I was recently teaching a Church Leadership class at Phillips Theological Seminary and a student mentioned the need for the church to be proactive in political issues because Jesus was. I got a bit confused by that comment.
I’m not sure which political issues Jesus confronted. There is no question that he confronted the religious hypocrisy of the religious leadership and of his own followers, but I cannot recall any political – or social – issues that he confronted, let alone mentioned.
In Jesus’ day the top “political” issue of the generation was the onerous Roman occupation. Jesus not only seemed to not be bothered by it, he catered to it by healing Roman soldier’s children and slaves, and even facilitated it by pronouncing that the Jewish people (and his followers) should pay their taxes … taxes that supported and helped pay for the Roman occupation. His followers would later interpret Jesus’ words by writing to the churches and insisting that they abide and adhere to the Roman law, and not only that, to pray for and support whatever government which they found themselves beholding to (Romans 13:1; 1 Timothy 2:1–2; Titus 3:1; 2 Peter 2:13–14).
Of course, in today’s world, obedience to the rules of government is not the only political issue facing us. In the US, issues of social justice have become political footballs. Again, let’s turn to Jesus to see how he confronted the systemic social issues of his day. In the first century, there were many social issues that needed to be addressed including slavery, racism, women’s rights, alcoholism, war, capital punishment, imprisonment of those in debt, the treatment of prisoners, and of course, poverty.
How did Jesus address these issues? (And they were all horrendous issues in Jesus day, with individual’s rights being violated at every turn.)
- Slavery: Not one word spoken about it one way or another.
- Racism: If anything, he seemed to reflect the Jewish ethnicism of the day, as seen in his confrontation with the Canaanite woman and the Greeks that Phillip brought to him. Otherwise, he was silent on the issue.
- Women’s rights: Although he tended to treat women with respect, it doesn’t appear that he addressed the issue in his public or private discourses.
- Alcoholism: He himself was called a drunkard and a glutton, suggesting that he wasn’t teetotal; he turned the water in six water pots into wine – approximately 120 gallons worth. Otherwise, he never mentions it as an issue.
- Capital Punishment: Silence.
- War: Although Jesus pronounced that peacemakers were blessed, he continually picked fights with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. As for governmental war, the only times he spoke of it was a reminder that it was inevitable. Oh – at one point he also told his followers that they needed to gather swords; and in context, it doesn’t appear he was suggesting the weapons were needed in order to pound them into plowshares. (And, as mentioned earlier, he reached out to care for those in the Roman military and to support it with taxes.)
- Debt Imprisonment: Nothing.
- Prisoner Treatment: Ignored.
- Poverty: First, not once did any of his miracles include providing funding for the poor. Second, when the widow gave her last two pennies (mites), “All that she had to live on,” Jesus commends her for becoming fully dependent on others – and he himself did nothing to relieve her impoverishment. In addition, Jesus seemed pretty calloused to the needs of the poor when he pronounced, “There are always going to be poor people,” and in it’s context, it seems like he was telling the disciples to “get over it.”
It turns out that the Jesus of the Church isn’t necessarily found in the Jesus of the Bible. Certainly, we can take his words to Love our Neighbors and to Love our Enemies and then add all sorts of our own cultural biases on top of them, but the truth is, Jesus chose to limit his teachings to eternal issues and to personal ethics.
I suggest that as disciples of Jesus, we limit our preaching to the same sins and the same kinds of issues that Jesus addressed. If we do, we’re not as likely to give Christianity the same kind of black eye that the US Church has already given itself.
How have we given ourselves a black eye? I’m glad you asked.
- In the 1920s, the US church came out as one to lobby our government to outlaw the demon alcohol – and with our lobbying and politicking, we got the 18th Amendment passed. How did that work out? (If you’re not sure, please see the 21st Amendment.)
- In the 1940s, the US church came out politically against participation in the European war. (If you know your history, you’ll remember the church was both pacifistic and isolationist in the 1940s). Again, how did that work out as Adolph Hitler slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Jews while we as the church lobbied against the war?
- In the 1960s, the US church strongly politicked and lobbied our nation to put an end to abortion. Yet again, how did that work out for us (other than it seriously divided our churches)?
- In the 1980s, the US church came out strongly against homosexuality … and more recently, against same-gendered marriage. And yet again, how has that worked out?
And before someone suggest that the church was behind the civil rights movement, please go and check out history. The churches were nearly evenly split over the issue – and the KKK was resurrected from near obscurity from within the churches across the nation.
Here’s the truth. Every time the church climbs into the political arena, we get a bloody nose and a black eye. We lose credibility. And we lose members. In fact, today’s politicians will tell you that the church’s influence in the political arena is so eroded as to be laughable (remember that when your bishops or equivalent expend months composing a protest letter to the president or to congress!). In each of your churches, you have people who voted for the current administration (whether you want to believe that or not – remember all those polls that said President Donald Trump had no chance of winning? But a strong majority voted for him anyway? Many of his supporters didn’t want to be identified … but that didn’t stop them from privately voting for him anyway). And, of course, you have people who adamantly opposed that administration. Just like congress, you have a split party church. In point of fact, the US Church is not even a consistent voting block anymore – and politicians and lobbyists both know and count on that.
Here’s the reality. If the church wants to end poverty, racism, genderism, sexism, put an end to wars, cure addictions, stop abortions, and all the rest … it will need to do what it was created to do, and what it is best equipped to do: Make faithful, effective disciples of Jesus Christ. But for the last millennium or so, we have shifted our focus from evangelism and disciple making to trying to cure the world’s ills. The ONLY way to cure those ills is to change hearts, not laws. Again, look at legislated morality such as Prohibition, gun laws, and even anti-racism laws– legislated morality just doesn’t work. Change hearts, change the world.
You’re the leaders of today and tomorrow. The most pressing questions you must answer are: Where will you lead the church to? and do you have the leadership skills to be able to do it? I strongly recommend expending your church political capital on agendas like those Jesus spent his time supporting. The rewards are more likely to have a lasting impact.