This is part 1 of a 2-part series I wrote for the OBF Visitor on what I believe to be an unhealthy preoccupation with politics among American Christians. It was originally published on December 1, 2008.
America has elected a new president, and the “religious right” is reeling. In the last decade, political liberals have gained the House, the Senate, and now the White House. After thirty years of intense political activism, American Christians have very little to show for their efforts. Abortion is still legal. Though there have been small restrictions for which we can be thankful, even those baby steps may be erased by a new administration. Evolution is accepted as an undeniable truth. Pornography rages. The homosexual agenda is gaining steam.
Sure, one could make the argument that if Christians had not flexed their political muscle, things would be even worse, but I wonder if that’s true. I wonder if the energies and confidence of American Christians have been misplaced for the last generation. I wonder if the “thud” we heard on November 4, 2008 wasn’t the final fall of the evangelical political machine. Frankly, I wonder if that would be such a bad thing. I believe there are a number of lessons to be learned for Christians in the wake of the 2008 election.
First, we must recognize that the Church of Jesus Christ will be fine, regardless of who is in office—or what that “office” is.
To hear some Christian leaders leading up to the election (or the two that preceded it), one might have thought that the one loophole in Christ’s promise in Matthew 16:18 is the election of a liberal to the United States presidency—that the gates of hell just might prevail against Christ’s church if a Democrat were to win the highest office! Of course I’m jesting, but I have heard a number of doomsayers suggest that the ability of Christ’s church to minister will be severely hindered by a liberal government.
Such fears have no biblical or historical grounds. The church has thrived in a variety of political systems, from republics and monarchies to empires and dictatorships. For example, the vitality of the church in Nero’s Roman Empire or in modern Communist China makes the “free” church of America look positively impotent. The gospel, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:9, is “not bound.” That’s not to say that I’m yearning for persecution; Christians who do so are naïve and should pay attention to 1 Timothy 2:1–2. Is it not true though, that the power of the gospel and the purity of the church have shone most brightly in times of political opposition, not times of freedom? American Christians may have cause for concern about their country, but the church of Jesus Christ will be just fine.
Second, we must recognize that “saving America” is not high on God’s agenda.
I’m genuinely grateful for the religious freedoms we enjoy as Americans and for the sacrifice of many who have defended those freedoms on our behalf. I’m grateful that our nation’s founders were God-fearers and that many were born again. I’m grateful for the influence of the Scriptures in our laws. I’m grateful God has used the United States as a “slingshot” from which missionaries have been sent around the world. However, I believe that American Christians often blur the lines between the cause of Christ and the cause of country, too often “rendering to Caesar that which is God’s,” to quote Irwin Lutzer. Indeed, I wonder if even the phrase “for God and country” shouldn’t give us pause. As Augustine taught, believers are citizens of two kingdoms, one heavenly and one earthly. We can be—we should be—both committed Christians and committed citizens, but we must not equate or confuse the two. To suggest that we owe God and country—any country!—a similar allegiance is absurd. God’s work in the world thrived for thousands of years before America existed. America is not God’s newly chosen nation, our wrestling texts like 2 Chronicles 7:14 away from ancient Israel notwithstanding. It cannot even be called a “Christian nation” as no such creature exists. God wants to save Americans—and Koreans, and Pakistanis—not America.
Third, we must recognize that working to advance the cause of Christ by political means is unbiblical and impossible.
History is littered with failed attempts to advance the cause of Christ by unspiritual means. Constantine’s conversion of the Roman Empire from paganism to Christianity by the mere passing of a law was fruitless and even harmful. The efforts of the Crusades of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries to free the Holy Land and convert unbelievers at the point of a sword is a blight on the history and testimony of the church. Even prohibition in the early twentieth century demonstrates that political efforts to stop sinners who are intent on sinning from doing so will ultimately fail. The attempts of modern political activists to advance the cause of Christ by political means are similarly misguided. They’ll be no more successful than Constantine or the Crusaders.
That’s not to say it is illegitimate for Christians to participate in politics as citizens. I’m not calling for political pacifism. Scripture commends believers exercising their rights as citizens (Acts 25:10–11). All Christians should vote and make their voices heard on biblical issues with timely communication to their representatives. Some may pursue politics as a career, following notable examples like Joseph, Daniel, and Mordecai. Indeed, William Wilberforce, who successfully pushed for the outlawing of the slave trade in nineteenth century England, provides a compelling example of the good a believing politician can accomplish.
We must admit, however, that many issues (such as taxation, the economy, welfare, national defense, gun rights, and health care) do not clearly have a biblical principle at stake. Further, we must acknowledge that even if we were to prevail on the issues that are affected by clear biblical principles (such as abortion or homosexuality), doing so won’t reconcile sinners to God. Making grievous sins illegal is a worthy cause, but many people who are opposed to abortion and homosexuality will still suffer God’s wrath for eternity. We have a more important agenda than social and political issues; we have the gospel of Christ!
Perhaps striking out at politics will remind the church that the cause of Christ cannot be advanced by the arm of the flesh (Jer 17:5); that the weapons of our warfare must not be natural, but spiritual (2 Cor 10:4); that the source of our confidence must not be the “chariots and horses” of politics (Prov 20:7), but the God who rules in heaven regardless of who rules on earth (Ps 103:19).
Fourth, we must recognize that political activism can distract us from evangelism and distort the message of the Gospel.
Few churchmen throughout history have been as politically active as John Wycliffe, the “Morningstar of the Reformation.” The pre-Reformer spent most of his ministerial life defending England against the abuses of the Papacy, especially as it related to the national treasury, becoming a national hero in the process. However, when Wycliffe moved away from political issues to oppose Roman Catholicism on theological issues (such as transubstantiation and the authority of the Scriptures) in the final years of his life, he was abandoned by political leaders and disciplined by both church leaders and his beloved Oxford University. Yet, his most important and enduring work for Christ was accomplished when he prioritized preaching, writing tracts, translating the Scriptures, and training and sending out faithful preachers (the Lollards). His evangelical influence outlived him, becoming one of the sparks that would eventually set the world ablaze in the Protestant Reformation.
Whereas Wycliffe turned from political issues to gospel issues, the modern church has in many ways done the exact opposite. We have traded in our spiritual birthright for a bowl of political influence. Sometimes the cost has been orthodoxy, as evangelicals have aligned with political and social conservatives from a variety of false religions. The fact that Jews, Roman Catholics, and Mormons can form a united front for political purposes should be sufficient evidence that such causes are not distinctly Christian. Other times, the gospel hasn’t been denied, but merely displaced. We have been distracted from the main thing. Let me give two prominent examples from the late twentieth century, beginning with a quotation.
“We have a message of redeeming grace through a crucified and risen Lord. Nowhere are we told to reform the externals. We are not told to wage a war against bootleggers, liquor stores, gamblers, murderers, prostitutes, racketeers, prejudiced persons or institutions, or any other existing evils as such. The gospel does not clean up the outside but rather regenerates the inside.”
Surprisingly, those words were spoken by Dr. Jerry Falwell. Dr. Falwell was well-known during his lifetime as the pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, the preacher on the nationally-televised Old Time Gospel Hour, and the president of Liberty University. Though Falwell had profound disagreements with fundamentalists, his commitment to the cause of the gospel was widely recognized. However, as he rose in prominence he began to see an opportunity for influence in the political realm that he believed was even more important. In 1979, Falwell became one of the founders and the face of the “Moral Majority,” a political movement that many credit for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide victory over Jimmy Carter. Regardless of one’s opinions about Falwell, the crucial point for our discussion is this: he intentionally shifted his time, energy, and resources from gospel causes to political activism for many of the final years of his life.
Another example of shifted priorities is Dr. D. James Kennedy. His accomplishments are strikingly similar to Dr. Falwell’s—he’s a Presbyterian counterpart to the prominent Baptist. He, too, pastored a large church (Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida), had a national television broadcast (The Coral Ridge Hour), and started an educational institution (Knox Theological Seminary). Most significantly, Dr. Kennedy was the founder of Evangelism Explosion, an amazingly influential ministry that continues to have a strong presence around the globe. However, also like Falwell, Kennedy spent his final years focusing on politics. He was involved in the Moral Majority, then started the Center for Christian Statemanship on Capitol Hill and the grassroots political organization Reclaiming America for Christ. Dr. Kennedy’s evangelistic and political agendas at times contradicted one another. For example, he invited a Roman Catholic Priest to participate in the 2007 Reclaiming America for Christ Conference.
Such political ecumenism is dangerous, to be sure, but even fundamentalists who would avoid such blatant compromise are in danger of distorting the gospel through political activism. Many a fundamentalist church—while complaining of the social gospel of modernists—has made a living fighting communism and gun control. And while we may congratulate ourselves that—unlike evangelicals such as Falwell, Kennedy, and Robertson—we’ve avoided the political fray, one wonders if the dual roles of a fundamentalist like Ian Paisley, a Northern Irish preacher and controversial politician, have helped or hindered the cause of the gospel there. Back to this side of the ocean, when Americans think of conservative Christianity or “evangelicalism,” do they more immediately think of the Republican Party than the crucified and risen Savior? If we’re not careful, we can give the impression that the gospel is only for members of the GOP—that God isn’t only an American, but a conservative Republican.
Many a pious pastor has said, “If you’re called to preach, don’t step down to be the President of the United States.” That sounds good, but I’m not sure we really believe that the gospel is more important than government. We seem to have more urgency about political agendas than the Christian message, and we show our priorities by our bumper stickers, forwarded emails, yard signs, and conversations. Much like the modernists were distracted by their social gospel, evangelicals and fundamentalists are easily distracted from gospel ministry by secondary issues.
Finally, we must recognize that society will not improve until the coming reign of Christ and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for fallen sinners.
Scripture prophesies of a time when the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of God and Christ (Rev 11:15). All things will eventually be brought under Christ’s feet (1 Cor 15:24–28), both for a literal millennial reign and for eternity. Amen. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!
In the meantime, sinners will continue sinning and society will get worse and worse prior to Christ’s return (2 Tim 3:1–13). I’m not suggesting that the church should respond with passive resignation. I am, however, suggesting that since mankind’s ship is sinking we should devote ourselves to filling lifeboats rather than polishing the ship’s brass. I’m urging us to devote ourselves to redeeming lost people, not an unredeemable culture.
The example of Christ (not to mention the early church!) requires that we prioritize the gospel.
Contrast our preoccupation with political issues with the priorities of our Lord. Christ legitimized the authority of the barbaric Roman Empire (Mat 22:21), never speaking against it. He refused to participate in political or social reform, though he was constantly pressured to do so (John 6:15). Even at the climax of his popularity, when he was ushered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as the great Deliverer of the Jews, he intentionally went to cleanse the Temple, leaving Herod’s Palace alone (Matt 21:1–13). Christ clearly testified before Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Even his commands to be salt and light (Matt 5:13–16) contain no indication that he was thinking in terms of political activism.
Further, the commands of Christ and His apostles require that we prioritize the gospel.
The lion’s share of our attention, time, and resources must go to the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have been commanded by Christ to preach the gospel and make disciples (Matt 28:18–20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46–48; Acts 1:8). We have been entrusted with a message far greater than “small government” or “low taxes” or “family values.” We have the gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone is “the power of God for salvation to all who believe” (Rom 1:16). We have been entrusted with the Scriptures, which alone are “able to make people wise for salvation” (2 Tim 3:15). We have a Savior who has reconciled us to God, and has in turn committed to us His message of reconciliation that we might pass it on to others (2 Cor 5:18–21). That is the message that must dominate our lives. That is the message we must communicate as faithful ambassadors. That is the message we must speak to men on behalf of Christ.
Your party may have lost the election. It’s okay. Your Savior has won the battle for your soul, and He will win the battle of the ages. Indeed, it’s already settled. There will be no campaigns, no debates, and no election. Christ wins! It’s time for His church to get back on task and get back on message, preaching Christ crucified, not political talking points.
- My statement regarding the failures of the religious right may seem unduly pessimistic. However, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, two of the early movers and shakers of the Moral Majority, make the case as insiders that the religious right has “failed” (Blinded by Might, pp. 23, 42). All of the book is worth reading.
- Irwin Lutzer, Why the Cross Can Do What Politics Can’t, p. 41. The entire book is excellent.
- Quoted by Ed Dobson in Blinded by Might, p. 85. The statement was made in the 1960’s.
The OBF Visitor, the publication of The Ohio Bible Fellowship. This article was first printed in December 2008. It is cross-posted from the OBF Visitor blog, where many other articles are posted and may be searched by author, category and keyword. Information on subscribing to the Visitor is available here.
Filed under: Abortion, Contemporary Issues, Fundamentalism, Government, John Wycliffe, Ministry Musings, Politics | Tagged: Bible and Politics, Blinded by Might, Cal Thomas, Christianity and Politics, D. James Kennedy, Ed Dobson, Irwin Lutzer, Jerry Falwell, John Wycliffe, Why the Cross Can Do What Politics Can't, William Wilberforce |