Political Intolerance in the Church

He was a first time visitor, sitting in the front row with an American flag pin adorning his lapel. His Bible was open in his lap as he eagerly anticipated the preaching of God’s word.  My text that morning was Mark chapter 12, wherein Jesus commands that we “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  During my lesson, I made the observation that Jesus did not allow himself to get pulled into a heated political debate over taxes, and instead focused on the need for everyone to follow God. After a few other connections, I stated what I thought was obvious to all: “God is not a Republican.”

It is not much of an exaggeration when I say that our guest’s face turned red before my very eyes. He abruptly stood up, causing me to flinch, since he was only a few feet away. To my relief, he turned around and swiftly headed out the door. A witty parishioner pointed out the elephant in the room by shouting, “John, was it something you said?” We had an uncomfortable chuckle and continued on.

Politics is a heated issue in the church. Some believers in our church can’t understand how any Christian can vote for a Democrat, who they view as being anti-religious and hostile toward primary biblical concerns such as families and the unborn. Others can’t fathom how a Christian be a Republican, who they view as lacking compassion and concern for the vulnerable and oppressed – people for whom Jesus cared deeply.

If you feel your blood beginning to boil at the misrepresentations of your particular view, then you know why it is so difficult for people of different political ideologies to worship together. In America there is democracy and freedom of political expression. In many of our churches, however, there is little freedom of political diversity. Many churches tend to be either exclusively “red” or “blue.” So, as citizens of a free society, let us consider the question of political expression in the church and propose some considerations for Christians engaging in politics.

Practice Gracious Speech In a land where lively rhetoric is encouraged,
it is common to hear harsh speech, accusations, and name calling in a political discussion. Each side accuses the other of lacking compassion, one side for the poor, the other side for the unborn. Name calling abounds with labels such as “bigot,” “gay basher” (just overheard at the table next to me in Starbucks), “elitist,” and “baby killer.”

The Apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (4:29). Then, in verse 31, he commands us to get rid of “slander” and “malice”. The Greek word for slander is Blasphemia, which means to say something that would damage or harm someone’s reputation. The word “malice” carries the meaning of strong feelings of dislike and hostility.

The New Testament is clear regarding the standard by which followers of Jesus should form their speech. We must speak in such a manner as to build others up, without hostility, false accusations, or name calling. It might interest the reader to know that name calling falls into the clinical definition for abuse. If you have called another a name, you have abused that person. This is simply not an option for followers of Jesus.

The ninth commandment famously commands against false accusations. Since we most often make accusations without awareness of the full context, we rarely have adequate basis to make them responsibly. Therefore, we must find ways to express our views respectfully and without accusations or name calling. Rather than engaging in personal attacks, we must address the issues with kindness and respect towards others.

An excellent recent example of gracious speech is Bishop Timothy Clark of the First Church of God in Columbus, Ohio. The Bishop opposes gay marriage and publicly addressed the issue with his congregation.  Even though he disagrees with the president’s recent remarks on the issue, he never resorted to accusations or name calling. Instead, his speech was gracious and respectful:

“I believe the statement the president made and his decision was made in good faith. I am sure because the president is a good man. I know his decision was made after much thought and consideration and, I’m sure, even prayer.”[1]

More believers should follow this example of Christ like speech. Graciousness such as this opens the door to helpful dialogue on issues and portrays a positive witness for Christ.

Believe The Best Do we believe that Jesus was serious when he commanded us to love our neighbors? If we do, then we must allow ourselves to be confronted with a key point in Paul’s definition of love: that it “believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7), or as the NIV translates it, “always trusts.” This means that we must trust, or believe the best in people.  Believing the best frees us up to listen, ask gracious questions, hear peoples’ hearts, understand their concerns, and find common ground. As Jesus’ own brother, James, reminds us, “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

As I have listened, I have found that many Republicans do indeed have a tremendous heart to protect the oppressed, and that many Democrats care deeply for the unborn. For example, I have listened to my friends who are Democrats and pro-life. As I have respectfully asked them about their views, I have found that they believe that the Democratic positions will result in lower actual abortion rates due to preventing pregnancy in the first place. They are also concerned about protecting vulnerable women from unscrupulous people should abortion become illegal. Now, one may agree or disagree with their reasoning, but it is clear that they are motivated to prevent abortions and protect women, which is a common interest for all believers. Likewise, I have listened to very fiscally conservative Republicans who deeply care about the poor, and believe that their view on taxation will result in more poor people finding jobs. They believe that finding employment leads to dignity and self-worth, and results in even further achievement and escape from poverty – also common interests for all. Again, one may disagree with this line of reasoning, but it is clear that the motivation is a heart to benefit the poor and not personal greed.

As I have believed the best, I have many times also found it.

Respect Governmental Authority It seems to me that people often feel justified in speaking disrespectfully about Presidents. For example, I remember seeing a bumper sticker on a car that said regarding President Bush: “He’s not my president.”  I lost count of how many times I have heard President Obama referred to as the “Antichrist” and President Bush referred to as an “idiot.” If we believe that God is sovereign, then we must also believe that the president who sits in office is the one that God has placed there. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Rom. 13:1). Therefore, we must acknowledge that whether we agree or not with a particular president, he (or she) is indeed our president and entitled to our respect.

Under the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, the many believers who were scattered throughout the empire were severely persecuted. The Apostle Peter wrote his first letter to encourage these faithful servants who were enduring such harsh trials. When addressing the question of authority, Peter agreed with Paul that governmental authority, in this case the Emperor of Rome, was established by God: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him…” (1 Peter 2:13-14, emphasis mine). If the notion that Nero was “sent” by God is not shocking enough, he then goes on in verse 17 to conclude that Christians must “honor the emperor.”

Because our true citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), followers of Jesus must look beyond our political interests, and acknowledge God as our true King. We honor God by honoring the authority that he has placed in our lives. It is true that as American citizens we are permitted to speak disrespectfully of our leaders. However, our greater citizenship is of heaven, where we simply do not have that freedom.

Stand For Justice Over Political Ideology Our political views should be motivated primarily by the desire to preserve biblical justice rather than the desire to preserve personal liberties, constitutional rights, or financial resources. Biblical justice means that we protect the vulnerable and the oppressed. Doing justice is required of all followers of Jesus: “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor;  Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Although there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying freedom, the concern for justice for other people should supersede all other objectives. Whatever our political views may be, their ultimate goal should be biblical justice.

It is important to remember that it is possible for two people to have the same interest of justice, but believe in different methods to carry it out. Going back to our previous example, two people may have a common interest to help the poor, but hold opposing methods to carry out that interest out—namely, higher or lower taxes. I would suggest that whichever position you might hold on taxation, it should be because you believe that your view is the best interest of justice.

Always Seek Unity Among Believers  When Jesus went to the garden to pray for us before he went to the cross, he asked the Father to make us one: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23). The Apostle Paul commanded the Corinthians to “agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor. 1:10). Whether Democrat or Republican, it is most important that we stay unified under the banner of the cross. When we quarrel, we distort that unity and harm our reputation. Notice that Jesus said that the result of our unity would be that the world will know that Jesus was sent by the Father? Our love and unity communicates to the world that Jesus is who he said he is!

Therefore, even though we may believe in different methods, we must focus on our common interest for the poor. The Apostle Paul instructed people who disagreed over methods of observing the Sabbath, but shared the same interest to obey God:  “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Rom 14:5). Then he commands them to “stop passing judgment on one another” (Verse 13).  Amen to that.

Always Seek Heart Transformation Jesus loathed external conformity to religion without heart transformation. Therefore, he reserved his harshest criticism for religious leaders called “Teachers of the Law,” who enforced rigid adherence to the law upon others, but did not love justice or mercy. Referring to them as “blind,” his employed a metaphor to communicate the primacy of internal transformation: “first clean the inside of the cup and dish, then the outside will naturally become clean” (Matt. 23:25-26).

Modern Christians are sometimes guilty of the same hypocrisy as the Teachers of the Law. Yes, we must do justice and protect the vulnerable, but ultimately only forgiveness of sin through the cross will affect permanent change. When we try to change society merely by imposing external law without nurturing heart change through the gospel, we in Jesus’ words “shut the door of the Kingdom in their faces,” and make people “twice as much children of hell” as the Teachers of the Law were. Why the harsh words? Because only through the grace of God can we be truly transformed.

When we teach people to trust in the law instead of in the gospel, we rob them of the very power that will change them permanently. We must always remember that laws are important to protect people, but we must also seek to proclaim the life changing message of the gospel if we are to realize true transformation.


[1] Black churches conflicted on Obama’s gay marriage decision By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY 5/14/12

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