Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Case For The Apolitical Church

There are essays that should never have to be written. This is one of them. It should be clear from a reading of the New Testament (even including the Book of Revelation) that the Apostles and early disciples of Jesus eschewed secular politics as a means to the accomplishment of their mission on earth.

The New Testament is unique in its single-minded focus on the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ. It is also insistent upon the separation of that Gospel from secular systems of thought and power. God didn’t choose the powerful or the elite through which to build his church, Paul tells us. Instead he chose the lowly – the discredited in the eyes of the world – to carry a message so simple that it has become the laughingstock of the “wise”, who believe that mankind is too good to need a savior, and a stumbling block to those who believe that mankind can lift himself through intense religious observances. And why did God choose to accomplish his aims through a rag-tag army equipped only with the Gospel? Again Paul tells us it is so that, in the end, no one can boast that they, or their philosophy saved the world; only God will receive the glory for the work accomplished.

Once more it is Paul who reminds us that the Gospel of Christ is the power of God, capable of bringing salvation to all who believe it. Not giant computers tracking voters thoughts and feelings and actions; not banks of telephones ringing daily into the homes and lives of millions attempting to persuade them; not “foot-soldiers” ready to knock on every door and give out information to reluctance voters; not sermons preached from pulpits telling, without actually saying, who to vote for; not marches from the church door to the early voting booths; not even “Voters Guides” distributed in thousands of Churches saying, again without saying, who to vote for. When all of those things are done they may have won an election – or not – but they have not won a single heart over to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said of his disciples that they were in the world (cosmos) but not of it. The world – the cosmos – is the social, economic, and political system that mankind constructs and uses to govern the everyday affairs of this world. Christians are a part of that cosmos; they are business people, neighbors, even mayors, governors, judges, legislators, and Presidents. They are a light in that cosmos; they are salt in their world. But they do not draw their inspiration for the work they do as citizens of the cosmos from the same well as non-Christians.

There are those, making the claim to be followers of Christ, who do seem to draw their inspiration from the well of human understanding; whose motivations and methods appear to be indistinguishable from those who make no claim to Christian faith. The sad result of such an approach is that, to the observing world, their actions, and the actions of their non-Christian allies, reflect negatively on the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church becomes salt without taste and a light hidden in the darkness.

I’ve reached the point in my faith life where I cringe when the terms “Christian Right”, or “Conservative Christian”, or even “Evangelical Christian” is mentioned. Seldom – almost never – do I hear them spoken beyond the walls of the Church with any reverence or respect for what they stand for. Instead, at best, they designate another political party, or wing of a political party. At worst they have become bywords indicating a sour (or too often paranoid) anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-indigent, anti-gay, anti-ad infinitum  political force in American politics.

The fundamentalist – and to a lesser degree, the Evangelical – church has always leaned toward negativity. The church I attended as a youth was far better known for what it was against – movies, dancing, bowling, skating, cards, etc. – than for what it revered, i.e. the Risen Son of God. To a very large degree, for good or ill, that “wing” of the Church has shed its holiness-bred objections to those kinds of lifestyles. But it has replaced them with a virulent political negativity that is just as off-putting to non-believers (even non-believers who may otherwise share their negativity regarding government, gays, etc.).

Jesus asked, at one point, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” I believe he will. He may find it in places that would surprise many who claim to be his followers. On another occasion Jesus’ disciples came to him, worried because they had found people, not of their group, who were preaching and working in Jesus’ name. Jesus simply told them, “I have sheep that you know not of.” I’m looking for those sheep, and when I find a group of them it warms my heart and renews my faith in the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is too much to expect that certain elements within the Visible Church will change their ways. The Church had barely entered its second century when, already, the infection of secular power had begun to spread. It has flared and waned over the centuries but never disappeared. Thousands, perhaps millions, of believers in Christ have died at the hands of other “Christians” who were convinced that the powers of the state were appropriate instruments in the hands of the Church. There have always been those who believed that the tools of human wisdom (and cunning) were sufficient to accomplish the aims of the Church. And to the extent that the Church aimed to be a power broker in this world, they were right.

But Jesus aimed at something else. He came to reconcile sinful men and women to His Father. The Church would do well to re-focus its efforts and its message on that Good News. The Gospel of Christ is the power of God! It doesn’t seek to control sinners’ behavior – that is the role of government. But the Gospel is the power of God, bringing salvation to those who believe – that is the role of the Church.

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