Is this dislike of churches “being political” a Christian and biblical notion? I don’t see how. There’s nothing in the Bible that in any sense places a wall between where theology stops and politics begin. The Bible is full of condemnations of policies, economic practices and entire governments. God states numerous principles by which he will bless and judge societies, and the church possesses these truths and has a responsibility to proclaim them.
However, what Scripture insists upon, and what many Christians feel, is that it is important for us to always know what precedes what. Is politics upstream of theology? Or is theology upstream of politics? Do we hold our theology because of what we already think politically? Or does our theology precede our politics? In economics, when the group being regulated exerts controlling influence over the regulator, this is referred to as “regulatory capture.” For example, if a large technology company that is supposed to be regulated by the government is allowed to write a law that will make it harder for new technology companies to start while making it easier for the government to regulate it, the technology company is really regulating the government—rather than the other way around. Similarly, when our political views begin to shape our faith, so that our faith fits into the mold of our politics, it will profoundly deform our faith, and the gospel will be subject to “capture.” You can see this in churches of both conservative and liberal stripes. Some conservative churches seem to believe that Jesus would agree completely with conservative and Republican politics. Other mainline and liberal churches seem to believe that whatever progressives of the Democratic Party are in favor of, Jesus would have wholeheartedly endorsed. It fits all the way down the line, with almost no exceptions. And each group is entirely sure that the other group is completely wrong. These are both examples of political capture—when our politics is really driving our theology, rather than the other way around.
In my view, this is what should really offend us as Christians and church members. It should not be when our church says something that we deem is in some way “political.” It should be when we believe that those preaching the word to us are no longer taking their main cues from the word itself, but from a foreign worldview, and an ideology that is not in any way submitted to Christ as its main priority. If I’m a Republican by political conviction, I should have no trouble having a Democrat as my pastor, so long as his identity as a Democrat is far downstream from his identity as one who belongs to Christ and submits to his word. And if I am a Democrat by political conviction, I should have no trouble in having a Republican is my pastor, so long as my pastor’s identity as a Republican is far downstream from his identity as one who belongs to Christ and submits to his word. Whenever a pastor, or a church, is obviously subject to political capture, it will always profoundly distort the gospel, and will fail to believe, preach and obey the full counsel of God. This is the kind of “politics in church” that I think should be immediately objected to, always defended against, and can be grounds for needing to leave if it cannot be remedied.
What it is we really dislike
Finally, I think it’s important to distinguish specifically what we tend to really dislike when we call a church “political.” There are some phenomenons besides formal political capture that may leave a bad taste in your mouth for one reason or another. Here are a few:
- Pastors usually do not have the economic or policymaking competence to declare with confidence what policy should be pursued by any level of government, especially beyond the local level. When most pastors do so they do so with a profound ignorance concerning policymaking, and the issues involved in the policy about which they speak. It is more likely that we will speak rashly, thoughtlessly and incompetently. This can also take the form of very haphazard connections between what the Bible teaches theologically and what the pastor says it implies politically. Many pastors and churches misunderstand that between any theology and policy is a political philosophy. There are Christian and non-Christian political philosophies, but very few people really do the work to develop a truly Christian political philosophy, and then to connected to a biblical theology. Only then can the biblical theology, applied through the Christian political philosophy, create a prognosis for policy. This is the main reason pastors should not get “political,” meaning, advocating for particular laws or policies. If a pastor does so, it should be done very advisedly.
- Pastors can confidently declare “the state of things,” when it is obvious they have swallowed some partisan media source’s perspective. Media capture can be as bad a problem as political capture. When pastors or church leaders are attending to popular media outlets, it is easy to fall into media capture by getting one’s news from sources with a partisan political agenda that deliver news on the popular level. This happens just as much from listening to CNN or MSNBC as Fox News. I say it that way because Fox News is often attacked as a highly partisan news source, which it is. However, I find myself mystified by people who believe that CNN and MSNBC, and even NPR, are not profoundly politicized and partisan new sources. As someone who has studied political science, and has a lot of experience with messaging, I cannot think of a single popular level news source that presently exists that is not highly politicized. I should also note, that media capture is also a huge problem in churches, leading to profound divisions between people. I would consider media capture to be one of the top four means by which the flesh and the devil divide local churches by committing people to narrow, inflammatory, urgent and partisan stories about what is happening in the country. They come to believe that anyone who doesn’t “see what is really happening” must be blind, stupid or wicked. Media capture ends up having about the same effect as political capture.
- Preaching what is properly political and neglecting the properly theological. Some preachers and denominations truly do reverse what is properly political and properly theological in their messaging. I have read whole church publications and wondered if there was any theology in the middle. There are whole swathes of churches that are uncomfortable with saying the name Jesus at all. This tends to be a progressive sin. The conservative version tends to be an obsession with a certain perspective on the culture wars—making non-Christians and “liberals” the explicit enemy of the church, rather than our neighbors in a shared city and part of the population of humanity we are sent to identify with and reach. This view also fails to understand the theological claim that non-Christians will behave like a non-Christians, and that Jesus claimed that truly regenerate Christians will always be a minority, and so only very rarely control a culture. This reversal of the properly theological for the properly political is something we are right to dislike and to depart from. The church has lost its voice. The structure of its message is compromised, because it has lost its foundation and root.
- The preacher or church attacks your political idols. Not all of the things we dislike about churches getting political we dislike for good and honest reasons. A church might hit the wrong nerve of one of your more selfish or immoral ideas, and it might make you angry. You might not care about abortion, or racism, or unjust poverty, or global poverty of misfortune, or corruption. You might not want to be disturbed about the civil rights of people in foreign countries. You might not want to be told that as a religious minority in this country, you have a responsibility to stand up for our religious civil rights to defend them for the generations of posterity. There may be a number of things that you don’t want to hear that you could fault the church for talking about by saying that the thing is “political” and should not be discussed in a decent church. Disliking this would be no virtue.
- Some church preaching will disrupt our simple political view of the world. It is human nature to want to have a view in our minds that explains the world. The problem is that the world is usually a lot more complicated than our minds. So, well-informed preaching about theology and politics will seem much more complicated than we would like it to be. This will be all the more true if we are the victims of media capture. Our media source makes things sound so simple: the problem comes down to just a couple of things that we get right and they get wrong. In my experience of studying political policy on the think tank level, that is almost never the real explanation. But no one likes to know that. None of us likes to be told that our views that make the world understandable are probably simplistic and wrong. We don’t want to be told that we don’t understand things. We don’t want to know that we are incompetent voters, or that we keep participating in perpetuating ineffective or downright destructive policies because they seemed right and supporting them made us feel good. For example, this is true of almost every policy related to the poor. I think this is an area where churches should speak, usually through highly competent guest speakers. This will often annoy Christians. But again, annoyance in this regard is no virtue. It is a vice of pride, and we should repent of it rather than indulge it.
The church of Jesus Christ must be political in a world where everything is political. In one sense, Jesus wasn’t political at all. In another sense, he was always being misunderstood as being political. And in another sense, he was most definitely political. However, Jesus was never partisan. That is, he was on your side one minute and against you the next. He was never on your side—he was always on God’s side and always on the truth’s side. Since that was the practice of the Christ, I think it is also to be the practice of the Christian. One day I may sound like a Democrat, because I am emphasizing our moral obligation to the poor, and you might take me for a bleeding heart liberal. The next day, I may be talking about the absolute importance of lifelong covenantal and procreative marriage as the building block of humanity, and you might take me for some kind of Republican. Then I might say people should have the right to enjoy the work of their own hands, and you might think me a libertarian. In sexual ethics, I might be thought a hopeless conservative of some bygone millennia, much less the 1940s. In global openness, I might be thought a raging progressive. Or I might bewilder someone in the same afternoon by both affirming the right of nationality and the importance of internationalism. This is because the Christ who reigns over all cares about all things. He is political, but he is not partisan.
Jesus will never be vindicated because he is on your side. You can only be vindicated by being on his. He is on the side of the truth. As Jesus said to one governor, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). You may remember that this partisan politician, Pontius Pilate, replied by saying, “What is truth?” He no longer had a category for truth; everything was a power claim—everything was partisan politics to him. He thought along the lines of Satan in the book of Job, “Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life” (Job 2:4).
In the end, we have to be on the side of truth. And, in being on the side of the King who comes to testify to the truth, we are on the side of his kingdom—his nation state. We are, to the extent to which we can understand it, of his politics. We are evangelists for a kind of citizenship, for people to be added to a kind of kingdom, to live forever in a kind of economy. We are the most political creatures in the universe because we mark our identity by our loyalty to a particular King and administration—Jesus the Christ. And like that Christ, our politics will also be misunderstood. This does not mean that we should disengage, but rather that we should engage all the more our enemies, our neighbors, and our brothers and sisters in the church to overcome our walls of hostility with the winsome love of Christ.