Church Politics: Christian Responsibility in the World: The Politics of Division versus the Gospel of Unity
Saanich Community Church
January 13, 2008
Texts: Isaiah 42.1-9; Matthew 5.43-48; Jeremiah 29.4-7
©2008 by David Eagle, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
We are entering controversial territory that most pastors either a) avoid or b) don’t take the time to understand the complexities of and simply take a generally socially-conservative stance. In this sermon series I will do neither. In this sermon series I’m going to talk about politics from the pulpit; don’t worry I’m not going to endanger our beloved tax-exempt status by lobbying for particular candidates, parties, or legislation. Politics comes from the greek word polis: means two things. First, city-state, that’s not how I’m using it. Rather, I want to use it to talk about the body of citizens who are responsible for making their society work.
So when I use the word politics and Christian involvement in politics, I’m not only talking about government. But, I’m talking about all the ways in which we participate as citizens with Christian commitments in building a society both locally and increasingly globally. How do we think about culture? How do we think about engaging culture?
You could also say I’m going to talk about: how Christians should think of themselves as being in the world but not of the world when it comes to building neighbourhoods, cities, provinces and a nation with people who believe differently from us. In the sermon series, I will be looking at these issues from the perspective that the Bible, theology and thinking about the church offers. I should say that inevitably in this sermon series you will find things you disagree; I will make a few of you mad; and hopefully some of you will agree with me. That’s part of the point of this sermon series: to get good dialogue going, to help us recognize our differences, and to hopefully foster a sense through the rest of the worship that there are many things that also bind us together in spite of our differences. Why are we doing this: the political, social and economic issues facing our world are simply too significant to ignore: a) widened gulf between rich and poor b) climate change c) the continuing erosion of the social safety net in this country d) global poverty e) the rise of religious based militancy and nationalism, and so on and so on.
And lest you think I’m only preaching an issue-oriented message with no ties to the Bible, I am doing this out of respect for this season of Epiphany that we are in that spans from the first Sunday in January through until the beginning of Lent in mid-Feb.
The New Testament assumes that Christians will be active and involved in the societies they live in, so it’s not a question of if
It is a vital question of how. How do we operate as lamps in our neighbourhoods, salt in our workplaces, a city on the hill in our political landscapes, etc? What is the character of our light, how are we to be salty, what is the nature of our mission? These are the questions I want to explore over the next four weeks.
By no means a trivial question, the election of George Bush was in no small way achieved through the support of conservative Christian voters; and certainly for better or for worse, the president of the USA has a tremendous influence on our world
But rather than pick on our southern neighbours, let me highlight three Canadian examples of evangelical Christians thinking and talking about how we ought to relate to our society. And in case you miss my point, the point of these three examples is to demonstrate the unhelpful ways in which evangelical Christians think about how to engage Canadian society.
Now why have I picked these three negative examples? Well, this comes from exp. at CSRS. There I discover among non-evangelical Christians – non-Xians and mainline church folk – who encompass a large majority of our pop., to that population these three examples would be seen as representative of how they perceive evangelical and more conservative Christians to engage in questions of cultural and political engagement from a religious perspective.
The first comes from Mark Driscoll a pastor from Seattle of Mars Hills Church. While he is American, this clip is taken from a preaching conference held at Willingdon Church in Burnaby, where he is specifically addressing Canadians, and was invited by the Canadian planning team because they liked his message. I should say that Mark is an extremely influential evangelical leader, particularly amongst the under-35 crowd. He has influenced a whole generation of church planters in the US and Canada, including some in our own denomination. Here is a sound byte from his talk where he’s addressing the question of “what are the highest priorities for pastors in Canada in 2007.” The audience is around 1000 pastors from BC and beyond.
Sound Byte - for copyright reasons it is not included here, sorry!
(the general gist of this comment is that culture has feminized men and the solution to the church's problems is to reassert a strong masculinity and masculine leadership)
The next example comes from the Rev. Stephen Boissoin who wrote a letter to the editor of the Red Deer Advocate back on June 17, 2002. I should that Boissoin, a former pastor, along with the Christian group he belonged to were found to have broken Alberta's human rights law by writing this letter in Nov. of this year. Let me read a few selections, not because I agree with what is said in this letter, but to give you a taste of how some Christians in our day and age are engaging our culture.
Sound Byte - for legal reasons it cannot be posted, sorry!
(You can visit his blog for a general sense of his views)
OK, the final example comes from a group named Canadian Family Action Coalition, a 30,000 member political lobby group that has links to several Conservative MP’s. This group is frequently quoted in BC Christian news and its national counter-part Canadian Christianity.ca. Here is a description from their website about the goals and purposes of their organization.
Sound Byte - for copyright reasons it is not included here, but you can read it on CFAC's website
So, there you have it. Three different contemporary examples of evangelical Christians thinking and talking and writing about how Christians are to shape and influence the world they live in. Again, these are only 3 examples. I could have found other ones, other much more positive ones. But, I chose these three examples because they show us what we’re up against when it comes to engaging people in our world with the Christian message. Many people outside the church will immediately get defensive when they encounter Christians because they associate the kind of rhetoric in these three examples with all Christians. And the media has not helped because too often the negative examples get the press, where the more positive approaches are ignored. In my mind, we need to go out of our way to present a different image. Anyway, I don’t want to belabour that point.
So, by way of moving forward I want to extract from each of these three talks what I perceive to be a fundamental flaw in the way the speaker is thinking about how we participate in our culture, or in other words how Christians should be in, but not of the world. And, then I want to propose three ideas or principles or themes that emerge from the Bible that push us in a different direction. These three ideas I believe are fundamental to question of how do we engage our culture as Christians. And these three ideas will play an important role in the next three sermons on this topic.
First of all, looking at Mark Driscoll’s talk. There are many problems with his message, not the least of which is the arrogance of his tone and the sexist and patriarchal assumptions that lie deeply embedded within his message. At its root, Driscoll is trying to restore a lost, idealized world from the 1950’s where men and women had carefully prescribed roles. But that is not what I want to focus on. Remember the point of his talk. He was listing the most important priorities for Canadian pastors in 2007. He’s a major figure in the North American scene. He’s addressing a very large group of Canadian pastors. And what are his top two priorities. Number one on his list was Christology – or how you understand who Jesus is. I’ll grant him that, although on that point I think we’d see the issues a little differently. Number two, he says is men – building your ministry around men, male headship, and this odd notion of masculine dignity.
So, what’s the problem here? I have no idea how you can read the Bible in a careful and responsible manner and conclude that the number 2 priority, right after Jesus, is men.
Turn with me to Isaiah chapter 42. You will remember that Matthew in Chapter 12.17-21, identifies Jesus with the servant spoken of in this passage.
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope."
Now turn to Isaiah 61. Again, the New Testament connects the picture of the servant in this passage with Jesus Christ in Luke 4.18-19
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor…
It would seem from these passages that the New Testament writers understood that integral to Jesus’ ministry was bringing justice, protecting the poor and weak, reaching out to the oppressed, caring from prisoners, and releasing people from economic bondage. And if Jesus is the chief shepherd (a remember that the word pastor is just the Latin for Shepherd) I would assume that pastors (or shepherds!) in 2008 should pattern their ministry after Jesus.
Driscoll’s preoccupation with things masculine is symptomatic of a larger problem with more conservatively-minded Christians in that they often have a very narrow focus around a few issues: euthanasia, abortion, same-sex marriage, women’s roles and ignore some other at least equally important Biblical themes around justice, and helping the poor, and relieving suffering, and so on.
So, this leads me to my first principle around how Christians should participate in the world. Our ministry in the world as individual Christians and as a church should be patterned after the ministry of Jesus. It should have his priorities – the priorities expressed in Isaiah 42 and 61 – of bringing justice, carrying good news to the poor, caring for the depressed and lonely, helping prisoners, and relieving those caught under oppressive economic systems. We need to be careful not to become sidetracked by issues that are either secondary or even irrelevant to these emphases.
Second, let us turn to Rev. Boissoin’s letter. Again, as with the first example, there are a number of problems with his letter – the fact that it was declared hate-speech by the Alberta Human Rights Commission is perhaps most significant. And amongst right-wing Christian lobby groups there has been a continuing attempt to undermine the authority of government agencies that protect our basic human rights. This I think is a major problem. The Golden Rule seems to apply in this situation – as Christians, none of us would want to be branded a threat to the moral foundations of society without any real proof.
But the deeper issue contained in this letter has to do with how we dialogue about issues in our society where there are significant divisions. And clearly around the question of whether or not homosexual practice is a good or bad thing there are some pretty deep divisions, mirrored both inside the church and outside the church. Boissoin’s approach is to label homosexual rights advocates and those that defend them as “just as immoral as the pedophiles, drug dealers and pimps that plague our communities.”
Interestingly, during my time at UVic, I had the chance to meet a real, dyed-in-the-wool homosexual activist. She had an office just a few doors down from mine. And as a bit of an aside, it is interesting how things change when a label such as “homosexual rights activist” becomes real person. Now, suppose that I held as strident a position on this issue as the Reverend. I have no clue what good would be accomplished if I had said to this person that I felt she was a threat to the moral fabric of the society and no different than a drug dealer? Rather than building any sort of bridge of understanding or dialogue, this would have merely created an enemy. Like it or not, we as Christians are going to have to learn how to work together with people who believe differently than we do in constructing a just society.
So, what principle or idea emerges from this with regards to how Christians are to engage their culture, to be in the world but not of it? We’ve heard read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.44-48 where he calls us to love our enemies.
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Now I wonder if you caught his theological justification for why we are to love our enemies. He gives it at the end of verse 45, we can easily miss it. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Jesus is simply saying God cares for people whether they acknowledge him or not. And if God loves his “enemies” in this way, we should treat others with the same kind of love and respect.
You could say this thing in another way. The vision this passage calls us to affirm is that every human person deserves equal respect. And the reason why all people of all cultures, ideologies, orientations, etc deserve equal respect isn’t because their cultures, ideologies, orientations, etc. are equally healthy or have earned equal treatment. No. Every human person deserves equal respect because God doesn’t distinguish between people, he sends rain on the righteous and the unjust.
I would argue that this kind of radical enemy love this kind of respect for all people is in short supply. Our society is rife with tension. Husbands and wives, children and parents, employers and employees, citizens and governments, conservatives and liberals and new democrats, church members, nations and other nations, Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Sikhs: it seems that wherever there are differences amongst humans there is conflict.
So, the recovery of Jesus’ call for us to love and respect all people, even our enemies, is as vital in 2008 as it has been at any other point in human history. The kind of language employed by Rev. Boissoin has no place on a Christian’s lips. Rather, even to those with whom we disagree we are called to exhibit love, care and respect. So that’s our second idea.
Finally, we turn to the CFAC mission statement. Now, I think a few of their ideas are good and helpful ideas that we would do well to recover. They want to ensure that the right for religious people to express their viewpoints and worship freely continues to be protected in our country. Religious freedom is a good thing, no one religious or non-religious perspective should be allowed to dominate. And I would also agree with them that it is the responsibility of all citizens to be active in community life and to participate in the democratic political process. A society cannot flourish unless its citizens are active and involved in building and correcting that society. However, in spite of what is good about their aims and objectives, there is a real problem with their primary belief that “the Judeo-Christian moral tradition is foundational to Canadian society.”
Christians have been, from the very beginning of the movement, subject to the temptation to try and get their value system established as the foundation of society. And at various times in history, Christians have managed to gain enough control and influence over the government and military to establish Christianity as the dominant religion of whole nations and empires.
My sense is that CFAC has precisely this goal. They believe that the laws of Canada in areas such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and education should mirror their own position because Canada is somehow a Christian nation.
Now, why is this a problem? Isn’t it right to want our nation to have a Christian worldview and foundation? Answering this question requires us to turn to a familiar passage from the book of Jeremiah chapter 29 verses 4-7,
"Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
Remember, the Israelites came to Babylon from Israel where they had a Jewish king, and where OT Law was the basis of the society’s legal system. They were exiled to a place where they no longer had a Jewish king and Jewish laws. And God asks them not to pine for Jerusalem and for the old ways. Nor does he tell them to take over Babylon. Rather, he asks them to seek the welfare of the cities they live in, pray for the people with whom they live, and work with others to make it a better place.
Now, there’s a great deal of evidence that this idea of living as “exiles” took root in the minds of early Christians. In 1 Peter 1.1 we read “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion.” In chapter 2.11-17 we read,
"Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right…Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor."
I think you can hear the strong allusions to Jeremiah 29 in this passage. And so the final Biblical principle or idea that emerges is that as Christians we live as the exiles did in Babylon. We don’t expect the government or society to share the values that we share. We don’t try impose our values on the society. Rather, we seek do things that promote welfare of the neighbourhoods, workplaces, homes, cities, and nations in which God has placed us. And I take this to mean that we work in partnership even with people who believe very differently than us to make our world a better place. And this idea of partnership is going to be significant as we move forward.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this enormous and complex topic of how Christians are to be in the world but not of the world. We will never fully sort out this question. But, this brief tour I hope gives us some important handholds to help us grab hold of this topic.
As Christians we are in the world by buying houses, and taking jobs, and joining sports teams, and voting, and volunteering in the community. And from Jeremiah we learn that we are in the world by working alongside others who are seeking to promote the well being of our society.
But we are also not of the world. We are other-worldly in that we don’t see differences as dividing people. But rather we try and treat all people with love and respect. We are also not of the world in that care for those that society often ignores: the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the imprisoned.
So, may God bless us today, this week, this year in our homes, families, churches, workplaces, recreation centres, neighbourhoods as we seek to be salt and light, to enhance and illuminate God’s already present presence in our world. Amen.