During very heated political times, I often see two contrasting positions among Christians in the relationship between the church and politics. The first is to prioritize church unity at the expense of political convictions, and the second is to prioritize political convictions at the expense of church unity.
In the first position, well-meaning people sometimes downplay politics. They say that secular politics distracts from the mission of the church because it is so divisive. We can have our votes, our protests, and our social media rants, but we need to keep those outside of the church. At the end of the day, we need to put our differences aside and come together as the church and mainly focus on the things we have in common.
And in the second position, well-meaning people sometimes idolize politics. They unwaveringly refuse to compromise on their political stances, and they are not afraid to let everybody know, even if it means unfriending people, not talking to family members, condemning other Christians as lost causes, and leaving churches.
Which of the two positions is more biblically faithful?
One may instinctively conclude that the first position is better. After all, the church is more important than the state. This nation, like every single one that has come before us, will one day fall, but the church lasts for eternity. Additionally, God does not have a covenant with America, but he does have a covenant with the church. Therefore, if we had to choose between our church family or our political party, we are biblically called to choose our church family. As Jesus said in Matthew 12:50, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” The church is the tribe that we prioritize above all other tribes.
It is definitely true that some of us need to be reminded of that. Some of us have too big a view of politics and too small a view of God. And we need our priorities to be straight.
However, many of us know that our faith is more important that politics, and yet we still feel uncomfortable choosing church unity over political convictions. There’s a part of it that doesn’t feel right. Why? Because sometimes, it seems like church unity is only accomplished through political silence.
Here are four things wrong with political silence in the church.
Firstly, it assumes a false dichotomy between faith and politics. Just because our faith is more important than our politics does not mean that our politics are not important at all. In fact, I believe that our faith should cause us to want to be engaged in politics.
Do we choose our faith over our marriage? Or do we choose our faith over our health? Sort of. But we also understand that these are false dichotomies. Our faith actually causes us to prioritize our marriage and our health more than we would if we didn’t have our faith. In the same way, our faith should cause us to prioritize our politics too.
Sometimes we see others who are behaving zealously in certain arenas of life, and we conclude that these zealots are making idols out of them. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Just because someone is passionate about something—whether it’s politics, exercise, or the environment—doesn’t mean that it is an idol. Maybe that person actually has an appropriate amount of zeal, and it’s us who are being ignorant or lazy.
Secondly, it often lacks empathy and understanding. Those who most encourage others to downplay their politics are often those who can most afford to downplay their politics. Those who are in positions of privilege can easily downplay politics because their lives would not be much affected by election results. But it is not so for the undocumented immigrant or the preborn child. How do we tell somebody to put their political differences aside when their very lives are at stake? It would be similar to a wealthy man telling a poor man to not worry about food, for God will provide.
Here’s a parallel example. If Christians are grieving because a loved one passed away, would you offer them pithy sayings and ask them to downplay their love for that loved one? Of course not. You would seek to follow the example of Jesus in John 11:35, who spent time to weep with Mary when Lazarus died even though he knew that Lazarus would rise again. In the same way, if someone is grieving because their preferred political party lost, we should not be offering pithy sayings and asking them to downplay their politics. We should weep with them also.
Thirdly, it wrongly assumes that politics falls outside the realm of Christian discipleship. In our day and age, our congregants will be thinking about politics regardless of whether we allow politics into our churches. People will take sides, adopt talking points, and mischaracterize their opponents. It’s happening whether we like it or not. The choice that we have as churches is whether we want to be a part of that political process.
However, for far too long, the topic of politics has been taboo in too many churches. We refuse to allow such “divisive talk” to enter into our holy sanctuaries. And what is the result?
When Christians only engage in politics in secular arenas, then their political engagement loses its Christian identity. There is no Christian grace, there is no Christian wisdom, and there is no Christian foundation. They do not know how to talk about politics except with worldly talking points. They are, as Jesus said, “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:26). And because they lack a shepherd, they welcome the numerous false shepherds who have risen to claim their loyalties, from politicians to authors to talk show hosts.
Fourthly, silence feeds division. Many of us who are politically inclined have probably looked at some of our brothers and sisters in Christ and thought, “How is it possible that you can worship the same God as me and yet hold such abhorrent political views?” Additionally, it’s possible that that person has thought the very same thing about you! But what happens if we have these inner thoughts that are never outwardly expressed? We may find ourselves silently questioning their biblical interpretation skills, their values, and even their faith.
If there is any political diversity in your church at all, then there is a good chance that some people are being polite and pleasant to one another in person, but they are bitterly gossiping about them everywhere else.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:43-47, “43 You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
I might add, “What good would it be if we only love those we agree with politically?” Or even worse, “What good would it be if we pretended that everybody in our church was the same politically so that it would be easier to love them?”
True Christian love, as Jesus teaches, is when we love those who are different from us—even our political enemies. True unity, therefore, is not found in hiding our differences. It is found in identifying and engaging with our differences, and still committing to love one another.
Many have said that racial unity cannot occur when people are colorblind to skin color. True racial integration requires an exploration of and a dialogue about our racial differences. In the same way, political unity cannot happen when people pretend that political differences don’t exist. It requires an exploration of and a dialogue about those differences.
What if there was a way to achieve church unity without political silence? What if there was a way to prioritize the church family, but all the while giving a platform to people to engage in serious political conversations? What if politics doesn’t have to be left outside the church doors, but rather, it can be welcomed into the church, not for the sake of division, not for the sake of usurping the gospel, but for the sake of dialogue, understanding, and empathy?
We need churches who welcome talking about politics. We need sermons, Bible studies, panel conversations, and seminars on political issues. We need platforms for the marginalized and the downcast, so that their voices can be magnified for the whole church to hear.
And why? We need to do this not because we want everybody to be uniform. We do this not because we want everybody to vote the same way. We do this so that we can listen to one another, learn from one another, seek to understand one another, care for one another, and support one another, even if we don’t vote the same way.
Yes, bringing politics into the church will be messy. Yes, feelings will get hurt. Yes, people will even leave your church. But you will experience true unity. Is that not worth the cost?
We need this mentality now more than ever. This week’s election has been responsible for a wide range of emotions. Some of us feel joy. Some of us feel disappointment. Some of us feel relief. Some of us feel anger. Some of us feel victory. Some of us feel fear. And in the midst of all of this chaos, some of us are tempted to say, “Why are you making such a big deal out of this?”
Now is not the time to downplay everybody’s emotions. Now is not the time to say, “Okay, the election is over, so let’s all get back to doing church.” Now is the time for the church to demonstrate true unity.
In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul is writing about the church, and he calls it the body of Christ. He says that we are different parts of the body, and he says in 12:26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
Some of us are suffering this week. Some of us are rejoicing this week. Let’s seek to listen to one another, and to serve one another in this unifying tension of simultaneous suffering and joy.