Tuesday is election day, and in churches all over the country this morning, both conservative and liberal, preachers are telling their congregants how to vote. Oh, they’re being careful. Since 1954 the Johnson Amendment has required churches to refrain from participating in political campaigns if they want to keep their tax-exempt status, and so they’re being very careful, but their implications and inferences will be unmistakably clear. In some churches the message this morning will be that you can’t be a Christian and vote for the Democrats, and in other churches the message will be that you can’t be a Christian and vote for the Republicans.
Well, I’m not that kind of preacher, and we aren’t that kind of church, in fact, go back just a little bit in our denominational history, and the sermon that you might very well have heard preached from the pulpit of a church in our spiritual tradition on a Sunday before an election day would have been -“Don’t!” David Lipscomb (1831 – 1917) was one of the really important second-generation leaders of our Movement. He didn’t think that Christians should vote, and he arrived at that conclusion by reading his Bible with his distinctively Christian Church head and heart.
First of all, David Lipscomb said that he couldn’t find a single chapter or verse anywhere in his Bible that told him that God wanted Christians to vote. Have you heard that old Disciples of Christ slogan – “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; Where the Scripture are silent, we’re silent”? Well, believing that the silences of Scripture were just as inspired and instructive of God’s will as its words, David Lipscomb believed that if God had wanted His people to vote, then God would have told us so in His Word, and God didn’t, so we shouldn’t.
Second, what David Lipscomb did find on the pages of his Bible were some clear teachings that his citizenship was in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and that he was not to love this world and its ways (I John 2:15-17). Instead, David Lipscomb’s Bible told him that he was to seek the things that were above, where Christ is and not to set his mind on the things of earth (Colossians 3:1-3). In fact, in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus Christ explicitly told His disciples to seek first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness (Matthew 6:33), and David Lipscomb believed that political wranglings could only interfere with this clear Christ-given priority.
But the biggest reason why David Lipscomb didn’t believe that Christians should vote was because he knew from his own experience – he lived through the Civil War – how political disagreements could shatter the unity of the church, and the unity of the church was the key to the church’s mission. This is one of the clearest and most important things that our church says it believes.
On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus Christ prayed that His disciples would be one so that the world might believe in Him (John 17:20-21). What God is doing in Jesus Christ, Paul told us, is bringing things that have flown apart back together again, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:9-10), and if we, people who know that this is what God wants and is doing in Christ and by His Spirit, and who say that we know and trust Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, if we can’t get along with each other, then our message about how God in Jesus Christ is in the business of bringing separated things back together again is just not very believable.
I wasn’t raised in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). You’ve seen that bumper sticker about Texas that says – “I wasn’t born here but I got her just as fast as I could”? Well, that’s my story with this church. Just as soon as I woke up spiritually when I was a teenager, I went looking for a church that would nurture my newly stirred-up spiritual life, and it was an article on the Disciples of Christ in the famous “Look” magazine series on the denominations in the United States from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that got me here.
In his essay in that magazine on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?,” James Craig memorably wrote – “There is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper [in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ], each is responsible for his own belief and each has an obligation to serve God according to the dictates of his own conscience” – and instinctively I knew that this was the kind of church that I needed, the kind of church that was clear about what mattered most, and that was committed to keeping it the main thing while allowing people freedom of thought and conscience.
David Lipscomb’s biggest concern about voting was that the way it has the power to get in the way of us being that kind of church. He knew how partisan politics can stir passions and drive wedges between people, and how those passions and wedges can get carried into the sanctuary of the church and get in the way of who we are as Christians and what it is that we are called to do. He wasn’t wrong.
Unlike David Lipscomb, I think that Christians should vote. In a representative democracy like ours, I think that the New Testament’s instructions for Christians to love their neighbors, to be subject to (social) institutions, and to honor the governing authorities implies voting (I Peter 2:13-17). But I hear David Lipscomb, and I think that his concerns about Christian’s voting have some merit. Paul counseled the Galatian Christians right before he named “enmity, strife, anger, dissension, and a party spirit” as attitudes and behaviors that are completely antithetical to the Spirit of Christ who was at work in them (5:20-21), that they needed to “take heed” lest they “bite, devour, and consume” one another (5:15). Well, “biting, devouring, and consuming” is the political order of the day. If you vote differently than I do, it’s not just that we have different concerns and perspectives, it’s that you’re stupid, or evil, or disloyal, or want to destroy our country, and so I don’t want anything to do with you. It’s hard to be church when you feel this way about the people you are taking communion with every Sunday.
Believing that being a Christian means that you have to be politically conservative or politically liberal, depending on your interpretations and associations, churches are increasingly becoming caucuses of the Republican or Democratic parties. Christians and churches are choosing sides, withdrawing into their own walled-off fortresses, and launching broadsides of soundbites, half-truths, insults, false witness, and proof-texts, thinking that this is what faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord requires of them, and failing to see that Christ is actually being pushed away by the things they are saying and doing that they think are serving Him.
Oh, I think Christians should vote, but I strongly believe that there’s a Christian way of voting, and our Scripture lesson this morning, I Timothy 2:1-7, is the text from the Bible that has been most instrumental in shaping my own understanding of what it is that my vote as a Christian is, and what it can do, and how that voting fits together with what it is that God is doing in Jesus Christ.
I Timothy 2:1-7 begins with a call for prayer. “First of all,” Paul told Timothy, “I urge that prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1). There’s another sermon, or two, or three in just this verse! There are lots of things about prayer I don’t understand, but here’s what I do understand. God does some things whether we ask Him to or not. But there are other things that God won’t do unless and until we ask, and even then, God is going to do them in God’s own way and in God’s own time. So, when Scripture tells us to pray about something for somebody, I’ve learned to pay attention, to follow the directions.
In our Scripture lesson this morning Paul told Timothy to lead the church in praying specifically for “kings and all who are in high positions” (2). Now understand, that would have been the Emperor Nero when Paul wrote this I Timothy. Nero would be the Roman Emperor who in a couple of years would have Paul put to death for being a Christian. Nero was not a good and godly ruler. I would never have voted for him. Still Paul told Timothy and the church to pray for him. There’s simply no room for politics in prayer. Vote on Tuesday, and then pray for whoever wins the election regardless of who you voted for. That’s how I Timothy 2:1-2 works.
What Paul told Timothy and the church to pray about when they were praying for those in authority over them, was that they would do their job. Pray for those who rule, Paul explained, so that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (2). “This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God” Paul told them (3).
“It is the sad duty of politics,” the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr explained, “to establish justice in a fallen world.” In Romans 13, another passage where Paul told the church to pray for the state, he explained that the state exists to promote the common good, what makes for social order, and to suppress evil, what creates social chaos.
I don’t want or need city hall here in Dallas, or the government down in Austin, or over in Washington D.C. to preach the Gospel for me, or to write my prayers, or to teach the Faith, or to go around baptizing people. That’s not their job. Their job is to be part of the process of “forming a more perfect union, establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” That’s the state’s assignment, and when I vote, I vote for those who I think can do those things wisely, and competently, and fairly. And if it’s a Muslim, or a Jew, or an atheist, or a Republican, or a Democrat that I conclude can do these things best, then that’s who I will vote for.
Beginning in verse 4 of our Scripture lesson this morning, Paul told Timothy and the church to pray for the government to do its job so that they could get on with doing their job. God wants all people to be saved, Paul told them (verse 4). God came to us in Jesus Christ to do what needed to be done to save us (verse 5-6). And now, Paul said, it’s our job as the church to be telling people about the saving work of God in Jesus Christ so that they might know that they are loved, accepted, and can be forgiven too.
There’s just one God, but that one God is doing more than just one thing. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that with His left-hand God works to establish order in a world that is prone to coming apart at the seams, so that human life might flourish, while with His right-hand God works to restore people to a right relationship with Himself, so that people might receive the gift of eternal life.
It’s understanding these different things that God is doing in and through the church, and in and through the state, that informs my understanding of what my vote as a Christian is, and what it can do, and how it fits together with what it is that God is doing in Jesus Christ. Just as I don’t go to the bank to get a loaf of bread, or take my cat to an auto mechanic to get his annual rabies shot, or go to the Meyerson to see a football game, so, while I believe that God is at work in and through both the state and the church, I don’t believe that God is doing the same thing in both places. They each have their own lane, their own assignment, and it is incumbent upon me as someone who lives in both lanes to understand which is which, and what is what, and who is who.
I don’t want or need my politicians preaching, or my preachers politicking. When I vote it’s with a view to what will make life better in this world here and now. My commitment to Christ certainly informs what I think that means, what that looks like, but it’s the Constitution and not the Bible that’s my primary text for this assignment. And when I go to church it’s with a view to what will make life possible in the world to come. My vote is not going to bring this Kingdom, and no political candidate is ever going to save us. What our votes and candidates can do is to serve the common good and promote the general welfare so that the church can be safe and free to be the church, preaching the Gospel and inviting people into the embrace of His love.
So, let’s close by doing what Paul told us to do in our Scripture lesson this morning. On this Sunday morning before the election, let’s pray for those who are in authority over us, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, knowing that this is good, and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who wants everyone everywhere to be saved. And then on Tuesday, let’s vote our carefully considered concerns, convictions, and conclusions. This is a privilege and a responsibility that not every human being gets, and we should not take it for granted. And then on Wednesday, let’s remember who we are, make that – whose we are – and like light let’s shine for Christ in the darkness of the world, like salt let’s be a distinct spiritual presence on the earth, and like leaven let’s be a transforming power for good in society. This is our lane. This is our job. Let’s pray…