Don’t Americanize the ChurchPosted in Articles
Dr. Dan Hayden •
The church of Jesus Christ is not American. On the other hand, it is not un-American either. It is simply not political. You may think I’m unpatriotic (or maybe just plain weird), but I have always had a problem with having an American flag in the auditorium of a church. You know—the American flag on the platform in the place of honor at the speaker’s right, and the Christian flag in the subservient position on the speaker’s left. Quite frankly, I used to see that more in churches years ago than I do today, but that bit of Christian Americanism helps to illustrate a point. Jesus never intended for the church to have a political orientation.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love our country and am committed to the American ideals of liberty and justice for all. Furthermore, I am greatly concerned about the liberal agenda in America that is undermining all that our founding fathers intended for our country—precisely because I do love America. When I step inside the church however, I enter an asylum from the political forays of the culture—any culture. Whether it was the Roman government of the early New Testament church, or any other government since then where the church has had a presence, the purpose of the church has been to exalt the Kingdom of Christ independent of any earthly governmental system.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) indicating that during the times of the Gentiles (Luke 21:24) until He comes to establish His Kingdom upon the earth (Rev. 11:15), He is not to be confused with any political system. Pilate understood this and concluded that Jesus was no threat to the Roman government. The church, which is His Body, is therefore, apolitical (non-political). Wherever the church exists in whatever country it finds itself, it is a spiritual entity that transcends the political structure around it. Its purpose is to draw people into the transcendent government of Christ, not to transform the mundane governments of men. That is not to say that the church will not have an influence upon the government—it can and it should (cf. 1 Tim. 2:1-2 where we are told to pray for government leaders as an influence for godliness). It is to say however, that the church has a higher calling that is both spiritual and eternal (2 Cor. 4:18).
In a political year in which we are electing a new American president, this understanding of the church has important ramifications.
In the World, Not of the World
It is one thing to have the boat in the water. It is quite another thing however, to have the water in the boat. Even so it is one thing for the Christian to be in the world, but it is of great concern when the world is in the Christian. Jesus said that believers are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt. 5:13-16), so their presence in the world is strategic for the cause of His Kingdom. Yet there are strong imperatives in the Word of God instructing Christians to not love the world (1 John 2:15-17) and to not be conformed to the world (Rom. 12:1-2). In fact, an alliance with the world and its system is viewed by God as paramount to treason (James 4:4).
So what is the balance here, and how should believers in Christ respond to human government? The answer to these questions is found in the concept of citizenship. In Philippians 3:20 Paul makes a strong statement concerning the believer’s world view and governmental allegiance when he says, “for our citizenship is in heaven.” He says a similar thing to the Ephesians (Eph. 2:19). Conversely, Christians are said to be “aliens and strangers” in the world (1 Pet. 2:11— NAS), which implies that their geographical location is temporary and transient. Even the promised land was viewed by Abraham as being a temporary arrangement in which he lived “as an alien… as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents” because “he was looking for the city… whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:9-10— NAS). In other words, as the old song put it, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”
On the other hand, believers are encouraged by God to show respect to earthly governments. Peter says “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Pet. 2:13—NAS). Paul put it this way, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1— NAS), and Jesus simply said, “Render… unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21). Wherever Christians live in the world, they are to be obedient to and supportive of their governmental authority. Germans should be good Germans and Russians should be good Russians. As believers in Christ however, both Germans and Russians are to give their true and ultimate allegiance to the Kingdom of Christ.
I have often had opportunity to travel out of the United States. I have been in both Canada and Mexico, several countries of the Middle East, numerous European countries, and the little Caribbean nation of Haiti. In every case I have been conscious of my obligation to be subservient to the laws of each country and to comply with their cultural expectations. I pay their fees and tolls, and I contribute to their economy by spending my money there. But I have never thought of those places as home, and when I was there I always looked forward to going home. In like fashion my citizenship is in heaven, and I look forward one day to going home. In the meantime I respect proper governmental authority, pay my taxes, and pray for peace. I am not of this world, but I am in it.
Influence for Godliness
Recently Dr. Ed Dobson (Pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan) and Cal Thomas (prolific Christian writer) teamed up to write a book entitled Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America. In this book it is argued that the church’s desire to influence politics for the purpose of effecting social and moral reform has been misdirected. “Study the teachings of Jesus,” they write, “and you will discover that he never intended his disciples to claim or reclaim nations for himself” (p. 170). Their point is that the real power of the church is to see people’s lives changed through the preaching of the Gospel, which in turn will have a profound influence on society. It is not the power of politics, they insist, but the power of changed lives by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that will transform a culture. External reform must never be equated with internal transformation. And without internal transformation, there is no true societal change. Only the Gospel can change the heart.
You see, a Christian in politics is wonderful—but the church with a political agenda is unbiblical. As individuals, we have a personal responsibility to vote and to be influential in the world for good; but the church’s responsibility is to influence individuals for the cause of Christ. Paul also tells us that we should pray for government leaders in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim. 2:1-2—KJV). In other words, we should not be indifferent or unconcerned. Having a positive influence for godliness is always high on our priority list. But mobilizing pastors and churches to engage the political process for moral change, and million man marches on the capital have had little effect on the overall decline of our culture.
After Bill Clinton was impeached for moral failure, 70% of the people in America still affirmed him as an effective president (Blinded by Might, Dobson & Thomas, p. 46). Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas were both active leaders in the Moral Majority and, by their own admission, the influence of that movement when viewed over the long haul, was limited and short-lived. Think of it. Jesus certainly influenced Pilate (the Procurator was very nervous in Jesus’ presence), but He didn’t change him, nor did He change the Governor’s view of the Jewish people. Herod was even less impressed. Paul had King Agrippa’s ear and almost persuaded him (Acts 26:28), but that never truly altered anything with regard to public policy, let alone the King’s eternal destiny. It is true that the church has had an influence for good in many cultures over the centuries, but that has come more from the preaching of the Gospel than from being mobilized as a political force.
The church’s business is evangelism and spiritual influence for godly living. God never intended, however, that the Body of Christ would be a political structure in the nations of the world. On the other hand, as Christians get involved in everything from education, to business, to local and federal government, their biblical perspective will certainly have an influence on the system.
In Response to the Election
So what does all of this have to do with electing a new American president? I am writing this article prior to the November election, but by the time you read it we may already know the outcome. And regardless of who won the election, there will be Christians on both sides of the liberal/conservative spectrum who will be either elated or disappointed. I know for whom I will vote and I have strong feelings about the desired outcome. But that is not the point.
Regardless of whether our government is Democratic or Republican or Independent, my place in the American system will not change. The environment of our culture may alter for better or for worse, but I am still a child of God working and praying for the Kingdom of Christ. My hope is not in George W. Bush or Al Gore (or John McCain or Barack Obama), it is in Jesus Christ, “the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15).
I will pray for our governmental leaders, pay my taxes, and obey the laws of the land. But I am not of the notion, nor ever have been, that politics is the means of godliness. I will continue to preach the Gospel and seek to influence men and women for the cause of Christ as the priority of my life.
So I tolerate politics and endure society, but I remain truly excited about my commitment to the Kingdom of Christ. May God bless America—but if not, my hope remains vibrant in the coming of my Lord. ■