Not the church's business

We dilute our message, and we confuse the world

Issue: "Is our military ready?," May 29, 1999

A statistic I saw last week should embarrass those of us in the Bible belt. When asked the question, "Does your minister ever offer advice and guidance to the congregation on political questions?," 29 percent of all Southerners said yes. Outside the South, the yes responses dropped to 18 percent.

But even the 18 percent answer is too high. An overly close linkage between the organized church and the political process-everywhere in the country-continues to be a blight on the church's core message.

To be sure, we'd better be sure we're using the same language while discussing these issues. The survey I cite here, conducted by the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wasn't as precise as it should have been in asking the question. It didn't adequately distinguish between "political" issues on the one hand and the "moral" discussions that properly lie behind the political issues.

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For example, it's hard to find fault with a minister who from his pulpit discusses biblical perspectives on issues like capital punishment, racism, abortion, or gambling. If that's his whole diet, of course, he's hardly doing the Bible justice. But in terms of content, such topics are indeed part of the "whole counsel of God." And if that's the content people had in mind when they were asked the question, "Does your minister ever offer advice and guidance to the congregation on political questions?," then more power to them.

But most of us know how hard it is to stop such discussions at that point. And if we let ourselves-gathered as we ought to for biblical instruction-move on in that same setting to the task of political strategizing, we make a big mistake. For then we are blurring the distinction between the organized church and the work the people of that church are assigned to do.

It is that blurring which columnist Cal Thomas and pastor Ed Dobson critique so severely in their new book, Blinded by Might. WORLD two issues ago summarized the Thomas-Dobson message this way: "The authors call for Christians neither to have faith in government, nor to withdraw from politics, but to develop a 'third way' that emphasizes the character of a society more than the political coloring of its leaders."

But even in critiquing that blurring, I think these good men tend to ignore an even more important issue. The problem isn't so much that Christians have gotten too deeply involved in the political process. The problem is that they've sometimes brought that process right into the middle of the church. One of the reasons Mr. Thomas and Mr. Dobson have the regrets they do-and can speak so urgently about it now-is that they themselves helped launch a political movement two decades ago from the very platform and offices of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.

Such close association tends first to dilute the primary work of the church, which is to encourage true worship, provide biblical instruction, and engage in direct works of mercy. Those activities are the hub of the wheel, and they exert incredible leverage at the end of the spokes and all along the rim. But the church is not the spokes, and it is not the rim. When we act as if the church includes everything its members do, we confuse the unbelieving world. They can't tell the difference-and the big reason for their confusion is that too often we haven't understood the difference ourselves.

Yes, as we engage in worship, education, and tasks of mercy, we Christians will be encouraged to be obedient people in still other facets of our lives. But that obedience will in large measure take place outside the church-not as one more department of the church.

So, to remind ourselves, and the outside world at the same time, of the church's uniqueness, we'll draw some boundary lines. No political caucus meetings, no announcements about them, no political literature-nothing of any kind about elections or candidates or legislation. Those are all worthy and important activities-but let's save them for someone's private home, or a school assembly room, or the fire hall.

The God we worship and who teaches us about Himself when we gather uniquely as His people is big enough and resourceful enough to win elections and change laws without our using our time in His house for such ends. The next time a pollster asks if your pastor offers political advice from his pulpit, try an answer something like this: "No, he just nourishes our hearts and minds so we can go out and make wise political decisions." You might, of course, end up as an asterisk; the pollster probably won't have a category for an answer like that.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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