The Political Church: The Seditious Gospel

[Church StateThis morning’s lesson (3/7/10) had nothing to do with the notes I’d brought at all. Sometimes that happens.]

We live in a highly politicized world. The US is a democracy, and so has always been political, but it’s truer now than ever. Ever since Ted Turner founded CNN, news — which is mainly political — has dominated TV viewing for many of us. In lots of households, including my own, if we’re not watching sports, we’re watching Fox, HNN, or CNN.

When CNN was founded, they brought in people to debate both sides of a controversial issue — which was quite a novelty at the time. Before then, Walter Cronkite told us “That’s the way it is,” and that was the way it was. And so having both sides debated on TV was crazily liberating at the time.

Of course, the producers soon found that ratings were better when the two sides were rude, talked over each other, and refused to concede a point no matter how much proof was brought against them — and this led to a political culture that cares nothing for actual discussion and consensus. It’s all about shouting down the other side — and both sides are guilty of it.

And the church has become increasingly political as well. We are far more likely to speak ill of Bush or Obama in the hallways of the church building than was once true. Respect for the government is in rapid decline.

On the other hand, people are largely better informed than they once were. I’m sure we know much more about the various health care bills than we knew about the founding of the EPA or enactment of ERISA (Pension Reform Act) under Nixon. But a lot of what we “know” is unreliable. Even the “fact check” sources on the internet are often put there by advocacy groups for one side or the other.

And it’s not too surprising that the political parties want to gain the support of Christians — and as the church has seen the nation become more and more secular, the church has sought to regain influence through the political process. And that’s an ongoing debate within the church.

Some argue that the US was always meant to be a Christian nation. Others argue that we were intended to have a secular government. And churches often have “Bible” classes dedicated to the question of the Founder’s intent when they wrote the Constitution. Of course, when we read the Constitution, seeking the Founders’ intent, considering their historical background and their views of the world, we’re engaging in hermeneutics. It’s a similar process to what we do when we read the Bible.

But the Constitution isn’t scripture. It’s not inspired by God. And the intent of the Founders is not necessarily God’s intent. You see, when we gather in a church building to determine what Thomas Jefferson meant by this phrase or that, we are doing what lawyers and judges do. We may well be acting as good citizens of the country. But we aren’t acting much like Christians — because Christians study the word of God, not the words of Madison and Hamilton. We don’t learn what God wants for the government to be like from the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

You see, we open the Constitution seeking to prove or disprove what we want, and we do that before we open the Bible to see what kind of government God wants. And this borders on idolatry. If I decide what’s right and good based on the words of James Madison, I’ve made him Lord. Or I’ve made myself Lord, by seeking to prove that my desires are bound on the government by law — rather than first asking what God wants.

Now, for a long time, I thought it was obvious that God wants the government to impose his will on people. But over the years, I changed my views — a lot. But it took a lot of time and study — and being rebuked by a few good souls. And it wasn’t an easy change because I’m a lawyer and I know politics and how to work the system. I know how the church can work the system. If you want the church to have secular power, I know how to do it.

I have been a registered lobbyist at both the state and federal levels. I’ve even been a registered influence peddler! There are several laws on the books that I’ve written. I know how to do this.

But I finally learned that the church is seeking to win God’s war with Satan’s weapons.

Consider First Century Rome. The people of Rome wrote on their public works SPQR — Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and the People of Rome”). The people of Rome identified with the government so much so that they placed the Senate above themselves. I can’t imagine us today saying “The legislature and people of Alabama,” as though we would find our identity in the Alabama legislature!

The point is, though, that the Romans were very political, too. They identified closely with the government of Rome — at least as much as we identify with our federal government.

Now, when Augustus became emperor, he was declared kyrios and soter — Lord and Savior — in a proclamation calling this euaggellion — “good news” — the same word we translate “gospel.” To a Roman, the gospel was that Augustus is Lord and Savior.

In Palestine, Herod was “king of the Jews.” That was his title, given him by Augustus, the emperor.

Of course, Jesus was the Messiah, which is Hebrew for “anointed.” The Greek word for anointed is christos — which we translate “Christ.” “Anointed” means “king” — and “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus the king” or even “king Jesus.” Remember that Saul and David became kings of Israel when Samuel anointed them.

And during the time of the apostles, the Empire was developing a cult in which the emperor would be worshiped as a god. Asia Minor, modern Turkey, where Paul spent much of his missionary work, was highly prosperous in those days. They grew rich off the trade routes and the good will of the emperor. And the cult of the emperor grew fastest and strongest there. Why?

Well, where your treasure is, there your heart is also, and they were rich and they credited the emperor with making it so. And so they built temples to the emperor and compelled people to offer sacrifices to him as to a god.

In Acts, we read how the gospel spread from Jerusalem, to Antioch, and up to Asia Minor. This would surely be one tough mission field!

When Paul met with the Jews, he announced that Jesus was Messiah = Christ = king and Lord and Savior. Paul says this is the “gospel of truth.” How would an agent of Caesar have interpreted those words? A good Roman citizen would have heard, “Good news, Jesus has ascended to the throne as a god over the empire, of which is king, lord, and savior (=protector)!” A good Roman citizen would have heard a direct challenge to the power of Caesar.

Meanwhile, the Jews in Asia Minor considered Paul a blasphemer. The Greeks and Romans would have seen him as a rebel. It’s no wonder he spent so much time in jail, getting beaten, and being stoned. It was a tough mission field, indeed. I mean, any sensible marketing person would have modified the message to be more acceptable to the local culture, to be more effective.

I have a book on my shelves put out by Focus on the Family where a Christian author tells us how to defeat pornography in our communities. He relates how he tried to do so from a Christian organization and repeatedly failed. And so he formed a secular organization, hid his Christianity, and prevailed on the community to zone pornography away from residential neighborhoods in order to preserve property values. He defeated porn appealing to people’s self-interest to relocate the stores. Praise Jesus!! (Sarcasm.)

Paul would have preferred to take a beating or be stoned before he’d retreat from the name of Jesus. He’d rather fail in his mission than fail to stand for Jesus. Paul saw his mission as converting people to the cross, so they’d bow before the one true king of the universe. And if this means failing to move the pornography away from his neighborhood, well, it’s a small price to pay to suffer in the name of Jesus.

Now, sometimes Christians obey the government in the name of Jesus. Sometimes we disobey the government in the name of Jesus. But it’s always service to Jesus. You see, it’s about who we worship. Do we worship our real estate values? Success? Our way of life? Power? Our schools? Our government? … Or our King? You only get to pick one.

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17 Responses

  1. Jay,
    Having spent 15 years in party politics, I affirm your post.

    A professor at ACU once asked me if I thought the anti-abortion movement would impact the outcome of a general election — something he overtly favored. While acknowledging that it might, I asked him if he’d rather argue with someone about abortion or talk to them about Jesus — because you can do one or the other, but not both.

    Choose this day, whom you will serve!

  2. I read recently that one of the main reasons that young people don’t attend church is that they believe the church is too political. In a country like ours which is so split by party lines, when we lean one way or the other, we effectively cut ourselves off from ministering to half the population. I have strong political views, but I don’t think it is beneficial to try and impose them on the church.

  3. Wow, I almost got emotional reading this one. You get an AMEN from me. I’ve been concerned for a long time about how much time Christians spend talking politics, doing politics and worrying about politics.

    “But I finally learned that the church is seeking to win God’s war with Satan’s weapons.”

    Exactly. Amen.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  4. One of my signature lines that I used in my emails for a long time was this Eugene Peterson quote:

    “This impatience to leave the methods of Jesus in order to get the work of Jesus done is what destroys spirituality, because we’re using a non-biblical, non-Jesus way to do what Jesus did.” – Christianity Today, 49(3) Mar 2005

    So I agree – I heartily AMEN this post!

    And I appreciate how specific you were in your comments about Rome. The imperial cult was indeed an Eastern phenomenon in the early days of the church, and most Romans even in that period would have rejected that kind of thinking – which is one strong reason why the gospel was so attractive to them.

    Remember the idea upon which Rome was founded 500 years before Jesus – Brutus (obviously not the Julius Caesar Brutus, but rather his namesake) vowing to die before there would be another king in Rome.

    For a very interesting contrast between the Roman Republic and the imperial cult, I recommend Empires of Trust by Thomas Madden – It’s a fast read and rather surprising in some parallels he draws.

  5. The political church needs a radical change. When I see America, capitalism, conservative politics and the cultural church being one and the same as Christianity in the minds of so many my first thought is these individuals will have to be by-passed in order for God to become first and foremost.
    I care for this county; but it is not God. I work for a company that makes money; but capitalism’s right to exist reaches only as far as it takes care of those who cannot take care of themselves. And I hold in my soul a feeling for my southern roots and the country churches I attended as a child; but a young couple, he with his tatooed arms and she with her purple or orange hair, walking down a New York or Philadelphis street to a store front church, or a disheveled old scholar sitting in an ivy covered cathedral with an open mind that would terrify the staunchest “contender for the faith” , may be as close, or closer, to the way of Christ than generations of gospel or revival meetings, of dinner on the grounds, and Sunday afternoon singings.
    When I was a young man and became aware of the changes in my heart and mind I tried to keep myself indoctrinated by reading over and over again “Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ”. But now, when I read the gospels I see Jesus saying to all that it is the heavenly father, the all, who is to be trusted above all…and we do this by seeing his child, in all. And to see all we usually have to walk around those who would try to block our view.

  6. Of course the church is political – it is made up of a group of people, and so “politics” dictates the interactions of that group, as it does every group.

    The question is, what politics?

    Once we forget that our allegiance is to Christ Himself, that creates the opportunity for the politics of freedom, the politics of effectiveness, the politics of modernity, the politics of Constantinianism, etc to replace the politics of Christ.

    And what are the politics of Christ? No one can answer that fully, but I think it has to include the following:
    – making peace, not war
    – embracing/affirming the outcast
    – forgiveness
    – redemption
    – authenticity
    – non-coercive, non-violent, non-exploitative
    – love of enemy (how can we kill that which we love?)
    – sacrificial

    The politics of Christ are not measured in effectiveness, but in “faithful witness” – our God and King will see to his Glory being shown and his will being done. Once we can accept that, our burdens truly become light and our paths truly easy.

  7. Jay,

    i agree heartily with your sentiments, though i suspect we disagree about what to do with these thoughts as a basis. We certainly have unwittingly expected the government to do the church’s job and an entire evangelical-cottage industry has sprouted to carry on and campaign for that very project. Sad.

    Have you ever heard Derek Webb’s “King and a Kingdom”?

    i highly recommend giving it a listen (i couldn’t find one with the lyrics posted so here’s a link to the lyrics:

    http://www.lyricstime.com/derek-webb-a-king-a-kingdom-lyrics.html

    Let me know what you think,

    –Guy

  8. That is a powerful essay. It would be nice to see it appear in the Christian Chronicle since that is the widest read publication in the CoC.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  9. The vast majority of 20-somethings in America today see churches as arms of the Republican party. Hence, most of them stay away with only a quick thought. It is a terrible crime we have committed.

  10. A couple of years ago I heard a sermon at a Church of Christ that sounded like the Republican party platform worked into a sermon. Complete with proof text of course.

    A few months later at a Disciples of Christ Church, I heard a woman speak who sounded like she was reading the latest Democratic Party talking points.

    When we follow Christ it should effect our politics just as it should effect every aspect of our lives, but it seems too often the opposite is the case. Our politics effects our religion.

    Whether on the politcal left or the right we can find our political views in the bible if that’s what we go to the bible looking for.

  11. Jay – Your article is exactly the sentiment I have expressed for many years. When I was in my teens (1950) I asked my Dad why more people in the church didn’t get into politics and clean it up. He said that there were two professions which a Christian could not engage in – politics and bar tending. In my later working years I wound up working for a politician (member of the church) and I came to understand what my father meant.

  12. If loving freedom rather than big government is a sin, some of us today are sinners indeed. I love Jesus and the freedom He offers. I appreciate the Republican party and the opposition to big government it professes to stand for. Good Republican politicians can be found. They deserve support from Christians. If we don’t act as citizens of the nation, we shouldn’t be surprised when things go wrong in the nation. Yes, our first loyalty MUST be to Jesus. But He suggests that doesn’t mean to not pay taxes. I suspect He also wants us to be active in politics when that can be done without preventing appropriate service as a Christian in our community and state and nation. Good Christians can be good politicians, but they need the support of many who only vote and think godly thoughts about both Christianity and our nation.

  13. I agree with Rex. This essay needs the widest audience possible. Perhaps Christianity Today would be a good venue if possible – and in the Conservative Christian Churches, The Christian Standard is widely read (many congregations pass them out with their church bulletins).

    John, your age and your story seems much like mine. It’s sometimes lonely to strongly believe something that is contrary to the popular views of the congregation or brotherhood!

    Jerry
    CommittedtoTruth.WordPress.com

  14. Like the olde hymn once sung

    Who will follow Jesus?
    Who will make reply, ‘I am on the Lord’s Side, Master here am I.’?

  15. Ray,

    I agree. Many Christians in America have fallen into the sin of looking to a government for freedom instead of looking to Jesus. The idolatry of country worship is widespread.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  16. Once in a while, I will contact an elected official. Recently, a friend asked me to e-mail my congressman and senators in order to support legislation limiting access to a certain kind of drug. Her son died as a result of accidentally overdosing on it, so she wanted to try to prevent other mothers from going through her pain.

    I decided to get involved in the political process on this issue simply because I love my friend and want to be supportive. I’m not trying to usher in the kingdom of God through the political process; I’m just trying to love my neighbor.

  17. Jay:

    I agree, we can’t let political parties define for us whether someone is a faithful Christian. You can be a big government liberal who’s a child of God or a small government conservative. God takes all comers.

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