Many years ago an associate pastor at a small church mentioned that there was a petition on the back table for FOCA—the Freedom of Choice Act; he explained that the members might want to check it out “for your information.” He emphasized that the church was taking no position on the issue.
A few weeks later the associate decided to run a little experiment when he saw a young couple at the back table getting ready to sign the petition.
“What’re you doing?” he asked.
“Going to sign the petition,” the young man said.
“It’s against abortion.”
“That’s what it says.”
“Right here.” He pointed at the paper, then started to sign it.
“That’s what the National Right to Life Organization wants you to think, but have you read the bill in question?”
“Neither have I. I wouldn’t rely just on what they’re saying about it.”
“Well, the church endorses it.” And he got ready to sign it again.
“No it doesn’t.”
“But it’s back here on the table.”
On the other side of the coin, also many years ago, the interactive computer information service Prodigy (this was in the days before many people actually used the internet) once related a story about a ninth grader in Bloomingdale, Michigan. It seems that there was a large picture of Jesus in one of the hallways of his public high school; after learning about the separation of church and state in class, he got to wondering about the painting.
Eventually, a U.S. District Court ordered that the painting be covered, because the picture “amounts to a school endorsement of Christianity and thus violates the First Amendment, which bars government establishment of religion.”
So school officials “covered the picture while about 150 people held a candlelight vigil outside.” The online service also pointed out that in 1980 the Supreme Court ruled that it was improper for schools to display the Ten Commandments, and in 1992, the court ruled that prayers are not appropriate at school graduations.
Prodigy reported that “Since the lawsuit was filed, [the boy] has been screamed at by parents and challenged to fights. Some students staged a sit-in to protest the judge’s order. Some of his own cousins won’t speak to him.”
The temptation for Christians throughout history has been to try to impose their view of reality on those who do not believe. This activity has resulted in rather hideous evils where those who did not believe appropriately, or who did not act properly, were forced to change their ways or die. Of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
In the United States, such extreme methods are not possible, but this has not kept the Church from trying to impose its will by less extreme methods. The American Church has a long history of clamoring for various social and political causes; early on, the American churches were divided over whether to support or resist the revolution. Later, the abolitionist movement became a focus in some churches, while others fought for the right to own slaves. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the temperance movement worked to ban the manufacture and sale of alcohol. In the last few decades churches in America have taken a role in the civil rights movement, come out for or against certain wars, and issued statements on nuclear proliferation. There is no shortage of those seeking to impose Christian ideals on American society through legislative action: trying to outlaw homosexuality or ban abortions, institute prayer in public schools, or limit sex and violence on television.
Depending on one’s political leanings, the political activities of churches are viewed as either praiseworthy or frightening. Those on the left are quick to condemn churches for mixing religion and politics if the church is pushing a conservative cause. On the other side, the right will happily criticize those churches on the left who involve themselves in issues in which they have the opposite opinion. Each side seems happy with the separation of church and state—until their own agenda is at stake.
Both sides are right to criticize and wrong to be politically involved.
As well-intentioned as all such political activities inevitably are, biblically they are suspect because these crusades for moral purity in society are confusing the mission of the church and distracting people from the message of the cross.
At the heart of the issue is the question of the church’s mission on planet earth. Is it simply to present the gospel, or is it more than that? Based on statements in the book of James, and more especially based upon the example of Israel and the laws established for the people there, cannot it be reasonably argued that the church has a role to play in improving the human condition, in relieving suffering, in working for justice and in fighting for the rights of the oppressed? Does not the Bible say that the church is to be a beacon, a light on a hill, a candle that cannot be put under a bushel? If that is the case, then surely the church not only has the right, but even the duty to involve itself in political issues. The only question then, is to determine which issues are the right ones.
However, is the above line of reasoning entirely biblical? Let’s look again at what the Bible really has to say about the church’s mission to planet earth.
Biblically, it becomes obvious that the Church’s mission on Earth is to spread the good news that Jesus died on the cross. Notice the words of Jesus:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
The Holy Spirit is said to empower the Christian to act as a witness of Jesus (John 15:26-27 and 5:6-9). One of the Holy Spirit’s primary roles on the planet is to refer people to Jesus. Jesus is the focus of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus is the focus of the Church (Acts 4:33, 10:42-43, 23:11 and Matthew 28:18-20).
Jesus receives all authority in heaven and earth. But to his disciples, he gives a simple command: make more disciples. Again, the job of the Christian, the mission he has been given, is one of simple evangelism, followed by the training of those who have been evangelized. Notice the order: first, make disciples; second baptize them; third, teach them to obey.
Obedience cannot precede conversion; obedience—that is, doing good, is the result of salvation, not the cause.
Over and over again, the reader of the New Testament sees Paul and others concerned with proclaiming the gospel, with telling everyone they meet about the gospel (Romans 15:20, 1 Corinthians 1:17, 23, Ephesians 6:19-20, and Philippians 1:12-18).
Notice that Paul suffered severe persecution for proclaiming the gospel, even to the point of being in chains, yet he viewed such persecution more as an opportunity than a hindrance. We never see him railing against the authorities, or encouraging the churches to march on his behalf or—for that matter—on behalf of anyone. There are no letter writing campaigns, no petitions, no banners, no lobbying those in authority. Paul just preached the gospel and encouraged others around him to do the same and even to be encouraged by his plight (see 1 Corinthians 9:16, 2 Corinthians 4:5, Galatians 1:6-9, and 2 Corinthians 11:3-4).
Paul is quite harsh against those who would dare to proclaim a gospel other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. He would argue that such people are eternally condemned (see Ephesians 3:8 and 2 Timothy 4:2).
Repeatedly Paul explains his mission in life, and repeatedly in the book of Acts the reader can see how forcefully he pursued that mission. Paul’s sole concern was with proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He criticizes those who preached a “different” Gospel, a Gospel of works in place of a Gospel of grace. Paul stresses the nature of his message in Romans 1:15- 17 and then writes a summary of the message he’s been proclaiming in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8.
And what is his Gospel message? It is the good news of Jesus Christ, and his finished work on the cross. It has nothing to do with good deeds. Yet, as simple a thing as the Gospel is, it is remarkable how easily it becomes confused in everyone’s minds.
Involving the church in attempts to pass laws or prevent people from doing things that Christians find reprehensible, confuses the mission of the church and confuses what its message is. Non-believers too easily get the mistaken notion that the message of the church is simply to be good for God.
Being good for God, or encouraging other, non-Christians to be good, is not the gospel. Paul made the comment that those who came preaching a different gospel should be eternally condemned. How do those who push political agendas avoid being charged with doing precisely that: turning the gospel message into a message of works and do-goodism?
The message that comes through from political activism by the church is simply that of good works; worse, it presents the church in the following way: we are good, and you, not of the church, are bad, and if you don’t change and join us, you should be hated. Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.
The attitude of non-Christians to Christian politicizing is, “Who are they to shove their beliefs down my throat? What gives them the right to decide what’s right and what’s wrong?” The protest that “we’re only teaching what the Bible says” falls on deaf ears. Why? Because they aren’t convinced the Church knows what the Bible says, and they wonder whether the church might not just be interpreting it to fit their own agenda. Beyond that, the appeal to the Bible is a meaningless appeal to authority and in the mind of the non-Christian does not answer the objection he has raised: “Who are you?…”
What some churches do in politics or in speaking against sin stands in sharp contrast to the approaches one sees in the New Testament.
Paul and the other Christians of the first century—what did they preach? What sort of society did they live in? Did they try to change the laws of Rome through protests and political acts—or did they try to change men’s hearts one by one? Recall that in Philippians 1:12-18 Paul speaks of being in chains for Christ, but he does not speak out against the laws of Rome that had put him there. When he stood before the crowd in Acts 21:37-22:21 he spoke the message of the Gospel by beginning to give his own personal testimony.
Notice Paul’s approach in Athens in Acts 17. He did not berate them about the fact they worshipped idols. He did not talk to them about their bisexuality or homosexuality. Instead, he presented the gospel in a way that they could understand it, using an idol and Greek poets to illustrate his sermon.
The relationship between the church and the world according to the Bible is not particularly cordial (notice 1 John 3:13, 4:5-6). In fact, we are informed repeatedly that the church and its members are likely to be hated.
The Christian is not really a part of the world. He or she walks around in it, but he or she is essentially a stranger and is alienated from it; he or she no longer fits (see 1 Peter 1:1, 17, and 2:11).
The writers of the New Testament point out that the world’s methods, the world’s attitudes and even the world’s sin are something Christians should not be a part of (2 Corinthians 10:2-4). Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).
Notice the interesting point that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 5:12, when he asks the question, “what business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Yet, oddly enough, the church has been doing precisely that off and on for hundreds and hundreds of years. The church has its own agenda, its own citizenship; the world is passing away and so are the things in the world. Therefore, the focus of the church must be on the eternal kingdom, not the temporal issues at hand. The church’s sole agenda is to bring more people into itself. Sin in the world around us is not an issue—after all, Jesus died for the sins of the world.
You want to fix the world? Fix a life, fill an empty belly, bind a wound. There’s a whole world in every life you salvage. Love your neighbor as yourself. When you fix the lives of individuals—it tends to add up, and even multiply in unexpected ways. Within three hundred years of Paul, the Roman Empire—and the world–was radically transformed, and not through petitions or lobbying, but by proclaiming the gospel and helping the helpless one by one. Expecting the government to somehow save you or fix the problems in society that annoy you is putting your trust in a false and failed deity. Why would you expect the government to do the work of the church? That’s not the government’s job.