Is your church partisan or silent? The two most common models for how churches engage the political realm—partisanship or silence—present an impossible dichotomy.
Partisan churches are comfortable associating with one political party. They advance Christian ends with extrabiblical, and sometimes unbiblical, methods.
Silent churches rightly reject the partisan model but embrace a kind of quietism, resulting in silence on political issues about which Christians really do need moral and scriptural guidance.
This silent church model emphasizes a desire to focus on evangelism and discipleship. A silent church’s membership is more likely to reflect the political makeup of its community. But members of the silent church may be no less politically polarized, since our consciences are still discipled by everything other than the church. So when pandemics, protests, riots, election drama, or sieges of government buildings unavoidably impinge on the life of a church, pastors struggle to respond. The public-theology muscles of the local church are atrophied.
If we pressure our pastors to avoid discussing politics for the sake of unity, we end up divided anyway. When our church remains silent, virtually all our opinions about how Christians should engage politics come from influences other than Scripture and the guidance of our church.
When our church remains silent, virtually all our opinions about how Christians should engage politics come from influences other than Scripture and the guidance of our church.
We believe our King cares about all of life, and we consider his Word sufficient for all of life (Col. 1:15–20; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). When we sever our political participation from the influence of our church, we functionally deny both ideas. We devote church curriculum, after all, to a range of issues: personal finance, “love languages,” parenting, and more. But we rarely discuss politics in a way that is derived from Scripture and a deliberate ecclesiology.
Rather than avoiding politics for the sake of discipleship, might we try applying discipleship to our politics?
What We Mean By ‘Politics’
Christians deploy the words “politics” or “political” with three potential meanings. First, “political” is deployed imprecisely to mean partisan. One may say a church should not “be political,” but the church should not act partisanly.
A second meaning is more nefarious, used to “cancel” discussion among Christians on an issue. Calling an issue “political” is sometimes a proxy for “don’t challenge my view.”
A third meaning—which I use here—is the broadest sense. It has to do with individuals and institutions participating in the public square. Electoral (partisan) politics is but a slice of our political life, which includes good governance and serving our neighbors.
Applying discipleship to our politics is neither easy nor intuitive, but some churches are developing worthy habits. Some churches find that corporate prayer provides frequent opportunities to enunciate pastoral attitudes and model the use of biblical language, all while praying about cultural and political issues in a nonpartisan way.
Similarly, pastors need not wait until those rare verses about government come up in the course of expository preaching. Rudimentary biblical mandates like loving our neighbor, obligations to one another, and taming the tongue are ripe for application to self-governance and, frankly, to how we speak with each other about combustible topics. There is no “except for politics” escape clause from neighbor love, or from enemy love for that matter.
There is no ‘except for politics’ escape clause from neighbor love, or from enemy love for that matter.
Outside the context of Sunday morning worship, some churches have used panel-style conversations that feature mature believers discussing a given issue from different biblical angles. This practice models charitable back-and-forth on debatable issues.
Practices will look different for each church, of course. The strategy is to have regular “buckets” within the life of the church that allow for pastoral guidance and fruitful discussion. Otherwise, when an issue is singled out, it can appear like partiality or partisanship, even when unintended (X is a “gospel issue” but Y is “political”). Regular practices—even if infrequent and small—help pastors avoid feeling like they have to shoehorn some special commentary into a Sunday morning service after an intense news cycle.
United in Discontent
Where we likely agree most on politics, sadly, is in our discontent. But we don’t have to repeat the same practices—or lack of them—that got us here. Consistent practices for the long term offer a church more options than partisanship and silence when a news headline inevitably pops.
We know God cares about all of life, and we know his Word is sufficient for all of life. Let’s equip pastors and churches with the tools—and permission—to disciple our political consciences as we participate in this grand experiment called self-governance.