Salt and Light In the Nation’s Capital: A Pastor’s Perspective
Editor’s note: This article was written in 2005.
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When I look out the windows of our church, I see the marble frieze of the Supreme Court and the massive dome of the Capitol Building rising just behind it. Being the associate pastor of a church that sits a mere five city blocks from the seat of legislative and judicial power in America, I am constantly reminded of the need to equip the members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church to be salt and light for the Kingdom of God in the midst of the quintessential city of man. How do we go about that task? Here are four steps that we have taken.
Citizens of Heaven
First, each Sunday we gather as citizens of heaven, not America. The good news of the gospel is that the dividing wall of separation between Greek and Jew has been torn down and in Christ any of us can become citizens of heaven. (Eph. 2:14-22) And so breaking with decades of tradition at CHBC, we have removed the American flag, not only from the platform, but from the building. Being a major tourist destination, every Sunday we have visitors from around the world. But it’s not just our visitors that we are concerned not to confuse. Our membership includes people from the UK, Ireland, Singapore, Benin, China, Eritrea, Korea, El Salvador, Bolivia, Egypt, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and more. Not all of our members agree with America’s politics overseas, politics which that flag represents, in part. But we are all agreed that our Sunday morning gatherings are a foretaste of that day when men and women “from every nation, tribe, people and language” will praise the Lamb who sits on the throne (Rev. 7:9-10).
By extension, we don’t publicly celebrate with patriotic displays the 4th of July or Memorial Day, though we are careful to pray for our nation on those days in particular. We don’t sing the national anthem, or any other patriotic songs of civil religion, such as God Bless America or My Country ’Tis of Thee. Instead, everything we do in our public worship is designed to underline that it is our common fellowship in Christ, not our common national origin, that binds and brings us together.
The Priority of Prayer
Second, we take seriously Paul’s command to pray for “all those in authority, that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Tim. 2:2) And so every Sunday morning, during the pastoral prayer, we pray for our government, regardless of who is in office. This is also an opportunity to teach our congregation how to pray, and how to think about those who exercise both governmental and non-governmental authority in our country. And so not only do we pray for the various branches of our government and federal bureaucracy, but we also pray for the leaders of those institutions in our society that shape our culture’s values and priorities—for educators and scientists and media executives, just to name a few. What do we pray for these authorities? We pray that in their work, they would promote truth rather than falsehood, justice rather than injustice. We ask God to give these leaders wisdom, that they might exercise their authority well on behalf of our nation.
But having prayed for our nation, we then go on and pray for our world. Each Sunday, we will pray not only for the spread of the gospel, but we will pray for the common grace good of specific countries, lifting up their leaders by name if we know them. At the top of our concerns will be the promotion of religious liberty and the freedom to convert, but we will also pray for the promotion of literacy, the provision of clean water and for the exercise of justice, just to name a few, because we know that these things are also important if the gospel is to spread and believers are to live quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
The Public Square
Third, we equip our members to be salt and light by making sure that in our sermons, the application extends beyond their own personal lives as Christians to the public implications of the gospel. Each week in our sermon preparation, the pastors work through an application grid. For each point in the sermon, we ask, “What does this mean for the individual Christian? For the individual non-Christian? For our church? For our understanding of Christ? For our society?” Now, not every application this grid produces will make it into the sermon! But it does ensure that as pastors, we are seeking to understand and apply the biblical text beyond it’s significance to the individual Christian. This has resulted in us thinking out loud with the congregation about the importance of marriage for society, the fundamental role of religious liberty in securing all other civil liberties, the corrupting nature of political power and the importance of good rulers, just to name a few.
Principles vs. Policies
Finally, an important distinction we maintain as we try to apply God’s Word to the public sphere is the distinction between principle and policy.
In our church, as probably in yours, there are members on both sides of the political aisle. You do not have to be a member of a certain political party to be a member of Christ’s church. But you do have to submit to God’s Word. It is God’s Word, not a party platform that we seek to preach each week, so that our members can take that Word into the halls of Congress, or the corridors of the West Wing, or the conference rooms of the State Department, or the situation rooms of the Pentagon. Having been faithfully taught the Word of God in all of its implications, our members can and must apply that word to the specific vote or policy decision that God has entrusted to them in their calling.
You might be tempted to think that these four steps only matter for a church in the nation’s capital. But the fact is, these things matter wherever God has called you, from the grain fields of the mid-West, to the rural Southern town, to the great urban centers throughout our nation. As Christians, we are salt and light when we live as citizens of heaven first, when we are faithful to pray that the King of kings would oversee the rulers of men, when God’s Word shapes our understanding of the world he has put us in, and when we apply his Word to the responsibilities he has entrusted to us as stewards in the city of man.