Over at Boar’s Head Tavern there’s been a discussion going on about cultural “wars” between Christians and, well, everyone else. How far should Christians go in confronting the culture at large? Should churches be involved formally in politics, social agendas, or lobbying? Should a pastor use his pulpit to preach only Jesus – or should he also preach what Jesus might do in today’s political climate? The question may seem simple, but the ramifications are not – and looking at history’s various churches and their failed attempts at striking the right balance only makes us wonder that much more. Where is the dividing line between too much and not enough? Where should the people be involved, where the organization should not?
The first question then is “what purpose does the church, as an institution, serve?” If we understand what churches actually supposed to do, we can understand better how to go about doing it. In the times of Acts, there was no clear distinction between the Church as a body of believers and the church as a formal organization. We do see that the Christians met together regularly, and from what I can tell in Scripture, the gatherings served four major purposes. I draw these primarily from the specific examples of the early church in Acts, and I think a good summation can be found in the post-Pentacost gathering described in Acts 2:42 – “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
1) Teach the Word. Obvious, yes, but not enough unfortunately. Ephesians 4:11-16 says that Jesus commands the apostles, shepherds, teachers, et al., to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” The way we do this is laid out in 2 Timothy chapters 2 and 3 – by learning and studying his Word.
2) Provide a place of fellowship. It’s laid out right there. While throughout Scripture we see many ways in which Christians have fellowship outside of a structured church or meeting – fellowship is not limited to formal occasions! – one of the explicit purposes of the early church meetings was to provide a place for Christians to fellowship so that we don’t neglect it during the rest of the week, when we are out living the rest of our lives.
3) Break bread. This is what is commonly called the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11), the breaking of bread and drinking of wine (or grape juice, if you’re a Baptist) in remembrance of Christ’s death and sacrifice for us. We were commanded to observe this remembrance by Christ himself, and Paul also went into great detail about the meaning and observation of this tradition, so it’s important we do not ignore this one.
4) Prayer. Praying for one another is a repeated command throughout Scripture. Meeting in order to pray for each other and share things that we can pray about is one of the earliest and clearest functions of the church, and it’s one of the most important today – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matt 18:20)
Given only these primary purposes, I have trouble seeing where churches should seek to become political entities. Now from a practical perspective, there are two categories of political issues: there’s clear, absolute moral issues (do not kill, do not steal, etc.) and there are the “grayer” areas such as the health care debate, government budgeting, immigration policy, etc. Clear moral issues can be taught as they are – it is quite clearly wrong for any Christian to support legalized abortion, for instance. However, those “gray areas” can be approached with a Biblical worldview for greater insight and wisdom in how to handle them, but there is no clear instruction in the Bible that says that the government should provide health care to its citizens.
So how far should the church organization go in making those decisions and organizing efforts to get involved in those policies? I don’t think it’s healthy for churches to get involved in these issues beyond the bare minimum they can afford to. If I were to go to my pastor and say, “How does God want me to vote on this healthcare issue,” I would hope that his answer would not be “God says Obama is a socialist and that socialists go to hell, so don’t vote for him.” Instead, I would expect him to tell me that there are gray areas and that I need to examine the scriptures and decide what the wisest decision is. If I wanted to begin a personal dialogue with him on our respective political leanings then that’s perfectly fine, so long as those political leanings are not presented as being commands from God or part of the Gospel.
One of my great frustrations when looking at the church is that we are so divided. Catholics, Reformed, Evangelicals, Calvinists, Armenians, Baptists, Lutherans… the list of divisions could go on and on. There have been church splits because the leadership couldn’t decide whether or not clapping during worship was okay. My (terribly flawed, emotional) perspective has always been “what is WRONG with you people?! Love each other, don’t anathematize each other!” This is not to say that there are not good reasons to end fellowship, but is declaring someone a heathen because they danced at their wedding really where you want to set the bar? What about because they have the wrong kind of worship songs? How about if they let women read Scripture in church? Don’t believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity? Because they’re only a four-point Calvinist?
There’s no easy answer, and churches have been fighting about the details for the last 1500 years to one extent or another. Sometimes the verbal fights turn into real ones, and Christians start killing each other – oh, how much fun do you think Satan had watching that? My personal stand has been that when the Bible says “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,” that it means just that. The Nicene Creed is a simple and concise summary of what “believing” means:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
So let’s try not to split the church even further over something as eternally insignificant as politics. Teach the Word, be uncompromising, be loving, and never try to water it down – but don’t try to force your interpretation of a gray area on someone, especially when it’s disguised as teaching the Gospel.