by Pastor Doug Kings
Peter Wehner is an author and former speech writer for three Republican presidents. In the latest Atlantic magazine he authored an article titled, “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart.” His essay details a long list of pastors, churches, and evangelical organizations in turmoil from intense political conflicts—not church politics but national political issues that have divided the evangelical movement.
Wehner writes of resignations, firings, raucous congregational and board meetings, and congregations and organizations dividing and splitting. These are not isolated cases but are taking place across the country in some of the largest evangelical congregations and institutions. In explanation Wehner says:
The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.
Wehner interviewed Scott Dudley, an evangelical pastor in Washington state, who decried “our idolatry of politics.”
He’s heard of many congregants leaving their church because it didn’t match their politics, he told me, but has never once heard of someone changing their politics because it didn’t match their church’s teaching. He often tells his congregation that if the Bible doesn’t challenge your politics at least occasionally, you’re not really paying attention to the Hebrew scriptures or the New Testament. The reality, however, is that a lot of people, especially in this era, will leave a church if their political views are ever challenged, even around the edges. “Many people are much more committed to their politics than to what the Bible actually says,” Dudley said.
Throughout its history, the church has struggled to define its role in relation to politics and government. In following Jesus it identified with someone executed by political authority. It remained in conflict with the Roman empire until the 4th century when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state’s new de facto religion.
Hailed at the time by church leaders as a great victory, today many theologians and historians view the development as a disaster. Like the alcoholic’s first drink, ever since the church has been addicted to the prestige and authority granted by having a “seat at the table” of politics and government.
Over the centuries the church has again and again been faced with the dilemma of governments committing blatantly unchristian acts. The church has consistently overestimated both the good will of political authority and its ability to influence such authority. Christians who have actively opposed government policies or actions have often been viciously persecuted, usually with little or no support or intervention from church authorities.
An equal danger has been the tendency of the church to adapt its beliefs and message to the political wind. Martin Luther’s Reformation success was highly dependent on his support from the German nobility. When the peasantry took Luther’s message of freedom to heart and demanded entirely justifiable reforms, the nobles cracked down viciously, slaughtering tens of thousands. Luther was initially appalled by the violence but then in vitriolic language voiced support for the crackdown (“they must be sliced, choked, stabbed, secretly and publicly, by those who can, like one must kill a rabid dog”). Luther knew which side his bread was buttered on.
From then on German Protestants, especially, put a strong emphasis on the “godliness” of law and order. When the German monarchy gave way to democratic government after World War I, efforts were made to reduce church influence in the state. Church leaders opposed such moves and supported conservative parties wanting to return to a more traditional, authoritarian political structure.
Such “single issue” politics allowed many Christians to acquiesce or even support the Nazis’ rise to power. The Nazis overplayed their hand, however, when they began a movement to absorb the Protestant church (which was predominantly Lutheran, with a small Calvinist faction) into the state apparatus. This prompted an organized opposition (1934) among some Protestant clergy, called the “Confessing Church”.
The Nazis eventually backed off from their plan but were otherwise not influenced by the group. In any case, surveys showed amazingly that about two-thirds of Protestant pastors took no position in the dispute. After the war, however, Confessing Church pastors were leaders in rebuilding the church and acknowledging Germany’s crimes. Nonetheless, the credibility of the German church was severely damaged by its overall acquiescence of Nazi atrocities.
The global rise of democracy ended most of the church’s direct connections to political power. Gradually, however, church leaders have been learning to use modern media and political strategies to regain influence over government and society. A serious consequence of this, as Wehner shows, is that the church then becomes absorbed in and identified with political issues at the expense of anything resembling the gospel.
Wehner realizes that Evangelical Christianity has lost its soul. “Jesus now has to be reclaimed from his Church, from those who pretend to speak most authoritatively in his name.” Yet this is a struggle for all churches. Even where the church has little political power, it often gives tacit support to the pervading culture’s values and “the way things are.”
Today, however, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the way things are is grossly unfair to more and more people around the world and is very likely unsustainable for much longer. The values of God’s kingdom as Jesus taught and embodied them are a radical challenge to our world today. Yet who can be aware of that, even in the church, if it’s identity and message are obscured with culture war and political squabbles?
The church’s real mission has little interest in partisan political squabbles. Yet is has supreme interest in witnessing to the compassion and justice necessary for the wellbeing of people everywhere. That message is often not a welcome one at the tables of political power and it is often God’s prophets who are the only ones willing and able to proclaim it.
Blessings in your life and ministry.