If a church doesn’t speak out on a specific political or justice issue, does that mean you should leave it?
This is a question that a lot of Christians, both political conservatives and liberals, have asked themselves and regularly struggle with. For example, many politically conservative Christians I know believe that churches should be actively encouraging their people to vote exclusively for pro-life candidates and to do everything in their power to see Roe vs. Wade overturned. Likewise, many politically progressive Christians I know believe churches should be actively speaking out for increased gun control and a more equitable economic system. They both see their respective causes as serious justice, if not gospel, issues. If the church does not actively address those issues, so the logic goes, then it is not being faithful to God’s mission in the world and it raises the question of whether I should stay in that community or go find another one.
This last week I read a blog post by a politically progressive pastor calling for people to consider leaving their churches if they do not address the border crisis on Sunday morning. That’s a pretty provocative call, and it got me thinking about whether that is the right approach. What sort of political and moral crises should cause someone to leave their faith community?
I think the answer to this question depends on the sort of church community you are already in. If you are in a church community that is very politically active and nearly everything about it runs counter to your own convictions, the constant irritation you’ll feel will likely not be good for you, spiritually. However, if you are in a church that contains a diverse range of political opinion, most likely you should stay.
I say, generally, you should stay because I see a church that is made up of people with a range of political opinions as doing something right. There are plenty of churches that are made up pretty much exclusively of people of the same political stripe. I can think of church communities where your faith would be viewed with suspicion if you admitted to voting for Obama. I can also think of churches who claim to be radically inclusive until they find out you’re a republican who believes in a traditional definition of marriage. But, if a church is putting its primary focus on reaching as many people as possibly with the gospel of Christ crucified, then you’re going to see a diversity of opinions in your community, some of which will be objectionable to you.
Jesus’ ministry generally constituted being with the wrong kinds of people. He would surround himself with people whose lives were a moral mess (Luke 7:36-50). He would commend the faith of a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). He would heal a servant of a Roman centurion (Luke 7:1-10). Jesus’s disciples included a tax collector (Matthew 10:3) and a Jewish revolutionary (Luke 6:15). His whole ministry involved being in relationship with people who had very different convictions about how the world should work.
Jesus would also often be approached by people who wanted him to advocate for their specific cause. In Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus was approached by Pharisees who wanted to know if it was “lawful,” that is religiously faithful, to pay taxes to the emperor. For them, this was a serious religious and political issue because in the Roman world, the emperor was often worshiped as a god and the coins had his image on them. The text says they were trying to trap him (vs. 15), so they were putting forward a difficult political and moral question that would allow them to box him in and say, “Look! His answer to this question shows he isn’t really being faithful to God!”
But Jesus refused to play their game. Jesus was not giving approval to idolatrous emperor worship, but neither was he going to be distracted from his mission by attempting to solve an incredibly morally complex problem on his questioner’s terms. He had his own kingdom terms that he was operating under.
To be part of God’s people, to be operating under kingdom terms, means to be one among many sinners who are justified by grace and are being, slowly but surely, made more like Christ. Church is where we go to be reminded of what God has done for all of us in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. We should be reminded through the preaching of the Word and taking communion that we all have sinned and none of us are more pure than the person sitting next to us who at this point in their discipleship journey holds a morally or politically objectionable idea. Let God work in them!
This isn’t to say that there are not a lot of justice issues that churches should be engaged with. I think Christians should not be afraid to voice their opinions in the public sphere as Christians. Our faith is not a private spirituality, but it is one that must be lived out in the real world. The catch is, we are often going to disagree on how to do that, and because all of us are sinners, our ways of going about that will always be touched by sin, at least a little.
The church should strive to be a place where we can extend grace to one another even when we vehemently disagree on various issues. If we too quickly separate ourselves from others whose views we consider impure or compromised, we are committing the same sins of the Pharisees. To leave a church because there are people there who love everything about Trump, or who voted for Democrats in the last election isn’t going to do anything toward healing the divisions that exist in our culture.
Could the church’s greatest witness in these polarized times be that Christians are the ones who try to build bridges across ideological lines? If we truly believe that all of us are sinners in need of grace, then I think it can be. And that’s something that will only happen if we commit to sticking together, even when it’s tough.