By Ben Cachiaras
Over the last two years I have listened to pastors and witnessed churches across the country share sad stories. They tell of congregations splitting, longtime members leaving, and pastors getting fired. I’ve seen tight-knit small groups blow apart, families feud, and longtime friendships abruptly end.
Has this happened primarily because of major scandal in the church or moral failure? Or was it false doctrine—a refusal to recognize the divinity of Christ? Or perhaps a mishandling of Scripture?
No. It was politics.
We can barely even discuss politics anymore. We polarize over every issue, demonize those with differing viewpoints, and categorize everyone with unkind labels we learn from our favorite news channel. Everyone seems politicked off. And no one is ever wrong; it’s always the other guy—the enemy who is ruining our country, an idiotic fool who must not be tolerated. The only reason some of you are reading this is to see if you agree with me.
We’ve long known that those rejecting Christianity—and the trend becomes more acute with each generation—cite our overinvolvement in politics as one of the biggest turnoffs. The perception that we care more about our partisan ideology than biblical theology and have fashioned a Jesus in our own likeness is hard to shake. The world we’re sent to reach with the good news is often seen running the other way, not because they can’t accept the claims of Jesus, but because they can’t swallow the politics of those who claim to follow him.
But these days, politics isn’t just driving away the lost, it’s driving wedges among the saved. Perhaps now is a good time to find our balance between spiritual devotion and political fervor. How do we navigate the stormy waters churning around us?
Some Christians are so annoyed and apprehensive they have distanced themselves completely from anything remotely resembling a social issue, convinced it’s better to “plead the Fifth.” I understand this impulse. Who wants to nervously broach thorny subjects only to be misunderstood, misquoted, and mistreated? I don’t want to preach wearing a bulletproof vest.
But those who avoid all political discussions and engagement essentially are casting a vote for the status quo. Some churches in the 19th century didn’t speak out against slavery for the same reason. But they actually were supporting slavery, because sometimes “not talking about politics” is very political. Joseph and Daniel held important posts in pagan governments, and we too can work for better treatment of the poor, ending racial inequity, or providing better schools.
Seeking to avoid getting dirty in the messiness of the real world does not reflect how Jesus lived and served. When huge issues dominate every news report and conversation, a church that never speaks to those issues or helps its people frame a biblical worldview—whether concerning the election, racial tensions, abortion, immigration, or what have you—is a church teaching a faith that doesn’t apply to our lives. It misunderstands the way Jesus subverted the powers. Avoidance is irrelevance.
But there is a monumental difference between Christians being involved in political issues and Christians being identified by their political position. Our larger problem today isn’t that too many Christians are unconcerned with political matters; it’s that too many of us are consumed by them.
So, what’s the problem with too much politics in our churches, pulpits, and classrooms?
IT DISTORTS OUR IDENTITY
Paul said, “for to me, to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). He identified himself as a servant of Christ. His identity was found completely in the Lord Jesus, and he said it’s the same for us.
We may be persuaded by a political viewpoint. But when it becomes our worldview and shapes our reading of Scripture and view of reality, we can forget we are children of God, set apart, to be holy as God is holy. Are we more confident in our political positions than our identity in Christ? Are you primarily a Republican or Democrat who happens to be a Christian? Or are you primarily a Christian who happens to be a Republican or Democrat? If you believe God has all the same opinions as your political party, you probably are not worshipping God. And your identity has been stolen.
My eye doctor told me I had cataracts, but she could put in new lenses to permanently affect how I see everything. Now, when I look at your face, I see you through those lenses. When I look out the windshield, in the mirror, at the TV news channel—everything I see, I see through those lenses.
Followers of Jesus have surrendered their eyeballs to the Lord Jesus. We acknowledge sin has clouded our vision and we welcome the new worldview lenses he provides. The mind of Christ dwells in us, and we now are new creatures. The old has gone and the new has come, so “from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16). Our identity in Christ changes how we see everything and everyone.
Unless, that is, we are so caught up in a political ideology that it becomes our primary identity, and we ask the Scriptures and God to bend into its mold.
During high school, when I was leaving the house for an evening with friends, my mother would sometimes say, “Remember who you are!” Remember your family name. Remember your identity in Christ. It’s time for us to remember who we are, because Jesus hopes when people look at us, they will see him.
IT DIVIDES OUR BODY
In John 17, Jesus prayed that we would be one. So, anything that divides us is working against God’s will. The current climate that tells us to make enemies of those who disagree with us drives us apart. And the COVID-19 pandemic only seemed to make matters worse.
Paul spoke to wildly divergent groups of Jews and Gentiles; he celebrated that, by means of the cross, Christ “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Sadly, we have erected new divisive walls of hostility. When we glom together in sociological groups that mirror the political gatherings the world offers, we lose the beautiful diversity that Christ intends for the church and which we will enjoy in heaven. We also lose a tremendous ability to convince anyone that Jesus has power to bring real change to the real world. If the gospel is not powerful enough to break down the dividing walls of hostility between Republican Christians and Democratic Christians, what good is it?
If I hang out only with people who agree with me on everything, it seriously impedes my ability to know, love, and value people who are different from me. If my version of the gospel does not include loving my enemies, it’s not Jesus’ gospel.
We tribalize and cannibalize the body of Christ when we cling demandingly to our politics. It’s time to remember we are one.
IT DESTROYS OUR WITNESS
The rise of the “nones” (those who say they have no religious affiliation—the fastest-growing religious group in America) and the “dones” (those who have exited the church, often disillusioned) has ties to this politicizing habit of some Christians. Like it or not, we are viewed by many as being pawns in the hip pocket of the party. The result is a generation with many who want nothing to do with Christianity. The problem isn’t Jesus or Christ’s church. It’s just that people often don’t get exposed to either one because of the political roadblocks unwittingly strewn behind.
Jason Price wrote in Christianity Today, “The Christ-centered trait that evangelicals most need in the political arena (and on social media) is . . . meekness.” But showing humility on social media in a time of extreme political divisiveness will require us to subordinate our own political passions and rights in order to preserve our witness for Jesus Christ to our unbelieving friends.
If, by engaging in (often needless) political debates on social media or in person, your neighbors and friends primarily identify you by your politics, you may have unintentionally lost or severely diminished your Christian witness.
The current social climate tends to bring out aggressiveness in people. It is evident among Christians on social media who insist they are right before first weighing whether it is wise or helpful to say it. Can we choose to subordinate our political opinions so we can prioritize our witness?
J.D. Greear said, “I might be wrong in my opinion on universal healthcare, or I might be wrong in my opinions on global warming, but I’m not wrong about the gospel, and I don’t want to let my opinions on the former ever keep people from hearing me on the latter. And it means that I show a restraint about talking about certain things that I think I’m right about.”
It’s time to remember who is watching and strengthen our witness.
IT DISTRACTS FROM OUR MISSION
In City Slickers, the character played by Jack Palance held up a single finger and talked about the one thing that’s important in life. Jesus has given us the one thing that towers above all other priorities: Seek first the kingdom of God. Make disciples of all nations. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we get caught up in making everything political, we forget we have much larger priorities.
When we dabble in the political realm to a distracting degree, it pulls focus and energy off mission. When I see pastors repeatedly post political pronouncements, I wonder if they realize their political views likely are what they are known for. You can have only one main thing.
Why should church leaders refrain from taking a public stance for a candidate or aligning with a party or political position? Because we are weak and timid, afraid of standing up for truth? No. Because we don’t believe Christians should have a political opinion? No. Because we don’t want to lose our tax-exempt status? Again, no! Because we hate conflict or can’t stomach debate? No. Because there are no issues of justice important enough to weigh in on? No!
The reason churches should not align with a candidate or partisan perspective is because we have been given a much higher calling. And we must not do anything that prevents us from executing our God-given mission. I’m a Christian and a pastor. If I make it clear I’m a “Trump guy” or a “Biden guy,” I have immediately forfeited my ability to represent Christ to anyone who disagrees with me politically. That puts Jesus in the background, and everyone who disagrees with me on the opposing side. I become merely one more droning voice among many, blending in with the news cycle rather than standing out as a proclaimer of God’s good news.
Christians aren’t called to have their primary focus on gun rights, border issues, abortion legislation, or even religious freedom. Some will contend, “But those things are important!” Yes, they are. I’m not saying they are unimportant, I’m asking, What is your main thing? If some Christians were as excited about the mission of Christ as they are about their politics, we would have a revival.
Paul said, “This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1). We are stewards of the mystery. We don’t own it—we just share it. And nothing is to get in the way of this. Only one thing can truly change the world, and that’s Jesus. God has placed the gospel in our hands. We are not free to empty our hands of it to take up another tool.
Like it or not, a watching world is largely disgusted with what they believe to be our politics. We must not compromise on the all-important mission Jesus gave us by aligning with the left or right, liberals or conservatives, in a way that sends people on an off-ramp instead of on the road to Jesus. When someone comes through the doors of your church, they do not need to know where you stand on various issues; they need to know where they stand with Christ. They need Jesus. He is the only source of healing and hope for the people of this country. It’s time to remember the main thing and stay focused on our mission.
Ben Cachiaras serves as lead pastor at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland.