Understanding the Church and Politics: Where Should I Start?

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For most of Church history, Christians have debated the relationship between church and state. For hundreds of years, the church attempted to use the power of state to squash false teachers and questionable doctrine. Unfortunately, that experiment was an absolute and objective failure. As a result, devout believers from all over Europe were forced to flee across the Atlantic to establish what is now the United States of America. With this history in the backdrop, modern American Christians are naturally skeptical of “politicizing” their local church.

Some may argue that the pendulum has swung too far, that the local church has abdicated its calling to be salt and light in the world, which surely includes the political sphere. That begs the question: how can we start to build a Biblical understanding of the role of the church (and ministry leaders) in modern American politics? While we should certainly consult the whole teaching of scripture, the logical place to begin is probably the books of 1st and 2nd Timothy.

Do these two books address most of our modern political issues? Well, not really. Keep in mind that the American political system is a very recent development in human history. It’s incredibly different from anything that existed when the New Testament was written, or anything that would come for the next millennia and a half after. However, there are some passages in these books that may seem surprisingly relevant to American politics. More importantly, these books are what’s called pastoral epistles. They were written by Paul to Timothy, a young pastor (or at least a ministry leader) in the Church at Ephesus, about the workings of the local church. These two books are excellent sources of teaching about the local church, its role, and how it should be organized. That means any understanding of the church’s role in politics mustbe subject to the teachings of these two books. Now that we’ve selected 1st and 2nd Timothy, where should we begin looking? That part is pretty easy, we start at the beginning.

1 Timothy 1:3-11

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia—remain in Ephesus that you may [a]charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith. Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from[b]sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.

But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, 10 for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is [c]contrary to sound doctrine, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.

Paul’s writings are notoriously wordy (for example: the last 4 verses of this passages are all one sentence), so sometimes it takes a close look to see Paul’s main idea. The first major idea appears to be that Timothy should “charge (or command in some translations) some that they teach no other doctrine”, a clear warning against false teachers.

This is very similar to a passage at the beginning of Galations, where Paul also warns against false teaching. He goes so far as to say if an angel from heaven–or even Paul himself–comes to the church preaching another gospel, they should be accursed. It’s also worth noting that this passage begins with, “As I urged you…”, indicating Paul is repeating something that he has previously said to Timothy. Clearly that statement is very, very important.

We see this idea again after Paul lists all of the people the law is profitable for, ending with “and if there is any other thing that is [c]contrary to sound doctrine”. This suggests the discussion of the law, starting in verse 7 and running through the end of the passage, is all a continued discussion about ensuring the teaching of sound doctrine. In summary, this passage is written to emphasize the protection of sound doctrine. It’s the first task that Paul gives to Timothy as a leader within the church. 

The first principle we should understand about the role of church in politics is this: the church should always protect against the preaching of a false gospel. If a church, pastor, or ministry leader’s political involvement threatens the church’s ability to perform that task, their political involvement is not Biblical. 

There are two obvious, practical ways that can happen.

First, we can run astray when we conflate our political views with the gospel. We shouldn’t be proclaiming the “social justice gospel” or the “pro-life gospel.” We should proclaim the gospel: that God became man and dwelt among us, He experienced the same things we experienced, He lived a perfect life, He died an atoning death in our place, and He rose again in victory over death 3 days later, and that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. That should compel us to see every single person as a divine creation, made in God’s image, and to treat them that way. Yes, that will influence and inform our political views, but those political views never become the gospel.

Secondly, we can run astray by following false teachers simply because we like their politics. There is nothing wrong with voting for someone because you like their policies, even if they may not agree with you on theological issues. However, we should be very careful about defending them or agreeing with them on every issue. When we allow someone with questionable theology to become thought leaders in our lives, we run the risk of unwittingly allowing their theology to corrupt our own. Do we treat our “political rivals” the way Jesus would treat them, or the way our favorite politician might treat them? I have to ask myself this question often, and it is a convicting thought.

As you engage with culture this week, keep this passage in mind. Guard your heart, mind, and words to avoid the two mistakes above. Above all else, proclaim the gospel. At the end of the day, our political involvement may or may not save our society from future ruin. One thing is for sure though, our political involvement is absolutely a platform to spread the gospel and grow the kingdom of God. Don’t miss that opportunity.

Keep an eye out for the next blog post as we work through Paul’s letters to Timothy!

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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