Church Life: Our True Political Witness
My friend and fellow church member Charles is a Washington, DC, speechwriter. He has written speeches for cabinet members, party chairmen, and other DC insiders. Charles’s work, to be sure, puts him at the center of American politics.
Charles also spends time with Freddie. Freddie, who was homeless, became a Christian and joined our church. After several good years, the church discovered Freddie was stealing money from members to support a drug addiction, so they removed him from membership. That’s when Charles entered the picture. He began reading the Bible with Freddie, and little by little, Freddie began to repent. Eventually Charles helped Freddie stand before the entire church, confess his lying and stealing, and ask for forgiveness. The church clapped, cheered, and embraced Freddie. Charles and Freddie cried for joy.
Here’s the GDP-sized question: Which Charles is the “political” Charles? The speechwriter or the disciple-maker? To ask it another way, which Charles deals with welfare policy, housing policy, criminal reform, and education? Answer: both. In fact, Charles will tell you that the political life of the disciple-maker fashions and gives integrity to the political life of the speechwriter. It’s the same man working, the same King ruling, the same principles of justice and righteousness applying, the same politics in play.
This speechwriter has many political hopes for better laws and fairer practices. But the greatest of his political hopes comes to life in the congregation. The local church should be a model political community for the world. It’s the most political of assemblies since it represents the One with final judgment over presidents and prime ministers. Together we confront, condemn, and call nations with the light of our King’s words and the saltiness of our lives.
Unlike Charles, however, many Christians in America continue to invest their greatest political hopes in the nation. Since colonial times, we have called the nation “a city on the hill.” Since Abraham Lincoln’s day, we have asked our leaders to provide “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Yet is it possible that all the contention and division Christians presently face is the catalyst God means to force some of us to rethink where our political hopes really lie?
Just think: Where do we first beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks? Where should love of enemy first dissolve a nation’s tribalism? Where should Lincoln’s just and lasting peace first take root and grow?
Answer: in our local churches.
WHERE CHRISTIAN POLITICS BEGINS
A Christian politics always begins with Jesus. He’s the King of kings and Lord of lords. And we know his will through his Word.
A Christian politics proceeds through the spoken evangelistic word: “The King is coming to judge all transgressors. Repent and believe, and he will graciously pardon.”
A Christian politics then takes root in the individual heart. Only a heart that’s been remade by the Spirit of God will no longer seek to lord it over others, but will extend mercy even as it has received mercy.
Then, remarkably, a Christian politics should become visible in the life and fellowship of the local church—both in its teaching and in its fellowship. Whether you’re a member of this party or that party, the local church is where we learn to love our enemies, forsake our tribalism, and beat our swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Here is where we tutor one another in the righteousness and justice of God. Here is where the righteousness and justice of God become tangible, credible, and believable for the onlooking nations.
Every week that a preacher stands up to preach he makes a political speech. He teaches the congregation “to observe all” that the King with all authority in heaven and on earth has commanded (Matt. 28:20). He strives to shape their lives in the way of the King’s law. We then declare the King’s judgments in the ordinances, embrace the King’s purposes in our prayers, and echo the King’s joy and mourning in our songs.
POLITICAL POLICY IN A CHURCH
Think through a few areas of political policy. Start, say, with welfare policy. My own church emphasizes “welfare policy,” though perhaps not quite with the same terms. Every member of my church promises in our church covenant to “walk together in brotherly love” and “exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other” as well as to “contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry” and “the relief of the poor.” In addition to giving to the regular church budget, therefore, members give tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, annually to the church benevolence fund. This is one way we care for our members in need. When member Jane found herself homeless, we tried to place her in safe housing. Due to various mental difficulties, she refused the help and chose to sleep in a park instead. So Luther went to the park with her and slept on a nearby bench. He was deeply concerned for her welfare, to say the least.
We also work on “tax policy.” Carlos, who spends his working days explaining to US Congress the tax implications of new legislation, has spent many evening hours helping a family in crisis with their taxes. He has worked with the family’s creditors and collection agencies because of their uncontrolled debt. Meanwhile, both he and his wife, Sue, tutor their children in various subjects, standardized test preparation, and college application essays.
My church also believes it’s important to address America’s race problem, or at least, our own race problem. When Patty confessed to me one Sunday morning at church that she struggled to like black people, I encouraged her to have dinner with Tom and Laura. “Tell them everything you just told me,” I said. Tom is black.
Tom is godly and mature. And I knew exactly how Tom and his wife would respond. To my half-surprise, Patty did what I suggested. And exactly as I expected, Tom and his wife responded to her with grace, love, and an embrace. Patty repented, and learned to love her brother and sister in Christ.
We could walk through political topic after topic. How about the refugee crises? A pastor friend told me how his church members gave a car to an Iranian refugee who had become a Christian in Iran. They also housed him and discipled him. Now he is a US citizen and has joined the army. Members of my church in my neighborhood, too, have adopted refugee families from Afghanistan.
HOW CHRISTIAN POLITICS IS PASTORAL
Here’s the larger point: Christians should listen to what Republicans and Democrats have to say on welfare policy, tax policy, racial reconciliation, the refugee crisis, and growing suicide rates. But our thinking shouldn’t start or stop there. Our thinking should be more expansive, more complicated, more personal, more humane. Our political instincts should develop by living inside the loving and difficult relationships that comprise a church. You might even say our political thinking should be pastoral.
May I offer a personal confession? I have had a difficult time knowing how to mentally process recent events in American life that have stoked the fires of racial controversy, whether it be the episodes of alleged police brutality, the election of Donald Trump, or larger conversations about the role of so-called structural injustices. Specifically, I find that my political instincts sometimes (not always) veer rightward, even while my personal affections veer strongly toward minority friends and fellow church members who are decidedly to the left of me. I love them. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. They are close friends. I assume they have good reasons for thinking as they do, and I assume they can see things that I cannot see due to their experiences. So I find my mind divided, and I am utterly uncertain of the correct political solutions.
Yet I don’t think that is a bad place to be. Life in a multiethnic church, in other words, is incubating me in humility, understanding, and a desire for justice. It’s teaching me to walk and think more carefully, to speak more circumspectly. It’s teaching me to love my enemy and look for the plank in my own eye. It’s teaching me a better politics. By God’s grace, I trust that I will continue to grow, maybe even catch up in my political thinking to brothers and sisters to the left and to the right of me.
Inside the local church is where a Christian politics becomes complicated, authentic, credible, not ideologically enslaved, real. It’s in these real-life situations where you’re forced to think about what righteousness truly is, what justice truly requires, what obligations you possess toward your fellow God-imagers, and what you yourself are made of.
POLITICAL WANNABES, JOIN A CHURCH
Keep in mind that the city where I live, Washington, is filled with Christians who have moved here because they love politics and want to make a difference. Then add in all the Christian interest groups and lobbying organizations and prayer breakfasts, and you’ll find no shortage of Christian political activity. I’m grateful for much of it.
But if you claim to care about politics and you are not an active member of a local church, I’m tempted to think you don’t understand politics at all. You are like someone who claims to love cars because you play with Matchbox cars on the floor making “Vroom!” noises. How easy it is to make pronouncements on political policies from afar. Get up, climb inside a real car, and turn on the ignition. Join a church and figure out how to love the person who looks different from you, or who makes a lot more or less money than you, or who even sins against you.
Real politics begins not with your political opinions but with your everyday decisions, not with public advocacy but with personal affections, not all by your lonesome but with a people.
Christians learn politics, in particular, as we work for unity amid all the reasons we give one another not to be united. It’s in this battle for unity that we should find the first inflections and glimmers of the just and righteous order, one that should make the nations envy.
* * * * *
Editor’s note: this article has been taken from How the Nations Rage by Jonathan Leeman. Copyright 2018 by Jonathan Leeman. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com.