Church and Politics

Editorial
Without God’s prophetic Word, the church would be only another special interest group.

In previous editorials I wrote about the biblical view of justice (Jul./Aug. 2017) and the connection between justice and the gospel (Sept. 2017).

Since doing justice involves systemic issues, it often enters the sphere of political laws and policies. Hence, many of our disagreements boil down to whether the institutional church should speak or advocate on political issues. And if so, which ones?

A popular distinction among CRC circles is the church as institute and organism. Drawn from Abraham Kuyper’s teachings, this distinction advocates for the institutional church to focus only on the Word, sacraments, discipleship, and diaconal work. The organic church (Christian believers) carries out the mandate of reconciling “every square inch” to God’s kingdom, including politics, as individuals—or corporately in non-church organizations. Proponents of this distinction say that the institutional church should keep within its own sphere of authority and not extend into the political sphere.

At first glance, it seems like a neat solution. However, Christian scholars have raised questions about this distinction and its usefulness. For example, how biblical, actually, is it? How do we define a societal sphere? Where do we draw its boundaries? How do we best navigate the overlapping of spheres in our modern world? How rigidly do we hold to this distinction? Is the institutional church to remain silent, for example, on abortion laws, same-sex marriage laws, and evolutionary theory? Or, to take a historical example, should the institutional church have kept silent over the politically sanctioned economic institution of slavery?

I believe none of us desire either turning the church into a political lobby group or making it complicit in its silence to injustice in our world. The institute/organism distinction is one way to help us navigate these extremes. But it is not the only way. This distinction is part of an ongoing conversation, not an ironclad answer to end the conversation.

Our conversations on church and politics must also include voices from various traditions, even the global church. For instance, many black American church traditions, born out of suffering, oppression, and slavery, have a prophetic view of the church in relation to politics, defined as “speaking truth to those in power and speaking truth to God’s people, the people in the Black church itself” (Five Views on the Church and Politics, p. 97). I believe such conversations can be mutually enriching.

We need to have these tough conversations sooner or later, otherwise political issues fester. But these conversations must be filled with grace. It is a shame that some Christians are more charitable to politically like-minded non-Christians than to fellow Christians who differ politically.

Our Lord Jesus is not a political mascot. He is neither a member of the Christian left nor the Christian right. If our politics divide us, we have to seriously examine our hearts for political idolatry. But neither can we ignore politics. “Jesus is Lord” was both a religious and political confession by the New Testament church. In the ancient Roman Empire, Caesar declared himself the undisputed Lord. To confess Jesus as Lord was to suggest that Caesar was not. It was a politically dangerous confession.

If and when the church, either institutional or organic, does speak to contentious social and political issues, I believe it should always do so from God’s Word and from a posture of humility and grace. Without God’s prophetic Word, the church would be only another special interest group. Without the all-suffering Christ’s humility and grace, the church will end up following the world’s arrogance, entitlement, and belligerence.

P.S. The horrific mass shooting at Las Vegas occurred after the writing of this editorial. I pray for the families of victims and all who are affected. Lord, have mercy.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

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Comments

First, my compliments Chong.  On the whole, not a bad article.

Here are some of my thoughts.

First, just because the exact lines of a concept cannot be easily located/defined (e.g., the boundaries of the spheres as you suggest in this article) that difficulty is no argument against a concept.  Hey, our legal system says there is the concept of negligence, and and our society would be ill-served without that concept, even if the boundaries of that concept are every bit as difficult to define those of a Kuyperian sphere.  And every parent knows how challenging it can be to draw lines for their kids, but that is no valid argument for dispensing with them.

Another suggestion in this article that doesn't account for real life is the suggestion that if the institutional church is restrained fro "being political," it can't speak to injustice.  That simply is not so, nor do those who want the CRCNA to take Art 28 of its own Church Order seriously make that argument.  Of course, the CRCNA can (should and does) pronounce on the injustice and abhorance of slavery, or murder, or theft, or adultery, or greed, or racism, or unjust prejudice, and any number of other, specific evils, but supporting or opposing specific legislation is always, ALWAYS, far more nuanced than that.   Want good examples of talking about justice and injustice without "becoming  political as opposed to ecclesiastical?"  Read some articles about justice put out by Matt Tuininga, or any number of articles in Comment magazine.  It's done all the time.

Should we have this discussion?  ABSOLUTELY!  And some of us tried to have it, quite officially even when Classis Columbia submitted Overture 3 to Synod 2012.  And the floor of Synod actually agreed!, but in the navigation of the CRCNA bureaucracy, that discussion was "avoided."

Which brings us to the current state of affairs.  Regardless of what other church traditions say (and I'll grant you that some other church traditions, both on the left and right, ignore the idea of "sphere sovereignty" as an institutional constraint), the CRC churches have made a mutual "covenant" (read the preamble to the CRC Church Order for that strong a word) that it will only deal with ecclesiastical matters and only in an ecclesiastical way (CO Art 28).  Now is there some definitional wriggle room in that?  Of course there is.  But by no stretch of the imagination does that include the kind of specific lobbying for and against specific federal legislation that OSJ does as a normal part of its operation. 

So, what happened to our "covenant?"  Are we to ignore it until we have the "discussion" that the denominational bureaucracy refused to have for over 5 years now, despite the clearly expressed will of Synod 2017?  Should we not follow our own rules (covenants) until we decide to change them?  Isn't that a question with a  really easy answer?  If not, why do we have a church order at all?  Why even covenant?  Why even have a denomination if we make rules for it and then ignore those rules? 

Please, Chong, consider getting off the fence and advocating for following our covenant rules until we decide to change them.  Doing that isn't nearly as difficult as precisely defining sphere boundaries.

I think the key is recognizing the difference between the prophetic voice and the political voice...  discerning of spirits is a key gift needed here along with the true prophetic (I Cor 12:10) as otherwise each voice can look and sound the same (especially if the political voice is also good at manipulation which is possible, think pre WW2 Germany as an extreme example, but the German Church believed it), but there is a difference in the underlying motive/spirit behind it...   as one study Bible suggests in the footnotes: discerning of spirits is the ability to discern the spirit world, and especially detect the true source of cirmcumstances or motives of people.  footnote comment on I Cor 12:8-11 in the New Spirit Filled Life Bible

The prophetic is always for the glory of God and the good of His Kingdom... (but that does not mean it is always a positive, make me feel good message)

the political voice can be prophetic if it is truly for the common good, but often it is used for personal power, privilege, influence, benefit, etc for a limited group or individual...  the political process is an example of how we generally tend to lean on our own/man's understanding... not saying God can't and doesn't work through the political, just saying, far too much of it is based on man's understanding, instead of God's universal principles...  and how the enemy works through the political is another discussion...  always recognizing God is sovereign and He raises up kings and deposes them... and the nations are in His hand, He rules them and makes them great or destroys them (Job 12:23)...

being discerning in this way is something we need to understand better... often i hear in the Church... "we need to accept each other at face value"... or "we need to give the benefit of the doubt"... implying don't you dare question anyone's (especially leaders') motives... that's wrong and unbiblical and that quenches discernment...   we are to test everything (I Thess 5:19-21) and to test the spirits including the "political" spirit... (I John 4:1)... 

I wonder if far too often the political voice in the Institutional Church (including the CRC) is co-opting the prophetic language...  we use pollitical power plays instead of God's prophetic ways and believe the end justifies the means...   this is where discernment is especially needed...

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