I recently did a survey of large Free Churches on the issue of how they handle politics and our faith. The following is a white paper prepared by Valley Church of West Des Moines, IA. Since Iowa is so cruicial to presidential politics, this issue has received particular attention from Valley Church. I have found their thoughts and position on the matter helpful. Though it is somewhat lengthy, I hope it proves to be a blessing to you.
The Church as Salt and Light
The Lord's Command: Jesus said to his followers: "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:13-16)
Observations and Affirmations:
1. Salt and light: God's Word clearly declares that Christians individually and the church corporately are called to serve as a preservative from decay (salt) and as a guide to truth (light) in their respective cultures and settings. Clearly, God does call us to pray for our leaders, to be responsible citizens, to be change agents in society, and to not forget that we are called to carry out many social responsibilities as Christians and as a church.
2. Different approaches: Christians and churches have (often legitimate) differences of opinions, convictions, goals, priorities, approaches, and strategies concerning how to engage and influence their culture to the glory of God. God has honored many different approaches, as seen in biblical examples and church history.
3. Need for wisdom: Great wisdom is needed to determine the specific calling on an individual's life and ministry, as well as a particular church's calling and ministry.
4. God's calling: God may call different individuals and churches to differing kinds of involvement, priorities, and methods. We should, as far as the Scriptures and conscience allow, show respect to God's specific calling on that individual or church. Christian charity, respect, patience, and gentleness require that, as we develop our own biblically-based convictions, we give others the freedom to do the same. Where we find common ground, we can work together. Where we find differences, we agree to disagree agreeably.
Valley Church's Vision and Guiding Principles Vision: The church's primary vision is to help people become wholehearted followers of Christ. This vision is in line with the Great Commission given by Jesus Christ: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:19,20)
Certain guiding principles explain our core values and ministry philosophy. Specifically, the following two of our guiding principles shed light on the issue of being salt and light in culture: Outreach should be at the heart of all the church does. Like the heart, it drives the Body, and provides nourishment and vitality. We desire to reach as many as possible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are focused outward, not inward (Acts 8:1-4; 2 Timothy 4:1-5). It is our goal to penetrate our community by presenting the good news of Christ and by demonstrating love to the needs of the whole person (spiritual, physical, emotional, relational, material, etc.). The integrity and love of Christians opens the door for authentic communication of the good news to those who do not yet know Christ. (Matthew 5:13-16; James 2:14-17).
Valley Church's Approach to Salt and Light Issues: Given our vision and guiding principles, the church will engage in salt and light involvement in our culture with certain priorities and strategies. The principles that follow represent our primary, though not exclusive, involvements.
1. We make a distinction between "the church gathered" (the visible Body of Christ gathered in public assembly) and "the church dispersed" (individual members of the Body of Christ dispersed into their daily activities). Clearly, God calls "the church dispersed" to fulfill many responsibilities (e.g. civic, social, political, armed forces, police, business, etc.) as individuals that he does not call "the church gathered" to fulfill. For example, God may call an individual Christian to become a member of the armed forces. But God does not call the church as a whole to armed conflict. (The remaining explanation of the church's approach to salt and light issue refers to "the church gathered.")
2. The highest priorities of the church in relation to the culture are the proclamation of biblical truth(evangelism and discipleship) and the demonstration of Christian love (compassion and service). It is our desire to avoid goals and methods that undermine these highest priorities.
3. Evangelism and discipleship are accomplished by many methods, including prayer, preaching, Biblestudy, personal witnessing, mentoring, apologetics, and practical training in the Christian life. The church must also teach and proclaim biblical truth regarding issues facing the culture. Examples include: abortion, euthanasia, bio-medical ethics, marriage, divorce and remarriage, sexual ethics, financial stewardship, violence, racial reconciliation, poverty, hunger, education, war, gender issues, and others. The goal in this instruction is to fully equip believers with a biblical worldview, so that they can interact in society with truth, godliness, integrity, compassion, and love. The presence of fully devoted followersof Christ in the society insures the fulfillment of Jesus' call to be salt and light.
4. Compassion and service are accomplished by many methods, including: our highest calling: to pray for all people, including those in positions of authority; personal acts of kindness, love, compassion, generosity, reconciliation and service; compassion and service ministries aimed at helping the poor, the abandoned, the widow, the orphan, the bereaved, the sick, the imprisoned, the unloved and unlovable, the estranged, the hated, the homeless, the hungry, the troubled, the broken, the sinful, the abused, the neglected, and all who need to experience a human demonstration of the love of the Savior, Jesus Christ. The opportunities for these kinds of ministries are limitless in our needy, broken, fallen world.
The Horse and the Cart: Let's say that the horse represents evangelism and discipleship and the cart represents compassion and service. Churches today may fall into any of the following four general categories.
1. "The cart but no horse" church. There are churches who pursue social action, compassion ministries, acts of service and kindness, but who ignore sharing the gospel and helping people to grow in Christ through biblical instruction. There are thousands of churches in America who perform many acts of kindness, but the good news of personal salvation through Christ is no longer believed or shared. When this happens (and it has happened often), the church no longer really is a church, but merely a religious social service agency.
2. "The cart before the horse" church. There are churches who do believe in evangelism and discipleship. But they so emphasize social service and action that the biblical priorities of evangelism and discipleship are either neglected or obscured. This dangerous practice can occur in evangelical and Bible-teaching churches. For example, some evangelical churches have so emphasized political action and legislative priorities that non-Christians identify the church with a certain political party or movement. Right wing politics become a barrier to the unbeliever hearing the good news of Christ. By its socio-political emphasis, the church alienates the very people it is called to reach! Paul said, "I resolved to know nothing among you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified." We must commit ourselves to never obscure the gospel by our social or political statements or actions.
3. "The horse but no cart" church. This kind of church preaches Christ and Christian discipleship, but completely ignores Christ's call to compassion and service to our neighbors. This church is suspicious of anyone who talks about social involvement, because they fear theological liberalism and apostasy or perhaps just spiritual drift. This suspicion is unfortunate because both the Bible and church history are replete with examples of believers who were engaged in cultural issues and who kept their biblical moorings.
4. "The horse and the cart" church. This kind of church is what we desire to be. We recognize the primacyof evangelism and discipleship. But we also believe that we must meet the needs of the whole person (spiritual, physical, emotional, relational, material). Evangelism/discipleship ministries and compassion/service ministries go hand in hand. In fact, they both foster growth for one another. Both are necessary. Both are attractive. Both are biblical. At Valley Church, we desire to greatly expand our ministries in both of these areas.
The Uneasy Relationship Between the Church and Political Involvement:
A special case arises when we talk about the church and its involvement in political issues. Admittedly,the topic is gigantic in scope, controversial in nature, and divisive at times. Nevertheless, the following comments can serve to help explain the posture that Valley Church has taken since its inception in this difficult and sensitive area.
1. Governments are ordained by God primarily for the securing of freedoms, protection of citizens, and punishment of evildoers. The ruler is called "a servant of God" because he fulfills a God-ordained role. It is a noble calling and one in which individual Christians, though not the church as a whole, may serve with God's approval.
2. Christians must remember that ultimately our citizenship is in heaven, that we are aliens and strangers in this world, and that Jesus' kingdom is not of this world. At the same time, we are called to be good and responsible citizens, obedient to the laws of the state, and we may exercise (within biblical parameters) the privileges that our earth-bound citizenship may offer us. We are clearly called to be submissive to the governing authorities, except in the case when it conflicts with clear biblical commands.
3. The church's primary role in relation to culture is to make disciples of Jesus Christ (evangelism and discipleship). This is the highest form of love for our neighbor. We are also called as a church to show compassion, justice, and service within our communities. The church must reclaim these important responsibilities which we have largely abdicated to our government.
4. We distinguish between "the church gathered" as a Body and "the church dispersed" as individuals (see earlier comments). Individual believers may be called to serve in political roles and that is a noble calling. Individual Christians are also encouraged to be involved in political action and service, to vote, and to lovingly express their convictions in political discussions and forums.
5. For reasons of priorities, wisdom, missionary-sensitivity, and biblical unity, Valley Church is not active in a public, direct, political activity. Of course, the church must proclaim openly God's Word on (sometimes unpopular or controversial) subjects that may have a political dimension to them. But this proclamation of the Word is not the same as direct political involvement or confrontation. It is not the same as attempting to directly influence specific legislation or endorsing candidates or parties. These activities are ones we do not pursue. Sometimes, it may even be legally permissible to do so. But wisdom dictates a more careful, nuanced approach.
6. In its proclamation on controversial subjects that may have political dimensions, the church must be careful to present thoroughly biblical positions. Sometimes, the tendency is for churches to align themselves with a particular party or candidate, and uncritically accept their positions as the Christian position. We must resist this tendency.
7. We must realize the lack of consensus on many political issues, even among Bible-believing Christians. We must have the humility and courage to admit and recognize that our political positions are shaped not only by the Bible, but by our culture, personal experience and background, nationality, race, and more. We need to be sensitive to other Christians who may differ with us on political issues, and not make it a test of fellowship. We must also distinguish between a biblical command/principle and one's personal application of that biblical command/principle. Sometimes, Christians will quote a Scripture and then say: "That's why we must do this or that." But not all Christians may see that application. Or they may see it in a different way. Or God may simply call them to fulfill the command/principle in a completelydifferent (often non-political) way.
8. The church must never obscure the cross of Christ, nor put stumbling blocks before unbelievers. Thus, we must be extremely careful not to make it even appear that being a Christian means to hold to a certain political persuasion or position. Many churches have unwittingly done this very thing. To do so is a serious offense in the eyes of God.
9. The church should always present positive and compassionate alternatives to the world, rather than merely condemning ungodly behavior. We must present "a better idea" and back it up with compassionate action. This is irresistible influence.
10. The church must resist the temptation to believe that revival and awakening will come through political action. Government simply does not serve this function in God's plan. Many evangelical Christians have over-inflated the importance of politics. This tendency becomes clear when people make their political convictions just as important or more important than their theological convictions. Or when we believe that electing the right President, or getting the right Supreme Court Justice, or passing the right legislation will solve the ills of the world. Though these things are not unimportant, they do not bring ultimate change to human hearts and do not change the eternal destination of a single soul. In fact, such an undue emphasis may lead to a false sense of morality and security among unbelievers. It leads to a deadly and nominal civil religion that has some trappings of biblical morality, but lacks the power of a relationship with Christ.
11. The church must also resist the tendency to become hostile, mean-spirited, and self-righteous in its presentation of a biblical worldview. We must love and bless our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We must resist our selfish tendency to want to reclaim a biblical morality for our nation solely for our own comfort and enjoyment. Instead, we must be motivated by brokenness over our own sin and the world's sin and plead with God for mercy and forgiveness and restoration.
12. We must also realize that much of the Christian morality that once existed in our nation (but now does not) was first established because the vast majority of the people held to a Christian worldview. But nowadays, the vast majority of the people do not hold to a Christian worldview. Thus, attempts to change the morality without first changing the heart and the worldview will end in failure. The greatest need in our nation today is for individuals to hear and believe the good news of Jesus Christ. People need the Lord.