Should The Church Speak Out About Social Or Political Controversies?
Our country is the midst of extreme social confusion and despair. Intensity has been building for many years, and the last month has seen consecutive tragedies and controversies, from the Orlando Shooting to the contested shootings of African Americans by police officers in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis to the assassination of Police Officers in Dallas. On top of this, the ongoing presidential election is proving to be more contentious and exasperating than ever before.
It is understandable, then, for Christians to wonder what their responsibility is in all of this, and many are even asking for the church to “speak out.” But this gets tricky fast. There are many Christians who say that it is not the church’s business to do this, but that it should instead simply preach the gospel. Others agree that the church should speak out, but they then assume that this entails a specific political platform. It doesn’t take long to see that getting specific with politics causes controversy and division.
The Great Commission
The first place to go in these discussions has to be the Holy Scriptures. The church must look to them for its charter. In order to know what the church should be doing in the first place, the church has to look to the Bible. So what does the Bible say?
The Great Commission is one of the most relevant passages. It’s very familiar, but often people only quote portions of it. The whole thing says this:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18-20)
Here we see the ground of the church’s authority. It comes from Christ who has received it from God. This authority extends to both heaven and earth. Having this authority, Jesus gives the church a specific command. This is why the church and its leaders call themselves “stewards,” by the way (1 Cor. 9:17, 1 Cor. 4:1-2). They are speaking on behalf of Jesus.
We are then told what we are supposed to do. We are to go and make disciples. This is the primary verb in the whole commission– “make disciples.” This is the church’s job. Disciple-making is what it should be doing.
Jesus then gives two ways for the church to do this. They are to “baptize” and “teach.” Baptism includes the sacrament, to be sure, but also the entire initiation of people into the church, both of which assume some sort of evangelizing or preaching of the gospel. But notice, that’s only half of the commission. The second half is what we often call discipleship– “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” What things would that be? That would be both the theological and moral teachings found throughout the gospels, including Christ’s summary and explanation of the law.
To Whom Should The Church Be Speaking?
The Great Commission tells the church to disciple “the nations.” The original term is ethnoi, a term that means something more like “tribe” than nation-state. In Biblical context, the main idea is for the disciples to take Jesus’ teachings beyond Israel, to the whole world. They do this mainly through families, but they also respect various jurisdictional structures in the world.
Ordinarily, this happens by personal evangelizing and then bringing individuals and their families into the church. Most of the teaching in the Book of Acts, as well as nearly all of it in the various epistles, takes place within religious organizations. This happens first at the temple and synagogues, and then it moves inside the Christian church. This is the standard method. However, there are a few occasions where the teaching of the church is aimed towards the outside world.
For instance, we see Paul appealing to his Roman citizenship and using the judicial system of the time as a means to preach the gospel (Acts 22:25-29, 24:10ff). He even uses the due process of the Roman empire to go all the way to Caesar, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged… I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:10-11). Paul is certainly using this for legal purposes, to prove his innocence. But he also uses it as an evangelistic opportunity. He asks King Agrippa, “Do you believe the prophets?” (Acts 26:27) and then adds, “I would to God that not only you, but also all who hear me today, might become both almost and altogether such as I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).
So the church does have the ability to speak to the outside world, as well as the political rulers and powers that be. The church can use the legal system to defend its own rights, and the church can and should also use these occasions to evangelize whomever stands before it, even the king!
This means that the church can talk about whatever the Bible talks about, and it can talk about that to anyone, if the opportunity arises.
Since The Church Speaks For God, It Speaks For All God’s People
We still haven’t answered our original question. Should the church speak out about contemporary social and political controversies? This is a little different than merely speaking about theological and moral truths. This requires taking those basic truths, applying them to the current world, and then interacting with potentially complicated events.
There are a number of reasons why this is tricky. The first is that our country has largely relegated theological teaching to the private realm– something that can be believed by individuals and taught within private assemblies, but which cannot be given legal status. This means that, right away, the church’s most distinctive and powerful contribution has been deemed “off limits.”
The church should not agree to accept this limitation and become simply one more interest group within the political sphere. We must continue to base our claims upon the word of God and thus the truth of God, proclaiming it to be true for all people. And we must maintain that it is authoritative over them. As soon as we do this, I think we will find that many of the people asking for our voice will no longer want to hear it. They wanted us to help them make their argument. They weren’t quite so interested in hearing from God.
Now, it is important to qualify this. Not everything that the Church says, at all times and in all places, is on this absolute level. The church can make all kinds of temporal claims that are not “God’s perspective.” Superficial examples would be decorations within the church, the time to schedule church events, or even the topic of the sermon series. But when the church makes these claims, it has to be sure to let everyone know the difference. It cannot bind people’s consciences, saying that something which is only a judgment call is actually God’s law for all men.
Secondly, the church then has a sort of “public voice” which is authoritative and different from judgment calls. When it uses this voice, it is necessarily speaking for God, claiming that what it is saying comes directly from God’s word and carrying that authority. It is also claiming that whole church, or at least the whole faithful church, understands this. Therefore it is speaking for all God’s people. It expects all Christians to listen and obey.
This is a high bar to meet, and it brings a lot of responsibility with it. This is why we believe that we are not to “go beyond what is written” (1 Co. 4:6). We must show that what we are saying actually does come from the Bible, and we need to be careful not to add anything to this which is not actually in the Bible.
We are warned about confusing human tradition with God’s word in many places in the Bible. Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of His day for doing exactly this, “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do” (Mark 7:8). The people Jesus was talking about had many rules, and they were happy to put those rules on other people. The problem is that they were not actually commanded by God. Col. 2:8 warns us against being taken “captive through philosophy.” The idea is not that any use of philosophy is bad, but rather that Christians shouldn’t let others use philosophy as if it were God’s word. They shouldn’t let themselves or others be taken astray by worldly wisdom. This is why Christians rightly warn against using religion for partisan politics.
But here’s the big challenge– almost all contemporary issues are partisan on some level.
Politics Is Complicated
As soon as any given issue moves beyond the rudimentary moral issue (Is it ok to murder?) to a specific incident (Was this event a murder?), things become less clear. And as soon as the question moves to “What should we do about it?”, it invariably takes on a lager political significance. It becomes tied into other important political claims, some of which Christians might disagree about.
This means that the Church needs to distinguish between things that are clear and things that are unclear. It should distinguish between things which are of first-order importance and things which are lesser importance. And it should note the appropriate jurisdiction under which any given issue falls. It should understand the history of how certain topics have been taught by the Church throughout history, and it should be aware of the level of agreement, at least by those who share basic theological principles, that various social and political issues enjoy.
Good Earthly Wisdom Is Good
And after doing all of this, the Church should recognize that people have diverse callings. This means that church leaders and ministers may not actually have the best insight into all contemporary political questions. They should be willing to let those who do– probably lawyers, political theorists, and various forms of civic officials– pursue those callings, and they should be willing to let them do so without feeling the need to “take over” and claim that those folks are speaking for the church. Politics is actually a perfectly acceptable job in the world. It doesn’t need to be taken over by the church, and it doesn’t have to have any sort of infallible authority to do its job. The church needs to be able to accept earthly wisdom for earthly matters and leave it at that. There’s no need to have an absolute answer to everything. People often disagree, and compromise is nearly universal in politics. That’s ok. We can accept that. The church has to know when it does not have a unique contribution to make. It cannot and must not try to do everything.
The church can and should proclaim God’s truth, on behalf of all of God’s people. It should show where this is found in the Scriptures, and it should be willing to do this inside its own walls as well as outside to the world. It can even speak and preach to the rulers of the world.
But the church should also practice what it preaches. This means that it should start with itself. It should be humble. It shouldn’t claim to know more than it does, and it shouldn’t say that good but human philosophies are on the same level as God’s word.
Because of all of this, the church should be very careful in all that it teaches. It must have a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and the church should teach and equip its members to be able to do discern its teaching from those Scriptures. And, most importantly, before the church tries to make complex applications of any of its teachings, it needs to make sure that those teachings are actually known and understood. It must be sure that its foundation has actually been laid and that its basic truths are known and understood. This will take time. This will take faith.
The good news is that God will give us both.