Should Christians discuss politics in church?

Cafe Food FightAs I write this, believers in the US are preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday. Because this often means spending time with family members we only see once or twice a year, and because our nation is horribly divided right now, many of us are also resolving to avoid the whole subject of politics. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, after all, and it’s probably wise to be cautious about introducing topics that could violently explode an otherwise pleasant family visit. So we’re dusting off the old etiquette about never talking about politics or religion (at least the politics part). Fair enough.

But what about in our local churches? If your church is anything like ours, you live out your church life with people who have very differing political convictions. And because of the frequent intensity of these convictions lately—and the ensuing political discussions—many have essentially adopted a “holiday” approach when spending time with church family, and avoid any mention of political issues. This is undoubtedly better than open hostilities! But is it really the best way for us to handle our current politico-cultural mess? When followers of Christ gather should we just “not go there”?

Now let me quickly clarify there are some kinds of political talk I think should be eliminated in the church—permanently:

It’s not the place of pastors or leaders to tell the people in the church a specific candidate they should vote for or which propositions they should support. The church shouldn’t be handing out voters’ guides, or inviting representatives from only one party to address the congregation.

I’m also not suggesting we turn the application of any (sometimes every) Scripture text into a political rant.  If a passage we’re studying clearly addresses something that touches on politics, then we should have the courage to address what Scripture does. We don’t want to be guilty of skipping biblical principles in order to not offend political sensibilities. But we shouldn’t be looking for opportunities to interject our own political viewpoints.

We need to put an end to snide comments about the other side (whatever that is). We shouldn’t be tossing out partisan comments in a way that assumes everyone here shares the same views (which is rarely the case), especially when we’re mocking the intelligence, patriotism or even faith of those who disagree. We should always assume someone from “the other side” is present—because they usually are.

Some time ago, as our team was getting everything ready for our church service, two of our team-members were out front talking loudly about a recent controversy that was all over the news. Not only was their conversation strongly partisan, they were discussing an issue that directly involved race. I don’t believe either person is at all racist, but their vehement rejection of opposing views could easily have been misinterpreted. At the time this happened, people could approach our church’s front door from different directions and remain unseen until they were right around the corner. In other words, visitors could have heard our people talking long before our people would have seen them. Thankfully, I overheard what was going on from inside, rushed out and put a stop to the conversation. As I explained to them, if I was coming to visit the church and was one of these people they were talking about, I would have felt very unwelcome. I would have turned around, left, and would never have come back. Our guys were appropriately chagrined and agreed never to do this again.

So is the answer to just not talk about politics with our church families? Is that the best we can do? Let me ask the question another way: Are we no more capable of discussing volatile political issues than anyone else in our nation? Where can we have a healthy discussion about controversial subjects? If there’s anyone who could have a thoughtful, fair-minded, mutually respectful, loving but substantive, even pointed discussion about controversial political issues—without simply parroting partisan talking points—shouldn’t it be the church? Shouldn’t we be the ones modeling another way? When we spend time together as brothers and sisters we’re supposed to be helping each other grow and mature spiritually, encouraging one another to more faithfully live out our lives in a Christlike way. Are we supposed to do this in every area of our lives except for how we engage politically with society? Does this make any sense? It’s definitely easier, and avoids unpleasant tension. But are we to avoid quarreling by just not talking about difficult issues?

Close-up of a therapist gesticulating while talking to a group of listing teenagers during an educational self-acceptance and motivation meeting.It’s easy for me to fall into groupthink when the only political interaction I have is with my echo chamber (and there are echo chambers on both the left and the right). If I’m beginning to advocate political views that are incompatible with kingdom principles, I need brothers and sisters to hold me accountable and tell me, “Curt, I don’t think that way of thinking fits with the character of Jesus.” We need iron to sharpen iron, especially where the outside culture is most divided. These are the issues we most need to discuss with fellow Christians. Not that we’ll always come to perfect agreement. But at the end of a frank discussion of our differing political views, we should still be able to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And we need to realize that we should be more in harmony with our fellow believers on core values and principles (even if we disagree on methods and strategies) than we are with either/any of society’s political parties.

We need to be showing the world around us the love Christ has given us for each other, and we especially need to be modeling this love where we have the strongest disagreements. We need to show them that Christians don’t have to avoid any subject (which is often the best the world can do) because the Spirit has equipped and empowered us to be able to discuss anything and do it lovingly, respectfully and peacefully. And we should show them that through this kind of thoughtful interaction—where we’re seeking the truth, not trying to win arguments—we grow in our understanding of issues and help each other reach truly biblically-informed, spiritually faithful viewpoints that are in harmony with the kingdom principles of our King.

So . . . how well are we living out the fruit of the Spirit in our political engagement?

Are we behaving like everyone else, or are we showing them another way?

Political idolatry?: Proposing a new single-issue voter

images-washingtonpost-comTwo days ago, I posted a link to a recent Christianity Today editorial (Speak Truth to Trump). Christianity Today, established by Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders in 1956, is as close to an official evangelical magazine as you can get. Andy Crouch, writing for the editorial board, begins by noting that Christianity Today has always remained neutral in past elections. But, like many pastors and leaders, they feel the need to speak out this year:

“Just because we are neutral, however, does not mean we are indifferent.”

He describes the absolute rulership of Christ, and the implications for his followers:

“The lordship of Christ places constraints on the way his followers involve themselves, or entangle themselves, with earthly rulers.”

Crouch reminds us of the danger of being so involved in worldly rulers that it becomes idolatrous.

The editorial then briefly reviews the problems with the two major party candidates, beginning with Clinton and then continuing with Trump. Crouch observes that, while criticism of Clinton is very common among evangelical Christians, many have not “shown the same critical judgment when it comes to the Republican nominee.” He lists again some of the obvious red flags regarding his character (which I’ve briefly described here, here, and here), and then concludes of Trump:

“He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.”

Crouch notes that most Christians who support Trump are doing so “with reluctant strategic calculation.” This strategic calculation is focused on the appointment of Supreme Court justices and the impact on vital constitutional issues such as the sanctity of life and marriage, and religious freedom. Crouch then returns to the danger of idolatry in our current situation. This key point is so crucial, I’m going to quote the entire paragraph. I would encourage all of us—especially evangelical supporters of Trump—to consider this carefully:

“But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.”

A question I have repeatedly asked is: Does God need Donald Trump? By insisting that we must vote for Trump for the sake of the unborn children (and to preserve religious liberty), are we not implying that—at this time—Donald Trump is necessary, that he is needed? Are we claiming that unless we vote for this morally vile candidate, there is no hope for the children or the church? What does this say about our trust in God?

Are we claiming that unless we vote for this morally vile candidate,
there is no hope for the children or the church?

What does this say about our trust in God?

Here’s the view of the editors of Christianity Today:

“Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.”

Please notice the wording in that last sentence. If voting for Trump is imperative for evangelical Christians, then we are putting our trust in his rule. Such trust is tragically misplaced. And as these editors, I, and many others have warned, this will have devastating consequences to our witness to the world. (Anyone paying attention to social media will see that it already is.)

A new single-issue voter

Many readers will be familiar with the concept of a “single-issue voter.” These aren’t people who are concerned with only one issue, but those who view one issue as of paramount importance. This doesn’t mean hasn’t meant they’ll vote for just anyone who expresses support for their key issue, but they refuse to consider someone who doesn’t share their viewpoint. Not supporting their position on this single issue is seen as a deal-breaker, distinguishing candidates they can support from those they cannot. For many evangelical voters, this single issue has been the sanctity of life and opposition to legalized abortion.

I’m proposing a new single issue. I say we shouldn’t even consider supporting a candidate who doesn’t have a basic personal decency, who isn’t an essentially moral, trustworthy person. Bad character should be automatically disqualifying regardless of the positions the candidate claims to support. If a candidate seriously lacks good character, their claimed positions are worthless. Treating the claims of dishonorable, unprincipled people as if they are worthy of serious consideration—even defending them!—lends credibility to unscrupulous people and makes us co-conspirators in their duplicity. I say if a candidate is someone who even the world widely views as a person of poor character, then we should not even consider such a candidate as worthy of evangelical support . . . . . . unless we are more trusting in the American political system to protect us and bring about societal change than we are the power of God.

In times of trouble, Israel often looked to earthly powers for help rather than relying on God—and God judged them for it. Christians have also misplaced their trust in worldly rulers before, whether it was the early church putting their trust in Constantine or German churches putting their trust in Hitler in the 1930s. We need to be very clear about our Christian priorities, and with whom we can and cannot ally ourselves. As Peter Berger once wrote: “He who sups with the devil had better have a long spoon.” Or as Scripture itself makes so clear:

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers.
How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness?
How can light live with darkness?

2 Corinthians 6:14

Are God’s people trying to advance the light by partnering with darkness? May it never be!

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
They are brought to their knees and fall,
but we rise up and stand firm.

Psalm 20:7-8

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

We’ve learned in previous posts which Gospels we can trust as generally reliable historical sources, and why. So, now, what do we really know about Jesus? Let’s see what we can discover about this historical figure.

Miracle worker
The New Testament Gospels present a Jesus widely known for working wonders. It images-of-jesus-christ-141doesn’t take us long in reading these accounts before we recognize this to be a key aspect to who Jesus was. He heals the sick, cures lepers, gives sight to the blind, makes the lame walk again, casts out demons, even raises the dead. According to these accounts, this was probably the greatest factor in Jesus drawing huge crowds of people to himself.

What’s surprising to some is that most Jesus scholars—even non-Christian ones—agree that Jesus must have been able to perform some kind of wonders. It’s generally agreed the historical person known as Jesus attracted large crowds of followers, and that what mostly drew the crowds to him was his reputation as a healer and miracle-worker. The earliest stories of Jesus’ ministry recount him healing not just a lucky handful who made it “on stage,” but everyone within vast multitudes of people. These stories would not have been sustainable if he had not, in fact, healed entire crowds of people.

What’s also revealing is that the most vehement and vocal critics of early Christianity never denied Jesus’ ability to work miracles. We find many references to his ministry in early (non-Christian) Jewish writings; they denounce him as a sorcerer but admit he performed healings and miracles. It seems apparent that if they could have denied Jesus’ miraculous power, they would have.

Teacher
Jesus was not only renowned for his healing abilities but also his teaching. Instead of the common rabbinical methods of his day—where a teacher would appeal to what rabbi X had once concluded, which was confirmed by rabbis Y and Z, ad infinitum—the people noticed immediately that Jesus taught with a surprising sense of authority. He didn’t appeal to the consensus of previous teachers; he simply said, “I say unto you . . .” This was shocking to the people, arresting their attention. What he taught was definitely fresh and provocative, but it was also compelling, hard to dismiss or refute. His teaching consistently focused on two things:

Kingdom of God
The first century Jews were anticipating the Kingdom of God, but Jesus presented a radically different way of understanding this Kingdom. Rather than proclaiming political deliverance for the nation of Israel, he taught a way of life focused on loving God and loving others. The Kingdom of God he described was somehow now in their midst, was something they were to seek, and would one day be fully and universally established. Jesus also taught that the Jews were not automatically part of this Kingdom, that there was a certain prescribed entryway into the Kingdom of God.

Son of Man
Put bluntly, Jesus focused his teaching on two subjects: (1) the Kingdom of God, and (2) himself. Jesus’ most common phrase for referring to himself was the “Son of Man.” This was understood by his culture as referring to the Messiah, the promised Deliverer. The only way to enter the Kingdom of God, the only way to receive salvation and enter into relationship with the Father, was through placing one’s faith in Jesus. While drawing the people to himself in his teaching, he repeatedly challenged their understanding of who the Messiah would be and what he would do. Jesus’ continual emphasis on himself proved to be the dividing line between those who accepted him and those who did not.

Crucified
Possibly without exception, the Jesus scholars agree that Jesus suffered the ignominy of a public execution by Roman crucifixion in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Why this occurred and the implications of this death are subjects we’ll explore soon in another post.

Buried
empty_tomb2The overwhelming consensus of Jesus scholars is that the New Testament burial accounts of Jesus are reliable. After being crucified, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, in his own family tomb. We’ll return to the significance of this detail later.

This post is briefer than the others in this series, and it prompts us to now ask the crucial questions to which all of this leads: What of the resurrection? Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead? Is there any historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? We’ll begin examining these questions next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus? [see above]

What good is a dead Messiah?