Thursday, September 13, 2012

From the archives: Church and Politics

Attack on the American Embassy in Cairo (credit)
The attacks on American embassies this week in Egypt, Libya (resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues) and Yemen coupled with the looming presidential election in the USA have turned my heart and mind back to Scripture as I consider how citizens of heaven who still reside in this broken world should respond. I wrote the following post in 2005 and it remains a good outline of my thinking on these types of issues. The increasingly rapid overthrow of moral restraints in our nation confronts believers and churches with many temptations. Do we organize for political activism? Do we withdraw in pietistic isolationism? How do we engage? As history indicates, that question evokes a wide range of responses from believers who genuinely want to follow Christ faithfully. I don't profess to have definitive answers. But I do realize the necessity of openly facing the question.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me try to clarify my thinking on church and politics. The nature, purpose and mission of the church are to be determined by the Word of God and the Word of God alone. As a pastor I have often been lobbied by individuals and organizations who have wanted "my church" to go on record in support of (Right to Life) or protest against (public schools) various political and social causes. By and large I have declined such overtures.

I have done so while having strong convictions and being very outspoken about some of those very causes (prolife is my one-issue-litmus-test for candidates for public office and I think the government education system is hopelessly broken). This has resulted in charges of being inconsistent, "pietistic" and even "liberal" (it is hard to imagine how anyone could confuse me with a liberal!). In my own mind, I am simply trying to be carefully consistent.

I make a distinction (a necessary one, it seems to me) between the role and function of the church and the role and function of individual believers. A Christian can go to war in behalf of the state, but a church must never take up the physical sword as part of its mission. A Christian can be a magistrate (king, president, senator, etc.) but a church must never seek to rule a geo-political structure with political authority.

In 1996 I wrote the following words. They still express my convictions on this matter:
There is within the religious right much which is commendable. Their stated motivations and intentions are worthy of every Christian's appreciation. Who among the people of God is not dismayed over the cultural decay all around us? Adultery, fornication, homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia are now widely hailed as standard practices of the new morality. Governmental corruption is accepted as inevitable. Educational lunacy prevails at what are supposed to be the highest centers of learning. The prophetic judgment against "those who call evil good, and good evil" (Isa. 5:20) cannot help but resonate within the heart of the believer.

We all recognize that some kind of action is called for, and at least the religious right is doing something. They will not allow us to close our eyes to the moral degeneration all around us. As citizens, individual Christians who fulfill their calling in this way can provide a tremendous ministry. It is right and proper for Christians to be involved in every level of politics as individual citizens. But when they call for a Christian congregation to become institutionally involved in political activism they are guilty of distracting that church from its God-given mission. It is precisely because of this that the religious right's proposals are disastrous for evangelical churches (from "Reformation, Revival and the Religious Right").
I find much agreement with Martyn Lloyd-Jones at this point. In an interview with Carl Henry in 1980 he said,
"It amazes me that evangelicals have suddenly taken such an interest in politics." He went on to call such interest "sheer folly.... You can't reform the world. That's why I disagree entirely with the 'social and cultural mandate' teaching and its appeal to Genesis 1:28. It seems to me to forget completely the Fall. You can't Christianize the world. The end time is going to be like the time of the Flood. The condition of the modern world proves that what we must preach more than ever is 'Escape from the wrath to come!' The situation is critical. I believe the Christian people--but not the church--should get involved in politics and social affairs. The kingdom task of the church is to save men from the wrath to come by bringing them to Christ. This is what I believe and emphasize. The main function of politics, culture, and all these things is to restrain evil. They can never do an ultimately positive work. Surely the history of the world demonstrates that. You can never Christianize the world" (Christianity Today, February 8, 1980, pp. 33-34).

It is for this reason that all the calls to "reclaim America for Christ" leave me cold. Our real need is to reclaim the church for Christ. When Christ is exalted in His church, when He is loved and revered and cherished with passion by those who bear His Name--in other words, when the church starts living like the church--then His body cannot help but make an impact on culture.

4 comments:

David Miller said...

As always, well said Tom. I also appreciate the links to your two previous articles. I need to be challenged on my thinking in this area because I can easily default to the position of political disengagement. It never sits well with me when the local church exalts a lesser kingdom.

I heard Piper recently plead with his congregation to not press the church and her pastors into political activism: "When I warn against the politicizing of the church, I do so not to diminish her power but to increase it." To that and to your sentiments here, I say a hearty "Amen."

Peace,

DM

David B. Hewitt said...

Dr. tom:

This is off topic, but I was just wanting to make you aware of Dr. Allen's work at reviewing all of "Whomever He Wills." I've read most of his comments so far (the posts he made on particular redemption), and he is currently working at responding to your chapter. You can find the posts over at sbctoday.com -- I haven't read his most recent (that is, his responses to your chapter) just yet, but he is at least attempting to interact fairly and is being quite cordial in his presentation for the most part. Might be worth looking into more of an exchange? :)
sdg
dbh

Tom said...

Thanks, David M. That tends to be my default mode, too. Love the Piper quote!
Press on,
ta

Tom said...

David H,

Thanks for the heads up. I will check it out. I am grateful that he is giving the book serious attention.

ta