This past week I sat around a table filled with preacher types. They were from different denominations and backgrounds and yet we shared many of the same challenges. Even when practical leadership is different, such as how to pastor churches of different sizes, some of the same underlying themes shine through.
One of those has to do with the relationship between religious conviction and social ethics. How does one take core faith principles from scripture, tradition, the wisdom of Jesus, and speak to the current social situation in light of them? That task has never been a simple or easy one, as the destiny of the Biblical prophets reflects. They may have been speaking a word for the Lord but they routinely got beat up for it!
On the most basic level the prophetic role goes something like this: A word from the Lord is discerned through meditation on scripture, reflection on theology, openness in prayer, and that word is directed toward the social context. How are the purposes of God being fulfilled or violated? Prophetic critique means taking these principles and applying them, not only personally, but socially. Where is social sin? How is our life together being violated? And how are God’s ways quite different from the current values of the culture (they are always out of step).
So we’re around the table talking about this historic prophetic role and one of the pastors describes what has been experienced by most of us: “It used to be that God was regarded primarily and a word of faith – whether it be a moral challenge or spiritual challenge – was used as the measure of social policy and politics. But now that has been reversed. People cling to their ideology or political positions as their highest values and then expect the church to reinforce those, mirror those, or just shut up.”
That resonated. I thought of Jesus. He didn’t shut up, kept on talking, kept on critiquing religion and rulers and look what it got him. If you dare cut across the grain, swim upstream, you ought to expect that.
But now in American culture and I suppose in most cultures everywhere the church is expected to be nice, go to the corner and be quiet. We’ll call you if we have a personal problem. But stay out of the social fray. We don’t want to hear it. But without persons who speak a word of truth in the face of a conventional public wisdom that is so very often wrong, where would we be?
And so I understand the concern of my friend at the table; it is familiar to me. It is not an entirely new one, but it is more so now. People’s allegiance is more to their party than to Bible, Church or even Jesus. What matters first is whether they are a Democrat, Republican or other.
Isn’t it time that we in the Christian community start talking about first things first? In other words, it is time to state very clearly that the way of Jesus is not to be evaluated, critiqued and judged by our political persuasion, but rather that our political persuasion falls under the judgement of God. Every political party, human organization or national entity falls under the inscrutable judgement of God.
Perhaps the time has come to put it simply and directly: Do I consider Jesus the Lord of my life, all life, and stand accountable to him? Or do I have my relationship backwards, putting him to the test, making him answerable to me? And if that is the case, what sort of little, tribal God do I have?