How Should God's People Respond to Political Divisions?
On January 28, 2021, Ministry to State hosted a webinar with Mission to North America to discuss current political divisions in the United States and how Christians should respond.
On the panel were Ministry to State's Chuck Garriott, Doug Lee, and Michael Langer.
We were so encouraged by the number of good questions following the webinar! Sadly, we could not get to all of them during the event. We have taken the unanswered questions from the webinar and answered them below.
Even within our own denomination, there are deep divisions. Any ideas on why people who have the same view of Scripture and use the same confessions can come to such different views regarding politics?
As we know, there are many theological views within the church that shape our understanding of various doctrines, ecclesiology, missions, etc. In many ways our differences accent our backgrounds and experiences, and I think will help us to develop the integrity of our unity. Unity takes a lot of hard work. I tend to think our differences are good, to a degree.
Some of our political differences are a result of our emphasis on a particular issue. Why are some Christians more comfortable with a progressive agenda and others are not? Experience? Background? Social and generational differences? Perhaps a combination of all three. Personally, I do not think we can cherry pick issues, yet we do. Abortion and the protection of children in the womb are important issues to which the Scriptures speak. At the same time, our obligation to the poor, the oppressed, refugees, and the sojourner matter as well. Do some see abortion as a permanent political reality and so they focus on that which they think can change, such as issues of social justice? Perhaps. Certainly some of our differences reflect the political party of which we are a member. Regardless, we should strive to have honest and humble discussions.
How do we help congregants realize that being a Christian does not automatically mean being a Republican, or to think that being a Democrat means being an unfaithful Christian?
We teach them that neither party has a platform that perfectly reflects the Word of God. Also it might be helpful to point that neither party has been able to perfectly reform society to their wishes. (For example, abortion is the law of the land and our justice system can be unjust to many in our society). One more thought: it might be helpful to remind those whom we disciple that for most of church history, Christians have had very little say in the political realm. Many Christians live today in nations where they have no input in their political communities. American Christians should approach our privilege with humility while seeking to find the most Biblical response to the issue. These words from James may be helpful: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.”
Should Christians even identify with a political party given that neither truly support biblical standards?
Remember, no political party will perfectly reflect the kingdom of God. It was true in Jesus’, Peter’s, and Paul’s day and will continue to be true until the day of Resurrection. That being said, most political parties do advocate some positions in agreement with the teachings that God provides for nations in his Word. Every Christian who lives in a democracy has the opportunity to participate in the process of selecting political leaders. We can recommend to those whom we disciple that we should pick issues we have the most concern over and then select the politician that hold positions as close to those issues as we can find. We also must be gracious to other Christians who will have other issues they are concerned about and may select a different politician based on those priorities.
How do you respond to Christians who would consider themselves a “single issue voter” on the issue of abortion, and thus feel we are morally bound to vote only Republican or not vote at all? Is this morally ambiguous or clear?
It depends on your hope for the outcome of the conversation. One piece of advice we can share is to take the time and discuss the issue, listening with great patience, the viewpoint of the “single issue voter.” As James writes, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Try your hardest to understand the other’s point of view, and, if possible, help them know that you do understand. This might open the door for you to discuss other issues reflected in scripture which are as important as the one he or she is focused on. Also, we may want to refocus the person on the kingdom of God, helping them understand that what we as individual Christians do may be more important and have a greater impact then what a politician does.
What would you say to a Christian who says, "I am not going to vote; it is in God's hands?"
Ask that Christian if that is the same philosophy they have about sharing the gospel? While we know the two are not identical, the analogy is helpful. Our Lord commands us to share, and Paul teaches us that the way God brings salvation to another is by us proclaiming the gospel. “Blessed are the feet of the one who brings good news.”
Paul’s opening words in Romans Chapter 13 means every Christian is to be subject to the government they live under. One of the “subjections” we have as American citizens is voting. In His providence, God has placed us in a representative democracy and made us citizens of this nation; therefore, we should vote. God brings about rulers in our country by individual citizens participating in the process through voting. That being said, if a person chooses not to vote, instead fully trusting in the votes of others and God’s providence, then we must support that decision as well. Too many of us are caught up in the political passions of the day. While it is okay for Christians to decide they are not going to participate and devote their lives to other pursuits, we should remember that no Christian had a say in who the emperor was in Paul’s day when he penned the letter to the Romans. We are blessed to have more agency today.
I would offer a viewpoint to consider: We tend to recoil at the thought of being "political.” But the issues of our day are moral, not political. As Christians, we must press the culture on moral, Biblical issues.
Yours is a statement more than a question, but it is well said. As we teach, disciple, and preach, we should focus on the full counsel of God, including the moral imperatives for our flourishing. While each political party in the United States has political platforms with their foundations in God’s moral law (“echoes of Eden”), they also reflect patterns of the Fall. As Christians, we are called to evaluate these platforms through a properly formed and Biblical worldview. This worldview informs how we vote and informs how we advocate with our local elected officials for the moral and common good. In politics, it does not do any good to have the right moral stance, but no will or means to make laws that reflect those values. Even then, it can take years to implement such laws.
A wonderful historical example is William Wilberforce, a British politician who served in the House of Commons from 1780-1825. His moral issue was slavery. In 1789, he introduced twelve resolutions against the slave trade. All were voted down. It was not until 1807 that he received enough support to stop the slave trade. And it was not until 1833 that there was enough support to abolish slavery in the United Kingdom altogether. That was eight years after Wilberforce retired from politics, and it was also the year he died. Pressing takes perseverance, and perseverance requires a living hope that is unfading. Thankfully, we have that in Christ.
Is it okay to be passionate or angry (non-violent protest), but yet not sin (violent protest etc.)?
All political positions touch our lives (taxes, international relations, imports, immigration, and so many others). Some decisions may even effect when we die (such as the political decisions during a pandemic). Because we are a representative democracy, we get to participate in selecting the leaders and political positions that will shape these life and death issues. This has always been true in our country. And because we can participate, we tend to get passionate about these issues. The proper response may be the one Paul provides in his letter to the Roman Christians: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” We can remind those who are passionate and angry these words: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
A PCA teaching elder posted on Facebook a list of President Trump's accomplishments preceded by vile language regarding President Biden. Included was the allegation that he is a pedophile. A Westminster Presbytery minister who was among the fine brothers who examined me for licensure in 1974 and ordination in 1975 has posted much on The Aquila Report that is troubling. What should one do, if anything, in responding on those places?
The internet has made for an interesting place to dialogue. Generally, our social media reflects our own positions and preferences. That is, we generally gravitate to those social media personalities and pages that support our point of view. But rarely can we have a real dialogue that might change hearts and minds on these platforms. If you feel that their web presence brings harm to the body of Christ or His image, bring this up in a Matthew 18 person-to-person discussion. Be prepared to share specific scripture that might help in the dialogue. However, remember not to quarrel as the Bible in numerous places warns us against. (Proverbs 15:1, Proverbs 15:18, Proverbs 17:14, Romans 12:18, Romans 14:1-23, 2 Timothy 2:14, 2 Timothy 2:23, Titus 3:9-11, and James 4:1).
How might we help our people in listening / processing media coverage that is shaped by a right or left political perspective.
In the same way we equip our people to discern good doctrine and theology. Just as the Word of God informs us about God, it also enlightens us about our relationship with each other. The author of Hebrews teaches us “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s word not only helps us discern the thoughts and intentions of our own hearts but will help us discern those of others. It is also important that this is not a one time message simply because the United States is in political turmoil. This should be regularly taught in sermons, Sunday Schools, small group studies, and one-on-one discipleship. We should be a people who filters all the messages of the world through the Word of God. We need to be skilled at understanding the interconnections between various scriptures, so we are discerning the messages we hear by the whole Word of God, not just part of it. This is how we avoid heresy, and it is also how we avoid being overly shaped by right or left political media coverage.
Michael said something spot on: read and consider diverse opinions and sources. Any advice on how we can encourage (in love) our presbyterian brothers and sisters to do that as well?
Just as Jesus does with us: with patience, humility, and love. It may be worthwhile to have some of these diverse opinions and sources researched and at the ready. For example, you might discuss social justice and look at Leviticus 19; Isaiah 58 regarding issues of the marketplace and treatment of the foreigner; Micah 6:8 and Jesus’ words in Luke 11:42 regarding the homeless. Several excellent Christian authors who regularly write for such publications as The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Economist, and others are Peter Wehner (PCA), David Brooks, and Michael Gerson. An excellent book I recommend to everyone on this issue is Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes by James Mumford. The Book of Proverbs teaches us not to speak as fools, and we should take that seriously. In Acts 2, Peter is speaking prophetically to Jews who are present for a religious holiday. There was a context for his religious words. When Paul was at the Aereopogas, he reasoned with the philosophers from their poets! Too often, we take the Peter in Acts 2 approach, when we should take Paul’s at the Aereopogas.
How do you explain why so many prominent pastors and church people tied themselves to Donald Trump?
Some suggest President Trump received the support of so many in the church because of his judicial nominations. Many Christians have come to see the courts as the real battle ground; especially after Roe vs Wade. For those very concerned over the issue of abortion, President Trump’s judicial selections were exactly what they were wanting and waiting for. But there are many other policy issues that his administration supported and could be the reason why so many pastors and church people tied themselves to him.
What advice would you give a pastor of a congregation made up almost exclusively of varying degrees of passionate Trump supporters?
Ask questions about their view and listen. Try to understand them and their point of view. In your discipleship and preaching, help them learn to trust God and not put their faith in government to solve social problems. Bringing history into focus might also help. In the days when the apostles were writing the gospels and letters to the churches, Christians were under Roman rule. Most of the political policies of Rome were antithetical to God's teaching about good governance in the scriptures. Peter, Paul, and the others whom the Holy Spirit inspired consistently instructed to “Honor the emperor” and “Be subject … to the emperor as supreme.” Daniel is also a good case study for a Christian serving an ungodly government. We each have a vote. But then we must place our trust in God for the outcome. Our current government is lead by President Biden. Romans 13:1-7 applies to him as much as it did to President Trump.
Is it okay for a Christian to be a populist?
There is no Biblical mandate to be part of any particular political movement, nor does the Bible specifically teach against being part of any one political movement. Can a Christian be a populist? Yes. They can also be a socialist, republican, nationalist, democrat, libertarian, or many other political viewpoints. About the only ones that might exclude Christians are political movements that are specifically anti-Christian, atheistic, or have policies that are specifically against God and his Word in some fashion. An example would be a government that allowed religious worship but dictated who could be ordained, and what messages they were allowed to preach.
How do you know when a church member's healthy commitment to his or her country becomes unhealthy Christian Nationalism? Or unhealthy Christian Marxism? And how should a session address this? Is their desire to protest and demonstrate enough?
This takes work, and it requires a commitment to disciple the individual you are concerned with. First, we should, as Paul states in 2 Timothy, “Remind them of these things and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Accordingly, we need to be in the Word and have passages we study together that will help temper our views, whether they are leading us towards unhealthy nationalism or socialism. Also, we must be sure that our own political views are not clouding our judgment. We often have strong views that have taken a long time to develop; especially if we are older. We want our loved ones and fellow believers to come to the same conclusions as we hold. When we enter into discussions about politics it is very helpful to listen and try to understand the conclusions that someone else has come to, especially if their conclusion seems to be in direct contradiction to our own.
In your estimation does the MAGA movement have any similarities to the Lost Cause Tradition?
It is too early to tell. The Lost Cause Tradition lasted generations but the MAGA movement is relatively new. The foundational beliefs of the two movements are also very different. The Lost Cause Tradition believed the Confederacy was right, slavery was moral, and racism was the foundation of society. Many have pointed out that the heart of the MAGA movement is to focus on American citizens before tackling world problems. For example, trade deals are important between nations, but they should not be unbalanced in the favor of one over the other. Could the MAGA movement turn into a movement like the Lost Cause Tradition? Yes, of course it could. But it could simply be a political movement that lasts for a short time like so many that have proceeded it.
Saw this question on social media: What do we do with "the Black Robed Regiment?" (i.e. the Presbyterian and Congregationalist pastors who preached and supported the rebellion against the government in the 1770s?) Their seditious activities were so well known that King George III of England referred to the American Revolution as a "Presbyterian War."
We enjoy the fruits of their rebellion in a land with freedom of religion. For those who feel that freedom is now on the cusp of collapse (Rod Dreher readers, for example), they pose the question as a choice between owning our heritage by encouraging a new form of sedition, or speaking against our own history. Curious your thoughts.
Indeed, many see the War for Independence as an act of rebellion encouraged by many clergy. A fascinating read on this is Political Sermons of the American Founding Era. Vol. 1 (1730-1788) which is available online. America, of course, is not alone in its clergy taking sides in a political drama. But instigating political rebellion is nowhere encouraged in Scripture.
A couple of side points. First, Rod Dreher’s take on a coming Dark Ages 2.0 and the need to hunker down and survive is a bit fatalistic for me. Some of that may stem from differences in eschatology (or how the Church moves toward the Second Coming). There is only one time in all of Scripture when the Church-State nexus existed: Israel's United Kingdom under David and Solomon. In the rest of Scripture, followers of God, and later Christians, were almost always on the wrong side of political power, rarely having any political or cultural agency. Yet, we are told that the “gates of Hell will not prevail” against the kingdom of God.
Second, while the Presbyterians of the Revolutionary time may have earned the moniker “Black Robed Regiment” for their rhetorical push for independence, it was many of the southern Presbyterian men in black robes that served on Sovereignty Commissions in the south and stood against desegregation. Additionally, many Presbyterians used what's called the “Doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church” to exempt themselves from taking a stand on the racial injustice facing our black brothers and sisters. This is something for which our own denomination has offered a public statement of repentance. The lesson being that clergy are not immune from political stances that actually stand in the way of God’s efforts to seek the flourishing of his people.
Chuck, you mentioned the importance of discipling our people with a biblical view of government. I am guessing your book addresses this. Are there any other books you would recommend?
There are a number of books that come to mind that may be of help. Yet, I would not consider any of these to be the book. Yes, Rulers: Gospel and Government and Love and Power: Glimpses of the Gospel for those Addicted to Self provide some insight regarding our view of government and those in the political realm. The late Ed Clowney's The Church is also helpful. Early on in developing Ministry to State's ministry model, I read God's Politician by Garth Lean which I think will also assist anyone in developing a biblical world and life view, especially as it pertains to government and the church's responsibility to engage with those in that sphere.
I’m encouraged that our denomination has a Ministry of State. Is this a new ministry?
Well, yes and no. Ministry to State was founded by Chuck Garriott in 2003 when he and his family moved to Washington, D.C. He was not only the director but the sole missionary until 2014. During that time, God laid the foundation for how the ministry would work and our focus. In 2014, Steve Bostrom joined the team as a State Capitol Minister in Helena, Montana. In 2015, Thomas Eddy joined as the Associate Director for State Capitols. Since then, five others have joined to minister in state capitals across the United States. In 2018, Michael Langer joined as the Associate Director for D.C. Ministry. He now leads a team of three additional ministry staff in the nation's capital. Our team also includes Ret. Gen. Doug Lee as our Chief Operation Officer and Robert Hasler as our Communications Director. Thankfully, the Lord grows ministries on his time table!