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Rethinking politics: Should Christians embrace or eschew it?

With another election around the corner, Heather Tomlinson asks, "Is engaging in politics really part of our mission and calling as Christians?"

The extent to which the Church should get involved in government has always been debated. When Jesus walked the earth, he was asked: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” (Luke 20:22) Today, as the country prepares for another general election on 8th June, politics continues to be big news. From Trump to Brexit, it dominates conversations following a year of seismic political change in the West. From the reported preference of US evangelicals for Trump, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, lending his support to the Remain campaign – the Church has got involved. Many Christians raged against Hillary or Trump, Remain or Brexit, via social media and elsewhere, keen to ally Jesus with their side.

The current climate follows a period of increased interest in politics within the UK Church. In a 2014 survey by the Evangelical Alliance, nearly a third of evangelicals said they were more engaged in politics than five years prior. I’ve heard several people who recently moved into metropolitan areas comment on how political some city centre pulpits are.

Some Christians eschew politics, others embrace it. But both camps are usually confident that Jesus and the Bible justify their stance. Where does the truth lie? What does Jesus really want? Should we reject the corridors of power and simply love the people around us? Or should we be pushing for godly laws and power structures?

Kingdom politics?

For Andy Flannagan, director of Christians on the Left, it’s the latter. He thinks that the recent swell in political interest is due to more churches getting involved in social action over the past 20 years, from running foodbanks with the Trussell Trust to working with Christians Against Poverty (CAP) in alleviating debt. “Those who have been engaged in those ministries for a few years soon start to get to know the folks they are working with very well, and start to realise that just attaching a sticking plaster isn’t the answer,” says Flannagan. He warns that the Church “could be in danger of spending the next fifty years as the nation’s paramedic” where we tend to the victims of a sick system, but fail to reform the system itself. “We need to be involved in seeing just and righteous legislation framed and enacted to truly be saying, that we can be part of praying and seeing his will be done and his Kingdom come.”

But does legislation have anything to do with the kingdom? Anna Robbins, associate professor of theology, culture and ethics at Acadia University in Canada, takes a popular position: “I don’t think kingdom transformation can be legislated. But there is legislation that brings kingdom values to bear in society.” She cites the end of the transatlantic slave trade and improved health care as examples.

However, others question the extent to which political action, which necessarily involves control and power over others to some extent, can be Christian at all. Greg Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, characterises politics as imposing our will and moral sense on others. He argues: “That is not the way of the cross. That’s the way of the soldier. That’s the way of coercive power. It’s a self-righteous mindset that we have.” He believes that Jesus taught a humble, radical lifestyle that changes hearts and minds on the ground – not in law courts or legislative bodies.

The one thing the poor need most is the Gospel message

Politics can certainly bring division within the Church. Robbins comments, “There is a fragmentation around whether you think someone is ‘in’ or ‘out’ and this is challenging; we will make decisions about whether we belong together based on politics rather than on Christ.

“If we are in Christ, we have to acknowledge that first, and then try to work out why we are so different. But I have found, as everyone has, that rational conversations are few to be had these days. Emotional responses on both sides shut the conversation down. And then you wonder, as I often have, do we really worship the same God?”

Given the difficulties, it seems a good time to examine the relationship between Church and politics, the recent explosion in Christian political engagement, and question their biblical and theological foundation. Is politics really part of the mission of the Church? Or are we called to a different way?

The advocates

The history of the Church’s engagement with politics and power is turbulent – at its worst, the state was used to execute those dubbed ‘heretics’ and theology was employed to justify war. History has not been kind on attempts to enforce moral change via law rather than the gospel, such as Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical society.

In the first three centuries of the Church’s existence, it held little political power. It was only when the Roman emperor Constantine converted that Christians got involved in governance. Ever since, theologians from Augustine to Reinhold Niebuhr have questioned how Christianity and government can coexist or even marry. Various options have been tried: from the established Church of England to the powerful American Religious Right lobby.

David Landrum, the director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, draws from the concept of stewardship in Genesis 1 to argue for political involvement. “The Church has a biblical mandate to speak to politicians and to speak as politicians,” he says. “We steward power for God. That means that there’s no opt out... Where there’s power, there should be people speaking to that power and stewarding that power from a biblical perspective.”

The current mood in favour of political engagement is summarised by Calvin Samuel, the new principal of the London School of Theology: “It is not enough simply to be committed to social action and to loving and serving the poor and oppressed,” he said. “The Church also ought to ask why are they poor, why are they oppressed and how do we change our social and political structures to achieve justice as an outworking of the kingdom of God.”

As the state has taken over social welfare from the Church in the past two centuries, so Christians concerned for the poor have increasingly said that we must be political. They praise slave trade campaigner William Wilberforce and the Victorian social reformers, whose faith inspired positive political action. However, society was Christian at the time – at least in name. And could this political change have happened without the spiritual change in society that sprang from the Methodist revival? More to the point, when Jesus asks us to feed the poor, does he mean that we tax the whole country and mediate aid via the state, or is he asking us to dig into our own pockets and help people directly?

The dissenters

It’s not a popular view at present, but some question the current passion for politics and politically rooted social justice within the Church.

The first critique comes from Reformed authors, concerned that the Church is getting distracted from preaching the gospel, salvation and sin. Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s 2011 book What is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway) says we should be focused on proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. It sparked a huge debate that continues to this day.

In Church in Hard Places (Crossway) Mez McConnell, who plants churches on Scottish council estates via 20schemes, writes: “It is our conviction that the one thing the poor need most is the gospel message. Other things may be very important, but they are still secondary.” Mez had a very difficult background, but his life changed when the Bible “confronted him” with the “awfulness of our sinful condition before a just and holy God”. His church helps its community and its members in practical ways, but avoids politics.

Jesus never positioned himself as the wise advisor to Herod or Pilate or Caesar

To prioritise the preaching of the gospel is criticised by Flannagan as dualistic. “I believe Scripture is very clear, that external and internal transformation happen side by side,” he says. “I really believe that God wants to see the transformation of all things…that includes all spheres of culture, media, arts, education, politics.”

His argument is influenced by the ideas of Tom Wright, New Testament Professor at St Andrews University, that the Church should be as concerned for the physical as the spiritual. His recent book God in Public (SPCK) says: “you cannot separate the political goods to be pursued by the Church and the political goods to be pursued by the world outside the Church.”

Wright advocates a “cruciform theocracy” that seeks political engagement in a sacrificial way. He told Premier Christianity magazine: “Jesus’ redefinition of power in Mark 10:35-45 indicates that his followers might expect to exercise real power in the same way Jesus did – by generous self-giving love. ‘Obedience to Jesus on a spiritual and practical level’ might well include trying to change bad laws and enact good ones.” A second critique of ‘politics as mission’ comes from Boyd, author of The Myth of a Christian Nation (Zondervan). He agrees with Wright that the Church must meet the physical needs of others. Where he sharply disagrees is whether the Church should seek or directly influence political power in order to do so. His interpretation of the Mark 10 passage, where Jesus says “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (v43), is that Christ doesn’t want us to seek power over others in any way.

“What I would totally disagree with is that…we’re supposed to be running the government, Christianising it,” Boyd told Premier Christianity. “In my view the whole governmental structure is predicated on sin. You don’t Christianise sin. In Genesis we’re given responsibility for the earth and the animal kingdom; there is no indication we need to lord it over one another. You might as well try to Christianise adultery.”

 Though the Old Testament is often used to provide paradigms for godly governance, Boyd points out that in 1 Samuel 8, God advises Israel against having an earthly ruler. “When we put our trust in earthly kings, we’re rejecting God as king,” says Boyd. “We can’t have two masters. If Jesus is your president, you don’t have another president as far as I can see. I think we’re representing a completely different thing, an alternative kingdom.”

He is more positive about the political actions of Martin Luther King in his earlier years, who preached a radical message of forgiveness, love and non-retaliation towards the oppressor. “The Church, by how we’re supposed to be living, we’re to be the light that exposes the wrongness of all that is in contradiction to it,” says Boyd. “It’s a much slower process, and it involves a lot of self-sacrifice. It looks foolish and weak. But that’s what we’re called to do.”

While Wright argues that Jesus speaking to Roman authorities in John 18 and 19 presents a mandate for political engagement, Boyd points out that Jesus does not bring up the injustices of the Roman Empire, nor other governmental issues, in his dialogue with Pilate. “That’s not our job, because Jesus never did it – he never positioned himself as the wise advisor to Herod or Pilate or Caesar.”

The Benedict Option

One writer sceptical of Christian political engagement is conservative US columnist Rod Dreher. His new book The Benedict Option (Sentinel) has caused widespread debate among Christians in the USA.

The book argues that American Christians face declining political influence, while their churches are in disarray: therefore they must focus on creating strong, faith-filled grass roots communities that love people on the ground, rather than interfere with politics.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention called it “brilliant, prophetic, and wise” and encouraged every Christian to read it. Christianity Today’s editor-at-large Katelyn Beaty has been more critical, arguing that the book’s “utter lack of engagement with the African-American church” was a “glaring omission”. Black Christians, Beaty wrote in The Washington Post, “are generally not mourning the loss of cultural power, and entertaining withdrawal, because they have never enjoyed much cultural power to begin with.” Whatever your view, the book is making waves and causing more and more Christians to rethink politics. New York Times columnist David Brooks has even dubbed it “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade”.

Flannagan thinks that since the New Testament context was a theocracy, Jesus’ challenges to the Pharisees are mandates for political engagement. However, it could be argued that the analogous group to modern government were the Sadducees or the Roman government, who held the political power at the time. Jesus’ many conversations with the Pharisees were about spiritual issues, and he didn’t talk to the other groups about their politics. Ultra-conservative US preacher John MacArthur, who comes from a very different theological and political framework than Boyd, agrees. His 2000 book Why Government Can’t Save You (Thomas Nelson) criticised Christian groups for seeking political power.

Hope for the future

It’s fascinating to read different theological approaches to these questions. The book Five Views on the Church and Politics (Zondervan) illustrates how different opinions are. The usual theological bedfellows are split: Lutherans have more in common with Anabaptists in being wary of politics, while Calvinism is more akin to a Catholic stance in favour. There are strange allies in this debate.

At this time of political mayhem, to engage thoroughly with various points of view seems essential, rather than assuming our own opinion is the Christian one.

The world often puts its hope in politics. The government is considered to be responsible for providing food and housing to the destitute, to punish evil and legislate for good, and to change lives for the better. Therefore, the state seems to have taken the place of God in our culture. How can Christians be sure that we are not doing the same?



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