Churches Can’t Avoid Politics — And They Shouldn’t Try

/

When the Church and Christians fight for justice in the public square through political means, amazing things can happen — whether that is ending the British slave trade, working to help overturn Roe, or bravely keeping a church open in defiance of absurd government mandates, as John MacArthur and other pastors did in 2020. The Church cannot avoid being political. Too much is at stake.”

WILLIAM WOLFE

Despite what many may think, the truth is that the Church is a political body. It always has been and it always will be.

What do I mean? At the most basic level, the Church is political because it is a specific, gathered group of people pursuing a shared vision for life together and common ends. In Politics, Aristotle describes this most basic political effort. He says:

“Every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.”

Aristotle is arguing that politics can be understood as the cooperative pursuit of the good. Of course, Aristotle didn’t have the Church in mind when he wrote this. As Christians, we would argue that it is ultimately the Church, not the state, that aims at the “highest good.”

But what’s the difference between a random gathering of Christians and a church? How do we know when we are working together, as Christians, for the (spiritual) good? The difference is polity. Polity is simply the organization and structure that is applied to a group or civic body. A church then is a gathered body of Christians who have agreed to join together in a covenant (what we call church membership), and that covenant has agreed-upon rules for church government and expectations for their behavior in church.

See, like I said, the Church is political. Now, inside the political community of the Church, it’s not debating the latest tithe bill or letting deacons-turned-lobbyists influence the pastors to make sure one program gets more money than another (and if that is happening at your church, God bless you — you’re going to need it). No, the political community of the Church exists to teach and guard the Gospel of Jesus Christ by making, baptizing, and discipling Christians.

Still, this community has boundaries, it has citizenship, and it even has what you could call “laws.” It has a particular mode of enforcement, the “keys to the kingdom.” We find these in Matthew 16:13-20 and Matthew 18:15-20, when Jesus gives them to His disciples (and by extension, the Church).

The keys are a standard, a confession. They are used by God’s people to grant access to God’s gathered community. The keys are given to the Church as a whole, not any one member or leader. They are meant to symbolize a correct profession of the Gospel and acknowledgment of the risen Christ as Lord.

The binding and loosing are symbolic, representing the serious nature of whether one can anticipate being welcomed into Heaven as their eternal home, or being damned to Hell for all eternity. The Church is marked off by a commitment to the confession of Peter of Christ as Messiah in Matthew 16:16 and self-regulates through the process outlined in Matthew 18:15-17.

Thus, the role of the Church in society isn’t primarily to conquer through physical means but rather to safeguard confessions of faith. That said, the Church is a political community comprised of people who have dual citizenship, one here on earth and one in heaven.

Now, some theologians have argued that the Church is like an embassy in a foreign nation; it’s an outpost of home, where Christians gather every week to be reminded of where they really belong. But I think that analogy drives too great of a wedge, too far of a distance, between our dual citizenships. Even though we are indeed “bound for the Promised Land,” the reality is that we still live in this land until God calls us home. I think a better analogy might be that of a military outpost or base that is part of a full-scale invasion working to recapture lost ground from the enemy. Christ the King reigns over all — even if earthly powers don’t acknowledge that the earth is still the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (Psalm 24:1).

Furthermore, the Church, or a church, is comprised of flesh-and-blood humans who live six days a week in the City of Man, to borrow a phrase from Augustine. What then does the Church, or its members, have to do with their city, state, or nation?

Abraham Kuyper, and others, suggested the concept of “sphere sovereignty” to help Christians think through the nature of the relationship between the Church and the state, the culture, and politics. Sphere sovereignty is the idea that God has created and ordained certain distinct-but-overlapping spheres of authority for mankind’s good. The three main spheres are the Church, the state, and the family. And to each sphere, God prescribed a certain mechanism of enforcement. As we saw already, to the Church, He gives the “keys.” To the state, He gives the “sword” (Romans 13:4). And to the family, He gives the “rod” (Proverbs 13:4).

The point is this: Christians live under both the keys in the Church and the sword in the civic arena, the public square, and the state — and so we should be working for the good in both.

Instead of making politics sound like a dirty word, pastors should be training and equipping their members to go out and work in the world for the good of society and the glory of God. Christians should never be the people who are sometimes referred to as being “so heavenly minded that they are of little earthly good.”

In a recent speech, theologian Dr. James Wood took this misguided notion head-on, stating:

“In our intense cultural battles, conservative Christians are often reminded that because we must love our enemies and show the meekness of Christ, we should, therefore, avoid ‘culture-warring’ or ‘politicizing the faith.’ Rather, we are told, we need to be ‘winsome’ and find a way to transcend the divisions of our day. We are to lay down our rights, for the ‘world is watching.’ Any pursuit of power will, supposedly, discredit the Church’s public witness.”

Of course, these charges don’t stick. Later in his speech, Wood drew attention to the notable evangelical figure Francis Schaeffer. He argued that Schaeffer

“repeatedly proclaimed that truthful love must confront destructive wickedness, and he was committed to the use of political means. He was fervent about waking a sleepy church from its blindness to evils in the culture and its unwillingness to act. He helped rally Protestants to oppose abortion. Dobbs, in some ways, is his legacy.”

When the Church and Christians fight for justice in the public square through political means, amazing things can happen — whether that is ending the British slave trade, working to help overturn Roe, or bravely keeping a church open in defiance of absurd government mandates, as John MacArthur and other pastors did in 2020. The Church cannot avoid being political. Too much is at stake.

To bring us back to where I began: Simply by existing, the Church is political. It’s actually the most radical political body on earth because it serves a King who reigns over all.

When gathered on Sunday mornings, the mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to follow Christ (Matthew 28:19-20). But when the Church scatters — as each individual member goes their separate way for the week — those members don’t lose their allegiance to Jesus. They must work for justice in their communities and their cities. They should call upon presidents and kings to bend their knees to Christ the King (Philippians 2:10).

The Church is political; it always has been and it always will be. Both pastors and people in the pews should accept this and run with it. The Gospel is guarded in the Church, yes, but it doesn’t stay in the Church. It has implications for all of our lives — including how we vote.

So, it’s time for the Church, and for Christians, to embrace our political nature and do work while the day is bright. The night is coming. And Christ will return; that’s not in question. The only question is: Will we be found faithful when He does?


Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe

Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.