It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything new on this blog. There are things I’ve been wanting to write about regarding various theological and church-related topics. I’ve also had thoughts to share concerning our current cultural and political situation, and how this relates to the church. When everything began to shut down due to COVID-19, I thought I’d have a lot of time for writing. The reality has been that during this pandemic I’ve actually been much busier than I could have anticipated. I’m not complaining about this! It’s wonderful to be active and useful. But there is much I’d like to share when I have a bit more time. Until then, here’s the most recent Bible study from the church I serve (The Orchard in Sacramento, CA). I don’t think I’ve ever posted one of our studies on this blog before, but I feel this addresses some truths that are vital to the church, especially during these times.
As 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?
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?
I’ve had the privilege of helping train young leaders and teachers. It can be a little dizzying for these new leaders as they begin to access all the myriad books and resources we have available to us today. I’m often asked who is my “go-to” writer. Who is the one source on whom I can always rely? Or which is the one commentary series that is unfailingly solid and reliable? What they’re looking for—even if they haven’t really thought this through—is a recommendation for an authoritative standard. They want the simplicity of having one source for accurate biblical interpretation, and the ability to measure everything else by this one flawlessly reliable standard.
It’s not hard to find examples of believers who make one pastor or leader their primary teacher and subtly (or not so subtly!) evaluate everything else based on this leader’s views. It might be “Piper cubs” who view John Piper as the obvious standard for right doctrine and practice in the church today, or those who look to John MacArthur, or Jack Hayford, Wayne Grudem, Charles Stanley, RC Sproul, NT Wright, Mark Driscoll (until recently), etc., etc. Or it might be those who favor a teacher with the sheen of a century or two (or at least decades) of being quoted and referenced, like John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, AW Tozer, Charles Spurgeon, CS Lewis, etc. But regardless of the specific writer/teacher to whom they look, the pattern is strangely similar. Whenever theology or ministry is discussed, this person invariably appeals to the views of their teacher. They look to him (or her) as a standard of what is right and healthy for the church.
Now, I’m not at all accusing these teachers and leaders of seeking this kind of devotee. I’m not blaming the leaders themselves for this phenomenon. But, sadly, this often happens to those who strive to be faithful teachers and leaders. What they intend to be helpful thoughts and insights for the church, others misuse to place these teachers and their works on a pedestal. I can almost see these overly revered teachers responding as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14, pleading with the people not to do this.
The Christians doing this aren’t intending to misuse or misappropriate anyone’s ministry; they’re usually seeking to be conscientious, faithful disciples of Jesus. So, just to be clear: What exactly is wrong with looking exclusively or primarily to one human teacher? There are two big problems I see:
Human teachers are not infallible.
Of course, Christ is an exception to this because he isn’t merely human but also divine. And his specially-appointed apostles were able, under divine inspiration, to speak and write the teaching of Christ with his authority. But we don’t accord teachers today this same level of authority (or at least we shouldn’t).
Even the apostle Paul didn’t expect the people to automatically accept anything he taught simply because he was an apostle. He strongly warned the Galatian churches against receiving any other gospel, even if it was proclaimed to them by Paul and his associates or even an angel from heaven (Galatians 1:8). The Bereans didn’t automatically accept Paul’s teachings, but first checked them out to make sure they were scriptural. And they were commended for this (Acts 17:11). The people were given the responsibility to scripturally evaluate what they were taught.
The fist time it happens can shock and disturb us. We’re reading or listening to the teaching of a parent, a pastor or favorite teacher and we suddenly realize, ‘. . . I just can’t agree with that!’ Of course, we shouldn’t arrogantly look for details to pick apart, but it shouldn’t surprise us if we occasionally, humbly disagree with even a noted writer (that is, unless we expect them to be completely without error). I think God mercifully allows these infrequently different viewpoints so we won’t rely exclusively on one lone teacher. This kind of over-reliance can be dangerous.
But when we, in our opinion, have found an error, this isn’t necessarily cause for us to reject a teacher or commentary either. We can’t expect inerrancy anywhere but in God’s Word itself. We must all endeavor to accurately interpret and teach the Bible, but we must also be patient with each other when we don’t do this perfectly every time. Some of us are far too eager to put someone on a pedestal, and then when they show any imperfection we gleefully knock them back down! This leads to our second problem:
We can put a teacher or leader in the place of God in our lives.
Now, this might sound too strongly worded. Sure, maybe we’re sometimes guilty of relying too much on a particular pastor or teacher, but is this really idolatry?! ‘I mean, I may be listening to only one guy, but he is teaching the Bible after all.’ But let’s think about this. If I evaluate everything by one pastor’s teaching of Scripture, am I really trusting the Bible or am I trusting this one individual’s interpretation of the Bible? Am I seeking God’s instructions in Scripture, or Charles Stanley’s (or John MacArthur’s, etc.) instructions about God’s instructions? Am I committed to the historic, biblical Christian faith or to the historic, biblical Christian faith as explained and clarified by NT Wright?
It’s not hard to see how this can become idolatrous. It can also be quite divisive, as I pit my favored teacher against that of another. And, if these merely human teachers really are fallible, the implication of relying on only one teacher is alarming. I would be binding myself to one teacher’s errors, and blinding myself to anything this teacher hasn’t seen.
So how do we avoid this? Let’s resist the false security of an authoritative standard other than Scripture itself. And let’s fight the inclination in ourselves toward hero-worship and exalting certain leaders. Let’s not identify ourselves with a particular teacher or group in opposition to other teachers or groups. Let’s be willing to learn from any mature Christian leader or teacher, even if we disagree with them on some issues. And when you encounter a teacher or leader who refuses criticism or evaluation, but seeks to draw disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30)—run!
One final reminder to those who are teachers and leaders: Don’t be surprised when people want to look to you as their authoritative standard. We need to be vigilant, ready to put a quick and decisive stop to this. Years ago in a Bible study, the discussion turned to a controversial issue. A young man looked to me and asked, “What do we believe about that, Curt?” I smiled and responded, “I know what I believe about that, but I don’t have a clue what you believe about it!” I went on to explain that he needed to know what he believed and why. We don’t want to make the people dependent on us, but on Christ. We need to take every opportunity to point them back to the Scriptures, to not just give them answers but teach them how to find the answers in God’s Word for themselves. Let’s not make any teacher or leader into some little tin god, and let’s not allow anyone to make us into one. Let’s be, and make, disciples of Christ and Christ alone.