Bridging the Partisan Divide in Church
In my thirty-two years of ministry at Ginghamsburg I had never asked anyone about their political affiliations, but I was ready to take the bold leap of faith and do so right in the middle of one of my sermons. I have found that some of the good and influential people at Ginghamsburg assume that others in the church hold the same political ideologies based on sharing common theological views. But in fact this is not always the case.
So I posed the question: “How many of you would identify yourself as voting primarily for issues and candidates on the Democrat ticket?” About 25-30% of the people in the Saturday evening worship celebration raised their hand. I had reserved about ten seats in the front row and asked one of the people who raised their hands to come and sit in the first seat. “Now, who votes consistently Republican?” About 35-40% of those gathered responded by raising their hands. I asked one of them to come forward and sit next to the Democrat. There were some underlying chuckles and comments heard in the congregation but people were beginning to get the point as I went on to ask Tea Party folk, Libertarians, and Independents the same question and then chose one from each group to come forward and sit next to the others. Point made: Christian unity is not the same as political uniformity! There were more than a few couples in the room where the spouses didn’t share the same political ideologies. When we become members of a local church no one asks about our political affiliations. Allegiance to Christ is the only allegiance that is required to be a member of Christ’s body.
An analysis of lawmakers’ voting patterns done in 2011, found that the most recent Congress was one of the most polarized in decades. This cancerous spirit of polarization and division has found its’ way into the church. Our nation is suffering from deep wounds of cultural-political division in which Christians have participated. Members of Christ’s body have been guilty of demeaning and demonizing those with whom they disagree. We have allowed worldly political ideologies to become determining factors for our theology rather than grounding ourselves in a sound biblical theology for determining our politic. Some well-meaning believers have become more passionate about engaging in the heat of partisan political debate than they have been in sharing the good news about Jesus.
The kingdom of Jesus is neither red or blue, left or right, tea nor coffee. As followers of Jesus, we represent an alternative party, the party of the Kingdom of God. As Jesus’ disciples we must be moving forward in the Spirit of Pentecost, tearing down the demeaning barriers that divide and destroy. The way of the cross is eternal and tears down the dividing walls that stand between us. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave or free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We must not allow this polarization of extremes to pollute the message and mission of Jesus. How can we find our way forward in demonstrating unity without the expectation of uniformity?
Love One Another
Jesus told his disciples that the litmus test of true faith is the demonstration of selfless love. Love transcends political and doctrinal ideologies. So we must put that love into practice in the church, demonstrating to the world that differences do not have to bring contention or division. If we can’t love our brothers and sisters in Christ, how can we show love to the rest of God’s hurting world? God’s redemptive mission through Jesus is restoring all relationships that have been broken due to the barriers that our nationalistic, tribal, political and religious systems have created that divide us. The gospel of grace breaks down the dividing walls. No matter what controversies rage, the church can display unity by focusing on their common identity in Jesus Christ. A loving community is attractive to others. By our unity, everyone will know we are his disciples.
Teach, Teach, Teach
I never miss an opportunity to teach the biblical mandate that provides the missional expectation for the community of Jesus’ followers. Over and over and over, I have repeated the gospel message that finds its center in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and finds its expression in Christian unity and the demonstration of sacrificial love. We must not underestimate the power of our leaders to guide the church as a witness for love in a contentious culture.
I find that it is absolutely essential for the leaders in my Church to be able to distinguish the radical nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from American civil religion and the tribalism of partisan politics. Politics matter and Christians need to be involved. God holds nations accountable for the assurance of justice for the alien, orphan, and widow. Why was God’s judgment spoken against Israel through the prophet Amos? “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:7). We must learn how to participate in the political process while refusing to participate in demeaning, divisive partisanship.
One of the first important studies that I did with my Leadership Board when I first came to Ginghamsburg Church was to biblically demonstrate why the church must not be partisan or subservient to any earthly government. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36). The church stands in prophetic tension with all earthly political systems and becomes corrupted when used in a supportive role for political ideologies of any flag or color.
For this reason, I am intentional about teaching the people why the American flag doesn’t belong in the sanctuary. The church doesn’t represent the United States or any other nation in the world. The church represents the kingdom of God. There is not an American church, or a Liberian Church or Russian church: “so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5). There is only one body! A body cannot be divided and survive. We must not have only one flag representing one nation in the sanctuary unless the flag of every nation is represented. Christians have reaffirmed the global, universal nature of our faith throughout the centuries by reciting these words in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the holy catholic Church (one universal church) and the communion of saints.” We are one in Jesus, no matter what our national citizenship.
Pursuing the Way of Christ
The community of Christ is called to pursue an alternative path from the political power structures of the world. The crowd that cheered Jesus upon his arrival into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday was interpreting his mission through a particular political lens. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the king of Israel!” (John 12:13) They had convoluted Jesus’ kingdom mission with a political one. The crowd sought a political messiah (king of Israel) who would fulfill their partisan expectations concerning the overthrow of the Roman political system. What we see as the events of Passion Week unfold is the contrast of radically divergent ways--the agenda of Jesus’ kingdom versus the political agendas of the world. In the twenty-third verse of this chapter, Jesus states: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Jesus’ ministry on earth occurred during the period referred to as “the glory of Rome.” The expression represented wealth, prestige, and political power. Jesus is exposing the chasm between the way of worldly wealth and political power and the way of the cross. The way of the cross is incomprehensible for the majority of folk. “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are perishing. But we who are being saved know it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
The way of the cross is the way of reconciliation. If our words and actions do not promote healing and reconciliation, then it doesn’t matter what church business we are about--it’s not the gospel.
Unity in Christ will not mean an end to differences. The Democrats and Republicans in our pews will still disagree over the issues and people governing our nation. But if our common mission as disciples takes precedence over our partisan political views, we can live and work for good peaceably together in Jesus’ name.
Excerpted from Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide by Mike Slaughter and Chuck Gutenson. Forthcoming Feb. 2012 from Abingdon Press. Used by permission.