Full-strength church

How to set priorities, from hardball politics to church softball

Issue: "Worldview warehouses," July 17, 1999

Not many topics are so well calculated to rile up Christian folks as the question I raised here in our May 29 issue: Just how closely involved should local churches be in the political process? The volume of mail generated by that column was matched only by the vigor of the language. WORLD readers are hardly of one mind on the issue-and they didn't hold back in saying what they thought. One reason for the vehemence of those disagreements is that in our society today we have such a vague idea of what the church itself ought to be. Such confusion is clearly true of those outside the church. But those of us within the church are often not much more articulate in defining just where the church ought to leave off and where the rest of society and culture should take up. To help myself think through such issues in recent weeks, I've constructed a spectrum that looks like this:

Then all along that line, I've been trying to figure exactly where to put a whole host of different activities. These include tasks in life that any Christian person might be assigned: party politics, demonstrating at an abortion clinic, serving on the board of a Christian school, serving soup at the local rescue mission, coordinating a state group of homeschoolers, organizing a Special Olympics day for handicapped young people, forming a business partnership. I put the little league team at the opposite end of the spectrum from your local church simply because I know of no one among all my acquaintances-even among the most separatist and cranky of them-who would say there ought to be some faith requirement to join such a team. Even the son of the village atheist is welcome to play shortstop, provided he can move with agility to his left. Is that because there are no ethical considerations for a baseball team to keep in mind? Hardly. It's just that somehow we assume enough common ground (or is it common grace?) to play a game like baseball together. But such assumptions are harder and harder to come by as we move away from playing a game and move toward more serious assignments in life. Ambiguity we're willing to settle for with the executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce isn't nearly as acceptable when we're interviewing a literature teacher for the local Christian high school. Nor should it be. But how do we establish the left-to-right order on the spectrum above of each of the activities and organizations I suggested? For each of the spheres of life implied by my short list, how do we know the extent to which the details of our biblical faith should be required for leadership roles? Our failure to work through the answers to those questions has contributed significantly to our blurring of the role of the church itself in culture and society at large. We're not sure just how far we should go in trying to "Christianize" the Republican Party-and the result is that we try to sneak the Republican Party into the church. We haven't worked out in our own minds the extent to which civil law ought to reflect biblical standards-and our confusion on that issue leads to even further confusion about the relationship of church and state. I'm not saying the answers are simple or easy to come by. Good minds have wrestled with the issues for centuries, and those good minds haven't all produced compatible responses. I do suggest, however, a simple starting point. Let's construct a doorway (note well, devotees of Thomas Jefferson, that we're calling for a doorway, and not a wall) quite close to the local church end of the spectrum, like this:

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Such a doorway, placed so close to one end of the spectrum, is to signify that only a few activities in life take place inside the church. They are important activities-altogether essential activities that sustain the lives of the people who go there. But the worship, the teaching, the fellowship, the nurturing, and the discipline that are the marks of the church-all these take place so its members can then go back out through the doors to have an impact on the rest of the world. For such people, most of life will happen outside the doorway. But it will occur in a way it could never happen apart from what first goes on within the doorway. And the church itself will be a richer source simply because it has not diluted itself with a host of other assignments. And no, almost by definition I haven't yet found a place in this scheme of things for a church softball team.

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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