Who are we, brothers and sisters? Now, more than ever, the American Church needs to answer that question. A cursory answer you might pose is, “We are the Church.” You might say, “We are Christians.” The response might even be, “We’re God’s people.” While those are true, I’ll ask again. Who are we?
One need only look around the assembly on Sunday to see that partisan politics have found a willing home within our congregations. Republican or Democrat? I contend that the idol of politics has become the real dividing issue of our time.
These divisions are not new among God’s people. Jesus’ world included four partisan parties among the Jewish people: The Zealots, the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each had its own ideology about how the world should work considering Roman occupation. Zealots were coercive revolutionaries. Sadducees were collaborators. Pharisees were the separate and pure; superior and far apart from sinners. The last group is the Essenes who withdrew from social and political affairs.
All but the Essenes practiced a fierce belief of the national superiority of Israel. The Essenes hyper-spiritualized the concept. They did not put as much stock in the physical, but they were nonetheless following the same ideology to their chagrin. You cannot blame them at all. God had told them they would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). They received the Promised Land to dwell in. So, when foreign interlopers defiled the land by their presence, it’s understandable that it would offend them.
The power struggles and hateful interactions between these sects of the Jewish people created the toxic environment into which Christ was born. It is into this charged, divided world that Jesus stepped into history and with Him brought a new approach. He lived in a time consumed with the damnable idol of nationalism – not unlike the place we live today.
His death and resurrection birthed the Church. God introduced the Church as an alternative to partisan politics. He raised up his Son to set the standard that crushed nationalism and bred brotherhood. The Church had, as Scot McKnight writes, an “Ethos from Beyond.” This Kingdom of God that Jesus brought was that it was so revolutionary that even today we cannot comprehend its scope and implications.
One of the great things that drew me to the heritage of the Restoration Movement was the desire to be like the first Christians. We’ve made great strides and for that I am grateful to God. In the realm of politics, we have in our time, undone thousands of years of Christian progress. Again we find ourselves stuck in the irresistible pull of political power and nationalism. Our divisions have caused the Body a great harm to ourselves and to our witness. We have done great harm to one another. We have divided the body.
Political process cannot ever build God’s kingdom. That does not mean that political processes cannot be a force for good. It means we cannot put our hope there. Ever. A nation and its politics are just that – a nation. A nation cannot submit to God as it isn’t human, therefore it cannot be part of the Kingdom of God. We must come to grips with the truth that nationalism is idolatry. Why? Because it stifles the Kingdom.
How can we be salt and light if we side with political power? How can we have a single-minded allegiance to God, while grasping on to earthly structures? Forgive me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t God demand and command allegiance to Him alone and not to a fallen human, state, flag, or political party? Does He not introduce an alternative Kingdom called the Church?
The State is part of the world, and God’s Kingdom never can be the state, part of the state, or a tool of the state. It would do us well to retrace history and see what has happened when the church has given herself to the State. The Crusades, the Middle-Ages, the Salem Witch Trials, Segregation, Slavery, and racism. Atrocities like this happen when God’s people drink the maddening wine of nationalism and partisan politics.
Instead, we present an alternative – a new social order as Viola states, and an ethic from above. Instead, the ekklesia is a place where racism, social prejudice, sexism, discrimination, etc., are absent (Gal. 3:28). Instead, justice, mercy, reconciliation, love, forgiveness, and unity are the law. We do not belong to the world (John 8:23, 15:19, 17:9, 17:16).
When we try to be part of two kingdoms, we poison the Lord’s Supper. There is “death in the pot,” (2 Kings 4:38-41), and though wine doesn’t mess with the poison, the poison makes the wine toxic. Being consumed with politics makes us useless in the Kingdom. I must be a citizen of Heaven, and only then, can I be a part of the alternate Kingdom of God.
I am an American citizen by birth, but to a degree I am not. My citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). If my country asks me to do something or go along with something that is at odds with Scripture, then I have an obligation. I am obligated to renounce my citizenship as an American for my true citizenship. We must always remember that every political system is threatened by the radical message of Jesus. When the threat grows large enough, they will crucify our Lord all over again; even if it calls itself a “Christian Nation.” Every government will eventually find itself at odds with God’s Kingdom.
Let us remember that the Church is the alternative to all the political divisiveness and partisan politics. It is above the fray of mudslinging. Christ gives His Church a distinct role to shine our light and point to Jesus. The Church speaks to earthly powers, not for them. We speak for God. God’s power and God’s Word are the final authority and therefore, are superior to anything or anyone.
Instead, may we remember who we are instead: Christians. We are the bedraggled underdogs of the world in which God has given the Kingdom to. We are ambassadors of a higher ethic, an alternative one. When we stoop down to nationalism and partisan politics, we divide Christ. Scripture is clear on this: dividing the Body is a sin. We can do better. We can dialogue better. We can love one another, even if we disagree. We must. For if we do not, it is my fear, that we will continue to speed toward irrelevancy in an already doubting culture. Even worse, my fear is that we will repeat atrocities of the past.
Let me close with the timeless words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1954 sermon: “Paul’s Letter to the American Church”:
“But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Philippian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.”