During the Texas Baptist Family Gathering, I led a workshop about how Christians can steward their public witness in an age of increasing tribalism. While the workshop room was packed, I think there are lessons from my workshop that deserve a broader audience because I am increasingly alarmed by the polarization in the church and what it is doing to our ability to make disciples. Many Christians are struggling within themselves to keep their partisan identities secondary to their identities as followers of Jesus Christ and it has lead to increased conflicts among believers.
According to a recent report by Lifeway, more than half of Protestant churchgoers under age 50 say they prefer to attend church with people who share their political views and few churchgoers say they attend services with people of a different political persuasion.
The increased partisan rancor in our country will have dire consequences. The church is following the culture rather than modeling how those of different political inclinations, races, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds can work together for the common good.Christians are increasingly moving to opposing corners based on politics, and our churches and our gospel witness is suffering because we have put our allegiance to our political parties before our allegiance to Christ and each other.
Unity does not mean uniformity. Democrats and Republicans -- not to mention partisans from Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America -- will be in heaven. Civic engagement and advocacy are important parts of what it means to be an American citizen, but we are first citizens of another kingdom, and must keep things in their proper order.
My pastor’s wife puts it this way, “Keep the main thing the main thing.” We are so beholden to our respective political parties we have lost sight of the main thing, namely the kingdom of God and our responsibility to make disciples.
Here are four pitfalls of the partisan trap for Christians and some suggestions for avoiding them.
The first pitfall is begin to confuse partisan talking points for the eternal truths of Scripture.
Love your neighbor as yourself becomes love your Republican neighbor or your American neighbor or the neighbor who shares your views on climate change, when Scripture makes no such delinations.
The truth is there are elements of both political platforms that are contrary to biblical teachings. There are very few specific policy solutions laid out in the Bible so while we can glean some principles for how to think about certain public policy issues, faithful Christians may disagree on what it means, for instance, to not “oppress the poor” when it comes to accessing healthcare.
A second pitfall is that we might begin to prioritize the success of our chosen partisan platforms over the commands of Scripture as a guide for our language and behaviors.
For example, the biblical principle of Imago Dei--that we all are created in the Image of God having dignity and worth ascribed by God, should mean Christians do not call names or dehumanize others. One place where I have seen this repeatedly crop up is on the issue of immigration. Immigration like many political issues is extremely complex and their are competing interests on multiple sides, but language that demeans undocumented immigrants or border patrol agents violates the biblical principle of Imago Dei.
When we cannot pray for those with whom we disagree, when we bear false witness by sharing false news, when we limit our responsibility to love our neighbors to loving our American neighbor, or our Christian neighbor, or our neighbor who shares our views on climate change, we have become guided by partisanship and not the Word of God.
A third pitfall of the partisanship in the church is that we can begin to put our hope in politics and political power, when Jesus is our only hope.
Part of our discipleship should be helping people to see how political engagement can be a tool for creating human flourishing and addressing injustice. But we live in a fallen world, and while we work here on earth, it's important that ultimately some things will not be right until Jesus returns to make all things right.
Democrat or Republican, do not fall into the partisan trap by boasting about human leaders or placing too much of your hope in princes and rulers that cannot save.
Finally, when our partisan leanings become ultimate, we dilute the power of the gospel.
In John 17, Jesus is praying for the life and ministry of his disciples after He leaves them. Among many things He asks of the Father is oneness -- “that they might be one…[a]s you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” For Jesus, our unity was one of the ways of identifying Him as a Savior sent by God. Our unity as the body is meant to testify to who Jesus Christ is and His mission on earth.
Christians should engage in the public square. We should vote and encourage others to do so. Our advocacy should be about solving problems, pursuing justice, and fixing broken systems, not scoring political points or owning the other side. We should do so with humility and charity towards those who think differently, especially those within the body of Christ. Unity is so central to the mission of Christians, Paul repeatedly warned against dissension rebuking Peter for falling back into ethnic tribalism, reminding the church at Ephesus to “make every effort to maintain the unity, and admonishing the church at Corinth to avoid divisions, “but [to] be united in the same mind and purpose.”
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul says for as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among the body they are acting according to the flesh and human inclinations. He reminds them that as Jesus followers they have a common purpose as God’s servants, working together to build something of eternal value.
This world is not our home, and we should hold all worldly allegiances second to our allegiance to Christ. As Pastor Scott Sauls once said, “under Jesus, political loyalties lose their ultimacy.” As we approach election season, Christians should remember our hope is in Christ and regardless of who is in power, we should love another as co-heirs and builders of the kingdom.