My pastor and I have a friendly tiff going on. He says that Jesus was strictly a-political; therefore Christians should abstain from politics completely. I say that Jesus challenged violent, poverty-inducing, socio-political structures throughout his life and ministry; therefore Christians have a duty to advocate for peace and to speak out for the poor and the oppressed. Both of us are hardheaded, and neither of us cedes much in our debates, but we always walk away as friends, because at the end of the day there’s a key component to the discussion that we both agree on: The Bible is not a public policy manual!
I realize that might feel like an outrageous statement to some. After all, the first five books of the Bible are commonly referred to as the “Books of the Law.” These books contain legal codes that governed the every-day life of the ancient children of Israel, ranging from personal hygiene to how to prosecute thieves and murderers. Furthermore, the Hebrew prophets railed against the kings of their day for making “unjust laws” and “oppressive decrees” (Isaiah 10:1), implying that there is such a thing as an unjust law—and woe to the legislators who write them!
Over and over the Scriptures reveal a God who cares deeply about the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien, yet strangely the man who Christians believe embodies the will of God in action (Jesus) refused to take sides in the bitter partisan divisions of His day. Jesus welcomed both zealots and tax collectors as members of his inner circle. And when two brothers asked Jesus to solve an inheritance dispute, He responded by saying, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). If Jesus intended his followers to establish themselves as the moral guardians of society, He had a funny way of showing it.
The pattern continues with the Apostle Paul. The indisputable case for followers of Jesus not involving themselves in judging those outside the Church comes from a passage in I Corinthians 5:12-13, where Paul says, “ What business is it of mine to judge those outside the Church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” Paul clearly established a demarcation between Christians judging matters within the community of believers (allowed) and matters outside the community of believers (not allowed). At the very least, this suggests that Christians who think they can impose what they perceive as “Biblical values” on secular society are—more often than not— wrong. There’s simply no way to translate the Bible into concrete public policy, at least not without a considerable degree of ambiguity.
For example, most of my conservative friends are convinced that they have a Biblical mandate to outlaw abortion and gay marriage, even though abortion is only mentioned once in Scripture, and the reference is—oddly—the Prophet Jeremiah cursing the man at his mother’s side for not aborting him! (Jeremiah 20:14-18)…and gay marriage was hardly an issue on the radar in Biblical times. The Laws of Leviticus prescribe a massive redistribution of wealth every 50 years by canceling people’s debts and restoring property to original owners, yet many Christians are convinced—right or wrong— that justice for the poor is a matter of individual charity alone, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is duped by the devil. And while we’re talking about what’s Biblical and what’s not Biblical, why isn’t anyone suggesting that America as a nation love its enemies and turn the other cheek?
Come to think of it, maybe my pastor is right for refusing to use the power of the pulpit to trumpet a political agenda. I live in San Juan County, New Mexico, a place where the average evangelical pastor is about 20 degrees to the right of Rush Limbaugh, yet at Sunrise Christian Church; I’ve never heard a sermon that could be misconstrued as a cleverly disguised political endorsement—and the congregation is better off for it.
Because my pastor refuses to drag the church into the bitter divides of the culture war, there exists a wide diversity of political and theological persuasions within the congregation. People can walk into church and feel genuinely welcomed as they are, without having to conform to some mind-numbing group think. As a member of the worship team, I look out into the congregation every Sunday and see people with vastly different political, cultural, and theological beliefs, all worshiping God. It’s refreshing!
Pastor David, even though I tease you with my Talking Tom app, telling you that neutrality always benefits the oppressor and never the oppressed, the reality is I’m glad that you’ve created an atmosphere at the church where nothing is more important than Jesus Christ and him crucified. As you know, my wife and I and our two boys are moving to Albuquerque this year. Thank you for being there when we needed it the most.
We’re really going to miss you.