Politics, Social Issues, and the Church
by Rick Shrader
How much should the churches and their pastors be involved in politics and social issues? The points of view on this have changed dramatically in my own life-time due first of all to the rise of the Moral Majority in the early 1980s and now again with the obvious secularization of American culture, including government, the military, education, and the current political correctness.
Added to this is our own “red-blooded American spirit” that loves God, country, and pick-up trucks (in my case, Farmall tractors). Whether every American founding father was a born-again believer is not really the issue. The fact is that no other gentile nation in this age of grace has been built with such Biblical principles in mind and with the Christian faith at the forefront. For those of us who grew up praying in school and other public venues, listening to evangelistic preaching in and out of church, enjoying Christian symbols displayed in private and in public, it saddens our heart to see these great religious advantages systematically being removed and discarded, or should I say profaned! Our parents were WWII veterans, the “great generation,” who paid a heavy price for the freedoms we enjoyed and who tolerated no disrespect for God, mother, or country. We also grew up with great religious freedom to speak of and witness for our faith in public; to attend religious services in church, in the park, or under a large tent at the fair grounds. Veterans were heroic and missionaries were angelic. Presidents, senators, and congressmen were to be respected and teachers were to be emulated. Officers were to be obeyed and preachers were to be believed.
The American experiment was welcomed by our Baptist forefathers because it was a system where the civil government could not unnecessarily restrict religious freedom nor the free gathering for sectarian worship. Roland Bainton said, “These views are on the North American continent among those truths which we hold to be self-evident: the voluntary Church, the separation of Church and State, and religious liberty. From the days of Constantine . . . These principles, to us so cardinal, had been in abeyance.”1 It is for this religious liberty that my generation has been thankful to God all our lives.
At the same time, we have enjoyed a relatively good and moral culture. I mean relatively good compared to the Biblical culture of the local church which ought to always to be good as well as Biblical. But in recent years we have seen abortion legalized, prayer exorcised, and homosexuality normalized. We have seen the air waves polluted, the screen adulterated, and the internet fornicated. The same natural tendency within us which would defend our country is ever present to defend moral right in the face of immorality and debauchery. But how much of this can we do as Christians and/or as churches?
The question is not how much can a Christian citizen be involved in politics and social issues. Christians have their feet in two worlds and have always felt the liberty to act as earthly citizens in whatever way was necessary as long as it was Scriptural, moral, and legal. As a matter of fact, Christians have always made the best citizens. They vote, pay their taxes, obey the laws of the land, willingly join the military, make an honest living, raise obedient children, build hospitals and rescue missions, and basically raise the tide of any national culture which raises all other boats in the cultural harbor.
The local church of the New Testament, however, collectively operates differently than its individual members. The ministry, worship, commission, and work of the local church is inextricably tied to New Testament precept and example. The church is to be the church in whatever time and place and earthly nation it finds itself. An individual member may find his calling to be in the banking business or a military career, but the church would not because no such calling is described for it in Scripture by text or by New Testament example. The question remains, then: what about “the church as the church” in matters of politics and social issues?
As the pressure mounts on our society due to the loss of political freedom and the decline in moral standards, churches and their representative pastors are being pressed to get more involved in these areas because they usually hold a lot of public sway in a community. Unfortunately this pressure often comes in the form of challenging one’s manhood, calling one out of the safety of his church office, asking one to take a stand, not abandoning one’s calling, accusations of cowardice, and a host of other irrelevant motivations.
Hugh Hewitt, writing for Townhall.com, said, “As our great country accelerates its slide into economic and moral hell, be careful whom you blame. The present boldness of liberals and timidity of conservatives are only the secondary causes. Much of the blame can be placed at the foot of the church . . . . Our country is failing because too many believers have abandoned their calling.” Chuck Baldwin of V-Dare.com writes, “As a result of America’s preachers’ indifference (and that of the Christians they influence) our country is on the brink of becoming an oppressive and tyrannical state—and it’s the preachers’ fault!”
I would actually agree with Mr. Hewitt and Mr. Baldwin, but not in the way they think. They seem to think that our country is in moral decline because the church has stayed inside its four walls and not become involved in politics and social issues. I believe our country is in moral decline because the church has become involved in politics and social issues and has not stayed inside its four walls. It is not that the business of the country is so important that the church must stop doing what it has been doing. It is that the business of the church is so important that it must not stop doing what it is doing, lest individuals, families, and also the country suffer the loss of the only influence that can really make a difference.
The reasons given for the church to become more involved in politics and social causes are usually predictable. I heard one well-known public speaker say, “If the Ship of State goes down, our little compartment goes with it.” But can any Christian really believe that? Do the millions of Christians in Communist China believe that? Did the millions of Christians in the Soviet Union believe that? Where does the New Testament say that the church’s life will depend upon the strength of the State? If Jesus builds His church, not even the gates of hell can stand against it.
Usually someone will give the Old Testament prophets as examples of preachers who stood up to the governmental rulers. Nathan stood up to David; John the Baptist stood up to Herod. But do we understand the difference between a theocracy with its prophets, priests, and kings, and the New Testament church which lives in all nations, cultures, and under all forms of governments? Do we want to live under a theocracy? Do we want the prevailing Church to wield the sword of the civil authority over the citizens of a country? Ask John Bunyan during his years in Bedford jail about a union of church and state. Ask translator John Rogers, Bloody Mary’s first candle to burn at Smithfield, about the church’s influence over the state.
The most embarrassing fact for those seeking the church’s involvement in politics and social issues is that the church of the first century, the church of Peter, James, John, and Paul, lived under the terrible Roman Empire and yet we find absolutely no command or example of political or social involvement. Surely, if this were the business of the church, we would find that first church engaged in it. But we do not, to the embarrassment of many. But then they say, if Paul would have lived and ministered in a democracy, he would have been involved. Thus implying that some Biblical principle of involvement is latent within the Scripture (perhaps some form of Theonomy, Christian Reconstruction, or Dominion Theology) that will inevitably come out when the circumstance presents itself. In that case, welcome to the Jeremiah Wright doctrine of politics and religion! No! God sent His Son and wrote His Book in the fullness of time. He knew what context in which to put the Biblical model just as He knew every situation in which His precious people would live and apply it over the next two thousand years. His martyrs (“Of whom the world is not worthy”) did not fail in their stewardship, but overcame “by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives unto death” (Rev. 12:11).
There are a few related things in the New Testament. There is an unyielding loyalty to the future state: the coming millennial kingdom of God. That is the believer’s real Fatherland and it is that to which he is entirely loyal. There is an unrelenting commitment to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. That is still the only thing that can change a person’s life and values. There is an uncompromising separation of the truth from untruth and unbelief. An occasional compromise, even for the sake of patriotism, will not be entertained. There is also a total commitment of the believer’s life to the ministry and fellowship of his/her local church. It is within this “sectarian” environment that real godliness and, yes, good citizenship is produced. It is here that believers in the age of grace have been schooled in a world-changing culture. That is why Paul commands us to pray “for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4).
We can give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s by doing as Jesus instructed—paying our taxes and being good citizens; but we cannot give unto God the things that are God’s without strong and vibrant local churches within which we build up the saints on the most holy faith for the work of the ministry in this world and the edifying of the body of Christ. Salt and light must be different than meat and darkness if they are going to accomplish anything positive. We have spent too much time allowing the church to be like the world that it can no longer effect the world for righteousness’ sake. Yes, we are also earthly citizens of a country with certain rights and privileges of citizenship. We may exercise those rights as believers and we will be able to do what citizens can do. But if we are not first and foremost Christians who possess the Spirit of God and the Word of God in the church of God, we can do no more than that. The local church is the most powerful force for good the world has ever known.
A sports team cannot play well on the field if they do not first retreat to the practice field. That practice will be designed for the players, not the spectators. It will require commitment and hard work. It will require common agreement to follow the coach’s instruction and the play book. It is not designed for non-players, fans, or critics. It is designed for only one purpose—that the team will win on the real field on game day. The gathered local church is the Christians’ practice session. We must do it well if we are going to affect our world.
In their book, Blinded By Might, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson concluded that their work in the Moral Majority in the 1980s was a failure due to many reasons. They write, “The church that belongs to Jesus is not part of anyone’s agenda. In fact, people who belong to him provide the only agenda that ultimately counts. . . . It is the only force that can make an enemy into a friend, a criminal into a saint, a biological father into a real parent. And it makes the most ambitious political agenda we can possibly imagine look trivial by comparison.”2 Darryl Hart agrees: “To use Christianity for public or political ends fundamentally distorts the Christian religion because it is essentially an otherworldly faith.”3
May God give His church the faith and courage to be the church in our generation. May we live by the faith we profess and faithfully proclaim it throughout this lost and dying world for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ and His coming kingdom.
Notes: 1. Quoted by Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 91. 2. Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded By Might (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) 97. 3. Darryl Hart, A Secular Faith (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006) 16.