Should the church take political stands?
One of the vital doctrines of old school presbyterianism is the doctrine known as “the spirituality of the church.” This important biblical doctrine teaches that the visible church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual institution with a spiritual message and a spiritual and holy calling to save and shepherd souls; not a secular, civil or political institution with a political message and tasked primarily with a secular calling to make this present world a better place. Christ has called his church to preach the gospel, make disciples, administer the sacraments, and shepherd souls unto eternal life (Matt. 28:18-20; Lk. 24:45-49; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; etc.). The New Testament nowhere indicates that Christ has called his church to be an institution of cultural warfare called to make official pronouncements on public policy and civil legislation. (Although, of course, the church may and must address moral issues that are clearly addressed by Scripture, such as matters having to do with marriage and human sexuality.)(1)
Both liberal and conservative denominations often forget this. For example, recently a very liberal Protestant denomination adopted an official resolution regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see http://uccfiles.com/pdf/GS30-A-CALL-FOR-THE-UNITED-CHURCH-OF-CHRIST-TO-TAKE-ACTIONS-TOWARD-A-JUST-PEACE-IN-THE-ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN-CONFLICT.pdf). This same denomination also adopted a resolution on transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy (seen http://uccfiles.com/pdf/GS30-TRANSITION-FROM-FOSSIL-FUELS-TO-RENEWABLE-ENERGY.pdf). On the more theologically-orthodox end of the spectrum, a number of years ago the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution on engaging the direction of the public school system (see http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/1161/on-engaging-the-direction-of-the-public-school-system).
Whatever you might think about the specific political positions represented in these resolutions, is it really the job of a professed church of Christ to address complex political and cultural issues such as these? Where in the New Testament do we find the apostolic church adopting “resolutions” addressing controversial public policy issues in the Roman Empire? (Answer: Nowhere!) And do not such “resolutions” give members of the church the impression that only loyal Democrats (or loyal Republicans, as the case may be) can be faithful followers of Christ?
The Westminster Confession of Faith, in chapter 32, section 4, states the doctrine of the spirituality of the church well: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” This is the historic, “old school” presbyterian position on this matter. When the church forgets its biblical, spiritual calling and morphs into an institution which basically parrots democratic or republican talking points in religious garb, then God’s holy Name is taken in vain, the church becomes secularized, its holy calling is desecrated, sincere believers with different political views get marginalized, and biblical Christianity gets confused with American civil religion.
May we as a church remember and pursue our holy calling, and may we leave partisan politics outside the church doors.(2) Let us go back to the “old paths” of old school presbyterianism by zealously maintaining the spirituality and holiness of the church against the secularizing trends of the culture wars. Let us avoid sacralizing that which is secular (for example, public policy positions), and secularizing that which is sacred (namely, the church and its sacred calling to proclaim the Word).
(1) I recently offered the following comments in response to an article related to this subject found on the National Review Online website:
“Church and denominational leaders need to stop secularizing and desecrating both their sacred offices and the holy calling of Christ’s church by taking partisan stands on controversial and often complex political issues where they have no expert knowledge or competence. Christ commanded his church to preach the gospel, make disciples of the nations, baptize, etc. (Matt. 28:18-20); he nowhere commanded the apostles to craft “position papers” on controversial matters of civil governance or to pontificate on matters of civil polity, and the New Testament contains precisely zero examples of the apostolic church making political pronouncements (other than instructing believers to pray for and submit to the legitimately exercised authority of their civil leaders – Romans 13:1-7; First Timothy 2:1-2).
“Of course, the church ought to address clear moral issues which the Scriptures themselves address. But when any church or denomination goes beyond the Scriptures to address controversial civil issues which it has no authority (and often no competence) to address, then it goes beyond its God-given calling and secularizes its own message. Let Christ’s church stick to what Christ himself has called it to do: preach the gospel, disciple the nations, care for souls, shepherd sinners to eternal life in Christ. Only as it sticks to its God-given calling will the church of Jesus Christ truly be that “city on a hill” which Christ called it to be.”
(2) In saying this I am not suggesting that God’s Word does not address matters of ethics in the political realm. Nor am I suggesting that it is wrong for believers to seek to apply biblical principles to questions of public policy. At the same time, let it be recognized that sometimes equally sincere, theologically-orthodox believers may come to different conclusions on specific questions of public policy, especially complex ones. It is foolish and beyond the legitimate, God-given authority of the church’s leadership to speak for all of its congregants by adopting official “resolutions” or “position papers” on complex political and public policy issues that are not directly addressed by the Word of God. Unless the church can back up its official pronouncements with a clear “Thus saith the Lord” grounded in Holy Scripture, it is duty-bound to remain silent where Scripture is silent, lest it compromise its witness to the gospel and end up binding the consciences of God’s people.