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?

In spirit and truth

The tagline for our church is: Worshiping in spirit and truth (taken from John 4:23-24). Most people like the idea of worshiping in spirit. A surprising number of people today consider themselves spiritual. This is often contrasted with being religious, as in: “I’m not at all religious, but I am very spiritual.” Spiritual, in this context, generally means something like being aware of reality beyond the mere physical, being open to new experiences and insights, being alive in one’s spiritual life rather than part of some cold formalism. It’s being deep rather than shallow. Of course, this is all very appealing. Many of us would like to see ourselves as spiritual.

But when we speak of worshiping in truth, some people get a little uneasy. Ah . . . the “T” word. This is not nearly as appealing for some. Why do we have to talk so much about truth? For that matter, why did Jesus have to talk so much about truth? (That is, after all, who we got it from.) Jesus often seemed very focused on the issue of truth. He even described himself as truth:

I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.
John 14:6

This is an exclusive statement. Jesus says that he is the way, and that there isn’t any other way. For many people, this is precisely the sticking point. They could be comfortable with evangelical Christianity if we could only say: “This is our way, but we accept that there are other ways too. Just choose whichever way works best for you.” But Jesus had to repeatedly make these kinds of comments and throw a wrench in the works for those who would love to have an I’m-okay-you’re-okay kind of spirituality. And, obviously, this kind of truth claim is diametrically opposed to today’s postmodern mindset.

The catch words now are relativism and pluralism. The new unpardonable sin is to have the audacity to suggest that, just maybe, somebody’s truth may not actually be true. Why, that’s simply intolerant! And we have to understand what is currently meant by tolerance. Not that long ago, to be tolerant was to be respectful toward someone even though you were absolutely sure they were wrong. Now it means never, ever judging the validity of another’s beliefs. What’s true for me is true for me; what’s true for you is true for you—and no one ‘truth’ is more valid than another.

The problem is it doesn’t work. And, deep down, we all know it. No one really lives their life by this philosophy.

“No one’s viewpoint is any more valid than another’s.”
Let me give you an example to show you the problem with this idea. Let’s say that you have a very young daughter. She wakes up in the middle of the night with extreme abdominal pains. At first, maybe you think it’s just a stomach virus. But, soon, you realize that the problem is more serious. So you rush her to the emergency room. The doctor examines her and then comes out to talk with you.

“So, Doctor, what’s the matter with her?”

“Well, from my perspective, she has appendicitis. We need to remove her appendix. If we don’t operate immediately, she could die. But, far be it from me to impose my point of view on you! No, I believe that everyone should seek the operation of their choice. So, if you’d rather, I can take out her spleen. Or a kidney.”

How would you respond? You would probably express yourself somewhat vigorously and let the doctor know as clearly as possible, “Look, I want you to fix whatever is actually wrong with her!

“But all religions are really saying the same thing.”
How many times have you heard that?  First, if someone is saying this, they probably don’t know much about what the various religions actually believe. While there are similarities here and there, the core teachings of the world’s religions are extremely different and, in many ways, incompatible. Even if we’re only looking at the basic questions (who we are, the existence and nature of a divine being, the nature of reality, what we’re supposed to do spiritually and how we’re to do it, etc.), the different faiths are mutually exclusive. These belief systems aren’t just saying the same things differently; they are, in fact, saying definitively different things.

Here’s a story to illustrate what I’m talking about: I’m a pilot. (I’m not really, but just imagine for the sake of the illustration.) I’m going to take you on a flight in a single-engine Cessna from Puerto Rico to Tortola. It’s a beautiful day. We take off, and soon we’re over the ocean with no land in sight. Then I turn to you and say, “So, which way do you want to go?”

You answer, “Huh?”

“Pick a direction; any direction.”

“Whichever one gets us to Tortola!”

“Well, sure, but don’t all directions lead to the same destination? We can go any direction you want!”

No, we can’t! If we go the wrong way, we won’t get anywhere but out in the middle of the ocean with no fuel! Find an airport and get me on the ground. Now!

I think you get the idea.

“But, we all perceive reality differently.”
When discussing these things, some have patiently responded, “Yes, Curt, but Christianity is true for you because it’s in your frame of reference. We all have different perceptions of reality and if Christ is not in my frame of reference then, for me, he does not exist.” But again, the problem is real life. We all know from sometimes painful experience that to be ignorant of something doesn’t make it less true.

Here’s one last example: You wake up in the middle of the night and have to go to the bathroom. So you head down a darkened hallway, completely ignorant of the fact that your trusty, canine companion has beat you to it—right in the middle of the darkened hallway! Are you aware of the surprise that’s waiting for you? No. Is it in your frame of reference? Nope. Does that mean, for you, it doesn’t exist? I’m afraid not. What is actually real is about to invade your perception of reality, and in a most unpleasant way! Reality has nothing to do with our perception of it, or our lack of perception.

Truth = reality
You see, truth is simply what corresponds to reality. Truth is true whether we know about it or not. Truth is true whether we believe it or not. Truth is true whether we like it or not. Truth is simply true.

We all really know this already. We can talk all we want about postmodernism, deconstruction or poststructuralism, but the reality is that postmodern architecture must follow the laws of physics just the same as any traditional, modernistic architecture. If a poststructuralist scholar is hired at a certain salary, they’re not going to accept a smaller check and a “Well, that’s just your perception of reality.” Regardless of our philosophies, we all live our lives according to what is logical, real and true.

But, for some reason, this all changes when we begin to talk about spiritual reality. Apparently, when we’re discussing ideas and beliefs, all logic and reason are out the window and we can use any fuzzy, irrational way of thinking we like. But why? What gives us the right to jettison a rational view of reality simply because something’s not immediately verifiable? It’s not because it’s less tangible. We work very hard at dealing with our emotions in a rational way, and they’re not tangible. To be completely irrational about one’s emotional life can be very romantic in the movies, but very destructive in real life. We all recognize this. Maybe we should take another look at this truth that Jesus was describing.

Another look at the truth of Jesus
The Christian faith  teaches that there is only one God, that he is eternal, and that he created everything but is distinct from his creation.  Though we were created by him, humanity is separated from God because of our rebellion against him. And that’s a problem, because sin always results in death—not because of some arbitrary ruling by God, but because that is the nature of sin. God is the source of life. Sin separates us from God, therefore sin results in death. This sin has poisoned and polluted all of us. Our race is in a state of decay and death because of our sin.

And sin is pervasive, affecting every aspect of our existence. So God, because he loves us, won’t simply say, “I forgive you,” and leave us to continue in sin, and thus to continue to decay and die (physically and spiritually). God can no more forgive and ignore our sin than we could forgive and ignore a deadly toxin in our children’s drinking water. This sin must be cleansed; it must be eradicated. But the consequences of the sin don’t just magically disappear. For the sin to be eradicated, the poison must be dealt with. Someone must take on the consequence of our sin, which means someone must take on death itself—either us or someone else.

So what if the eternal, infinite, Creator God somehow, amazingly, mindblowingly entered space and time, entered humanity and actually became one of us? What if he himself took on the consequences of our sin? What if the source of life somehow experienced death, absorbing the poison that was destroying our race and our very souls? What if he taught us about himself, and showed us how to escape this bondage to sin, decay and death, and experience the life that he has provided for us?

If this is all true, is it not the height of arrogance to insist, “I’m going to choose another way”?

If God himself has provided the way for us, how can there be any other way?

And if this is true, then we must accept God as he has revealed himself to us through his Word, the Bible. We must enter into life and live it in the only way that he has provided. We must believe in him as he actually is.

We must worship him in spirit and in truth.