On being an outsider at church

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

Jesus – Luke 12:51

After my last post, my brother told me he is glad politics isn’t mentioned in his church – he would hate to feel isolated because his political views might not match those of other members of the congregation. My pastor tries not to be political and he rarely mentions politics in his sermons. Where I have been exposed to political views of the congregation is in my small group or koinonia. I have been in two groups so far and in both, I have found my political views to be at odds with others in the group. When politics is discussed, I feel like an outsider, like I am not following the same Christ. How can I have real fellowship and unity of purpose with Christians who are not like-minded?

My first small group met in the home of a member of the church, a woman who has served as a deacon. It was a great group of women and we shared and learned a lot in our Bible studies. But it became really uncomfortable when a couple of people claimed that Obama was a socialist. When the hostess called Obama the anti-Christ, I dropped out of the group and told her that the political comments were the reason.

I was invited to join my current group by a woman I met in a Sunday school class. At first we met in the home of one of the women but she travels a lot so we started meeting at church. As I’ve gotten to know the women, I’ve figured out that once again, I am an outsider. A few years ago, in response to news stories about a refugee crisis, one group member said she would throw the children back over the fence. WWJD? Definitely not that. When we were discussing “taking up your cross,” another woman said that for her that means speaking out against homosexuality. Not once has she expressed any concern for their souls. Another woman has expressed anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant views.

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, I heard a guy telling someone about a Sunday school class on voting your Christian values. The person asked whether there was a consensus in the class about who to vote for. He just laughed and said, oh yeah. I knew I would not have wanted to be in that class. After the election, the senior pastor said he thought that those of us who were upset about the results did not trust God enough. In my small group, one of the women laughed about the negative reaction to the election – “snowflakes.”

I thought about searching for a different church, one that reflects my views on God’s love, mercy, and justice, and the kind of life that Christ calls me to live. I decided to stay where I am because the word of God is preached, even if much of the congregation doesn’t really get the message of Jesus Christ. The scripture is being fulfilled. They hear but never understand.

When politics comes up in my small group, I feel like a visitor from another planet. The much repeated statistic about the election is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. When I heard that statistic, I looked around at my group and thought to myself, that sounds right. I am the one in five who could not vote for the man who is the antithesis of my Savior. I am an outsider in my Christian group because my allegiance is to Christ, not to a political party.

Sometimes I feel like a liberal among conservatives and sometimes like a conservative among liberals.  I have conservative theology—I believe the Bible—but that leads me to “progressive” opinions about politics, because the Bible has much to say about justice and helping the poor.  And I believe we are called to show love and grace even toward people we disagree with, especially toward people we disagree with.

Philip Yancey, Author of Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners

In being an outsider, I face challenging questions about Christian fellowship. Can I have a meaningful connection with people I disagree with? Can we live in harmony with each other (Romans 12:16)? Can we encourage each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11)? Can we accept one other (Romans 15:7)? Can we be kind and compassionate to each other (Ephesians 4:32)? Can we teach and admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)?

I can easily answer yes to most of these questions. Despite our differences, we are united in our love of God. We are one in our desire to seek Him. And yet, because my political beliefs are at odds with the rest of the group, I experience a lot of inner turmoil. I don’t accept views that contradict the teachings of Jesus. When those views are expressed, what should I say? Most of the time, I keep my mouth shut. I can get angry when I am passionate about an issue and I know that I should be gentle and not quarrelsome. That said, I could not be silent when one of the women said she hoped that Trump is a Christian and another said that “they say he is a Christian.” (Read 1 John 1:5-10.)

It would be easier to only worship with people who share my political views. But I have to live in this world; I can’t isolate myself from people who believe differently. In the Parable of the Weeds, the enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. The servant asked the owner, do you want us to pull up the weeds? “No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.”

Taking Christ Back for America

In my last post, I wrote about The Truth Project’s practice of conflating religion and politics which was most obvious in lesson nine, The State: Whose Law. Next week, I will watch the lesson titled The American Experiment: Stepping Stones. For years, I have watched conservative Christians blur the lines between politics and religion. I’ve read the study outline so I know that Dr. Tackett claims that America was founded as a Christian nation, the nation is now denying our biblically based Christian roots, and “believers who care deeply and passionately about their country” must try to salvage a government based on Christian values. Yet today it is so easy to see the corrupting influence of politics on Christianity.

Around the same time that Focus on the Family published The Truth Project video series (© 2006), an evangelical pastor named Gregory Boyd was feeling pressure from “right-wing political and religious sources” and from people in his congregation to participate in political activities, including distributing political leaflets and encouraging the congregation to vote for “the right candidate.” As he explains in the introduction to his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, he decided to preach a sermon series explaining why his church should not join in promoting right-wing political activity. He also aimed to explain why the Christian faith should not be closely associated with any political point of view.

Boyd said that he received a lot of positive feedback from his sermon series. Some people were grateful because they had always felt like outsiders in the evangelical community for not “toeing the conservative party line.” (I know the feeling all to well.) But he also said he had never received such intense negative feedback. About 20% of his congregation left the church.

Boyd’s thesis is that “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry.” In their quest for political power, these evangelicals have exchanged the good news of the gospel for political ideals and agendas. Like Tackett, many of these Christians mistakenly believe that they are “taking America back for God.”

How do conservative Christians aim to take America back for God? They vote for Christian candidates, oppose abortion, oppose gay marriage, fight to keep the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, fight to keep prayer in public schools and to display the Ten Commandments in public places, and make a really big deal about their right to say Merry Christmas.

Anyone who has been around the past couple of decades has observed Christians try to transform the kingdom of God to their own desired design for the kingdom of this world. The result is a quasi-religion that no longer resembles Christ.

It is heartening to find a pastor these days who is not afraid to say how idolatrous and dangerous it is to fuse religion and politics. Anything that takes the place of God in a believer’s heart is an idol. A Christian’s identity should come from Christ and not from their nation or political party. Believers who fuse their religious and political identities are easily led astray by false teachers who bring the way of truth into disrepute, twisting and distorting biblical truths to serve their own purposes. And sadly, when nonbelievers see that Christians are no different from anyone else, they are turned off by the hypocrisy.

The Myth of a Christian Nation

Why is there no such thing as a Christian nation? As J.D. Walt observed, “the only entity that can actually be Christian is a human being.” Many individuals claim to be a Christian without really understanding what it means to follow Christ. Christianity is not a cultural identity. Christianity is not a political identity. You don’t become a Christian by going to church or being baptized. You become a Christian by confessing your sins and making a very personal and life-transforming decision to follow Christ.

The Truth Project feeds the myth of a Christian nation in part by claiming that God has a specific design and purpose for government. Contrary to Tackett’s assertion, God doesn’t design worldly governments. As Boyd notes, God uses governments as they are, “in all their ungodly rebellious ways,” to serve his divine purposes. In other words, God doesn’t mandate one form of government over another. However, if governments preserve law and order in the right way (with justice and mercy), they serve God’s purpose (Romans 13).

The Truth Project believes that even though not all of America’s early leaders were Christians, they all agreed that the success of America’s republican form of government is “directly dependent upon the virtue and morality of her people, and that virtue and morality are necessarily founded upon religion – by which all meant the Christian religion.”

But the truth is, all worldly governments are flawed, even governments that proclaim “in God we trust.” Boyd points out that the god of this age is Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan inserts himself in earthly affairs and deceives the nations (Revelations 9:11, 20:3, 8, 13:14). The ways of the world are influenced by “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).

As Boyd reminds us, the history of the world is a history of violent conflicts. Boyd used Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as brilliant illustrations of fallen humans driven by passions they cannot control – desires for possessions, power, etc. These desires and passions lead to conflicts with other humans because other people feel just as strongly about their wants and desires. And while humans fight it out, Zeus sits on the mountain amused by it all.

When a worldly ruler elevates himself above all others, tears other people down, spreads lies, sows discord, seeks vengeance against his enemies, and treats others inhumanely, I imagine Satan laughing and saying, “well done, bad and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few dastardly things; I will put you in charge of many more.” And when Christians exchange the truth of the gospel for the seductive lure of political power, I imagine that Satan is overjoyed.

You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Jesus – John 8:44

Power corrupts…

Boyd says that whenever you see a person or group exercising power over other people, you are seeing a version of the kingdom of the world. Boyd calls power over other people the “power of the sword.” Humans use power over people to bend other people to their will and to inflict pain and suffering on those who defy or threaten their authority. The power of the sword is exercised in many ways – physical violence, restraint, coercion, threats, and denial of rights or access to resources.

Laws, enforced by the sword, control behavior but cannot change hearts.

Gregory A. Boyd

There is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power can be used for good but sometimes power changes people. As Chris Benderev wrote in the article When power goes to your head, it may shut out your heart, having power over people reduces our ability to empathize with them.

The kingdom of the world is nothing like the kingdom of God. It is a tribal “us versus them” kingdom – my race versus yours, my country versus yours, my religion versus yours, my political party versus yours. The world’s way is all about winning and having the upper hand. The world’s kingdom is a tit for tat kingdom. No insult or injury goes unanswered or unpunished.

The kingdom of God is radically different from the kingdom of this world. In the kingdom of God, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers. God’s kingdom is based on the power of the cross, that is, the power of redemption, the power of sacrificial living. Followers of Christ are to express power under people, humbly serving others. Followers of Christ are to love their enemies and to leave vengeance to God.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Philippians 2:3-5

I am among a growing chorus of believers who care so deeply and passionately about the gospel of Jesus Christ, we feel called to reclaim the name and share the real message of Christ. The hope of a nation does not depend on having a government based on biblical values. The hope of a nation lies in the redeeming power of Christ. He has the power to change people from the inside out! For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

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Father, may I not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of my mind and my heart so that I can be more like Christ, loving others as I love myself.

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

The Truth Project – Conflating Politics and Religion

At the beginning of lesson nine of The Truth Project, Dr. Del Tackett predicted that many people would find themselves conflicted when contemplating his message. If we are conflicted, he concluded, it is because we have been taken captive by a lie. While Tackett claimed to expose liberal views as a lie, he proved to me how dangerous and hypocritical it is to conflate politics and religion as he selectively used scripture to support his conservative, neoliberal view of government.

This is because, as a result of the raging of the Cosmic Battle, many people in our day have been taken captive by the lie that the state, and not God, is to “go before us” as our savior and sustainer and the source of all good things. This discussion is calculated from beginning to end to expose and challenge this assumption. There are obvious implications here for the debate between proponents of “liberal” and “conservative” social policy (i.e., the “welfare state” and its opponents).

The Truth Project, The State – Whose Law?

Money

At the beginning of lesson nine of the Truth Project: The State – Whose Law?, Dr. Tackett told the story of James and Heidi, a couple who had a successful farm. Then they died in a car accident. A gang broke into their house and took half of their possessions. Tackett asks, is that stealing? Of course, everyone agrees that it is. Then he asks, what if the government came in and took half their property? Would that be stealing? Can the state steal? In presenting the estate tax as theft, Dr. Tackett made the argument that the government breaks God’s law by stealing.

Dr. Tackett used 1 Samuel 8 to support his belief that by taxing its citizens, the state takes what does not belong to it. When the people of Israel told Samuel they wanted a king to lead them, Samuel prayed about it. God told Samuel to listen to the people but to solemnly warn them about what the king will do. So Samuel told the people that the king will make you and your children his servants. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and give them to his people. He will take a tenth of your earnings and give it to his attendants. Dr. Tackett concludes that government takes the first fruits and tithes that are meant for God and redistributes them to others.

I don’t believe that the government steals by taxing my income or property. I willingly submit to the state’s authority to take a portion of my income to pay for public goods and services, fully aware that the government often misuses and wastes the public’s money. I believe in a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

As Adam Metz points out in Revisiting the Truth Project, Tackett conveniently leaves out scripture that doesn’t support this views on the redistribution of wealth, for example, the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25. Every fifty years, the people of Israel were to return property to its original owners or heirs and debts were to be forgiven.

It’s especially noteworthy that Tackett made no mention of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus made it very clear that we should not worry about money because God knows what we need. We shouldn’t be overly focused on accumulating earthly wealth. Jesus told a rich man, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me (Matthew 19:21).”

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Matthew 6:19-21Matthew 6:19-20

Morality

Tackett asked whether the state can steal because “governments are capable of error and transgression and must be held accountable to a higher ethical law if they are to be prevented from wreaking havoc in the lives of the citizens entrusted to their oversight and care.” Tacket says that the purpose of government is “to punish evil and condone good.” He quoted Webster’s 1828 definition of the word politics and added emphasis to the words “preservation and improvement of their morals.”

The science of government; that part of ethics which consists in the regulation and government of a nation or state, for the preservation of its safety, peace and prosperity; comprehending the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control or conquest, the augmentation of its strengths and resources, and the protection of its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals.

Politics definition from Websters Dictionary, 1828

I agree that government should be held accountable to high ethical standards and that government has a role in enforcing laws based on morality (e.g. laws against murder or stealing) and laws that preserve the safety of its citizens. But obviously, not everyone accepts God’s law as law. In a democracy, laws should be based on the will of the people.

Many conservative Christians want the government to enforce Biblical moral values. But if government forces people to comply with moral laws that they have not internalized as their own moral values – if compliance with law is not an act of submission and obedience to God – what good does it do? As Jasmin Patterson writes, legislating Biblical morality doesn’t change people and it often turns people away from Christ.

As Christians we have to ask what we are really after. Do we want people to look like they are changed by Jesus or do we want people to actually be changed by Jesus? Do we want to encourage people—albeit unintentionally—to have a form of godliness but reject the power of Christ that actually transforms their lives? (2 Timothy 3:5)

Jasmin Patterson, The Biblical Case Against ‘Legislating Morality’: Does it actually work?

Dr. Tackett warned about big government taking over other spheres of life – God, church, family, labor, education, etc. He said that God designed each social “sphere” for a particular purpose and each sphere has unique laws, roles, and responsibilities to fulfill its purpose.

Tackett warned that the “nanny state” or the “welfare state” causes people to look to the government as their “savior” and as the state tries to solve society’s problems, it substitutes itself for the family. In the study guide for lesson 7 (Sociology: The Divine Imprint), Dr. Tackett says as an aside, “by the way, I can find no biblical support for the position that the state has responsibility for the education of children.”

I find it baffling that Focus on the Family thinks the purpose of the government is the “preservation and improvement of the morals” of its citizens. What then is the purpose of the Church? What is the purpose of the family? If the Bible is silent on an issue such as public education, does that mean that it is against God’s will?

Modern-day Pharisees

Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:6

When I searched for commentary on TTP lesson nine, I found an honors thesis written in 2014 by Ben Jordan, a political science student at the University of Colorado: A Dangerous Conflation of Ideologies: the Nexus of Christianity and Neoliberalism. While the student who wrote the thesis was not a Christian, his conclusion is accurate. It is dangerous to conflate Christianity and politics.

On page 28 of the thesis, Jordan lists several themes that make up the neoliberal Christian theology: private property, decreased size or reach of government, decreased taxes and opposition to redistribution of wealth, individualism and self-reliance, and Manichaean theology or the “cosmic battle.” Jordan analyzed the The Truth Project as an example of religious dogma that is used to shape a “conservative political-social-economic ideology.”

Jordan notes that it does not make sense for Christians to hold the neoliberal worldview, a religious ideology based on economic ideology. Even a non-Christian knows that the Bible teaches about the dangers of greed and of the love of money, the importance of caring for one another (including foreigners and the poor), and of our stewardship of the earth. “If Christianity is framed the way Focus on the Family is framing it, then neoliberal policy preferences will follow.” Christians who embrace the neoliberal worldview want to rollback environmental and labor regulations, to eliminate social programs, and to promote the capitalist, free market system.

Jordan observes that masses of Christians must be ignorant of the “fundamental lessons outlined in their own scared text” because if the Bible says “the complete opposite of what it is being used to justify, what else can ideological shaping do?” To put it simply, when Christianity is shaped by those who have a political agenda, it makes Christianity look really bad. “The Christian ideology, when framed as TTP has, is based on a great deal of sexism, homophobia, militarism, xenophobia, nationalism or patriotism, imperialism, racism, and a general distaste for those different than them.”

Randal Rauser wrote an article called Learning in a Time of (Cultural) War: Indoctrination in Focus on the Family’s The Truth Project. He wrote about the dangers of binary thinking, which “secures an uncritical acceptance of certain assumptions while inhibiting subsequent critical reflection on those assumptions.” He notes that it is an enormous task to educate the Christian laity but TTP subverts the pursuit of truth for its own ideological ends.

The first thing we need in the midst of a perceived culture war is sober self-criticism to ensure that we truly are people living out the truth (1 John 1:6). In addition, we need to recognize that the battle is the Lord’s, so that we do not capitulate to the tempting pragmatism that seeks victory at the expense of truth.

Randal Rauser

It only takes a small amount of yeast to transform a ball of dough. In the same way, it takes only a small amount of false teaching to spread and damage the Church. When Christians conflate politics and religion, they distort what it really means to follow Christ. That is dangerous because souls are at stake.