James T Wood
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There’s been some talk in the last few weeks about the morality of certain political candidates. Wayne Grudem made a case for the morality of voting for Donald Trump. Others have rebutted Grudem’s view. Others have offered their support. But several key issues surrounding morality, Christianity, and politics haven’t been addressed.
The biggest obstacle for any biblical argument for a political candidate is making a biblical argument for Christian participation in government. Though the bible clearly teaches that we ought to respect the government and even pray for the government, we are not ever commanded to participate in the government. When the Israelites demanded a king, God acquiesced, but did not approve.
Within the Churches of Christ there has been a debate about whether or not it is permissible (or mandatory) for Christians to vote and participate in government. Perhaps the most famous opponent to such participation was David Lipscomb.
In his response to the argument of that Christians must vote, Lipscomb concluded:
[Jesus] set the full example for the Christian to follow, and if he refrained from political affairs it was because he desired Christians to do likewise. So far from Bro. Jones’ or Pinketon’s articles convincing any one that Christians can go into politics, we are certain they confirm all thoughtful Christians there is no ground for it. Brethren, let us get clear of our partisan prejudices for human institutions and look plainly at the teachings of God and learn of them the truth as it is in Christ.
David Lipscomb, “Voting,” Gospel Advocate (1876) 543-546 (with thanks to John Mark Hicks)
We must ask ourselves as followers of Christ how our participation in the political process is in line with our citizenship in God’s kingdom before we make moral demands of other Christians to participate in a certain political manner.
It has become axiomatic that it is impossible to legislate morality, but underlying that axiom is an important question for all Christians to wrestle with: Should Christians advocate for moral laws?
In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says:
And, of course, Jesus never intended it to be such a plan. For all their necessity, goodness, and beauty, laws that deal only with actions, such as the Ten Commandments, simply cannot reach the human heart, the source of actions. “If a law had been given capable of bringing people to life,” Paul said, “then righteousness would have come from the law” (Gal. 3:21). But law, for all its magnificence, cannot do that. Graceful relationship sustained with the masterful Christ certainly can (pg. 155 emphasis original).
We must make a clear distinction between the religious laws that Jesus and Paul were referring to and the political laws of modern, secular governments. We must also assert, as Willard did, that laws can be necessary, good, and even beautiful. But there is no law that can produce righteousness. There is no religious law and there is no secular law that can make one right with God.
As followers of Christ, not only is our citizenship not of this world, our goals are not to make nations and kingdoms righteous. Whether or not the United States has laws that mirror the morality of Christ, our citizenship is in God’s kingdom. So, even if you were to answer the first question and assert that Christians should participate in government, you would also need to answer the second question and assert that such participation ought to be for the purpose of aligning the government with the bible.
If you wrestled with both of those questions and you are still convinced that you must participate in government and that such participation must be to align the government with the teachings of Jesus in the bible you are left with a third question about which political party accomplishes that.
It is common for the Republican Party to be aligned with Evangelical Christians. This alliance has more history and nuance than is necessary for this article. In most recent history the alliance has been based on opposition to gay marriage and abortion. The Republicans use words like “family values” to identify with the Evangelical Christians who have, in large numbers, supported them.
Does it then follow that the major opposition to the Republican Party is anti-Christian? In recent history (because both political parties have changed their views many times over the years) the Democratic Party has supported abortion rights and gay marriage, positions which are anathema to many Christians. But at the same time the Democratic Party has opposed war and the death penalty (to name just a couple positions) while the Republican Party has advocated for both. A follower of Christ asserts that the peacemakers are blessed and that vengeance belongs to God alone so there seems to be some alignment between the teachings of God and both of the major political parties in the United States. Leaving us with the question of which party is the most Christian, or which party is the least opposed to the teachings of Christ.
I can’t tell you that you are morally obligated to vote. I can’t tell you that if you vote, you should vote for laws and lawmakers that want to enact biblical laws. I can’t tell you which political party, if any, represents the teachings of Jesus. And neither can anyone else.
If someone tells you that you must vote, they are not speaking along with the bible.
If someone tells you that you must vote for laws that support biblical teaching, they are not speaking along with the bible.
If someone tells you that you must vote for one political party or candidate as the representative of Christian values, they are not speaking with the bible.
Now we live in a world that is filled with daily decisions not expressly governed by scripture. Which movies should we watch? Which companies should we work for? What schools should we attend? What products should we buy? But that is not really very different from any other time in history. The bible was not meant to give us an instruction manual for every aspect of life, but to give us a relationship guide to bring us closer and closer to the heart of God. All of its rules and stories are summed up in love.
So, must you participate in government? The bible doesn’t say. Instead you ought to ask: How can you best love God and your neighbors?
Must you vote for laws that support biblical teaching? What is the most loving law for your neighbor?
Does one political party or another represent Christ? Which party could be summed up by its love?
Jesus said that his followers would be known by their love. Not by their votes, not by their laws, not by their party affiliation, but by their love. So, what must we do? We must love. We must love those who choose differently than us. We must love those who participate in government and those who abstain. We must love those who vote for the laws they deem biblical and those who do not. We must love those who align with a political party and those who do not. We must love each other.
Immediately after Paul told the Romans to respect the governing authority (Rom. 13), he instructed them to bear with one another through disagreements about disputable matters like eating, drinking, and observing holidays (Rom. 14). Since our participation in government is even less-well addressed in scripture than those topics, I think it’s fair to apply the same practices of love and respect to voting as we should to eating and drinking.
13 Therefore we must not pass judgment on one another, but rather determine never to place an obstacle or a trap before a brother or sister.14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean in itself; still, it is unclean to the one who considers it unclean.15 For if your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy by your food someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you consider good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 For the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people.
19 So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another (NET Bible).
Acts is, in many ways, the story of God’s kingdom expanding into all the world. Jesus’ final words to his apostles were, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NET). We see that theme progress throughout the book as the apostles spread the good news in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), persecution scattering the young church throughout Judea (8:1-3) and Samaria (8:4-25), and, through Paul, all across the Roman Empire (9-28).
But to see the words of Jesus and the events in Acts as a purely geographical movement misses something critical in the story.
After Philip spread the good news to Samaria but before Paul is introduced in the story we see Philip sent by the Holy Spirit to have an encounter with an Ethiopian (8:26-40). This was no normal Ethiopian. First he was a God-fearer, that class of people who were not Jewish by birth but still worshiped Yahweh. Second, he was the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia who had made a trip to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. But the most scandalous, most shocking thing about him was his lack of gender.
He was a eunuch.
We don’t know the circumstance that led to his castration. We do know that in the ancient world eunuch were used as servants to women in high positions. It’s possible that he was castrated as a child to give him a chance to obtain work, perhaps because of the poverty of his parents.
We also know that the Mosaic law prohibited eunuchs from being a part of the congregation of Israel (Deut. 23:1) making the Ethiopian treasurer that much more scandalous. The holy irony of the reading that the Ethiopian was struggling to understand, Isaiah 53, is that just three chapters later Isaiah prophesied that God would welcome the foreigner and the eunuch (Isa. 56:3-7).
Today there are debates raging in state legislatures, school boardrooms, college campuses, and church offices about how to treat those who are transgendered. Specifically, the debate is about restroom requirements and who is allowed to use what room to relieve themselves. There is fear that abusers will hurt children. There is fear that perverts will spy on the vulnerable. There is fear that privacy and decency will be lost.
There is fear of another sort that is being ignored in many debates: the fear of the transgendered among us.
I don’t know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for a person to be born with one set of sex organs and to feel as if they should have the other. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But I do know that the Ethiopian boy overcame a great deal of fear, not to become the treasurer of a powerful nation, but to walk into the temple in Jerusalem.
The temple was segregated by both race and gender. The inner court was only for Jewish men. The next court only for Jewish women. The outer court, the one where Jesus taught and where the first Christians met, was for the rest, the leftovers, the Gentiles and ungendered, for those deemed unworthy to step any closer to the mercy seat of God. That Ethiopian treasurer stepped into the temple, bought a scroll from the Hebrew scriptures, and desperately wanted to understand how he could fit into God’s world.
Imagine the fear of a transgendered person who might dare to walk into your church. Imagine the great hope and great terror that must war within them. For reasons most of us will never know they cannot accept the sex of their birth. If it were so easy they would not risk bullying, beatings, mocking, and even death to live as a different gender. Beyond that they have stepped into a place that, historically, has been the forefront of hatred and oppression against them. Imagine the knots in their guts. Imagine the rapidity of their heartbeat. Imagine the desperate, reckless hope that they must have to dare such a thing. Hope that they might finally find a respite from bullying, from beating, from mocking, and even from death. Hope that the love that Jesus spoke of might be evident in the people who wear his name.
Imagine what they will find in response to that terror and that hope when they dare to walk into your church.
Acts is the story of God’s kingdom expansion, not just geographically, but ethnically and socially. Acts tells us of the shocking, scandalous inclusion in God’s kingdom of the hated Samaritans. It tells of the deep racial divide that made the inclusion of the Gentiles a constant struggle for the Jewish Christians. And it tells us of God fulfilling his prophecy through Isaiah and making a place within the kingdom for an Ethiopian treasurer.
This is what the Lord says,
“Promote justice! Do what is right!
For I am ready to deliver you;
I am ready to vindicate you openly.
The people who do this will be blessed,
the people who commit themselves to obedience,
who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
who refrain from doing anything that is wrong.
No foreigner who becomes a follower of the Lord should say,
‘The Lord will certainly exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’”
For this is what the Lord says:
“For the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths
and choose what pleases me
and are faithful to my covenant,
I will set up within my temple and my walls a monument
that will be better than sons and daughters.
I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain.
As for foreigners who become followers of the Lord and serve him,
who love the name of the Lord and want to be his servants—
all who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
and who are faithful to my covenant—
I will bring them to my holy mountain;
I will make them happy in the temple where people pray to me.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar,
for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray.”
I don’t know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But he was and God welcomed him into the kingdom, despite the scandal.
I don’t know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for people to be transgendered. But they are. Will you welcome them, despite the scandal?
It has been less than a week since a shooter killed college students at a community college in Oregon. Already I’ve seen not only numerous posts on social media about both gun control and gun rights, but also numerous posts about the inability of social media debates to affect any positive change. The argument is that we should leave such issues off of social media altogether, that we should limit ourselves to in-person conversations about divisive topics, because social media itself won’t allow conversations, only division and diatribe.
To assert that somehow the widespread use of the internet has created divisions among us is to be ignorant of the past. Not long after the invention of the printing press, the medium was turned toward salacious gossip and vitriolic attacks. Even in the United States, over three centuries after the invention of the printing press, print was used to defame, attack, and undermine. About the sitting President, John Adams, one paper wrote that he was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”1 That paper happened to be bankrolled by his opponent one Thomas Jefferson.
Within the tradition of the Churches of Christ, print has treated us no better. The bitter disputes between various parties and factions played out on the public stage of periodicals such as The Gospel Advocate, and The Millennial Harbinger. None of that was caused by the internet, nor social media, but by the people involved in the debates.
However, it would be disingenuous to use two examples to characterize the entirety of print dialog as unhelpful. Despite the attacks, lies, and mischaracterizations that occurred in print, we have been able to sort through the piles of text to move forward, to have a conversation, and to make a difference.
Despite how it might seem — and how the world might be portrayed in the media — things are getting better. Around the world and in the United States there is less poverty, less disease, and less violence that at any time in human history.2
The first president of the United States led nearly 13,000 troops — personally — to put down a rebellion.3 In the post Civil War era (not even mentioning the fact that we fought a war against each other), there were nearly 4,000 African-Americans lynched.4 Today we’re fighting over what amounts to far fewer deaths, far less rebellion, and far less division. We’ve made progress. We’ve reduced violence and poverty, we’ve changed the terrain of race and gender inequality, we’ve done so much (though there is still much more to do).
Within the Churches of Christ we have made additional strides, we are more racially integrated, more gender inclusive, less condemning, and less isolationist.
We didn’t make this progress despite the use of the printing press, but because of it. We learned about other views, other ideas, and other cultures. We argued, we fought, and we discussed. We learned and grew together through letters to the editor, opinion columns, books, and articles that defined the debate and moved us forward. The movement was slow. It took years and decades to make perceptible progress, but that progress has been made. Things got better. Things can continue to get better.
Our brains are plastic. No, I don’t mean that the stuff in our heads is made of the material we call plastic, but that the attribute of plasticity — or ability to change — is a part of our neural makeup. You may have heard that things are hard-wired into people’s personalities. That’s just not true.
Our brains don’t work like computers, they work more like paths through a field. The first trail is blazed by someone knocking down the grass and brush. As more people walk down the path it becomes worn in. If enough people walk on it, the grass and plants will die, the earth will pack hard, and, eventually, someone might pave it over. But all it takes to start a new path is someone willing to blaze a new trail and the process can start all over again.
The internet started being used by a significant number of people around twenty years ago. On the scale of human technology that’s an incredibly short amount of time, but we’re already seeing the effects on our brains. As we use technology, we’re walking down a path in a field, and the more we use it, the more defined that path gets. Things like the internet and social media create pathways in our brains that can be reinforced or abandoned based on the amount we use them.
We are responsible for the way that social media affects us, not the other way around. We can choose which neural pathways to reinforce and which to abandon. And, through our examples, we can help others to make similar choices.
It’s easy enough to sit behind a keyboard (yes I get the irony of what I’m writing) and fire off words into the ether. The internet is more responsive and more reactionary than the printing press could ever be. The best we were able to do with print media is to get stories out via a newspaper within a day or so. Today we can get stories within minutes and begin reacting to those stories while the events are still going on. That means our responses are coming from our initial emotional reactions. We’re often not taking time to stop and think through something before we respond. I’ve done this. I’m sure you have too. I’ll see something about something and disagree, angrily. My fingers are moving on the keyboard before my brain has the chance to engage. The other person is… (fill in the blank with whatever attack you normally come up with).
When we don’t have to see someone, when we don’t have to recognize that they are a human being made in the image of God and beloved by him, we can say things that we wouldn’t otherwise say. That’s not the fault of social media, it’s the fault of the people using social media.
I am a coward. I have fired off hateful, hurtful words to the neighbors and enemies that Jesus told me to love. Not because I was, in that moment, intentionally rejecting the command of Jesus to love them, but because I was ignoring the fact that they are my neighbors and enemies, they are people. If I were to stand face to face with someone who thinks differently than I do about gun control or gay marriage or abortion, if I had to look them in the eye and disagree with them in person, I wouldn’t dare say such things. I wouldn’t dare because I would be, quite literally, face-to-face with their humanity.
I believe that we cannot abrogate our role in this world by either allowing our debates to devolve into attacks or by disengaging from these vital conversations altogether. Those are the binary options that many people represent. Either we give up on engaging in meaningful dialog through social media, or we will become embroiled in endless arguments with no resolution. Every time Jesus was offered a binary option, he offered another way. We can be engaged in social media, but not enamored by the methods of social media. We can be in the world but not of it.5
When you’re tempted to fight back, stop. Take a moment. Imagine the person to whom you’re responding. Imagine their family, their smile, and their friends. Remember that they are made in God’s image.
When you’re tempted to check out, stop. Take a moment. Imagine a world without the light and love of Jesus. Imagine if Christians had stopped engaging in the debate about slavery or racism. Remember that though change is slow, it is happening.
Remember that we are commanded, as followers of Christ, to love our neighbors and our enemies. That doesn’t mean we stop disagreeing, it doesn’t mean we give up, it means we refuse to stop engaging the important issues and we refuse to stop loving the people on either side of those issues.
For thirty years Churches of Christ in the Portland, Ore. area have been coming together once a year for an event called Together with Love in Christ – or TLC. On October 18, 2014 the annual celebration gathered again on the bank of the Columbia River (in a hotel banquet hall), to worship. It is quite fitting that on the thirtieth anniversary of TLC the same number of congregations from the area were represented.
The churches that participated ranged from new church plants to long established congregations, from churches meeting in a small room to churches that fill vast auditoriums and demand multiple services, from churches that embrace the newest songs to churches that sing every verse of songs that were written a century ago.
Together we prayed and sang and communed and fellowshipped and learned. Together we represented the past and the future of the Churches of Christ.
In the past – at the very beginning of the Restoration Movement – the goal was unity. Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott and so many others emerged from disparate churches and denominations to ask some difficult questions about what it means to follow Jesus. They sought to live out, in a radical way, the ideal of unity. Though the quote dates back to the early 17th century, the Restoration Movement took it as a rallying cry: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
Yet, despite this past, the future of unity is in some doubt. Differences over what constitutes an “essential” have torn apart congregations and the Restoration Movement, on more than one occasion. Pick your issue: kitchens, instruments, cups, missionary societies, Sunday school, small groups, Sunday night worship, singing during communion, women serving, use of PowerPoint, or what songs qualify as an invitation song. Churches have split over each of these issues and many more than I can recount. Of course this is not unique to the Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement, but it is notable in a movement founded upon the ideal of Christian unity.
I will not pretend to have a panacea for the divisions that threaten to tear the Churches of Christ apart. There is none. It is no easy task, but we were not called by God to an easy life, rather to one of meaning and purpose. I offer up TLC and Portland as an example of how to move forward. Not because TLC happens without conflict, but because it happens despite the conflict. It brings churches together in dialog. It forces us to confront our disunity every time we attempt to unite for one Sunday out of fifty-two.
If we are to move beyond the squabbles that have divided us, if we are to learn to live the ideal of unity in the essentials and liberty in the non-essentials, we must do so through the hard work of love. Love means self-sacrifice, love means patience, love means hope, love means listening to both the weaker and stronger brothers and sisters we have.
The future of the Churches of Christ is not glamorous or easy, but neither was its past. The hard questions and difficult conversations that brought Stone and Campbell and Scott together – despite their great differences – can be our heritage and our future hope. Loving dialog that seeks and promotes unity is our future, if we have the courage.
But too often we talk past each other rather than with each other. We decry our opponents instead of hearing them out. We vilify the other rather than learning from them. And this problem is not unique to the Churches of Christ or the Restoration Movement. Our society is mired in monologs that play endlessly over one another. It is not only our churches, but our world, that needs what the Churches of Christ have done and, I believe, can do again. Without dialog we are doomed to be alone, for the more we speak and demand that all who hear agree, the fewer and fewer people will listen until we all stand alone and isolated.
The commands of Jesus, the marks of a disciple, are meaningless to a hermit. It takes no effort for a loner to die to themselves or to love their neighbors or to become last or to care for the poor because there is no one else. Jesus’ commands only make sense to those living in community. The Sermon on the Mount is, in many ways, a handbook on how to live in community despite conflict. And, at its core, is the concept of loving each other, not just enough to take care of each other, but enough to listen to each other.
I can already hear the retort: “But if we listen to them, we are approving of their message.” No. No. Did Jesus approve of the Pharisees or teachers of the Law? Did he approve of the Samaritan woman or the rich young ruler or Judas? Yet he listened. He heard. He loved. And out of that listening love, he was able to speak truth to those who would hear him. We are told to speak the truth in love, but I think we miss the importance placed on the last word. Often in Greek the final word is the most important – sort of like using an exclamation point in English – so when you read that we should speak the truth in love, it should look more like: “Love people as you speak the truth!” Love people first. Listen to them. Care about them. Then, if they are willing, speak truth.
The future of the Churches of Christ can be the unity that it boasted in the past if we are willing to die to ourselves, love our neighbors and listen.