The Institutional Church and Politics

There’s a lack of clear thinking among Christians and even pastors about the church’s role, especially as it relates to social issues.

In a very helpful chapter in Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) Michael Horton walks through recent examples of liberal and conservative church bodies weighing in on specifics of public policy – “everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to farm policy;” immigration, NAFTA, economic issues, global warming, etc…  Then he writes:

Since any number of secular NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) currently exist to lobby for precisely the same policies, why do churches believe it is within their area of expertise, much less their official mandate, to offer pronouncements in God’s name on these issues?  Why not allow their members to pursue the general human calling to public justice through these common grace institutions alongside non-Christians?  Why must denominations commit their entire membership to very specific policies while often leaving matters of doctrine and worship more ambiguous and open-ended?

Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work, yet it is interesting that in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished it but Christians who had been shaped by the church’s ministry and held public office in the state….

I often wonder how American history might have turned out differently if the churches in the South had disciplined members who held slaves.  In other words, if the churches had simply followed their own mandate of preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and exercising discipline and care for the well-being of their flock.  Would not the institution have lost its moral credibility even outside of the church?  Both Northern and Southern churches had reduced slavery merely to a political issue when they should have done what only churches can do: proclaim God’s judgment upon the kidnapping and forced labor of fellow human beings and excommunicate members who refused to repent of the practice.  At the same time, church members could have exercised their moral conscience in deciding for themselves how best to abolish the institution in courts and legislatures.

….

The church as an institution appointed by Christ has a narrow mandate with global significance.  Individual Christians, however, have as many mandates as they do callings: as parents, children, extended relatives, neighbors, coworkers, and so on.  In addition to loving and serving each other in the fellowship of saints, believers are enjoined ‘to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one’ (1 Thess. 4:11-12).  It may not sound as grand as creating a global trading policy or ushering in the kingdom by driving out the ‘Romans’ (whether Democrats or Republicans) in the next election, but it is the proper kind of discipleship for this phase of Christ’s rule: the kingdom of grace, which only at Christ’s return will be a kingdom of glory.

So getting the church to mind its own business and get its own house in order is not a call to passivity in the face of injustice, unrighteousness, and oppression.  Especially when dominant churches have succumbed to civil religion, their repentance has enormous significance in the wider society.  Even where it does not have that kind of effect, however, the church’s repentance is always God’s call.  Christians can always have a broader impact in their callings than the church as an institution with its restricted mandate.  Even so, a church that fully exercises its commission is a potent source of genuine transformation, forming a new society within the secular city that is nevertheless completely distinct from it (214-16).

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