Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How Political Should the Church Be? (Dialogue Column 3.3.09)

We value diversity at First Christian Church of St. Joseph. The fact that church members can believe different things and hold different opinions on social, political and theological issues while still being Christ-like to one another is one of the things that attracted me to this church and keeps me excited to be its minister. Church members are not expected to march in lock-step with one another on particular issues or even on particular doctrines, but members are expected to allow others to hold beliefs different than their own.

This attitude and practice is consistent with the history and practice of our denomination, The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, a movement started with the intention of moving beyond the particularism of the denominations of the day towards churches united by a shared experience of Jesus Christ rather than a shared set of beliefs. Our denomination and our church is thoroughly Protestant in the sense that it hold to the idea of the “Priesthood of All Believers”—the idea that each believer has his or her own relationship with God and does not need a mediator or church hierarchy to determine what constitutes faith for that individual. The same is true for matters of conscience. Throughout its history, First Christian Church has lived out these values even pushing the national body to be less restrictive in terms of membership, baptism, etc.

Given our church’s understanding of individual freedom of belief, what happens if the demands of justice ask us to take a stand on a particular issue? For instance, on matters of race, many churches in our denomination, both in the days of slavery and segregation, did not take a stand on the equality of African-Americans citing individual freedom as justification. When there was clear injustice to be found, many (but not all) Disciples of Christ churches chose not to speak out. On the other hand, all of us can think of churches both inside and outside our denomination where particular partisan loyalties are understood to be the “proper Christian point of view.” Many of our members have come to First Christian leaving behind such narrow partisan understandings of the intersection of faith and politics. There must be a middle way between a church that is so laissez faire it is irrelevant to its society and one that is so partisan it has equated being Christian with being a member of a particular political party.

From the prophets of Israel to the word of Jesus, the message of scripture is clear: people of faith must work against injustice. It is worth noting that the biblical concept of justice is different from the way we speak of justice in our legal system and our pop culture. Biblical justice does not necessarily mean punishment and it certainly does not mean revenge; instead, the justice demanded by God, as scripture presents it, is one where those without power are given a seat at the table, those without basic necessities are provided for, those with more than they need learn to share, those who oppress others are called to account and all have an equal stake in the health of a particular community and the entire world. Biblical justice values the inherent worth of each individual as a child of God. God makes very clear that if believers neglect this understanding of justice then God has little or no use for their religious observances. Justice is essential.

Given the demands of God’s justice, how do we proceed as mortal and flawed people? Refusing to do so means casting off the requirements of God. Doing so rashly and without humility puts us in the place of judge—a place only God should occupy. The only way forward, it seems to me, is to approach the issues of our day and time with fear and trembling, but face them we must, otherwise, we risk irrelevance and judgment. We will never get everything completely right, but doing nothing is a non-option. Only with humility and grace can we apply our faith to questions of justice in our community and world.

In this issue of The Dialogue, you will find information about an upcoming congregational meeting that has been called by the Administrative Board to discuss and vote upon a resolution supporting a moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri. There will be an opportunity for discussion and education about the issue this coming Sunday at 9:30 AM in the social room. Both events are chances for us as a church to approach an issue of justice with fear and trembling, grace and humility. This is not a new thing for our church; in the past, First Christian has opposed the nuclear arms race and supported the work of Amnesty International, but it is the first time in some years that we have come together as a church to discuss an issue of justice--our church looks very different than it did twenty years ago. I am looking forward to this attempt at church-wide conversation, because I believe we are up to it. I believe First Christian, in its current form, can be a church that walks between the extremes of irrelevance and partisanship.
Grace and Peace,



lneely said...

A peculiar problem that arises when a church steps into the political arena is the cultivation of groupthink. It seems that political churches tend to react to the volatile nature of politics by making certain political sentiments a prerequisite for church membership, or by taking a political stance and assuming the congregation agrees. The former implies that to be a Christian one must hold a certain political opinion, while the latter disenfranchises church members who might disagree with the stance taken by the church.

In the sense that church money should not be used to fund political lobbies or campaigns, that the pulpit should not be used to promote certain candidates or parties, and that church grounds should not be used for electioneering, I agree that churches should refrain from politics. I do think, however, that the church should be a safe haven for rational political discourse -- not limited to the confines of faith and dogma -- and a catalyst for action.

Ideally this would be the case, but let's admit it, most churches aren't like First Christian...

revpeep said...

Another thoughtful post--I share all of your concerns about groupthink in churches. I've lived my professional life as a minister often in reaction to such thinking. Also, there is the real risk of some people feeling disenfranchised who do not hold the majority view, just as there is the real risk of the church remaining silent in the face of injustice. You are right, most churches aren't like First Christian, let's hope we live up to that praise this Sunday.