Is Christian Faith a Private Matter?

In a remarkable turn of events, both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush recently came to the defense of their political arch-rival Donald Trump when Pope Francis called into question Trump's Christian commitments. The Pope, apparently, has no business calling out anyone on their faith, because faith is a private matter, something that is between an individual and God. Bush spoke for many when he said: "I think his Christianity is between he and his creator - don't think we need to discuss that."

Part of Rubio's and Bush's defense stems from the desire to give politicians as free a hand as possible in determining the course of America's future. Who wants an inconvenient Christian teaching, like the forgiveness of wrongdoing or the command to love one's enemies, to get in the way of exercising America's might or realizing America's exceptional destiny? As the evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University (and an endorser of Donald Trump), put it to CNN, "Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country." Christian faith belongs in the privacy of the home and the confines of the church sanctuary. It has nothing to do with how economic, environmental, or military policies are decided. It's all very convenient because it means that political leaders, while professing to be Christian, can act as practical atheists. They can, upon entering the political realm, act as if their faith is irrelevant.

What sort of faith is that? Jeb Bush gave one clear answer: it is the kind of faith that is nobody else's business. Though Bush has publicly wondered about the authenticity of Trump's claims to be a Christian, more recently he has said that he won't question someone else's faith because "I honestly believe that's a relationship you have with your creator." This is a position that has widespread sympathy, even among non-Christians, because it is easy to appreciate how scary and uncivil our world would become if everyone made it his or her business to cast judgment on the authenticity of the lives of others.

Scripture says, "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged" (Matthew 7:1-2). It is tempting to read this passage as recommending the withholding of judgment altogether, and therefore as an endorsement of the privacy of faith. This is a mistake. What the passage really intends is to put a stop to hypocrisy, which is why it continues, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" (7:3) To be Christian, or anything else for that matter, people must make judgments about what is good or bad, praiseworthy or meriting condemnation. The question is whether we will be hypocrites in our judgments. When people are hypocrites they cease to be humble and merciful, unable to appreciate that they make mistakes and need to do better.

When people believe that faith cannot be called into question, they reduce faith to a matter of personal convenience. This is the perfect faith for a consumer society, because it is the faith of people who believe everything should be available on the terms of their own choosing. But this is precisely not what scripture allows people to affirm. Faith is a matter of discipleship, which is to say it is a matter of being taught to live into the ways of love for others. It is about being accountable to Jesus as the one who shows people what love looks like in the diverse contexts of our shared life together. It is noteworthy that Jesus' teaching was not confined to the private spaces of home and the temple. They happened and were realized in the marketplace and in agricultural fields. People with political power worried about his influence.

Though faith clearly is a personal matter, something to be worked out in fear and trembling, it is a mistake to believe that faith is a private matter. Why? Because when faith is reduced to the private domains of life it ceases to have public and broadly interpersonal effect. The test of Christian faith is not what people individually choose or want. The only real test is the test of love. Jesus put it plainly when he told his followers to love others as he loved them. Love is the crucial thing because love is the power that nurtures relationships, reconciles divisions, and heals the world. As such it must have political, social, and economic effect.

Jesus does not call people to the cozy confines of the home or church. He calls them to go out into the world to share love rather than hate, and to practice humility and mercy rather than arrogance and belligerence. Faith is a personal and a public thing. It is the kind of thing that can be judged by the kind and quality of its fruit, which is why Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). If love is absent, someone other than Jesus is being followed.

There is no more decisive refutation of a private, apolitical faith than John's own words in scripture: "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:20). Christian faith is not reducible to the relationship between an individual person and his or her God. It is a relationship that grows, and is shown to be true or false, in the love people show to each other.

Norman Wirzba is Professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School and the author of Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity (HarperOne).