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.