At a previous church I served my predecessor had some side businesses. He sold insurance, synthetic motor oil and dietary supplements. I know because he used his office at the church as his warehouse and inadvertently left some product behind when he moved, that, and what more than one church member told me in my first few weeks there. “When I saw him coming up my walk I never knew which one was dropping by – the insurance agent, the dietician, the auto mechanic or the preacher.” How sad, I thought.
I think about this now every time I hear a ministerial colleague publically announcing his or her political positions and openly declaring their political allegiances. Increasingly I hear my peers of the cloth telling anyone who will listen to their pronouncements or bother to visit their Face Book pages all about how they feel about this political issue and that political candidate. Some of my ministry peers are Republicans, not many, but a few. And they have no qualms whatsoever in telling people what they think politically, and why they believe that others ought to think about things just as they do. I am often left with the impression when hearing or reading them that they think that their position is the only “Christian” one on the matter. Most of my ministry peers are Democrats, and they have no qualms either in telling people so, or why they think that we all ought to be like them as well. And just like my Republican colleagues, when I read or listen to them I am left with the distinct impression that they think that their political judgments are the only ones that are truly sanctioned by the Gospel too.
So, I have two questions for my partisan minister friends –
Can you be a Republican and a Christian?
Can you be a Democrat and a Christian?
If your answer to either question is “no,” then by all means keep on talking. In fact, if you truly think so, then, on the basis of conscience and conviction, I would urge you to get on with the business of amending our Good Confession. To our “creed” – “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and my Lord and Savior” – add, “and you can’t be a Republican, or a Democrat, and be serious about following Jesus.” That’s certainly the impression that I am left with when I read what you write and hear what you say. But if your answer is “yes,” then may I respectfully encourage you to rethink what you are doing every time you publically salute a political cause or endorse a political position or candidate. I’m not suggesting that you not have your political opinions, or that you not exercise your rights as a citizen. I’m not advocating that you become Amish and cleave Christ from culture. What I am saying is that you keep it to yourself “out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), from a principled commitment to your primary job.
Just like you, I vote in every election, and will do so again in November. And my vote will be an expression of what I believe and value, beliefs and values that are directly and profoundly informed and shaped by my commitment to Jesus Christ. I can’t help but do this, and neither can you. It’s what it means when we say that Jesus Christ is Lord. But, to use the language of our own Stone/Campbell spiritual tradition, because the Bible does not directly and specifically tell us how to vote, or who to vote for, then we are each accorded the freedom and responsibility to sort out these matters for ourselves, and that makes them “inferences,”and our founders were very clear aboutwhat they thought of “inferences.” We all have them, they are matters of freedom, expressions of private interpretation, and they must never be allowed to become tests of fellowship, wedges that divide us. And if this is so, if our political judgments are an area of inference, and I believe that it is, then in order for them not to become hindrances to our unity, keep them to yourself. I would argue that this holds true for every Christian, but especially for Christian ministers. It’s just so easy for our “side businesses” to garner all of the attention, consume all of our capital and drain all of our energy.
Recently I was reading D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Eerdmans 1959-1960) and was intrigued by an argument that he made in his exposition of Matthew 5:13 – “You are the salt of the earth.”
The primary task of the church is to evangelize and to preach the Gospel.
…If the Christian Church today spends most of her time in denouncing communism (remember it was the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when he wrote), then it seems to me that the main result will be that communists will not be likely to listen to the preaching of the Gospel (insert “Republicans” or “Democrats” depending on your political judgments where he referenced “Communists”). If the church is always denouncing one particular section of society, she is shutting the evangelistic door upon that section. If we take the New Testament view of these matters then we must believe that the communist has a soul to be saved in exactly the same way as everybody else. It is my business as a preacher of the Gospel and a representative of the Church to evangelize all kinds and conditions and classes of men and women. The moment the Church begins to intervene in these political, social and economic matters, therefore, she is hampering and hindering herself in her God-appointed task of evangelism …Let the individual play his or her part as a citizen, and belong to any political party that he or she may choose. That is something for the individual to decide. The Church is not concerned as a Church about these things. Our business is to preach the Gospel and to bring the message of salvation to all. And, thank God, Communists (and Republicans, and Democrats) can be converted and can be saved. The Church is to be concerned about sin in all its manifestations, and sin can be as terrible in a capitalist as in a communist (or in a Republican as in a Democrat); it can be as terrible in a rich man as in a poor man; it can manifest itself in all classes and in all types and in all groups. (135)
Of course, this entire argument turns on the presupposition that, “the primary task of the church is to evangelize and to preach the Gospel.” And this, in my opinion, is the real crisis in the church today. There is simply no need for the church “to evangelize and preach the Gospel” if Jesus Christ is not the Savior and the world does not need saving, and these are the very convictions of historic Christianity that are most directly challenged by the pervasive pluralism and relativism of our day. Pluralism reduces Jesus Christ to one spiritual teacher among many, not the only name under heaven by which people can be saved (Acts 4:12). And relativism levels the moral playing field leaving us without clarity about what’s right and what’s wrong, replacing our need for forgiveness with an appeal for more understanding. And this is where I see pluralism and relativism delivering the church today – the reduction of Jesus Christ to one of the plenary speakers at the Parliament of Religions and the replacement of the Gospel’s message of salvation to a motivational appeal for nice people to be nicer.
It’s my observation that when the church gets out of the salvation business, she invariably finds work in the humanitarian field. When we quit trying to “fit souls for heaven,” then it is only natural for us to turn our attention to trying to make things better for bodies on earth. Now, I’m not suggesting here, even for a moment, that Biblical Christianity does not have a humanitarian impulse or that the physical well-being of human beings in this life is not a concern of the Gospel. What I am saying is that the abandonment of the church’s spiritual mission by Progressive Christians in order to double down on the church’s social mission is as much a distortion of Christianity as the neglect of the church’s social mission by Traditional Christians in their concentration on the church’s spiritual mission alone. As the foundational documents of the Lausanne Conference explained back in the early 1970’s, the church’s spiritual mission and her social mission are like the two wings of a bird or the two blades of a pair of scissors; they are instrumentally linked. In the Great Commission I find them covered by the twin commands to preach the Gospel (the Spiritual Mission) and to teach all that I have commanded (the Social Mission). We are clearly called to do both, but there is an order, even a priority.
It’s the same sequence that drove the narrative in Acts 6 when the Apostles’ ministry of prayer and proclamation began to get co-opted by the church’s benevolent work – the daily distribution of food to the widows. The declaration by the 12 that “we must devote ourselves to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (6:5) was a commitment to knowing and doing what came first. They would not, they could not blur their commitment to “the primary task of the church to evangelize and to preach the Gospel.” They wanted the widows to be fed, but they also understood that those widows could not live by bread alone. In fact, more than anything else, they knew that what they needed most was “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” But this is precisely what I fear gets lost when we hawk the crumbs of our political opinions as preachers of the Word. We are trading our glorious inheritance for a bowl of gruel.
James Pike, the controversial Episcopal Bishop of California in the middle of the last century, said toward the end of his tragic life that he went to graduate seminary hungry for the bread of life but that all they gave him were rocks. When we are through, will the people God has entrusted to our care say the same thing of us? DBS+