One of the immense challenges for every American Christian in the 21st century is the sacred-secular divide. What I mean is that we as a culture have taken the separation of church and state to the extreme.
Now, I certainly believe in the separation of church and state. The church and the state serve separate functions. The church suffers when the state tries to do the church’s job, and the state suffers when the church tries to do the state’s job. Therefore, I do not believe that people who hold political offices should be required to pass religious tests, or that churches should be endorsing or funding political candidates, and so on.
But I think that many people mean something else when they say “separation of church and state”. They are not simply separating the church from the state, but they are completely segregating and privatizing the church. The private world of faith is not allowed to venture into the public world of facts. The sacred cannot speak to the secular. The spiritual has no claim on the material. And those who refuse to accept the sacred-secular divide are seen as ignorant or bigoted.
But it’s not just the secularists who hold to this; many Christians have also been convinced to adopt the sacred-secular divide at face value. Such Christians choose to strictly relegate their faith to church events and personal quiet times, and they refuse to allow it to touch anything else in their lives. It is as if the sacred-secular divide is an untouchable axiom, and not even the truly sacred principles of our faith can approach it. In a sense, this narrative of culture claims more of our allegiance than our Christian faith does.
However, this modern version of Christianity is incompatible with being a true follower of Jesus.
Leslie Newbigin wrote in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in 1989,
“To call men and women into discipleship of Jesus Christ is and must always be central in the life of the Church. But we must be clear about what discipleship will mean. It cannot mean that one accepts the lordship of Christ as governing personal and domestic life, and the life of the Church, while another sovereignty is acknowledged for the public life of society. It cannot mean that the Church is seen as a voluntary society of individuals who have decided to follow Jesus in their personal lives, a society which does not challenge the assumptions which govern the worlds of politics, economics, education, and culture. The model for all Christian discipleship is given once and for all in the ministry of Jesus. His ministry entailed the calling of individual men and women to personal and costly discipleship, but at the same time it challenged the principalities and powers, the ruler of this world, and the cross was the price paid for that challenge. Christian discipleship today cannot mean less than that.”
True biblical Christian discipleship cannot be privatized because it must address all of our lives, and our lives include both private and public aspects. Therefore, our discipleship must affect our work, our hobbies, our relationships, and even our politics.
And if the role of the church is to make disciples, then it must follow that helping people to engage with politics in a Christian way is part of the role of the church.
But what should that interaction look like?
There are many ways for this sacred-secular interaction to take place, but in this article I want to promote one thing specifically: I believe that it is important for current events to be occasionally incorporated into the liturgy of the weekly Sunday service. Since much of effective Christian discipleship happens in the Sunday service, this venue needs to be utilized if we want to teach people holistic discipleship.
I will give a few reasons why I believe this, and then I will give a few cautions about doing it.
1. We need to disciple people to biblically engage with secular events
Throughout the Bible, people engaged with secular events. Joseph organized a food collection and distribution program to save people from a famine (cf. Genesis 41:37-57). Esther risked her life to save the Jews from genocide (cf. Esther 4). Jesus addressed the issue of whether or not Jews should pay taxes to Caesar (cf. Matthew 22:17-21). There is plenty of biblical precedent for exercising spiritual wisdom and engaging with secular events in a God-honoring way.
Unfortunately, many Christians do not know how to engage with secular events in a biblical way. On the one hand, there are some Christians who may quote Bible verses to support their political talking points, but those verses are often taken out of context. They use the Bible as ammunition for their political agenda when it was not meant to be used that way. On the other hand, many Christians do not view the Bible as relevant to current events at all. Although the Bible has much to say about life, wealth, and society, all of this content is somehow reinterpreted in a “spiritual” sense, so that they no longer have anything to do with our current events.
By publicly talking about secular events in Sunday services, churches offer a framework for how to biblically think, engage, and pray about current issues.
2. We need to disciple people to advocate for biblical justice
In today’s day and age, there is a secular cry for the justice of God. Many people on the left, regardless of their religion or irreligion, say that they want to hold the police force accountable, that they want to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable, that they want to hold the wealthy accountable, and so on. And many people on the right, regardless of their religion or irreligion, say that they want to hold the government accountable, that they want to hold immigrants accountable, that they want to hold the liberal media accountable, and so on. And at the core of it all is this desire for true justice—a justice, I would suggest, that only comes from God.
When people are filling their minds with the problems of the world from Monday to Saturday, and when those problems are unmentioned on Sunday, it may seem to them that the church is unconcerned about the world’s problems. Every Sunday is an opportunity for the church to highlight the world’s problems and to also offer the world a solution, a solution that is more permanent and more formidable than any political policy—God himself.
Like the prophets of the Old Testament, the church can be a beacon of God’s standard of justice in an unjust world. Justice shines clearest when it is surrounded by injustice. Therefore, the direct aftermath of current events, during times of confusion, pain, or sin, is when God’s justice can shine the brightest.
3. We need to disciple people to have gracious political conversations
As our culture becomes more and more politically divisive, we lack places where people can have healthy political dialogue with people “on the other side.” Our social circles of friends and our social media feeds have become echo chambers. As a result, everybody in the opposite political party is painted with broad strokes. We say that the whole party is racist, or that the whole party is entitled.
The multicultural church is one of the few places remaining for Christians to have relationships with those who think differently than they do. But unfortunately, many of them do not know how to start those political conversations. Therefore, by modeling conversations from the church service stage, we show people that the church is a safe space to talk about politics.
Moreover, by talking about current events in service, we can also model how to talk about sensitive issues. Martin Marty once said, “One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions, and people who have strong convictions often lack civility.” The church can demonstrate what it looks like to speak with both conviction and civility.
4. Discipling people to put kingdom over party
When something happens on the news, whether it is a destructive hurricane or a terrorist attack, people in our congregations experience a combination of emotions—hopelessness, dread, anger, etc. And when our emotions go wild, we look for something to cling to. For many Christians, the only thing they can cling to is their political party.
And regardless of what “side” we are on, we are convinced that our political candidates are our saviors, our political opponents are our enemies, and if we just get everybody to think the way we do, all will be made right. In other words, we are constantly being discipled by our political parties.
The media does a great job at reinforcing this narrative. Our media sources do not just tell us what is happening—they are usually telling us how to think about what is happening. Sometimes they invite experts to give interpretations or implications of the event. Sometimes they put a spin on a news story in order to rile us up. Whatever the case, they continue to provide a position to cling to in order to make sense of our haywire emotions.
I believe that one of the main reasons why many Christians are so susceptible to the discipleship of political partisanship is because they are not being discipled by the church. We fail to give people tangible responses to current events, so instead they cling to political parties.
Of course there is nothing wrong with identifying with a political party, or even campaigning for a political party. But Christians cannot make an idol out of politics. We need to put the kingdom of God over any political party. The church needs to teach people to ultimately cling to Jesus.
Therefore, we should incorporate political conversations in our Sunday services. We should recognize their tremendous importance, but we should then remind people of our primary allegiance to the kingdom.
The Correct Balance
Is it possible for a church service to talk about current events too much? Yes, of course. Just as it is possible for a church to focus too much on marriage, money, or sin, it is very possible for a church to over-focus on current events.
When certain national or global events that have specific moral or spiritual implications occur, I’ve heard people say, “If your church doesn’t address what happened on Sunday, then you need to leave that church.” I believe that sort of mentality can be unhealthy, and it’s not the sort of sentiment I want to promote.
I don’t think that every Sunday’s liturgy should be at the whim of whatever happened the Saturday before. The Sunday service should be informed by current events, but not dominated by current events.
My proposal is not to overwhelm the church service with current events, but rather encourage churches to introduce an appropriate amount of current events in their services. As it is with healthy eating, the key is to have a balanced diet. If someone discovers that he or she has iron deficiency, it does not mean that he or she should only eat iron from now on. It simply means that iron-rich foods should be incorporated into the rotation of regular foods.
A healthy church is one that makes holistic disciples—people who follow Jesus in all areas of life, and even in the secular world. So let’s bridge the sacred-secular divide. Let’s help one another to engage with politics, starting in our churches, with grace and truth, and with conviction and civility.