*Editor’s Note: It can be difficult knowing how to navigate both being a disciple of Jesus and having strong political convictions which put you at odds with political convictions of other Christians. How do you have political preferences without them crowding out, or coopting, your main allegiance to Jesus? In this article, two senior church leaders wrestle with these questions, especially from the perspective of church leaders trying to lead congregations to greater faithfulness to Jesus amid political factions within the church.
A person’s “religion” is a system of beliefs and practices which lead a person to transcendence and give the person meaning. The political extremes have become our nation’s new religions.
The book of Revelation describes a fearsome political power that is established on earth, but the power behind it is Satan (Rev. 13:1-4). It is a political empire, but it is ultimately religious. Through John’s Holy Spirit-inspired words, we learn that the people of his day actually turn and worship this political empire (13:4).
Worship a political empire? Yep. It’s a good thing that nothing like that would happen in our day and age, right? We might be tempted to believe that. The trouble is that the last few years have provided us with ample evidence that the scene from Revelation 13 may be playing itself out again—and this time John isn’t the only one with a front row seat.
I (Bobby) find John’s description helpful because I am hearing more and more people ascribing religious zeal to their political positions. There are progressives with woke ideologies which they present as inviolable and sacred, as well as conservatives who are sounding increasingly militant and even theocratic, as they call for a political, legislative return of our nation to God as the only way to save the civilization. Both groups of people on the political extremes describe the existential crisis with a fervor you would think would be reserved for religious matters.
“I am hearing more and more people ascribing religious zeal to their political positions.”
Both sides are convinced that theirs is a life-and-death, global-existential cause, as the problems from the other side mean certain cataclysmic destruction. If we don’t act now, all will be lost. If there’s any hope to be found, it’s in placing hope in our side.
In the ancient words of Athanasius, “Contra mundum.” We disagree.
In lieu of pursuing the way of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, some Christians have practically come up with their own religions—political religions that they embrace with all the conviction and zeal and urgency a religion could ever ask for. We believe this zeal is misplaced and the priorities of either extreme serve as diversions that distract us from the real mission of the Church. Instead of acting as unifying agents, rallying the Church around making disciples of Jesus Christ who embrace him as Lord and King, these polarizing emphases have served to drive wedges between Christians based upon their political convictions. Political convictions are inevitable, but they do not have to become our religions. For followers of Jesus, they must not become our religions.
“Instead of acting as unifying agents, these polarizing emphases have served to drive wedges between Christians based upon their political convictions.”
As we move forward, it will be helpful to attempt to categorize a couple main sides of the political extremes that show up in the convictions of those who join our Christian assemblies each week. To do so, we will borrow from labels that many are currently using, but for the sake of our article, we want to make sure these terms are well-defined. In doing so, we will also try to draw some first-century parallels which will help us explain why neither extreme of the political spectrum provides a true solution to the deepest problems we see in the culture around us.
Those in our churches who have gone hard to the political left typically embrace Critical Theory (Critical Race Theory, Critical Gender Theory, Critical Queer Theory, etc.) and intersectional feminism, and they use these ideologies to frame their theology. This way of looking at the world has led many to believe that they possess a special and unique knowledge (see Standpoint Theory).
They are awake to the truth, which, instead of being defined as “what corresponds to reality” in general, is defined more particularly in reference to the lived experiences of oppressed people.
Others remain asleep to what is really happening in the world as well as to the enlightened insight that is available. Accordingly, this group of awake people has often been referred to as “woke.”
Woke theology reads the Bible through a lens that seeks to understand how we can use it to help oppressed people, even if that means reinterpreting it to mean something other than its original meaning. Verses traditionally used to say that homosexual acts are sinful are reinterpreted. Verses traditionally used to affirm the gender binary (male and female) are reinterpreted. Verses traditionally used to say that all people, regardless of oppressor-oppressed status, are equally made in God’s image and are worthy of respect are reinterpreted. Voices of traditionally oppressed people are given priority, where their views of truth and justice are centered, even taking precedence over biblical authority. This is because they are the ones uniquely positioned to know truth.
“Woke theology reads the Bible through a lens that seeks to understand how we can use it to help oppressed people, even if that means reinterpreting it to mean someone other than its original meaning.”
Because of the insistence upon a uniquely possessed special knowledge—one that allows them alone to clearly see the truth of the world—we might compare these 21st century progressives—known as intersectional feminists, critical/grievance theorists, “wokeists,” etc.—to the early Gnostics of the first and second centuries. These Gnostics—whose name comes from the Greek word for knowledge—believed they possessed secret information about the way the world worked and who Jesus really was, and that human beings could move toward perfection by discovering this secret knowledge.
While no parallel is perfect, it is interesting that, due to the special knowledge most of these progressives believe they possess, they believe that a redemption of sorts will come about once the sleeping population is better informed. The similarities to false beliefs of first and second century Gnosticism are, at minimum, interesting.
We believe as well that, just as the early leaders of the Church pushed strongly against the beliefs of the early Gnostics (1 Tim. 6:20-21; Col. 2:8; and Rev. 2:5-6), leaders within today’s Church need to push back against many of the claims of the woke left. Christians who go this direction are in danger of reinterpreting, or downright rejecting, what the Bible teaches about sin and salvation in general, as well as issues such as forgiveness, gender, sexuality, and the image of God being stamped on all humans. Woke theology quickly becomes its own religion, placing the majority of its hope in political change. As we say repeatedly: we must prioritize Jesus Christ, his gospel, and his kingdom and his disciple making mission.
“We must prioritize Jesus Christ, his gospel, and his kingdom and his disciple making mission.”
At the same time, there is an equal danger to the right that is also fast becoming a false religion.
When society becomes more secular and public faith becomes more marginalized, it’s natural to want a return to when Christianity had more public influence over the culture. However, we take a wrong turn when we start treating the US as if it had some kind of covenant relationship with God, akin to a new Israel. It may seem like it would be a fast track to national revival if we could just reclaim a Christian status of sorts and elect Christian leaders to federal office, but what we would get instead of revival is an America-first civil religion very different from the global disciple making community created by Jesus. When people are optimistically wide-eyed about America being a version of “theocracy” (rule by God), they forget that the church throughout history has been at its worst when trying to force people, through the power of the sword, to follow Jesus. Such a theocratic enterprise isn’t Christianity; it’s its own religion.
“Such a theocratic enterprise isn’t Christianity; it’s its own religion.”
A term that gets thrown around a lot is “Christian nationalism.” Some use this term almost as a smear to discourage basically any political involvement by Christians. Others use this term more carefully and helpfully (as we hope to do; see below). Still others have decided to proudly claim the term as something which describes their attempt to bring the US into a more Christian mold.
Insofar as “Christian nationalism” seeks to exaggerate the US’s Christian heritage and wield that exaggerated heritage to bring about national revival, we are very concerned about its influence. Those advocating it lean toward seizing political power, even at the sacrifice of Christ-like character. They are quick to draw lines that act as boundaries declaring who is officially in and who is out. And perhaps most significantly, anyone who marries Christian faith with a particular political party and platform is going to spend a great deal of time focusing on the externals, while often missing the importance of inner change/transformation.
Here’s a functional definition of Christian nationalism that I (Paul) have been using:
Christian nationalism operates upon the belief that a nation should and can be saved—and a people reformed—as the direct result of legislative policy interventions, as distinguished from (and sometimes opposed to) the organic and relational movement of the gospel through discipleship and personal disciple-making.
“..the belief that a nation should and can be saved—and a people reformed—as the direct result of legislative policy interventions…”
By relying upon legislative initiatives, Christian nationalists show they are often willing to settle for a pseudo-Christian veneer, which at best provides an illusion of collective God-honoring behavior. In other words, there may be some comfort derived from the practice of enforcing godly behavior because it can generate the belief that cultural Christianity is alive and well. But this is only an illusion. Think of the words of the prophet Isaiah (Is. 29:13, NIV), also repeated by Jesus in Matthew 15,
“These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”
In these ways and others, today’s Christian nationalists have much in common with the first century’s Judaizing teachers.
The Judaizing teachers were concerned with externals of Jewish culture and tradition and desired to bind those on Gentile Christian converts—even though these traditions were not at all central to what it meant to follow Jesus. They drew lines that God clearly had not drawn and were harsh in their judgments of others who were not called to honor those same lines.
“They drew lines that God clearly had not drawn and were harsh in their judgments of others.”
They created a false picture of what true faithfulness to God looked like and insisted that others meet their expectations. These Judaizing teachers were strongly condemned (Gal. 2:11-14; 5:1-6), even though they were clearly zealous in their pursuit of God.
Similarly, Christian nationalists of our day imply that as long as we have the right laws and customs in place, we can largely ignore the wickedness within our own hearts—as well as in the hearts of the national leaders we approve of.
Again, it is Jesus Christ, the gospel of his kingdom, and the pursuit of being disciples and making disciples to which we need to return.
While each of us might be tempted to be more sympathetic to items on either the menu of woke leftists or Christian nationalists, the best we can say about these two groups is that they both can land on ethically honorable policies from time to time. For example, we are strongly pro-life in our view of abortion. Therefore, we align with those Republicans who hold this view. We can also be sympathetic to views many on the left hold as they pertain to the need to care about the oppressed and to steward the planet well. There is a kingdom ethic at work behind wanting to ensure that no one is treated as a lesser person because of skin color or cultural identification and that the environment is stewarded sustainably.
“The best we can say about these two groups is that they both can land on ethically honorable policies from time to time.”
Having said that, both parties, and many times the Christians who align themselves with their respective ideologies, stand for policies and often support candidates we find ourselves unable to back—because we are committed, first and foremost, to following the way of Jesus.
A Proposal for Kingdom Allegiance
At this point in the article, you might be ready to pushback: So, are Bobby and Paul saying that I can’t be a rightist or a leftist, but I need to somehow be in the middle? And are they suggesting that being politically engaged and following Jesus wholeheartedly are incompatible?
No and no, but we’re glad you asked. It’s true that political convictions can supplant God in your mind and heart, especially when those convictions directly challenge God’s Word (e.g., many tenets of woke theology) or confuse God’s kingdom with the American government (e.g., many tendencies of Christian nationalism). But what about when you have political convictions that are truly for society’s good—as a disciple of Jesus, do you need to drop those convictions? Not at all.
But the nature of politics, right or left, is to grow in importance to where it dictates your deepest hopes and fears. Left unchecked, it will claim your ultimate allegiance.
“Left unchecked, it will claim your ultimate allegiance.”
So it’s a matter of emphasis. Which do you believe in your gut has the best chance of lifting up the oppressed and restoring them to wholeness—the kingdom of God or leftist policies? In a similar way, we may ask, which do you truly believe is better equipped to draw our nation back from the precipice of a godless future—seeking the kingdom of God or electing rightist politicians?
If we want to see a major turn in this nation—the kind that calls people to return to God— we’re going to have to go out and reach people and call them to the true ways of Jesus. It is going to require a revival where we will see people turning, in heart, mind, soul, and strength, back to true discipleship. When the masses truly come back to Jesus, then they will turn, by way of repentance, from the false religions of the day, including idols on the left or the right. Then, and only then, will the core philosophies in our institutions, schools, business, and social media outlets change. True cultural change is a steady process; not a matter of an election or two. For more background on this point, read The Long March Through the Institutions of Society.
We believe God’s plan “A” for the world is redemption through disciple making in the local church.
That’s right. We believe the place we need to focus our attention and efforts is the Church. Strong Spirit-fueled, Jesus-following churches create strong people, which create strong families, which help create healthy schools, communities, local governments, and national governments.
“We believe the place we need to focus our attention and efforts is the church.”
We really do believe that it has to start with the local church. And even if there is no mass revival on the horizon, this is still the way we’re going to glorify God as a faithful remnant.
Disengage from politics? No, although if we are to truly love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we may need to unplug from some of the seductive sway of significance that politics can hold over us. We should be setting our sights on the target Jesus gave us in the Great Commission: leading individuals to come to know Jesus, his salvation, and joining together to create a new humanity of people being transformed into his image.
We believe that his original mission remains…and it is the greatest mission on planet earth!