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Politics in the Church?

Posted by  on January 28, 2013

Politics can get nasty. Just recall the Facebook comments, “debates,” and “purges” that accompanied our nation’s last presidential election. Discussing politics with others—whether it’s on the topic of gay marriage, gun control, or taxes—does not seem to be worth the price for all of the incendiary reactions that ensue. The results appear to be even worse when we try to bring politics into the church. As Christians, we can mimic the polarization in our society and end up with pews that are painted red and blue.

In responding to the dangers of partisan politics, the temptation then becomes to assume that the gospel is apolitical. The church should focus more on worship and personal evangelism rather than politics. However, upon further reflection, this turns out to be a contradiction in terms. Our worship is and always has been political.

What does it mean that our worship is political? For some, this might sound odd. Confusion arises over what is meant by ‘political’ because it can be understood in different ways. In our commonplace usage of the word today, ‘politics’ refers to government, policy, or even pursuing one’s own interests in other contexts (e.g. ‘church politics’). But there is another, older, sense to this term. Our word ‘politics’ finds its roots in the Greek words politika (affairs of the city) and politikos (relating to citizens). In this sense, politics includes things such as policy but also encompasses much more. Politics are about how a community is ordered. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle subsumes his inquiry about ethics and human flourishing under political science. The good of the individual is inextricably bound to the good of the polis, the city or state, and its ordering.

It is in this latter, and broader, sense that worship is political. Worship initiates and trains us into the Christian community. Beyond the state, the notion of polis as a moral community can also be applied to the church. Scripture describes the church as a “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9) and our participation in that community as a “heavenly citizenship” (Phil. 3:20). In following Christ, we become oriented towards a new community that requires our primary allegiance: the church, the city of God, the Body of Christ. Rodney Clapp, in A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society, shows how it is no coincidence that the New Testament—in continuity with the Old Testament—uses many words (e.g. kingdom, gospel, liturgy, church) that were politically charged for its time. Clapp writes:

Perhaps the main reason the Bible has, at least in recent centuries, seemed to offer scarce political or cultural guidance is that Christians have read a “rank anachronism” back into its text. The strict split between “religion” and “politics” belongs to centuries much later than the first. As N.T. Wright remarks, “No first-century Jew…could imagine that the worship of their god and the organization of human society were matters related only at a tangent.”[1]

As Clapp and Wright have argued, the split between religion and politics, and the distinction between public and private, do not adequately explain the nature of Christian worship. There was a good reason why the early Christians were persecuted when they recognized Jesus, and not Caesar, as Lord. To split our faith from our politics is dangerous because it blinds us from seeing competing allegiances. In the context of Apartheid South Africa, loyalty to the government’s policies entailed a contradiction of Christian baptism, a denial of the church’s catholicity, and a distorted view of the Imago Dei.

Separating our worship from our politics neglects the way in which our worship is a form of politics, and the way in which it can inform our involvement in our government’s politics. From this vantage point, a Christian is always involved in two kinds of politics. To borrow from Augustine’s The City of God, Christians are simultaneously involved in the politics of the heavenly polis and the politics of the earthly polis. Our participation in the Body of Christ gives shape to our involvement in society at large.

Tithing and providing resources to the needy—to think of one type of example—are practices in the church that reflect how our worship is political. Living and acting out of a deep trust in God’s provision ought to shape all of our economic practices. Therefore, the way in which we handle resources, or money, speaks about the kingdom we are members of—a kingdom that does not operate out of a fear of scarcity (Matt. 6:25-34). Understanding this ought to help us imagine and negotiate the economic realities in broader society.  To separate the economics implied in our worship from the economic policies of markets and governments is to short-circuit the implications of our discipleship to Christ.

Here at TCF, we are not into partisan politics, but rather when we discuss politics we understand the political in a broader sense that affirms the public nature and implications of worship. As our Manifesto states: “Worship trains us in our rights and duties as citizens of the City of God.” When it comes to politics understood in the more narrow sense (i.e. in the earthly city), and to specific policies, we realize that Christians can often disagree. Nevertheless, we want to affirm that our shared practices of Christian worship constitute a “civics class” for us as a church, a training that can help us navigate through the ‘nasty’ politics, together, with charity.

[1] Clapp, Rodney. A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society. InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Daniel Camacho

Daniel Camacho is a Junior Fellow of The Colossian Forum and is responsible for research, blogging, editorial work and writing. He hails from Long Island, New York and grew up in a Spanish-speaking United Methodist church. Daniel is a senior at Calvin College majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Church, Society and Ministry from the Congregational and Ministry Studies department. Some of his research interests include hermeneutics, ecclesiology, theological anthropology and political theology. Besides reading, he can be found playing volleyball and holding out hope for his New York sports teams. This past summer, Daniel completed a ministry internship at Open Door Fellowship of East Harlem. He is currently discerning a call to serve in ministry and higher education, and plans to attend seminary after college.

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