Politics in the Church
Should there be politics in the church? Is not the idea of politics in the church contradictory? The following article explores this important question and presents principles to help us deal with the politics we face, yes, even in the church.
Finding the balance
Politics is the process of balancing competing interests in a social system. For example, on the island nation of Fiji, two main ethnic groups—native Fijians and Asian Indians—coexist. The two groups have little in common. Native Fijians are darker skinned (Melanesian) and have lived in the Fijian islands from antiquity. The Indians are lighter skinned and arrived during the colonial period. The Fijians tend to farm and live in the countryside; the Indians tend to be in business and live in the cities and towns. The Fijians tend to be Christians, while the Indians are usually Muslim or Hindu. When it comes to dividing up the island nation’s resources, the interests of the Fijians and Indians almost always diverge. So the political way to keep the peace is to make sure that the respective political interests of the Fijians and Indians are kept in “balance,” however difficult for that balance to sometimes be achieved.
In a similar fashion, there are competing interests in any religious organization. Growing up in New York City, I remember the tensions in my own conference between Hispanics and Caucasians. The power in the conference had historically been held by Caucasians; but as the Spanish-speaking membership rose in numbers, they felt that they were often left out in the distribution of power and resources. They demanded greater representation or they would secede and form their own conference. Today, there are strong and continuing efforts to make sure the composition of leadership in that church organization roughly reflects the ethnic makeup of the membership. Whether we like it or not, this is politics in the church.
Theological differences can also create competing interests. Among Seventh-day Adventists, for example, there has always been some tension between a healing and service focus as opposed to a doctrinal focus based on the study of biblical apocalyptic. Both foci are grounded in Scripture and the instructions of Ellen White, but they tend to lead in somewhat different directions theologically. The healing side of Adventism tends toward an outward focus of engaging the world to make it a better place; the apocalyptic side tends toward an inward focus of avoiding contamination from the world. Naturally, when Adventists from both sides get together, there can be tension. Theological discussions are easily politicized when the outcome of a theological discussion could favor the interests of one side or the other.
Is there any way to avoid such politicization? Does God express His will through the outcome of political debate or does political discussion make it harder for people to hear the voice of God? Is it possible to balance competing interests in the church without conflict? Is politics in the church always a bad thing?
The evidence of the New Testament
On the surface of the New Testament, the obvious answer would seem to be No. Jesus’ teaching seems clear: “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other for a second strike.” “If someone curses you, offer instead a blessing. If someone abuses you, pray for him or her” (Matt. 5:39, 44).1 This seems to leave little room for competing interests in the church. All subgroups in the church should adopt the self-sacrificing spirit of Jesus toward others.
Yet a careful look around the New Testament suggests that the Sermon on the Mount was not often followed—even in the earliest church. Within a short time after Pentecost, competing interests arose in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6). It seems the Jerusalem church set up a safety net for the widows in the church who may have been abandoned by their families when they accepted Christ. The Greek-speaking members complained that the Greek-speaking widows were not getting their fair share of food. The complaint was brought to the apostles, and they responded that it was not their responsibility to turn away from preaching and focus on food distribution instead. They invited the church to appoint seven men—deacons—to take care of the matter. What is of interest are their names: all these deacons had distinctively Greek names, which means that, possibly, they were added to the leadership to ensure that the interests of the Greek speakers were fairly represented.
The problem in the church was competing interests; the solution was to make sure the neglected segment of the church was represented in the decision-making processes of the church. Sounds like a political solution, does it not?
Later (Acts 15:36–39), Paul and Barnabas are contemplating a second mission trip together. The previous trip had been hindered somewhat when John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, abandoned the apostles at a difficult time. Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance, but Paul would have none of it. There arose such a sharp disagreement between the two apostles that they separated. Barnabas took Mark with him and Paul sought out a different companion. Could not one or the other of the apostles have turned the other cheek? Maybe they could have, but they did not. Instead they chose to go their separate ways, pursuing a “political” solution to their dispute.
A less well-known story has to do with Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem (Acts 21:16). Paul, Luke, and a number of others, including at least one Gentile Christian named Trophimus, came to Jerusalem and stayed at the house of Mnason, an early disciple of Jesus (probably one of the 70 mentioned in Luke 10). The text tells us “the brothers received us warmly” (Acts 21:17, NIV).
At first glance, Paul and company seem quite welcome in Jerusalem. The next day, however, it is clear that thousands of believing Jews in Jerusalem did not yet know Paul was there (v. 22) and these were believing the worst about him. Following the advice of the apostles to appease this other group of believers, Paul is arrested in the temple and his public mission in the book of Acts is brought to a close.
Clearly, the church in Jerusalem remained divided between Greeks and Hebrews many years after Acts 6. Mnason, a Greek believer from Cyprus, was happy to welcome Paul. The rest of the church in town disagreed, and Paul ended up jailed.
This brief survey of just one book of the New Testament makes it clear that politics in the church are the norm rather than the exception (see also Galatians 2:11–14). If the apostles themselves could not avoid it, church leadership today should not be expected to totally eradicate politics from the church, either.
Politics and faith
If politics is the norm rather than the exception, even in the church, how can we manage politics in a way that does not undermine the gospel? While individuals may at times turn the other cheek or adopt the self-sacrificing spirit of Jesus, groups of people with a common ethnic or theological interest rarely do. Politics is not the ideal but a fact of life.
So, how can leaders of the faith manage the politics that comes with competing interests in the church? I would like to offer four principles that have helped me manage politics through the years.
1. The leader must practice humility and self-distrust. Paul discusses such an approach in a powerful passage, 2 Timothy 2:24–26: “The servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but rather gentle toward everyone; teachable, bearing slander without resentment, in humility instructing those who ‘oppose themselves,’ in the hope that God might give them repentance leading to knowledge of truth, and that they might escape the trap of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”2
“Difficult people” in the church cannot free themselves from Satan’s trap. Nor can we free them. Only a miracle of God can. Not by coercion or by shame talk can politics be managed, but only by exhibiting the self-sacrificing spirit of Jesus in our own behaviors as leaders. No group will deny itself unless led by self-denying leaders. When we shame people, they raise walls of defense. When we practice humility, gentleness, and meekness, the way opens for God to transform the hearts of others. Self-denial is not natural; it is a miracle whenever it occurs. The best counter to politics in the church is not to demand our fair share of whatever, but to be willing to yield our rights for the sake of the whole.
2. The leader must learn and exhibit empathy. Genuine empathy is also a miraculous event, whenever it occurs. By nature, selfish human beings are primarily concerned with their own interests and welfare. But an immersion in the grace and mercy of God can open our eyes to the suffering of others. A negative example of this is the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21–35). Not appreciating the mercy of the king, the unforgiving servant did not see that his fellow servant was in the same position in relation to him as he had been with the king. Seeing that fellow servant through the eyes of the king would have given him new glasses with which to see and understand the heart of another. We develop empathy when we experience the empathy of God. We learn compassion from the compassion that was first shown us. We love because God first loved us. We forgive because we have been forgiven. Empathy enables us to see and care about the interests of others and thereby to find a way to balance those interests in a way that unites people rather than divides them.
3. The leader must have a passion for fairness (justice). Some people have, by nature, more of a passion for fairness than do others. But we can all learn to be more fair. In a way, fairness is not possible until we have discovered both humility and empathy. A learning spirit, combined with empathy, will produce a passion for justice. When we have determined the facts of a situation (as far as that is possible) and care deeply about all involved, we will be able to move people toward the fairest possible outcome. When the people know that the leader intends to be fair, they are more willing to trust the process.
4. The leader must distinguish between the clear and the unclear. This is particularly relevant when theological discussions become political. While the Bible is the rule of faith and practice, not everything in the Bible is equally clear. Understanding the difference between what is clear and what is unclear in the Bible helps us to avoid arguments over ideas that are not clearly established in the text. One side of a discussion may see one side of truth clearly, but not the other. Truth is often a tension between poles rather than an either-or directive. When people see that the Bible often clearly teaches things that strike us as opposites, we come to realize that many of our political conflicts arise from competing groups seeing the side of truth that appeals to their personalities, and then trying to eliminate from the group those whose personalities incline them to see the other side. A commitment to Scripture over our opinion about Scripture, a willingness to subject all that we believe to the text, is one of the best ways to manage theological politics in the church.3
It would be nice if politics could be eliminated from the church. On the other hand, that might cause us all to become theologically lazy. Often in the heat of conflict people open their Bibles with a fresh willingness to learn and grow. Often in the heat of conflict we are forced to engage the other and discover that they are partly right. The One who sets up kings and puts them down is well able to manage the mess that human politics can create, even in the church.
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1 The author’s translation.
3 See my book, The Deep Things of God: An Insider’s Guide to the Book of Revelation (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2004), regarding such issues of interpretation.