A Political Party is not a Church

The big news last week was that the Republican Party is “rebranding” itself. After a little time to digest this announcement, some evangelical commentators concluded that the GOP may be distancing itself from the evangelical community, a group which has been strong in the base of the party for many years. When Sean Spicer, communications director for the party was asked about this issue, he denied that any such effort was under way and then he said, “A political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.” (Read more at http://tinyurl.com/cnhwtjj)

Church members, pastors, and Christians of all stripes across the country need to read this statement and take it to heart. Here is it for your re-reading and consideration:

“A political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.”

The next time I hear a Christian or a church leader complain about either party’s godless agenda, I want to shout this statement loud and clear. For much too long, far too many churches and church members have been confused about this fact. When citizens who are Christians engage in politics, they express their views, they advocate for their causes and they vote their consciences. This is exactly what God wants them to do. After the election dust settles, the elected officials sometimes keep their promises, and sometimes they don’t. They sometimes do what Christians think is right, and sometimes they doing. Every citizen has the right to expect that an official will keep his word, act with integrity, comply with constitutional and legal boundaries, and lead with humility and wisdom. Every citizen has a right to call elected officials to account on all these points. But when Christians speak and act and vote and follow up in their duty as citizens, they need to remember at all times that “a political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.”

Here are some of the reasons churches ought to remember this fact:

  • Churches that send their representative clergy to Washington to advocate for social programs and grants to faith-based organizations often express immense frustration when the programs and grants are administered politically. They feel they have been led to expect one thing but they get another. They discover that the money must not be spent to support prayer or evangelism, or they discover that they must place adoptees under the parental control of homosexuals. This ought not to be shocking. If they remembered that the Church, not government, is God’s chosen agent to bring his kingdom to earth, they would not have such inappropriate expectations, and they would not waste their time trying to make the government into a church program. They would do their fund-raising among the people who want to support the mission of the Church. The strings government attaches to its money and its programs would not get in the way of the ministries of the church. Everybody would be a lot happier. (Then they could also advocate for lower taxes, given that they would thereby have reduced the application for funds. Everyone knows that not-for-profit organizations are much more accountable and transparent in the administration of their money, too, which means that less money will accomplish more good things – but that is another subject for another day.)
  • Individuals that advocate for social change in the culture and try to speed up the process by demanding the government enforce the change legally would not be so angry about the way the laws get written and administered or ignored. Christians want a lot of things to change in the culture. When they try to achieve those changes through political activism, they are denying the one power that can truly transform a culture: the power of the Holy Spirit. When immersed in political activism, it is easy for Christians to forget themselves and become aggressive and unforgiving, characteristics not on the list of gifts of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. Remember this: every citizen, Christians included, has the civic obligation to participate in the political process, but Christians should never expect that the outcome of political activism will be the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth. That is not government’s role.
  • It is well known that politics is the art of compromise. A compromise never pleases either side. Both sides always know that the compromise is only a temporary truce. There is no peace. The issue is not settled. They simply have agreed to take a breath and step back. When the two sides step back, however, it is always to regroup and charge forward to clash again on different ground. Spiritual objectives do not allow for compromise. God’s truth cannot be compromised. If a Christian wants God’s work to be accomplished, he needs to commit the work to the power of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that he abandons his civic role and responsibility as a citizen, but it does mean that he tempers his expectations of the political process. He does not put his trust in that process. He does his work to speak and live for Christ in the public arena, but he entrusts the conflict to the timing and progress that fits God’s perfect, sovereign will.

There are many other reasons for Christians to remember the important truth that no political group is ever the true servant of the mission of Christ’s Church.

There is real reason for churches as institutions to steer clear of politics, too. This is because the individual is the one with the vote. Churches ought to speak out as churches to provide the moral and ethical views that only churches can provide, but they should be clear that they are speaking about God’s ultimate and infinite purposes, not the current political agenda. When a church, speaking as a church, attempts to force some item in a political agenda, it pollutes the ability of that church to serve its real mission. Christ did not establish his Church on earth in order to achieve legislative and social agendas.

For example:

Bishop Mark Hanson, the Bishop of the national ELCA synod, recently issued a statement on gun control. He is for it. Had he issued it as an individual voter speaking for himself, it would have made sense for him to do that. However, on behalf of the Church, he ought to speak only with regard to the mission of the Church. Christ’s Church actually could not care less who owns a gun or who does not own a gun. Christ’s Church, the agent of Christ in the world of time and space to bring the kingdom of God near to each human being, cares about evil in the hearts of men. Christ knows that the possession of a gun is not what stirs up evil, any more than possession of a wire whisk stirs up a soufflé. Christ’s Church is engaged in a battle with Satan for the hearts of men. The Church deplores the things in our culture which deprave and destroy people’s self-respect and love for one another. It is appropriate for the Church to offer Christ as the message of hope for a dark world, and it is appropriate for the Church to ask what we can do as a culture to rear children up in a faith that gives them the gift of love as a byproduct of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is right for the Church to publicly deplore those things in the culture which promote evil and destroy the lives of individuals. When evil triumphs, a gun is only one possible weapon in the battle. It is completely inappropriate, and a confusion of the roles of church and government for the Bishop to declare that he believes a certain gun control law should be passed as a response to the triumph of evil. The role of the Church is to defeat evil, not to orchestrate support for legislation. Even if limiting gun ownership by law could be shown to reduce gun violence, the legislation would inevitably include elements association with which would sully the reputation and reduce the credibility of the Church when engaged in its real mission – to make disciples for Christ and lead many to experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

It well behooves every Christian and every Christian leader to remember:

A political party is not a church and its function is not to promulgate and support a religious doctrine.” (Sean Spicer)

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4 thoughts on “A Political Party is not a Church”

  1. Well said, once again. Quite honestly, I think Evangelicals have gotten such a bad name in the political arena because we expect that things will go the way we voted and when they don’t, most Evangelicals are loud and obnoxious about it.

    Thank you, Katherine, for dissecting this issue for us!

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    1. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it is important for us to be part of the public conversation, because if we are silent, then we are not being either salt or light. However, as you point out, being loud and obnoxious is counter-productive. It can be a very fine edge between building up and tearing down.

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