Transcript: Interview with Tom Ascol on Christian Nationalism

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The following is a rough transcript of the Christ Over All interview with Tom Ascol, lightly edited for clarity and concision. For an explainer to the format of this month, and our affinity for Columbo, be sure to listen to the introductory podcast between David Schrock and Trent Hunter.

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David Schrock: Welcome to the Christ Over All podcast.

Tom Ascol: Thank you so much for having me on. I’m delighted to be here.

David Schrock: Yeah, it’s been a joy to be on your podcast a couple times and it’s a joy for us to welcome you to ours, and I look forward to talking about some important things today with the subject of Christian nationalism. And joining us for that conversation is Steve Wellum from Southern seminary.

Stephen Wellum: Great to be back again and to talk with Tom on these important matters.

Tom Ascol: Good to see you, Steve.

David Schrock: Absolutely. We’ve talked to guys like Mark David Hall and Kevin DeYoung, Doug Wilson, Andrew Walker, and others as well. So, we’re excited to think through some of these important things related to Christian nationalism.

And probably the place to begin is to go back to the beginning of this year. You had a national conference there with Founders in January and you had a pre-conference related to Christian nationalism. And I’d love to ask, why did you do that? What led you guys to think this is something that we need to talk about? And maybe what is some of the fruit that has come from that pre-conference?

Tom Ascol: Well, in thinking through what we wanted to do with that opportunity—I guess it was last year, probably last spring making these plans and talking back and forth with Voddie Baucham and conversations he and I have been in with other people, this issue kept nibbling around the edges. And it seemed like something that was going to be a topic that wasn’t going to be ignored. You couldn’t ignore it. So, we thought, “Why not hit it straight up and address the issues”? We didn’t advertise it for anything other than Christian nationalism. We didn’t say pro, we didn’t say con. And it was hilarious before the conference ever took place.

I had people writing me, calling me, who couldn’t believe that I’d sold out to Christian nationalism, and then people calling me, writing me, couldn’t believe that I would attack Christian nationalism. And we hadn’t said a word. We just announced we’re going to have a conference on Christian nationalism. So, that’s been pretty much indicative of how this debate has gone so often, at least in the social media arenas.

David Schrock: Yeah, that just reveals how much of a lightning rod it is, and it continues to be that way. It seems like it’s even picked up steam in 2023. Conversations going on social media, it seems at times there’s more heat than light. Thinking about that, Steve, as you think about this, maybe on a scale of 1 to 10, where do you place this? How important is this discussion?

Stephen Wellum: Well, you have to rank in terms of importance in terms of eternal matters, gospel matters, and so on. Obviously, the preaching of the gospel, calling people to faith and repentance, seeing them grow in Christ is of primary importance. Yet, we live as Christians in the world, and we live in this particular context as we see a nation imploding around us, and we see much of our roots and so on being washed away. And Christians obviously are wanting to speak into that situation.

So, it’s important in that regard in terms of our Christian witness, how we live in the world, being salt and light. But we want to make sure that we don’t place this and make it equal with the very preaching of the gospel, right? It’s an outworking of Christians living in society and seeking to bear witness to Christ.

David Schrock: Yeah. And Tom, that’s certainly something I think, I really appreciate—I went back and listened to your “The Perils and Promises of Christian Nationalism,” the message that you gave at that pre-conference. And I thought was a very charitable, balanced, helpful approach to that. So, moving to defining Christian nationalism, you provide a number of different definitions in that message. And I’m wondering if you could just walk us through a little bit of what some of those definitions are that are out there and the definition that you came to as you looked at both some of the promises and the perils with respect to Christian nationalism?

Tom Ascol: Yeah, well that’s part of the difficulty in this debate—that there are so many definitions. And when a person will attack it and get some pushback, they’ll say, “That’s not what I meant.” And when someone advocates it and gets pushback, “They’ll say that’s not what I meant.” And I found definitions—in fact, I think I gave them in that talk—almost from A to Z on what is meant by this.

Kristen Du Mez says that it’s “belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such.” Well, okay. If that’s it, then I’m not that. America’s not God’s chosen nation. There’s a United Methodist Church historical researcher by the name of David Scott, and he says this is what it is: “American Christian nationalism tries to define the United States as a native, white, Protestant nation and to exclude all others—Catholics, African Americans, indigenous peoples, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, et cetera.” I’m not that. There may be people like that. I don’t know them. They’re not in my circles, certainly. And Michael Horton—Michael Horton says, “Christian nationalism is a threat to Christianity.” I’ve got a great deal of respect for Michael Horton, but he goes on to say, “Patriotism is saying that America, or whatever your country, is special to you. I think nationalism is saying America is special to God. It’s part of his plan, not just as Providence, but part of the outworking of almost a redemptive history. America’s a redeemer nation.” Again, yeah, I’m against that. We do have some politicians saying some stupid things like that. So, we ought to grant it, but they’re not our theologians and I’m not going to get my theology from a politician.

One of the things that I settled on—I mean, Stephen Wolfe has his own definition and his book has been the big player right now because it’s been out there for a little over a year now. I don’t know if you guys have read it. It’s a dense book, heavy sledding. I appreciate the book because he’s done so much good work in retrieving Protestant political thought, things I’d never seen before and did not know existed. So, I benefited from the research of the book. I appreciate that. But he puts it like this, that Christian nationalism is “a totality of a national action consisting of civil laws, social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ.” Again, while I appreciate some of what he’s done in his book, I don’t appreciate the definition so much because he assumes things that he’s trying to define. It’s a Christian nation that—what makes a nation a Christian nation? That’s the big debate.

So, what I finally settled on was a definition used by a critic, one of the most outspoken critics, of Christian nationalism. This is Paul Miller’s definition. He’s a professor of practice of international affairs at Georgetown and has been involved in foreign service and such on the national scene. But he defines it this way: “Christian nationalism asserts that there is something identifiable as an American nation distinct from other nations that American nationhood is and should remain defined by Christianity or Christian cultural norms and that the American people and their government should actively work to defend, sustain, and cultivate America’s Christian culture, heritage, and values.”

So that’s his criticism. And I said, “Okay, I’ll take that definition and run with it.” And I affirm the things that he’s concerned about in that definition. America’s a distinct Christian nation—yes! We’ve got a political system right now that seems like they want to erase that by destroying our borders. But yeah, I think definitely I would say that. A second part of his definition is that “America is a nation that’s defined by Christian cultural norms and should remain that way.” Again, I say, “Amen.” You guys have talked to Mark David Hall. His book that he wrote, Did America Have a Christian Founding? is a powerful book just in terms of the research and the argumentation based upon the documents. I learned in that book that Thomas Jefferson wanted the national seal to be a picture of Pharaoh and the chariot in the middle of the Red Sea as the waters were coming over and destroying him. That’s a deist. We need more deists like that. Give me deists like that today. I would take them over a lot of people who call themselves Christians.

So yeah, I would say, “Amen.” We definitely are a nation that’s been defined by Christian cultural norms and we should remain, or I would love to see us return, that way. And there’s all kinds of indications through our history. It’s just in the record. It’s in the legal record of documents. Like Supreme Court Justice David Brewer said in 1892 in a case of the Church of the Holy Trinity v. the United States. This is the Supreme Court Justice, Chief Justice—I think he’s the chief justice. Maybe he’s not, but anyway, Supreme Court Justice. “Christianity, general Christianity is and always has been a part of the common law, not Christianity with an established church, but Christianity with liberty of conscience to all men.” Again, I would say, “Amen” to that.

The third part of Miller’s definition is that individual Americans in the United States government should work to defend and promote “American Christian culture, heritage, and values.” Again, I would say, “Amen.” That doesn’t necessitate the government taking over the church or dictating to the church. It’s recognizing that there is such a thing as values, culture, and heritage that extends from Christianity, and that a nation that was founded on that should appreciate that and protect that. And I would say, “Amen.” So I take his definition as a critic and say, “Yeah, this is a debate worth having.”

David Schrock: Yeah, that’s good. That’s helpful. And it’s helpful to think about that context of someone who is opposing that when he’s defining it in that way. Steve, you hear that definition, what are your thoughts?

Stephen Wellum: Yeah, I think it’s a very helpful definition. Of course, it would still have to be fleshed out a bit. So, what does it mean for this nation to uphold the values, tradition, culture? Of course, that would get into specifics. Would that mean the establishment of blasphemy laws or something like that? You’d have to spell that out in terms of what those values would be. Usually we would tie that probably—we’ll let Tom address this—but, tie it back to some kind of creation order and some kind of moral law, natural law kind of thing, not an establishment of religion, but values could be expanded.

So, you’d have to flesh that out. But I think it’s speaking of the church’s influence on the culture and that, as we’ve had in this nation a majority of people who have wanted Christian values and Christian morality and Christian laws to be brought to bear on how the government runs and how our nation runs, we speak of that Christian influence. Always the hesitation is when you use the adjective “Christian”, are you confusing it with the church? And of course, we don’t want to do that. But the nation that is influenced by Christianity and embraces moral values and virtues that are Christian. What else would we want a nation to uphold other than what is right and good according to God’s standard.

So, I think that definition is helpful, and some of the other ones that Tom mentioned are not helpful, right? So, we wouldn’t embrace that.

David Schrock: Yeah, I think we would fall in the same place where you just laid your cards on the table, Tom, to say that we would deny anything that would be identifying America as God’s chosen people or excluding Catholics or African Americans or anything like that, but to affirm the fact that there is something historical—with a historical record, legal record, all the rest—that there’s something unique about America in the way that Christianity has influenced the culture that is there.

So, I’d be curious to know as a pastor and as someone who has had some interaction with Ron DeSantis there—today we’re recording one day before the hurricane came through last year, and I know there was some time that you spent with him as he came to Cape Coral and Fort Myers there. What are some things that you have done as a pastor, or what would you do to encourage pastors regarding this idea of working to defend or to embrace a Christian culture? What have you done in your teaching? What have you done outside of the local church that you recommend to others as well?

Tom Ascol: Well, I don’t think you can be faithful to Christ in contemporary America without addressing some of the things that are prominent, not only culturally, morally, but also politically.

Because there are so many emphases coming from the political arena that are just grossly immoral and destructive to people. So, when you have a president who flies the LGBTQ flag on the White House and talks about how these folks who have identified themselves with this ideology are to be promoted and to be welcomed and that this is a right and good thing, I don’t think you can stay silent about that.

So, what do we do practically? Well, I do what I’ve been doing throughout I forget how many administrations it is now. We pray regularly, almost every week for President Biden, the President of the United States, and for our governor. We pray for our mayor, locally, and we’ll pray for other political leaders around the world. We prayed for Putin, Zelensky, and the different nations. We’ve probably got, I don’t know, 15 to 20 different nationalities represented in our church. So we’ll pray for those who are in authority politically.

I write letters. We’ve had people that have been involved in local school boards and different types of opportunities or settings where they can go and speak. I’ve done that publicly. I’ve been at abortion clinics and preached, and I’ve been to city council meetings and things like that. Not going there to make a scene, but going to make a statement and being unapologetic about the statement, and reminding folks that there’s a God in heaven and that one day they’re going to give an account to him because he’s the one who appointed them to their jobs. And, “Well, I’m not a Christian.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian. I’m just talking to you about reality and you may not agree with that or see it, but I’m just trying to help you know that this is really true.

Beyond that, I’m not a social media activist at all, but I do use Twitter. I don’t basically do anything else and try to use it as a one-way communication tool. But I follow different politicians that I appreciate. One of them is Ted Cruz, senator from Texas, my home state. And I don’t remember now when it was—it was a few weeks ago or something—but it just came across my screen—I wasn’t looking for it—when Uganda passed their law about criminalizing aggressive homosexuality, as they said it. He just blew a gasket. “This is atrocious. This is a horrific law. There’s nothing right or just about anything that would punish homosexuality.” So, I responded to him kind of off the cuff. I just cited a law from Leviticus and said take it up with God. God had a nation one time and he told them to punish those who practice homosexuality. So, you can’t make that categorical universal statement. You just can’t do it. So, he and I had a little back and forth here, and I reached out to him privately. I wasn’t able to get any kind of response, but I don’t mind doing it.

I did the same thing with president Trump. I commended him when he was president and he came out right toward the end of his administration against CRT. I appreciated that about him. He actually retweeted me one time. That was an interesting few days when that happened. But then later, after that, he came out and said, “I’m the most pro-LGBTQ president in the history of this nation.” And I publicly said, “With all due respect, Mr. President, this is vile. This is wrong. You need to repent.”

So, that’s not a big deal, and social media— I don’t even know if it’s real all the time. But where we have opportunity to speak, we ought to be willing to speak. I think about John the Baptist who said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). What’s he doing? He’s just telling him the truth. He’s not picking a fight. He’s just saying that you’re flaunting something that is contrary to the very law of the God before whom you will stand and give an account one day. And I see that as a matter of love and stewardship to do that and not to say, “Oh, that’s a political issue. That’s off limits.” There’s nothing off limits for the Lord Jesus Christ, and we his people need to be prepared to acknowledge that and speak when given the opportunity.

David Schrock: Yeah, we would certainly agree with that, as certainly even Christ Over All exists to be able to proclaim that Christ is Lord over all. All things are under his feet, including everything you just included there.

Tom, I’m curious. You had mentioned—I can’t remember if it was a podcast later on—something that came across I think all of our Twitter feeds a couple months back from Adrian Rogers. Adrian Rogers was preaching and just talking about the responsibility of a Christian citizen. And I’m just curious, how did we get to a place where you have that message today where he would be kind of lauded or decried as this great Christian nationalist? How do we get that from a preacher who is doing that?

And even I think some things that you’ve done. And I’ve done some of those similar things as well along the way. But how do we get to that? To some pastors, some Christians who would say today, “Politics is off limits. We shouldn’t be talking about it.” What has happened?

Tom Ascol: Boy, that’s a great question.

I don’t have any definitive answer on that, but I do think that, as an evangelical community in America, we have been well discipled by the world. More so than we know. That has infiltrated areas of our thinking that 50 years ago wouldn’t have been as problematic because there was more of the residue of a Christian understanding of reality. And because we were trained and our sensitivities were relaxed on just what the world system is—that the world system really is an enemy and we can’t let our guard down—we did let our guard down and it didn’t affect us directly as much as it does now.

So now we’re in a day when you’ve got the political system and culture and entertainment that’s just coming in like a tsunami and telling us that you must affirm whatever an individual claims his or her, or “zer”—or whatever the pronouns are—identity. And that if you don’t, then you’re literally killing them. You’re literally showing violence to them.

And I think that some pastors just lost their voice because they never cultivated what it meant to critique the culture the way we should have been critiquing it all the way through. And I have to speak for myself. I’m playing catchup. I feel so far behind on political theology and not thinking as carefully about these matters as we should.

Free church, free state. That’s what I learned. That’s what I grew up with. That’s what I had confirmed in all my training for pastoral ministry. And I can still affirm that as an ideal, but we are so far away from that ideal that what we’re seeing is not a free state, and there’s no free state in sense of being neutral; that neutrality is a myth.

And I think as long as there were some cultural Christian vestiges, that the idea that that represented neutrality allowed us to just operate without thinking too deeply. And now that that switch has been flipped, and we’ve seen this is really antagonistic, we still have the memory muscle memory of, “But you don’t engage in politics. Politics is a dirty business and has no place in the church.” And I think there’s been an allergy to it.

Now, having said that, I do think there are a lot of guys, conservative Christians, that have just gone over the top. And, God and Country worship services like they do at First Baptist Dallas and other places, I just can’t tolerate that. And I think that is really bad news. And I think it is a compromise on the mission of the church. And the gospel gets wrapped in a flag, and when that happens, the gospel is always the one that disappears. And yeah, we need to abominate that. We need to reject that. But in rejecting that in the name of the separation of church and state, we must never cave in and think, “Okay, that means that there’s a separation of Christ and the state,” because there’s not. It’s Christ’s state. Everything belongs to Jesus Christ. So, we shouldn’t be ashamed to say what Christ says about anything.

Stephen Wellum: Following up on that, Tom, in terms of, we’ve lived off of a Christian heritage, Christian, in some sense, borrowed capital, right? We’ve had so much of Christian morality and virtue. As that disappeared, what would you recommend? People have to vote. All government legislates morality. So, what should we be encouraging Christians to say, “This is what the government is responsible to uphold.” If you’re talking to the president, Joe Biden, you have a meeting with him, and say, “Here are the moral values that we as Christians would say, President Biden, that you need to be upholding. You are under God. The state is not autonomous.” What kind of moral laws should they be enforcing? People get concerned with the Christian influence in Christian nation—that we’re enforcing Christian standards that would eliminate other people from this country type of thing.

So what advice are you giving to people to say, “Here’s the law of God that the government must follow,” versus say what we have in our churches? So, we’re distinguishing the role of the state from the role of church.

Tom Ascol: First of all, I tell our folks—and we started this earlier this year—we’ve got to pray. Because the borrowed capital you referred to—I’ve used the analogy that we’ve had massive deposits put into the moral bank of America through revival by God’s grace. I think that goes a long way to explain the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution. And we just have lived without revival now for a hundred plus years. I lived through the Jesus movement, and I’ll tip my hat to that. But it’s not what we read about historically and some of the great moves of God.

So every month, first Wednesday of the month, we pray and fast as a church for revival. And apart from that, there’s no hope for America. God’s got to rescue us. We’re so far gone. God’s got to do the work. So, we know that. We don’t want to forget that. But neither do we want to sit back and twiddle our thumbs and say, “We’ll just wait until next Wednesday, then we’ll pray.” It’s not that. We’ve got to do what we’re supposed to do. And I approach it from a couple of different angles, but maybe the one that’s resonated the most with people is, if you think about how the Bible instructs us regarding how we are to conduct ourselves in the political arena, which it’s most certainly does. Romans 13, 1 Peter 2—we have those verses trotted out to us in times when there’s uncertainty or the government’s made some mandates.

But when you think about the Old Testament, and even in the New Testament, the instructions, the expectations that are given to kings. What are king’s jobs? The king’s job is to punish what is evil and to reward what is good. Okay, well who’s the king in the United States? It’s not President Biden. It’s the citizens. We’re citizen kings. So, we have an opportunity and a responsibility in this democratic republic, or this constitutional republic, to do what we can to thwart evil and promote good. And we’re limited, but every citizen has the right to vote. Every citizen has the right to speak. Every citizen has a right within proper limitations of running for office. And we ought to seize that.

So, if I could get an audience with President Biden, I would immediately say to him:

Mr. President, you realize God has put you in this office and the Bible teaches me that I’m to respect you, I’m to honor you, I’m to obey you as you use the authority he’s given you to do what he’s called you to do. And I don’t think you understand what he’s called you to do because you’re promoting evil, and you’re actually spitting in the face of the one who put you in position and gave you the authority to carry out the job of punishing evil and rewarding good. And what you’re doing is you’re punishing good, and you’re rewarding evil. And before too long, you’re going to stand before this God, and you’re going to be held accountable for what you’ve done in this Oval Office. And you need a Savior. And I want to tell you about the Savior. Because you need to be rescued from your sin and you need to get right with your God, and then carry out your duties in the fear of God and recognize that he has prescribed to civil authorities the responsibility to promote good and to resist evil or to punish evil. He’s given you a sword for that purpose.

Now when you get into which laws, I can more quickly readily debate and argue for the second table laws or those that arise from natural law. And I think that’s a fruitful arena to have the debate in. The first table of the law—my Baptist instincts get pretty nervous pretty quick about that. And I don’t think that is what God has called the civil magistrate to legislate or to monitor or to promote or to put down.

But most certainly, we need to acknowledge that there are elements that go right to the first table that the civil authority should be responsible to guard and protect as we have seen in the history of this country with things like polygamy that was outlawed; with things like blue laws. I still can remember as a kid, that everything was shut down on Sunday. Was that wrong? I don’t think so. Because even in the Constitution, I forget now exactly where it is, but there’s a reference to the President has the duty to sign a bill I think, or something, in so many days excluding Sunday. Oh, okay. Why is that in there? That’s Christian influence. That’s why that’s in there. That’s why it’s not Saturday or Friday.

So, with that, that’s where the debate needs to be held. It needs to be held at a high level. How do we do that? I’m not asking for a theocracy at all. I think that would be a disaster because we’re just not capable of doing, of carrying that out properly. But a government that is ruling in the fear of the Lord, give me that every day.

David Schrock: Yeah. I think you said a couple of things there that are worth drawing out. I think one, just the debates that we’re having today, it seems to be because there hasn’t been great attention to some of these matters, either in seminary or just the focus of what we need to be learning. You mentioned Stephen Wolfe’s book, and one of the things that he does is to go back to a Protestant tradition that helps us to think through some of these matters that maybe we have just taken for granted. Certainly those who were at the founding of our country had been influenced by that way of thinking and put those things into what was instantiated in the Constitution and the rest, and we have been living off of borrowed capital.

So, it seems as though there is a way in which these things are being brought back up. And I wonder—we talk about “cage stage” Calvinism, but there’s almost a kind of cage stage political theology because different people are working with different things within various traditions. And then, because we haven’t come to an agreed position, we haven’t been thinking about it for a long period of time, that’s where a lot of the heat is.

It’s interesting, last week, listening to James White. He spoke at the G3 conference, and he said that he wrote a support letter, so to speak—support letter is the wrong word— advocating for some Navy SEALs who came to him looking for an exemption with the mandate of a vaccine. And he said that he began with the Lordship of Christ. And very candidly said, 10 years ago, that’s not where he would have begun. But because of where things have come today, putting that at the first foremost, thinking about the Lordship of Christ, seems to be something that he has recovered.

Tom, you mentioned some of the things you’ve been growing in. I think the need for more political theology which is what the Institute of Public Theology is doing. It seems that’s one of the reasons why this debate is so heated is because we haven’t been well schooled in this. Certainly, there are those who have thought about this. Theonomy tradition is an area that has thought about this. Francis Schaeffer has thought about these things and helped many. But there’s been, it seems, some missing pieces along the way.

So, I bring all that together to ask this question, because I know you’ve mentioned just going back and reading some early Baptists. Who were some of the early Baptists that would help us to think about these things, and what did they say?

Tom Ascol: Yeah, Andrew Fuller is one. I spent a little time studying him, and he’s got a couple of really good sermons that make people nervous today. We’ve republished one of them on the Founder’s website. And he just argues, “Yeah, we’ve got to recognize that a love for our country is consistent with a love for Christ; that these things are not antithetical.

J. C. Ryle’s got this great quote that I’ve used a lot—that if a man who’s only half awake or not paying attention to what’s going on in the culture of his nation and doesn’t care, “he’s a poor style patriot and not a very good Christian.” This is J. C. Ryle.

John Gill. I mean John Gill has in his Body of Divinity statements that the magistrate is to not only enforce the second table of the law, but also the first table of the law. And that’s John Gill. Say what you want to about John Gill, but you can’t accuse him of not being a Baptist. You know what I mean? He was Mr. Baptist. And again, I read that and it makes me a little nervous, but I want to understand what he was saying. I want to understand why he said it. And why he could say it without any fear that he was giving up those things that make us Baptists, the distinctives that I’ve come to know and love.

So, I don’t pretend that I’ve figured all that out, but it’s worth listening to. It’s worth considering. Your comparison of cage state Calvinism I think is exactly right. I’ve thought about that a little bit too. I remember in some of those early days back in the eighties when you could put all the Calvinists in the SBC in a phone booth. Whenever we would get out and talk about things, people would be angry and some of the acrimony back and forth—and our side as well as the anti-Calvinist side—we’re all guilty of it. But the arguments were based on ignorance. And I see that a lot. I see some of the guys that are really advocating Christian nationalism trying to stake out positions that I don’t believe they thought through all the implications of all the positions they’re trying to stake out.

I think some of it—not all of it, and there’s some really good thinkers, and I appreciate them—but I think some of it’s reactionary. They see drag queen story hour. So, they’re thinking, “What’s better than that? This is better than that.” Boom. Let’s do that. And they’re not thinking, “Okay, what are the unintended consequences of that position?”

But then I have to confess, on the other side, I’ve seen it even worse where there’s folks that are shooting at Christian nationalism, and I don’t think they could tell you what it is if their life depended on it. They’ve got one of these definitions that’s been hurled around, but it’s not what the folks they’re shooting at actually mean when they’re advocating it, using that language.

So I’ve told my wife and church more than once, when I read this stuff, it’s like I’m back in junior high school watching a food fight. It’s just so immature, so unproductive. And I’d love to get these guys in a room for about 15 minutes and just say, “Look, okay, we’re Christian brothers here. We’re not going to act like this. We’re going to remember we have a savior and remember that just because you have a strong opinion, it doesn’t give you a license not to be Christian. So let’s talk now about substantive issues.” I’ve actually proposed that to a couple of guys, but nothing’s gotten off the ground yet, but I would applaud that if we could do it.

Stephen Wellum: I wonder Tom—this could be a long discussion, but you’ve suggested that the second table of the law is that which the government should be upholding and that would even be tied to issues of natural law and so on. What about if we do then practically think of that? So, we uphold the sanctity of marriage, right? We uphold heterosexual marriage. We are against obviously the command to commit adultery and so on. What about how we go about thinking of upholding that and also penalizing violation of that in terms of laws, penalties, that kind of thing. That’s an issue that comes up in terms of appealing to Christian morality and values.

Do we go to the Old Testament to draw the penalties of it? Do we not? Do we leave it up to the state? Any thoughts on that if we’re going to be using the second table of the law?

Tom Ascol: Yeah, well there’s a movement today and they take the title—in a way that I think is an oxymoron, but they do it anyway. They call themselves general equity theonomists.

And back in my day, whenever I was just learning about theonomy in the eighties and trying to understand it, you could either believe in general equity of the Old Testament civil law, or you could be a theonomist. Those two things were like on the opposite side of the fence. And now you’ve got this general equity theonomist, and I’m looking at them and saying, “Pick one. what are you talking about?”

So, I’m a 1689 confession guy, and in the 1689 confession, it says that the civil laws of Israel are abrogated. They’re not binding on us in the new covenant, to which I say, “Amen.” But it adds, “except to the extent to which the general equity thereof can be gleaned and appreciated.” I forget the exact language.

So yeah, there’s real wisdom and we see righteousness embedded in some of the civil code given to Israel in the Old Testament. But if you just try to lift whole cloth the civil code and plant it again on a contemporary nation or any other nation, it’s going to be disastrous.

And I think it’s superficial because in redemptive history, God had a role for Israel to play. So, all of the ways that the civil arena was organized for Israel was in conjunction with its role in redemptive history as a covenant people of God. So that has to be factored in. When you factor that in, it immediately puts governors on some of this stuff about, “We’re just going to take this law and put it over here.” However, there’s some really wonderful insights. I mean, a parapet on the roof of your house. What is that? I think that that is an outworking of the righteousness in the sixth commandment that you don’t murder. So, somebody’s on top of your house. In those days, it’d be easy for someone to fall off, so you put a parapet around it. Does that mean we are requiring people to put fences on the roof today? No, that would be foolish. But there’s some real wisdom in putting a fence around a swimming pool. We can learn from that and apply general equity that we see in that law.

The penalties for those violations, I think, again, that’s debatable. I don’t think we have to stone the adulterer or the homosexual. I’m not opposed to sodomy laws. We used to have them. They’re on the books until just a few decades ago. And we either need to be willing to say—those who are nervous to be talking like this as Christians—we need to be willing to say, “Okay, that was unrighteous to have those laws on books back then.” Or, be open to the possibility that maybe it was right to do that and better than what we have today.

It’s not a question, as you said, Steve, of whether or not we’re going to have laws rooted in morality. All laws are rooted in morality. The question is which one? Which morality? Whose morality? The LGBTQ ideology? No, thank you. I’d much rather have our laws grounded in Christian morality, that which takes seriously the world that God has created, that Christ rules and reigns, and where he has told us not only what is right, but what’s good, what’s beautiful, what’s best for us.

So, I think those are debatable issues. What is the penalty for adultery? I don’t know, but I’m happy for there to be a penalty for adultery. I’m happy for those who have had adultery committed against them to see some protections from the law operate in their behalf. And again, we’re a long way from it, but I wish we were having those debates today.

David Schrock: Steve, would you add anything to that or say anything different than what Tom has said there?

Stephen Wellum: No, I think Tom is right. We can’t just go to Israel’s laws and just bring them over to the state. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel under the covenant, how it applies to them, what the state is today and so on. I think a good place is the second table of the law in terms of the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, private property, and so on. That’s rooted in creation, isn’t it? It’s rooted in natural law.

Thinking through the penalties would be difficult. We have to go to the entirety of Scripture and look at what is taught, and then actually see what could be brought into a society, with heart change and so on. But we do need to uphold what is right and good. You’d want to uphold all that is tied to marriage. I would even see putting into tax law type of thing benefits to encourage people to have families and children and helping people to have families, to encourage that versus discouraging it. So, even your tax laws reflect moral values and what you think is important. And that would be a great debate to have, wouldn’t it? Instead of now what we’re seeing with the whole dismantling of anything of biblical morality.

Tom Ascol: Yeah, I agree. I want to just mention—you guys probably know this—but Chuck Colson actually tried through his prison fellowship to see ways that we might reform our penal codes. You look at our prison systems. We have guys that are in prisons regularly preaching in our church, and I’ve gone in with them some. It’s tragic. It is tragic. If we could learn from Old Testament penal codes, we would have far fewer people incarcerated, and we would have a greater emphasis on restitution, which would be so beneficial across the board.Colston, I mean he actually experimented with it in some places in other countries, and I wish we were more willing to look into that.

Stephen Wellum: Yeah, if you go back and look at C. S. Lewis’s article from years ago, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” where he was going against the new wave in terms of just rehabilitation, incarcerating people, not actually having them do restitution, not treating them as image bearers who were responsible for their actions and needed to actually repay the person that they had sinned against and bring restitution instead of putting them in prison and so on.

That would bring a huge change to our society, and obviously criminals that need to be in prison, that’s a different story. But you would have a lot more wisdom there of following and treating people as responsible for their actions.

Tom Ascol: Amen.

David Schrock: So, if this is the conversation that needs to be had, to be thinking through some of these particular applications of the law when we think about how is it wisely applied in these ways and not taking a whole cloth, old covenant to application today, it seems like one of the things that is getting in the way of having that conversation is this term, “Christian nationalism.” Or terms, different definitions that are there.

For either one of you, how much agreement do we need to have on these things? Or is there a sense which the ideal might be to even have a moratorium on trying to define are you for or against Christian nationalism and say we need to just go back to the Scriptures to be able to think through this, and learn from our traditions, right? Certainly, we see things from Augustine to Aquinas to the Protestant Reformation to our Baptist heritage, and to be learning from these things and taking fewer shots at one another, recognizing that none of us are PhDs in these things. There are some, but as a whole, we need to grow in that. That can be far more effective and helpful than just continuing to spit back and forth at each other.

Any thoughts on that?

Tom Ascol: Yeah, I would say, “Amen” to that. And again, one of the joys of my life in pastoring the folks here in Cape Coral, Florida is that I’m able to have conversations with them who are living out in the real world where they’re being told they’re going to have to go through diversity, equity, inclusiveness training, where they’re being promised a C suite job if they’ll only identify themselves as bisexual, just things like that. So, they’re dealing with the downstream issues that really hit day to day. And that keeps me grounded some from just spit balling stuff back and forth because you’ve got real people whose lives are on the line here.

And I don’t care about the term “Christian nationalism.” It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. The issues are vitally important, and we need to be having debates about the issues, but I haven’t seen many productive ones yet.

Stephen Wellum: Yeah, I agree with that. The term itself is throwing people in all kinds of different directions. I think what we need to see is that we are the church. We need to be having Christ as Lord of every area of our life. We need to be having a salt and light effect in our society. And then really, we really need some practicality to this as Tom was saying. I mean, people have jobs. How do we help them in terms of influencing their particular job. We have to get Christians to think about when they vote, to make sure they do vote and they actually vote with Christian principles in mind instead of just voting for a person who promises something contrary to Christian morality and so on.

And actually to get the church to unite. We agree on much more than I think we disagree. And if we separate from one another, that’s not going to help. We need to as the church think of how can we continue to influence this society? We’re going have to pray, we’re going have to see revival, and ask God for that. We’re going to have to see churches being strengthened and conversions taking place. There’s no hope for this nation apart from that. And we have to realize that’s our priority. Yet we have to help people in our society live as Christians, to bring the gospel to bear in every area of their life and their work and their society and their voting. And that is really what we need to be doing more than separating from one another.

David Schrock: Yeah, I think that’s really helpful. And in this conversation here, recognizing that if we were to turn this conversation in a different direction and take it for another hour, we could talk about the similarities and differences—we talked about this last month—with progressive covenantalism and 1689 federalism, right? We could probably find some disagreements on the tripartite division of the law and things like that. And yet, as I’m listening to both of you, there’s an awareness of the recognition of the transference of how the Old Testament law is working with the covenant people of Israel and the differences that are applied today. And I think there’d be a lot of similarity—more similarity than difference—on how that needs to be applied in the culture and in our country today. And that would be far more beneficial than to continue to drop lines to say, “Because I define it this way, I’m going to be in this group over here as opposed to others.” And that seems to be something that is necessary.

Tom Ascol: Yeah, amen to that. Again, we’re in a massive war, and what I’ve said to folks on both sides of this debate is we need every available gun and we need it aimed in the right direction. And we have our differences about how to fire and what weapons to use maybe. But if God gets us through this one, we can have the debates about that afterwards, but let’s fight together now. Let’s stand together. We all believe the gospel. We all believe God’s word. We all believe that what he says is right is right. What he says is wrong is wrong. Can we rally around those things that we actually do hold in common and stand as the gates are being overrun by those that would destroy everything good, right, and beautiful?

David Schrock: Yeah, I think that’s well said. To close our time here, Tom, you mentioned the way that you pray in your local church and the need for us to pray and even that model of taking one Wednesday a month to fast and pray. I think that’s a good admonition and something that we should be doing because if the Lord is the one who seeded his truth into our country by means of the gospel, saving people, changing people, going out and then influencing all areas of life, it comes back from the Lord. And we talked to Doug Wilson the other day. One of the things that we could agree on is the fact that he mentioned that the way that change happens is not by just legislation first, but preaching the gospel, seeing people saved, going out into the world. And then those legislations, those different areas, are going to be changed by people who have actually been changed by the gospel.

So, thinking about that, Tom, I ask, would you pray as we close our time here?

Tom Ascol: Yeah, absolutely,

Our Father, we have talked about important things in this conversation and we confess that some of those things we’ve not thought deeply about yet the way that we should. And we want to understand your Word and see how your Word speaks to us in what we’re facing today. We thank you that we can have great confidence as we go to your Word, and as we try to think carefully, knowing that you do still speak and that your spirit illumines us and that he equips us and empowers us to discern the truth and to stand firm on it.

We thank you that we have been taught by your word and spirit that Jesus Christ is indeed Lord, that he rules and reigns over all, and that you are working for eternally good purposes through what you have given to us in Christ. So, we ask you to help us to steward well all that you’ve entrusted to us: the time in which we live, the place in which we live, the challenges and opportunities that go with that so that we can represent Christ well. We want him to receive the glory that he is due, and we want to be faithful in commending him to this lost and dying world. So, we’re asking you to have mercy on us, O God. We’re asking you for the sake of your own name, for the glory of your Son, to come and revive your work again among us.

We ask you in Jesus’s name, Amen.

David Schrock: Well Tom, thank you for the time today, and your reflections on this have been helpful.

Tom Ascol: I appreciate what you guys are doing. I look forward to seeing how all of that comes together.

David Schrock: Likewise. And Steve, thank you, brother. As always, it’s good to talk with you.

Stephen Wellum: Great to be with you on such important matters, and we’ll continue to pray as Tom has prayed.

David Schrock: Amen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Authors

  • Tom Ascol

    Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines, as well as multiple books. He is married to his wife Donna, and they have six children and sixteen grandchildren.

  • David Schrock

    David Schrock is the pastor for preaching and theology at Occoquan Bible Church in Woodbridge, Virginia. David is a two-time graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a founding faculty member and professor of theology at Indianapolis Theology Seminary. And he is the author of Royal Priesthood and Glory of God along with many journal articles and online essays.

  • Stephen Wellum

    Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).

Tom Ascol

Tom Ascol

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines, as well as multiple books. He is married to his wife Donna, and they have six children and sixteen grandchildren.