Why Politics Overwhelms the Church
Years ago, we knew an elderly man whose doctor pleaded with him to stop watching cable television news. The man, a church member, grappled with high blood-pressure and a host of other ills, but whatever progress he would make with his health would evaporate once he saw televised discussions of politicians and political issues about which he felt passionately. He would scream at the television, with all the fury he could muster, about what should obviously be done if “these idiots would only listen to me.”
We thought our geriatric friend’s nightly screaming matches were kind of amusing at the time. I don’t anymore, now that I am sometimes the face on the television, and sometimes, too often, I feel like screaming at the television myself. As a matter of fact, it seems as though the entire culture is that man now—yelling into the void with cheers for “our side”—whatever that is—and with denunciations of the “other side”—whoever they are.
To some degree, the passions of our politics are a good thing. After all, God cares about justice, and often the Spirit prompts the prophets to speak—with loud denunciations—of injustice in the social and civic spheres (Amos 2:1–24, to cite but one example of what could fill pages). The Spirit prompts us to groan inwardly at the wreck of creation (Rom. 8:19–23).
THE EVANGELICAL OBSESSION WITH POLITICS
Still, there seems to be something else afoot here. Politics—by which I mean partisan or ideological tribal identities, not actual statecraft—seems all-encompassing in this cultural moment, perhaps, sadly, as much or maybe even more so in the church as in the world. Within the so-called “evangelical movement,” those who deny essential matters about the definition of the gospel—such as prosperity gospel teachers—are received as fellow evangelicals provided they are aligned on values and politics.
Moreover, the outside world could probably define “evangelical” in terms of how they see it as a political movement, but one in a thousand probably couldn’t explain what evangelical Christians believe about, say, justification by faith. Maybe some of this is because the outside world idolizes politics and dismisses the gospel. But maybe a great deal of it is because we do, too.
A wise friend once told me that a surefire way to see where one’s deepest affections are is to see what most easily inflames one’s emotions. It’s here that we see a massive gap between our own cultural and subcultural foment and the emotional life of Jesus.
JESUS AS OUR EXAMPLE
Jesus cared about Caesar’s coin questions (Matt. 22:21). They didn’t dominate his emotional energy. Jesus feels more than free to denounce Herod as a “fox” (in context, a withering repudiation; Lk. 13:32), but he keeps right on walking toward Golgotha. Jesus is tranquil before the possibility of Pilate’s judgment (Jn. 19), but anguished before the prospect of God’s. Jesus is so unconcerned about being offended that he overlooks a dismissal of his Nazareth background (Jn. 1:46–51), but is angered to the point of overturning tables when the temple—the dwelling place of God—is turned into a marketplace preventing all peoples from entering to pray (Jn. 2:13–32).
Caesar never prompted Jesus to rejoice (Lk. 10:21). Pilate never prompted him to sweat blood. Why? Because he trusted a sovereign Father and saw a kingdom that would triumph over all rivals. He was tranquil before the state, and passionate about the church.
RELIGION & ITS EVER-CHANGING PRIORITIES
When a religion reflects a different set of priorities, that religion is following something or someone other than Jesus. Indeed, much of what emotionally mobilizes the twenty-first century North American church is not related to Christian life and doctrine and mission, but to “Christianity” as a set of values under siege by the dominant culture. In fact, it’s difficult to keep up with even a politically-defined religion.
After all, the values one would need to affirm to be in the tribe in one year might well be deemed those that don’t matter in the next year. The cultural degradations one would denounce loudly, right along with the rest of the herd, in one year would become acceptable in the next, just depending on the personalities and pet sins and injustices of one’s “side” at the moment. What would be characterized watching at the wall of righteousness in one year might well be deemed pharisaical self-righteousness in another.
Such is inevitable when Christianity is identified with a cultural system rather than with the transcendent theological claim of the multinational, multiethnic, multigenerational kingdom of God, which joins heaven to earth in the person of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:9–22).
Political ideologies are often then posed in terms of exuberant triumph (“We’re winning! We have influence!”) or in terms apocalyptic despair (“We are about to lose our entire culture!”). Both that exuberance and that despair are then used to justify all sorts of things we never imagined we would affirm, or things we never thought we would deny.
These matters seem that way because they feel much more immediate than, say, whether or not cultural Christianity or prosperity theologies can send people to hell. Of course they do. Sexual passion feels more immediate than the kingdom of God, too. That’s why we’re called to “flee youthful passions” and to submit our sexual passions to the longer-term vision of holiness and righteousness (2 Tim. 2:22).
JUDGING THE WORLD, IGNORING THE CHURCH
Not only do these temporal ideologies often seem more “real” to us than the kingdom, these ideological movements can also become a place of belonging after the eclipse of the church. The Apostle Paul tells us, right in line with Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares, that we do not exercise judgment over the outside world but over the boundaries of those who are called brother or sister (1 Cor. 5:9–13).
In our era, it’s easier to do the reverse. We often rail against the perceived sins of our cultural enemies, while minimizing those within the church. Even worse, we sometimes even confer Christian identity on people apart from repentance and faith, simply because they are “with us” on the issues. That’s a scandal.
Registering people to vote can seem more important to us than making sure all those on our church membership rolls are following Christ. We rarely see people excommunicated from churches for unrepentant sin, but we see people informally excommunicated for saying that all sin demands repentance, and that no one is justified before God by being “on our side.”
THE CHURCH’S BURDEN
In this era, the burden for the church is great. We must constantly catechize that the Christian gospel isn’t a means to an end of national prosperity or political influence. We must constantly work toward churches that see our identities as, first, ambassadors of the kingdom that will outlast every human state. This is especially true when many in the next generation are walking away from Christ, not because they have found his gospel tried and wanting, but because they assume that Christianity is just politics all the way down.
A church freed to seek the kingdom first wouldn’t dismiss political or social ethics. While the Bible doesn’t give us a detailed public policy outline, it does define justice. The Bible tells us what matters, and who matters. But a church that follows the Bible will not adjust what we speak to and what we keep silent about on the basis of what’s counted important or useful by some ideology or movement.
To be sure, we will find points of overlap with political movements, but never comprehensively. The questions “How can you talk about racial justice when there’s abortion?” or “How can you talk about the sanctity of unborn human life when there’s racial injustice?”, whether posed implicitly or explicitly, are the language of hacks not disciples.
We will seek to shape people’s consciences on the basis of what we’ve learned at the Lord’s Table, not on the basis of what will keep us at the table of some principality or power of this age.
And perhaps most importantly, the church of the next generation will be a church with emotions that are often out of sync with the news cycle. We will speak for the vulnerable, including those whom the world would rather keep invisible. We will define righteousness and justice in biblical terms, not partisan ones. But we will do neither with the triumphalism of those who think they are “winners,” nor with the outrage of those who think they are “losers.” We will bear witness to a just social and civil order, but we will do so with the affections of those who seek a City not made with human hands.
It’s easy to think we are changing the world, when in reality we’re just yelling at screens.