The Churches of Christ, as a denomination, have long avoided politics, being heavily influenced by David Lipscomb’s Civil Government. Lipscomb, who lived through the horrors of the Civil War in Nashville, argued that the Kingdom founded by Jesus is entirely separate from federal, state, and local government, so much so that Christians should not serve on juries or be government employees. They certainly shouldn’t be lawyers! Moreover, Lipscomb was a pacifist, as were many other Church of Christ leaders of his day.
Attitudes have changed dramatically in the last 50 years, but there remains a culture of separation of church and state in the Churches of Christ. Preachers do not, as a rule, preach on political questions. However, often the membership is, like Americans generally, highly politicized.
As a result, we routinely turn to the government as the solution for our spiritual problems. If our children don’t have a deep enough faith in Jesus, we complain that the public schools don’t use the power of the state to require our children to pray at school. It doesn’t occur to us that we’re the one’s charged to teach our children to pray.
If we want more obedience to God’s laws, we complain that the government is now banned from displaying the Ten Commandments. It doesn’t occur to us that God charged his church to teach his will, not the government.
If our communities are filled with pornography and topless bars, we want the government to change people’s hearts so they no longer desire such things. It doesn’t occur to us that the church’s mission is to bring people to Jesus, who will change their hearts.
You see, the American, humanistic bias is to seek human solutions through government for deeply rooted spiritual problems. God created government, but the purpose of government is not to impose religion on the unwilling masses. The role of government does not include bringing the lost to Jesus. That’s the church’s job. It’s our job. It’s my job. We should be far more worried about showing the cross of Jesus through our lives than whether a cross is allowed in a government cemetery.
Consider what is perhaps the most ignored command in the Bible —
(1Co 5:9-10 ESV) 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.
The “not at all” in verse 10 means that we are supposed to associate with the sexually immoral, greedy, swindlers, and idolaters, and we are not supposed to “go out of the world,” that is, we are not allowed to turn our churches into shelters from the world. We are supposed to go into the world and influence the world for Jesus. Just as Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, we must rub elbows with the lost.
(1Co 5:11 ESV) 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.
On the other hand, Christians who are guilty of these very sins are to be removed from our fellowship. The theory that there should be no lines between the saved and the lost did not make it to Paul. He very clearly sets two very different sets of rules for the lost and the saved. The saved are to be judged and held to Christians standards. We hold one another accountable — even in a society in which we scream “invasion of privacy!” if someone dares question our moral judgments. That’s love because we really can fall away. That’s love because only a church that’s truly living Christianity can be a light to the world.
But for non-Christians, Paul says,
(1Co 5:12-13a ESV) 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside.
We are banned from judging those outside the church. It’s sin. Only God is allowed that privilege. That is, if the lost wish to engage in sexual immorality — a subject Paul is very specifically dealing with — we cannot judge them. Be the sin heterosexual or homosexual misconduct, we cannot judge.
Now, how hard is that? In our current culture, it’s no easy task, but Paul could hardly be more clear.
Table-fellowship among Christians, he says, should be the sign of fellowship which is given to those who are living as the Messiah’s people should. And, just as Israel was commanded not to tolerate evil in its midst (Deuteronomy 17:7, which Paul quotes in verse 13), so the church must see wickedness for what it is, a cancer which will spread if it is not cut out at the first sign. God will judge those outside the community in his own time and manner. But the Christian community, as he is going to stress in the next chapter, has the God-given right and duty to discriminate between those who are living in the Messiah’s way and those who are not.
Once again, we can imagine the howls of anger at such a suggestion in today’s church (‘Unloving!’ ‘Intolerant!’ ‘Judgmental!’). Paul might well have answered: is the doctor unloving or judgmental when he or she tells you that you must have the operation right away? Do we want a doctor who ‘tolerates’ viruses, bacteria, cancer cells? And if we say that the moral issues Paul mentions in verse 11 are not like diseases, are we so sure? Do these things build up a community, or destroy it?
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians.
Why not judge those outside? Well, because they have already been judged and will be judged. They are lost. What difference does it make if they sin more or sin less? Lost is lost. Our calling is not to minimize their sinfulness but to demonstrate the clear contrast between the church and the world and so attract the lost to the saving power of Jesus.
(Mat 5:14-16 ESV) 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Paul also wrote,
(Rom 1:28-31 ESV) 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
As difficult as it is for us to accept, God gives the lost up to a debased lifestyle. He doesn’t expect the lost to act like Christians, nor does he expect the government to impose Christianity on the damned. Rather, he truly wants the world to look very different from the church.
I fear that much of the Christianity that surrounds us assumes our task is to save appearances by protecting God from Job-like anguish. But if God is the God of Jesus Christ, then God does not need our protection. What God demands is not protection, but truth.
Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir.
Although the sinful, corrupt, depraved world that surrounds the church grieves God, we are not called to protect God from the grief by using the power of the state to force the unredeemed to act better. Our purpose is to be truth and to teach truth.
The church is to be an alternative society in which people treat each other and get along in ways foreign to the world. We are the people who live the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 12 – 15, and 1 Corinthians 13. Those who gaze at the church from outside should be amazed at how we love and are loved, how easily we forgive, and how intensely united we are — far more so than earthly families.
(2Co 12:9-10 ESV) 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
We desperately want to live in a world where there is no crime, no one swears, and we can leave our doors unlocked. We want to live in heaven now. But the light of Jesus, radiating through the church, shines most brightly in the darkest places.
Now, I am not arguing for anarchy, just that we stop trying to use the power of the state to make non-Christians act like Christians. I am not arguing against government filling its proper, God-given role.
(Rom 13:3-4 ESV) 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
(1Pe 2:13-14 ESV) 13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
The church can thrive when society is well-governed and crimes are punished. I’m not sure that the scriptures give us a complete theology of secular government, but we can easily see that God approves of the government’s use of force to capture and punish criminals and to establish a peaceful society. It’s no coincidence that God chose to establish the church during the Pax Romana, a time when Roman hegemony made travel and communications relatively easy across the entire Roman Empire.
And, yes, I realize that drawing a line between the God-given role of government and God’s decision to give the world over to depravity is not easy, even in theory. However, I think that if we were to prayerfully rethink and discuss today’s political issues in light of the passages cited, God’s will would become clear.
To return to our theme, we need to let God be God, and we need to let the church be the church. That is, rather than lobbying for righteousness in the halls of government, we should be learning how to live the Sermon on the Mount, to stop judging those outside the church, and so be a light to the world.