The Beauty and Power of Catholicity in Politically Charged Times


The elders tried to space out as best we could in a stuffy children’s Sunday school classroom in our church basement. Some elders wore masks. Others slipped them off in the stifling summer heat of the American Deep South, the kind that not even air conditioning can vanquish.

The topic provided no relief from the uncomfortable conditions. During the depths of that devastating summer of 2020, we met as elders to discuss what to do about the rising racial tensions in our city and across the country. Earlier that summer our church had been warned to guard against vandalism. That week, Sunday afternoon protests that began with speeches by pastors devolved after dark into riots that damaged several downtown businesses.

Our mostly white, mostly young church could hardly be described as diverse. That’s not unusual in our unusually segregated city. Still, given our city’s history, we felt responsible for guiding our congregation toward biblical hope and justice during these distressing days.

That summer presented a unique challenge to church leaders across the United States. Politics, pandemic, and race relations combined in ways that vexed the wisest, most experienced pastors. As I looked around the elders meeting, it was obvious that we weren’t going to suddenly transform into a racially diverse church. But I knew these elders well enough to know their views on various subjects. I knew how we often disagreed with each other. We didn’t always share the same vision for the church. We didn’t always respond to challenges the same way. And we didn’t vote the same way, not in our meetings and not at the ballot box. But these fellow elders gave me no reason to question their dedication to our church, the Scriptures, or the gospel. If that was true of our church, what could be true of other churches agonizing over these same challenges across our city?

That afternoon, I observed that ethnic diversity is only one way we show the beauty and power of catholicity in politically charged times. We also demonstrate the power of the gospel when we admit that not every church or Christian will reach the same political conclusions. Though we’ll often be tempted, Christians can never fully align with the partisan tribes that tug at the seams of our society.

We have an opportunity—in how we treat other Christians and in how we treat other churches—to show how the gospel is good news when it feels like our culture is tearing apart.

Abundantly Clear

The Bible doesn’t explain how First Presbyterian Church should work alongside First Baptist Church when their members disagree with their approach toward the Roman Empire. And we never see an example of Paul breaking up fights at the Sunday afternoon brunch buffet in Ephesus. Instead, Paul gives us two commands that can be difficult to obey in our politically charged times. First, some moral issues are so important that we should have nothing to do with such sinners in the church (2 Tim. 3:5). Second, in other matters Paul forbids us from judging one another (Rom. 14:13). Wise, experienced church leaders lean on the help of the Spirit to determine which category an issue falls into.

But what’s abundantly clear from Jesus himself is how we’re supposed to treat our enemies.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32–36)

Politics on the internet often have us caring more about our partisan opponents' thoughts and actions than our own. If we can blame them, we can justify our most aggressive responses. Sometimes we’re even tempted to change our views if they become shared by the other party. Cable TV and talk radio certainly play this hand often enough. They boost their listeners by tearing the other side down. We may claim to hate the negative ads that flood our mailboxes and TVs every two or four years. But they wouldn’t be so popular with well-funded campaigns if they didn’t work. In politics, you don't need to sell the public your vision of the future. You just need to convince enough voters that the other candidate's views are wrong, evil, or both.

I once heard author Arthur Brooks explain that politics today is about demonizing your opponents and valorizing your audience. He went on to explain that the church sometimes does the same when taking cues from partisan politics. We quickly assure church members that we’re not like the sinners out there, in other churches and in no churches at all.

In recent years I’ve seen some Christians, including my friends, argue that we should embrace the culture wars. Given the serious cultural and political changes of our time, I can understand the impulse. On many, if not most, of these major moral issues, I side with one party over the other. One party listens to some of my concerns. The other one seems to ignore them altogether or actively oppose them. And I know that inside the ballot box, I usually only have two choices, with serious consequences for myself, my family, and my neighbors on questions about which God’s Word is clear.

But the downsides to the culture war should dissuade Christians from fighting with the world’s weapons. Moreover, the church's catholicity—across time, geography, and ethnicity—should give us pause about treating other Christians as our enemies. Disagree with them. Tell them they’re crucially wrong. Yet don’t forsake all the ways Scripture obligates you toward them, or neglect searching out the plank in your eye. What sins might we be tempted to overlook on “our side”? What moral issues have we downgraded to less important and even unimportant because our preferred politicians don’t address them? Have we considered how politicians benefit by undermining the church's catholicity when they pit Christians against each other?

Turning outside the church, culture wars also often turn us against the neighbors we’re commanded to love. How are we supposed to evangelize the people we’re trained to see as enemies? The Scriptures identify our enemy—it’s the devil who prowls around seeking to divide and devour. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

God’s Word tells us that what we believe, how we behave, and how we treat one another all matter. We don’t get an exception for the politicians we despise or the church that flies the wrong flag or the neighbor with the wrong yard signs.

When Revival Comes

Given some of my previous work on the history of revivals, I’m often asked, “How do you think revival might come to our city? What would it look like?” To the first question, I respond with what I’ve heard from older, wiser Christians. If we want revival to come to our church, let’s pray for it to start with the church down the road that we don’t think deserves that blessing. Let’s ask God to send revival to the Christians who don’t vote as we do. Revival isn’t about us. It’s about God’s glory displayed on earth as it is in heaven. When we ask God to bless other churches, we acknowledge that we want his presence more than we want the attention that comes from revival.

To the second question, I answer that revival will probably look like people getting together, thanks to Jesus, who couldn’t get along unless he was raised from the dead. If the resurrection didn’t need to happen for this revival, then we’re celebrating the work of man that will blow away like chaff on a harvested field. It’s nothing special in my city to gather Christians who wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, and vote for the same politicians. It’s revival when the new BMWs pull up next to the beat-up Pontiacs parked on the wrong side of town. It’s revival when the marginal, the overlooked, and the desperate lift their hands in praise next to the upwardly mobile families. It’s revival when the Christian who doesn’t know anyone who votes for one candidate offers a hand of fellowship to the Christian who doesn’t know anyone who votes for the other candidate.

Anyone can love the person who loves them back. Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies. In our politically charged times, that’s when the world sees the beauty and power of the gospel.

Collin Hansen

Collin Hansen serves as vice president for content and editor in chief of The Gospel Coalition, as well as executive director of The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. He is a member of Iron City Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

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