said, ‘Actually, you’ve given us much more, sir, than you promised.’ And I think that’s true, in many respects.”

It seems the Evangelical leaders present thought it was true too.

During the dinner, Florida pastor and Trump’s “closest spiritual adviser” Paula White presented the president with a Bible, “signed by over a hundred Christians, Evangelicals that love you, pray for you,” and inscribed with the following message:

“First Lady and President, you are in our prayers always. Thank you for your courageous and bold stand for religious liberty, and for your timeless service to all Americans. We appreciate the price that you have paid to walk in the high calling. History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.”

But the president wanted more than a nice inscription in a Bible he probably won’t read. He wanted a quid pro quo. In private remarks caught on tape he is heard saying,

“I just ask you to go out and make sure all you people vote. Because if they don’t we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time because then it just gets to be one election — you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”

Michael Horton, writing for Christianity Today was aghast:

“…the church does not preach the gospel at the pleasure of any administration or decline to preach it at another administration’s displeasure. We preach at Christ’s pleasure. And we don’t make his policies but communicate them. It’s not when we’re fed to lions that we lose everything; it’s when we preach another gospel.”

As I read these reports I was left wishing Bishop Lesslie Newbigin was still alive. I started wondering what he would have said if he’d been invited to that White House dinner.


Calling Out the Folly of Courting Political Patrons

Back in the 80s, as the Moral Majority was gaining ascendancy, Newbigin wrote the following:

“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, … it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. … It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known and experienced.”

That’s classic late-period Newbigin. After a lifetime of service as a missionary bishop in India, he retired to the UK, only to discover the church flirting with two deathly options: (a) withdrawal to the margins as a kind of charitable organization, or (b) attempts to co-opt the political process to enforce Christian forms of morality on others. He rejected both.

He believed the local church was the hope of humanity. But not as some esoteric religious community at the edges of society:

“The kingship of God, present in Jesus, concerns the whole of human life in its public as well as its private aspects. There is no basis in scripture for the withdrawal of the public aspect of human life from that obedience which the disciple owes to the Lord. The question therefore is not: ‘What grounds can be shown for Christian involvement in public life?’ It is: ‘What grounds can be shown for the proposal to withdraw from the rule of Christ in the public aspects of our human living?’ The answer is: ‘None’.”

He believed the church should lean in to society. It should critique culture and address politics, but in a new way.

Christopher Wright says of Newbigin, “[his] approach is to seek to affirm everything we can in culture and critique/discern the marks of sin, selfishness and idolatry we find in culture.”

If I’ve read him accurately, I think there’s (at least) four things he might have said if the invitation to the White House had appeared in his mailbox:


1. We need to recover an eschatology that recognises that our political or religious activity cannot establish the kingdom of God.

It is Christ who will usher in the kingdom, not our political wheelings and dealings. And an unshakable trust in Christ’s return frees us from the anxiety that the wrong president will destroy everything. As Michael Horton writes, “Anyone who believes, much less preaches, that evangelical Christians are ‘one election away from losing everything’ in November has forgotten how to sing the psalmist’s warning, ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save’ (Ps. 146:3).”


2. We need to rediscover the freedom of the Christian life, based in the grace of Jesus;

Newbigin’s fear was that the moralizing crusades of Mary Whitehouse in the UK and Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell in the US, would lead the church into legalism, fear and social control. He believed such legalism wouldn’t have any effect on Western society.

Instead, he wanted churches to mobilize themselves in a mission of offering to a dying culture what he called a new “fiduciary framework”, an interpretive vision, akin to the great intuitive patterns of scientific theory or movements in art, within which society and culture could be shaped afresh. Such a framework, he said, should be grounded in the teaching and example of Jesus.

Christians need to believe “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36). We need to have no fear of losing elections, of Democrats or Marxists or feminists or anyone else we’re being encouraged to fear. Remember, Christ has come that we may have life, and have it to the full (Jn 10:10), and our living of such a full and free life demonstrates the beauty of our message.


3. We must ‘declericalize’ the church and rediscover the importance of so-called lay leaders.

This is important. The assumption being made at that White House reception seems to have been that clerics can deliver the desired outcome by striking deals with their preferred political leaders. But Newbigin disclaimed any intention of setting up a “nostalgic haven”.

His vision was that the church should raise up godly Christians to infiltrate every aspect of society, to dialogue constructively, and work for a kind of Augustinian conversion of our culture. That’s something clergy alone can’t deliver. It requires missional artists, business people, economists, health professionals, teachers, lawyers, and, yes, politicians, to move beyond Marxism and old-style capitalism and to wrestle with the problems confronting modern life: the tackling of world poverty, the shaping of new patterns of work and society, the reconciliation of liberty with authority or control, the healing of the great divides between individualism and community, the left and right, the secular and spiritual.

When one clergyman heard this he accused Newbigin of attempting to eliminate the clergy, to which the bishop replied, “No such thing! I’m trying to eliminate the laity.”

He wanted to ordain everyone to their secular duty as the work of God.


4. We must never abandon the belief that mission must proceed from a dynamic, worshipping community of faith and not merely from innovation or new methods and techniques.

The mission of God’s people is not to secure the White House. It’s to alert others to the universal reign of God through Christ. And the best hermeneutic of the gospel is a community of women and men who truly believe it and live by it.



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23 thoughts on “What would Newbigin have said if he’d been invited to that White House dinner?

  1. Well said Mike! I’m with you and Newbigin 100% on this.

    1. Thanks Alistair. Nice to hear from you again.

  2. This a great post Mike! Makes me think again of Kreider’s “Patient Ferment” idea… we need to just plod away, doing the work of the Gospel, knowing that King Jesus has everything in hand.

    And resist the temptation to buy into the politics and culture wars in the way we’re told we should.

  3. It seems you’al are doing the same thing: you are leveraging Newbigin for securing a different White House. He’d had said you’al are just as attached to Christendom and to stop using him as well for your agenda. Heck, you really won’t know what he would have said any more than what Jesus would have said IF invited. And before you’al comment on me, you should read about my, my work, and what I believe. Assumptions. Not a good place to start.

    1. (1) Not leveraging Newbigin to secure a different White House. (2) Not attached to Christendom. (3) Not foisting my agenda onto Lesslie Newbigin, because the books I quoted from actually deal with the church’s relationship to political power and it’s contribution to cultural and social change. So I’m quoting him on the very topic he was addressing.

    2. I agree. I seen the same thing. We need to look inward at what motivates our hearts. Pot calling the kettle black.

      1. I’m confused. Are you saying I’m the pot calling the kettle black?? I’m not cosying up to the president. Neither am I trying “secure a different White House”. I’m neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I’m not even an American. And neither was Lesslie Newbigin. Quoting Newbigin’s vision for the Western church calls us to anchor what we do in Christ’s teaching and example.

        1. these guys are so immersed in Christendom, they can’t see the (only/better) way of Christ. you must be talking power, Mike.

        2. Yes I’m saying just that Michael. Why would you even pose the question what would Newbigin would think.?How do you know for sure what was said? Where you there? Or are you trusting a assumed reliable source. I can’t see how your post about President Trump helps Christians or this country of America. Yes I am very much aware you are not from America. I also know who Newbigin is. Michael is just my opinion to your post,don’t take it as a personal attack on your character brother. I disagree with what you posted and I think of your going to put it out there you can expect others to disagree. As a side note. This President has done more for this country than any other president has in all the years I have been voting. I’m so happy we don’t have Obama.

          Blessings Michael

          1. Brother, my doctoral research included studies in Newbigin’s work. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea what he was addressing and it’s exactly the situation i refer to in my post. When you say it’s okay to disagree with what I wrote, that’s true. But you haven’t posed a point of disagreement. You haven’t shown me my interpretation of Newbigin is incorrect in any way. You’ve just told me I have no right to quote him in this situation, which I think is plainly wrong. I suspect you haven’t read him in much depth. And I’m afraid your views on Obama are irrelevant in this instance.

  4. Thank you for addressing this Mike. Your encouragement to trust Christ instead of princes is much appreciated. Keep up the great work!

  5. Brilliant Frosty!! Keep them coming.

  6. I am with Trump here. If the Children of the Lie regain Congress it will be a setback for not only religious freedom, but the cause of Christians in America. We will see the advancement of the evil one. God has given this country a broken man to stand in the gap and advance the Kingdom. God bless Donald Trump. Christians who persecute him and on the wrong side of the movement of the Spirit.

    1. Would it be possible for you to supply some actual examples of exactly how Mr Trump has guaranteed religious freedom, or ensured protections for the cause of Christ?

      1. Here are some examples…
        1. The nomination of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court will impact Constitutional religious liberty for the next 30 years based on their track records on these issues as lower court judges..
        2. In May 2017, Trump signed an executive order enhancing religious freedom (see Little Sisters of the Poor and Obamacare mandates).
        3. In October 2017, the Department of Justice issued twenty principles of religious liberty to guide the Administration’s litigation strategy.
        4. In January 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) formed a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, to more effectively enforce existing laws protecting rights of conscience and religious freedom.
        5. The President has reversed an Obama administration policy which denied disaster aid to houses of worship for them to respond to natural disasters.
        6. Trump reinstated and expanded the Mexico City Policy which prevents 9 Billion USD in foreign aid from funding the abortion industry and its advocates.

        I could go on, but I think I made my point.

        1. Thanks. I’m gonna have to google a bunch of them to figure out what they actually mean. But I appreciate you listing them here.

  7. Thanks Mike, Steady and true with Jesus at the helm.

  8. Michael I am going to leave my view with you. I suggest you pray about it as will I. I don’t see any value in debating this further. Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts

    1. But you didn’t share any actual thoughts, Tom. You just questioned whether quoting Newbigin was apropos the situation with the White House dinner and whether my references to his work were from a reliable source. Questioning whether someone can even say something isn’t a counter argument. So when you say you see no value in “debating” this further, you overlook the fact that we haven’t actually been having a debate. Other than the fact that you don’t like President Obama, I have no idea what you think of Newbigin’s vision for engaging Western society and culture with the teachings of Christ.

  9. “you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.”
    I reckon Newbigin might applaud that notion. Set us free, Don! Return us to our Pilgrimage, the mission awaits!

  10. …I’m trying to eliminate the laity.” – I agree, this is how God wants to heavenize the earth. Start by loving your neighbor nextdoor, yes the one who everyone else hates!

  11. Mike Frost, I just found out about Mr. Newbigin today and came across this article while researching. Thank you for this thought provoking article that I see flew completely over some of the commenters heads (cognitive dissonance?).

    It was a wonderful read and I will bookmark this article and apply it to my and family’s lives. God Bless you man of God!

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