Regardless of one’s personal political beliefs, it’s hard to deny that this particular election season is one of the most brutal in decades. On both sides of the aisle, a harsher edge has accompanied our political discourse. This has been exacerbated by people retreating further and further to the safety of their own “sides” in these uncertain times, leading to pockets of like-minded people who rarely interact with those with whom they disagree.
And yet, the good news is that there is still one institution in society whose very nature draws people together from a diversity of views, classes, opinions, and income brackets: the Christian Church. Christians do this imperfectly, for sure, and many of our churches are marked by sharp divisions and high uniformity on issues secondary to the essentials of our faith; yet the Christian Church, throughout history, has been able to contain within itself a huge diversity of views, opinions, cultures, and societal structures, all while maintaining its essential integrity.
This puts Christians in a bind, though, when studying Scripture in a diverse community and in a tense political time. As Christians, we want the Bible to inform our political beliefs, but we also want to be in unity with other believers around us. As the Bible shapes us and we come to our own beliefs on political issues, how do we do so in a way that leads to charity and a deeper knowledge of God through the Scriptures?
I think we can chart a way forward by looking at the diversity of ways the Scriptures interact with the politics of God’s people, the politics at the time the Bible was actually written, and by focusing on the central point of Christian teaching: Jesus.
Biblical Political Diversity
The first principle is to understand that their is no singular “biblical” view of politics. Throughout the Scriptures, you can find God-fearing men and women that could be interpreted as falling on any number of sides of particular contentious issues.
A great example of this is the story of Elijah and Obadiah in 1 Kings 18. Elijah was a bold prophet speaking against the political structures of the day. Obadiah was a government employee in that very structure. They were both fearers of God, the text says. One person’s political philosophy was about advocacy and protest from the outside; the other’s was to participate in the system and try to be faithful and effect change from within.
And yet, when they meet, they relate to one another on the basis of their mutual brotherhood of faith, not on their differing political viewpoints. In fact, Obadiah is able to help Elijah secure a meeting with the King, thereby inviting Elijah into the “system” while allowing Elijah to maintain the integrity of his political views.
The lesson here: there is simply no one way to be a “biblically” political Christian. Throughout history, one can find examples of well-meaning Christians in every conceivable type of political system studying their Bibles in good faith and coming to honestly-held conclusions that would differ from our own.
Ancient Political Context
Similarly, the next principle is to take the original context of biblical texts seriously. There is almost no political issue of our day which biblical writers faced in the very same way. Democratic Republicanism was not around. Capitalism was not around. Even the analogous topics that were around then were of an entirely different nature than they are today. War, poverty, slavery, property rights, race relations, “sword control,” foreign policy, domestic entitlements, bank reform, and the relationship between church and State were all real issues of the day and yet were significantly different from what we have faced or do face in contemporary America.
This means when we open our Bibles and sit down to study, a concordance is not necessarily the best tool to help shape us politically. It may be a helpful starting place, but simply finding all the places where “war” or “the poor” show up in our Bible doesn’t comprehensively settle the issue. It’s not a one-to-one correlation.
Deeper study is necessary to understand not just what the Biblical writers say about a given topic, but why they do and what they meant when they wrote it. What does “war” mean for peoples of the Levant in the 10th-century BC? Is it ethically, morally, or politically comparable to modern drone warfare, for example? Who exactly are “the poor” in first-century Judea where multiple political systems, cultures, class systems, and ethnic prejudices all collided into one amalgam? Do those principles apply to contemporary Western urban poverty?
It is far too easy for us to bring our prior political assumptions and commitments to the biblical text and force it to say and emphasize what we want it to say and emphasize. For example, what do you think is Jesus’ view on swords? In Luke 22:35-28, he says that two swords are “enough” for his disciples to carry with them for the time to come. In Matthew 26:51-53, however, he famously says, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” I have seen Christians on opposing sides of gun control discussions appeal to both of these texts to endorse both sides of that issue. Could it be, perhaps, that this text’s original meaning has nothing to say about American gun control and the Second Amendment?
Humbly receiving the Word of God on its own terms, rather than our own, is one of the hardest things to cultivate as we engage politics as Christians. And yet, it is so essential.
Major in the Majors
So far I have been encouraging, on one hand, an individual freedom to study the Bible and be shaped in order to come to one’s own personal political conclusions while, on the other hand, allowing for enough freedom in the text for a diversity of viewpoints in the same Christian family.
And yet, at some point, we must live as that family, and this means that each of our personal convictions will come out, collide, and conflict, even as we seek unity. This is healthy. If everyone in your local church community is of one voice politically, you risk creating more of a Political Action Committee than a church. Diversity within unity reflects both the Scriptures and the Trinitarian Nature of the God we serve.
This does not mean that our religious convictions have no place in politics. Quite the contrary. No realm of human existence is outside the bounds of Christian inquiry. As pastors and leaders we should shape ourselves and others to think of politics Christianly. This does mean, however, that different Christians (or Christian communities) might very well come to different (or even opposed!) opinions on political issues as they think in these distinctively Christian ways–and that’s okay!
The battle is to have specifically Christian and biblical reasons for our political thinking while not falling in the trap of thinking there are specific “Christian” political stances that all Christians must hold.
Christian faith must at some point challenge our political views. If you don’t run across parts of the Bible, Church History, and Theology that give you pause and lead you to reassess some things every once and awhile, then you may want to ask some deep questions about how you wear your Christianity.
The best way to challenge everyone, cultivate charity and winsomeness, and center us in our core Christian unity is to focus on what the Christian Scriptures focus on: Jesus. Not how we think Jesus speaks our political language (because I promise, he doesn’t), but to talk about what he talks about and tell the good story of his life and teaching in the world.
Jesus challenges every human-made institution and philosophy, and let’s face it, politics falls under that umbrella. No one is safe. Though not speaking in the same terms as we would today, he attacks the philosophical foundations of both Progressive Idealism and Conservative Individualism. He prophetically speaks against societal sins, both personal and institutional; he gives dignity to working both as individuals and communities, as well as mobilizing governments to act on behalf of the greater good. His gospel is a terrifying indictment against limiting freedom, as well as against using freedom to perpetuate injustice.
In other words, Jesus is not safe. By studying his life and words in the Scriptures, we will not find greater security in our political views, but rather learn to hold them with ever-loosening grips in order to cling to God all the more.
Reiterating this same conclusion, Russell Moore, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Council once said that Evangelicals must “Remember that we are not Americans first. We belong to another kingdom [and therefore not] mascots for any political faction.” This captures well how Jesus wore his politics; does it describe how we wear our own?
Conclusion: Let’s get ready to rumble–with love
This will be no easy process. There have been Christians throughout Church History that have been able to cite chapter and verse to support nearly every political stance and economic system in existence. Everything from the gold standard to slavery has had Bible verses on the lips their supporters.
Even issues that seem very cut-and-dry like abortion have had a varied Christian past; even pro-life stalwarts like the Southern Baptist Convention were originally pro-choice at the time of Roe v. Wade. To take another example in the early Church, early leaders like Tertullian and Origen forbade active-duty soldiers and from becoming part of the Church until they quit their service. The early Church organizational document called the Didascalia, tells church leaders not to accept money or give communion to Roman politicians or members of the military “who are defiled with wars and have shed innocent blood without trial”. This is quite a change from today, where some churches treat Memorial Day as another high Holy Day like Easter.
None of us should fall into post-Enlightenment chronological snobbery that makes us think that we modern Christians have finally figured out the “right” political answers. Geoffrey Wainwright, in his magisterial biography of pastor and theologian Lesslie Newbigin, A Theological Life, summarizes Newbigin’s views on this:
“[A] distinction is to be drawn between the activities of individual Christians and the actions and pronouncements of the Church as an organized body. The witness of the Church will depend principally on the day-to-day behavior of its members, who as citizens are constantly shaping public life in one direction or another; and the Church will be wise, says Newbigin, to concentrate on assisting its members to form their own judgments and limit its official declarations to matters in which great ethical issues are at stake. In any case, neither the Church nor Christians should identify in an absolutist fashion with any particular political program, although by discussion and argument they should try to discern the relatively better course of action in light of the righteousness of God revealed in Christ, and they should certainly reject options that are totally incompatible with discipleship to Christ.” (259)
Looking at the two examples cited earlier, what would it look like to have a community of Christians full of people with differing and opposing positions on abortion and the military?
Could small groups and Sunday School classes maintain that sort of diversity and survive?
Can a Christian Church only function if everyone agreed on–of all things–politics?
Can Christians root ourselves in their common identity, and show society another way of living politically that doesn’t involve demonizing and tearing each other apart?
As this political season heats up all the more, may we learn that politics is not ultimate. Let us acknowledge our limited historical and cultural perspective and cling to faith all the more. Let us embrace others who have dramatically different political opinions than our own. Let us have full-throated, informed convictions on the issues of the day, while having the humility to approach our brothers and sisters (and a watching world) with winsomeness, charity, and grace.