A Political or Apolitical Church?

Editorial

The church should stay out of politics. Right?

We can agree that our congregations and denomination should not publicly endorse party candidates or formulate specific legislation. But shouldn’t we, as church, sometimes risk muddying our collective boots by addressing political issues that have profound religious and ethical dimensions?

The Christian Reformed Church, on several occasions, has answered that question with a resounding yes.

When the United States and Canadian governments proposed allowing “therapeutic” abortions, we spoke up. We told our legislators that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures clearly affirm the sanctity of human life at every stage of its existence. We spoke up for the unborn.

When our governments kept deploying more atomic bombs, our denomination jumped in with a biblical Word decrying the insanity of nuclear proliferation.

When proposed tightening of immigration laws threatened to dehumanize people and wreck families, we spoke out again, calling the state to act in accordance with Scriptural principles of justice and hospitality.

 

Where Scripture speaks, we may not remain silent just because some issues have become politicized.

These examples demonstrate that the question isn’t whether the church should speak on political issues but when. Where Scripture speaks, we may not remain silent just because some issues have become politicized. The world should never control our agenda that way.

Abraham Kuyper’s view of sphere sovereignty has often been invoked to argue that only individual Christians and their voluntary associations should address political issues. But Kuyper also taught sphere universality. With the tightly interwoven and differentiated structures within our world, the institutional church may need to speak to those issues that have a significant confessional dimension to them. It is in that realm that churches have their own unique expertise and contributions to make within democratic societies. They can illumine issues with the Word of God. So we, as church, should speak to those when biblical principles are clearly and significantly involved. The church must then assume its prophetic role in the service of Christ, who commanded us to disciple the nations. In those cases we should address our own members first, then society, and possibly also governments.

Synod 2012 is now asked by its study committee to address the issue of creation care in the context of climate change. We should not dodge that issue by branding it a political issue. It is that, but it’s much more. I sincerely hope that in its discussion on climate change synod will seriously address such questions:

  • Is the issue weighty enough for our denomination to address it as institutional church?
  • Does it have a significant confessional dimension that can and should be addressed prophetically?
  • Is Scripture sufficiently clear, so that we have widespread agreement on the basic principle(s) involved?
  • Is there sufficient scientific evidence to conclude that there is a significant and credible risk that we as humans are presently, and in the future, violating our creation mandate? And are the possible consequences of that risk sufficiently weighty to require significant preventative measures even if those cause their own hardships?
  • Will whatever synod decides significantly help us as Christian Reformed people to witness to and live out our confession that our world belongs to God?

Hopefully on this issue we’ll witness (to) more biblical light than political heat.

About the Author

Bob De Moor is a retired Christian Reformed pastor living in Edmonton, Alta.

See comments (8)

Comments

@Eric responding to @Tim

And that is the crux of the matter. While Eric Verhulst (and I) believe the CRCNA, as church institution (and especially as denomination), should refrain from picking political conclusions for its members, Tim Binnema wants it to pick those conclusions (as does our Banner editor, although purportedly only sometimes).

For the record, I disagree with the CRCNA to pick political conclusions EVEN if/when it picks conclusions I agree with.

Please correct me if you think I'm wrong on this Tim. I don't want to put words in your mouth but I think you/I established this difference between us on the "global warming" issue?

This is a crucial issue for the CRCNA. I believe increasing its political involvement will greatly diminish it as an institutional church, and also (ironically) diminish its influence among members and others (church as organism) to become more politically (and otherwise) involved. The latter assertion seems counter-intuitive but it is still true. When a "big organization" does what we should be doing (whether government or church or otherwise), we stop (or reduce the amount of) thinking and doing ourselves. Sort of a 'tragedy of the commons' kind of phenomena.

If we want to become a politically correct church that the "State" approves of (like a state approved church in socialistic/communistic countries). Then we must continue to partner with the government on environmental and other faith based issues, as we have been doing by adopting and implementing the UN Millennium Development Goals through the OSJ, and the Sustainable Development Goals through the CRWRC. Harmony is unity.

@Doug
I suppose it is a nuance but I don't consider acceptance that anthropogenic CO2 is causing climate change a political conclusion, nor do I consider the observation that the current power (political) structures give an unfair advantage to some, a political conclusion.

I do not advocate for a partisan political roll for the CRC or any other church. I do believe however that the relevancy of the Christian faith is eroded if the Church as an organization does not provide leadership in setting goals for society, this does not mean an explicit how to achieve the goal, only an emphasis that this or that goal must be given high priority. The task of democratically elected political leaders is to balance "competing goods", to the extent that Christians through individual and "corporate" voice can be heard (listened to) by political leaders, those leaders will begin to make Christian goals their goals. How they seek to achieve those goals (political conclusions) will naturally vary based on their broader worldview and experience.

I know that even within the arena of goal setting there will be widely differing views between people who call themselves Christian or for that matter Christian Reformed. To the extent that is true I believe we as a group CRC need to work a lot harder together pushing, and pulling each other to begin to "all pull in the same direction". I know it sounds like I am being naive and idealistic, trust me I know we will never fully agree.

Considering the degree to which the political debate is polarized and competing sides demonize each other, this is another area that the church could provide leadership. We need to strive at every turn to hear those Christians who have a contrary view, and presume that they seek as you do to glorify God, to faithfully observe God's wishes in their actions etc. It is the paradox of our human existence that we need to earnestly believe we are right, but humbly accept that we could be wrong.

Tim, you are advocating that the church as organization should be providing direction and leadership on issues for society, politicians and governments to adopt.

In Alberta, we used to have an organization called "Earthkeeping" (formerly Christian Farmers Federation). It advocated primarily from an agricultural perspective, the idea of creation care, caring for the soil, water, and animals. It consisted primarily, not exclusively of CRC members, but was not part of the organizational church. Today it no longer exists. Government has taken over most of its concerns, and implimented many activities that research and promote protection and improvement of soils, water, and animals.

What you are advocating on the ghg front, is the exact reverse, that church should adopt the goals of society and governments, and be influenced by them. This is not leadership, it is followership.

As far as anthropogenic ghg causing climate temperature increase being a political conclusion; yes it is a political conclusion, as it must be if politicians are to make any decsions about it. That doesn't make it right or wrong, but they must make a decision based on their perception of the scientific statements made about it, as well as on the public acceptance of those scientific statements. This is the nature of politics.

As far as the science is concerned, scientists are making logical conclusions about temperature change, the global CO2 pools and cycling, and impact of other ghg such as CH4 and N20. But they are still making inferences and assumptions. The general principle applies: that if scientists already knew everything, then no more research would be required. Time and more information changes things, so there is always some difficulty in predicting the future. The ability of the globe to ameliorate, compensate, adjust, or counteract certain trends, is amazing, and its extent will always be somewhat unknown.

@Tim Binnema

I agree it is good, even necessary, for Christians (church as organism) to discuss and sharpen each other. I even think it is within the task of the church as institution to encourage that discussion (the CRC Network and online Banner posts, like these, do that).

But let's get to a couple of specifics, since I'm not sure at all what you intend to say in your last post (it was a bit non-specific for me).

So our denomination, via OSJ, tells members they should thank Sec of State Clinton for ignoring a congressional committee chair's hold on giving US funds to the Palestinian "authorities" (see at: http://crcna.org/pages/osj_actioncenter.cfm). OSJ also encourages members to express their personal thanks to Sec Clinton for taking that political action, providing convenient links at pre-prepared email text for doing so.

So, do you think we (CRC church as institution via OSJ) should do that, or not. If you think we should, is it because you think doing this specific thing is not "political" action? Or otherwise, and if so, what?

BTW, this relates to Overture 3 to Synod 2012(from Classis Columbia) which suggests the denomination should consciously study what might be described as the extent of the institutional church's authority. Or, as I might put it, should the institutional church (not church as organism) ignore lines (or deny them) between institutional church and other spheres (whether political, scientific as in AGW alarmism, school, business, etc etc), and if not, what are those lines specifically.

@Tim -
You write "I don't consider acceptance that anthropogenc CO2 is causing climate change a political conclusion". I would say it SHOULDN'T be a political conclusion, but at present it is. An objective look at the science, especially given the questionable practices of the CRU at East Anglia (See Climate Skeptic for a full run-down on that), does not support a definitive conclusion on the question.

The desire to force the issue before a definitive conclusion is warranted is intended primarily to frighten people into turning more control of their lives and the economy to government agents (there's a reason Gorbachev found a home among environmentalists after being forced out of Russia - and it's got more to do with his politico-economic theories than his expertise on the environment).

You write "We need to strive at every turn to hear those Christians who have a contrary view, and presume that they seek as you do to glorify God," I concur. Which is why I reject the Accra, find OSJ's actions highly objectionable, think the Creation Stewardship report far exceeds its proper boundaries, wish the CRC had never adopted the Micah declaration, and reject numerous other actions taken in recent years that all tend to shut down debate and in effect declare Christians who disagree as outside the boundaries of the faith.

Although I agree with Bob de Moor that Christians have a role to play in the role of stewards of God's creation, I submit that he is confusing the Church (as the body of believers) with a denominational organization as the Christian Reformed Church. As an environmentalist and a Christian, I see my role, among other, to work towards a proper use of the finite resources that God has given us. To that end, I can join with other Christians within my denomination (Presbyterian) and outside this denomination (Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican) and with non-Christians to work towards a sustainable future.
I fully agree with Doug Vande Griend that an ecclesiastic group of some 200 people, roughly half of which are clergy, is ill equipped to pass judgement on a rather lengthy and detailed document. As an aside, let me stress that I have a lot of respect for the chair of this task force, Calvin de Witt and have even used some of his arguments in my lectures in a college-level Environmental Science course. I don't agree with everything in the report (for example, the report mentions the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, rather irrelevant to the North American situation, but is silent on the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) but it is generally well written and quite thorough.
I'm not quite sure what the adoption of the report is intended to accomplish. If the intent is for the denomination to reduce its carbon footprint, will there be a decrease in travel by the denominational hierarchy to distant mission fields? Will there be a marked increase in teleconferencing? Will youth groups be discouraged from traveling to Mexico and Central America to build homes and encouraged to build homes close to home? Will the CRC advocate an increased use of nuclear energy, considering that this form of energy conversion has a very small carbon footprint?
The report states (Agenda for Synod 1012, p 333), "While mitigation strategies may be expensive, we should be careful of using cost as an excuse to shy away from doing what is right based on our understanding of the stewardship of creation. These strategies may be expensive in the short term but both cost effective and necessary in the longer term." Does this mean that the individual members of a congregation will be asked to increase their giving or will there be a decrease in money sent to denominational agencies? In other words, will the focus on Creation Stewardship result in less effort and resources being spent on bringing the Good News?
If the intent of adopting this report is for the CRC to make changes, I would think that the adopting should be accompanied by milestones and deliverables, not unlike the Kyoto Accord, For example, the CRC could covenant to reduce its travel by 5% per year for the first five years; each congregation could covenant to reduce its carbon footprint by the same amount. Without specific goals, I fear that the adoption of the report will be little more than window dressing.

re: Eric's May 4 comment:

I wouldn't call it disingenous.  I'd say it indicates Rev. De Moor is changing his mind a little about the proper role of the Church in addressing the political sphere.  If we're going to criticize someone for a statement we think is wrong and false, we shouldn't criticize him again just because he changes his mind about it and makes an effort at correcting it.

I think he makes some category errors in this piece and have said so, but I welcome the progress.  His latest (Boldly Proclaim and Profess) represents even further progress.  I pray it continues.  And even if it is disingenuous, I can tolerate that if it moves us away from tying the denomination to a rather temporary political faction and its latest fad.

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