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Are religious groups too political?

Why My Church Avoids Taking Political Positions

By | February 5, 2013

It’s surprisingly tempting for pastors like me to devalue, of all things, Jesus.

I was in a conversation just the other day with an awesome, dedicated minister who argued that, yes, Jesus could do all sorts of tremendous things for people, but what was really important was what we in the trade call “doctrine”—one-step-removed implications of our understanding of Jesus. Things like our political stance or our posture on whatever the hot-button issue of the moment is. His point was that just about every church on earth agreed on basic dogma—the Nicene and Apostles Creeds, for instance. Doctrine was where the action was.

But, in my experience, the majority of the good stuff is actually centered squarely in that boring dogma. I think of the man I met a few months back. A longtime skeptic, he and his wife and daughter visited our church only because they were so impressed by their au pair, a congregant. Checking it out, they decided to come to a class called Seek, which offered a group journey of trying to experience Jesus. After a session in which we prayed for everyone to connect with the Holy Spirit, his opening comment—after a quiet regrouping—was, “That was some serious ******* ****.” He was floored.

We sit in intellectual-central: Cambridge, Massachusetts. You can’t throw a rock in our (for our area) large church without hitting a post-doc or tenure-track professor. But that rock, as it caromed off of them, would hit someone living in a nearby housing project. Before the rock found ground, it would have bounced off of people of half a dozen ethnicities. What attracts such a diverse group of people, a large percentage of them recent skeptics? It’s a resolute focus on, to my mind, the most powerful center of all: the astoundingly present, taste-and-see-that-the-Lord-is-good God.

This means that we embrace a kind of tension that isn’t for everyone. When people ask for, say, our position on LGBT issues, we say something like, “We’re actually not a position-based church.” We don’t, for instance, post positions on things like whatever wars our country might be in at the moment. We’re full of passionate people who are excited to experience Jesus with one another. You’ll find great people on both sides of this issue, traditional conservative believers sitting next to a married gay couple. If it’s important to you that we affirm your position from the front, that’s totally reasonable and we’re probably not the best church for you. One woman recently noted (admiringly!), “I’ve been in this church for twelve years. You’ve given me great counsel about how to navigate politics. And yet I have no idea what political party you’re in or who you’ve ever voted for.”

So this might not be for you. While plenty of our congregants very much pursue their convictions on hot-button issues, many longtime churchgoers would regard our public non-posture as a scandalous refusal to “take a stand.” And there certainly is a tradition of churches “being the conscience” of a given country. We could have a great conversation about this that’s outside the word count I have here.

And yet, if I can gently push back, can I direct your attention to Romans 14? Paul there directly confronts the hot-button issue of his day—whether believers should eat meat sacrificed to idols or go vegetarian. The rationale behind the principled “no meat” stand was profound. Perhaps half of the Hebrew Bible condemns taking part in the pagan rituals of Israel’s neighboring countries. And yet Paul took the opposite perspective, which he brazenly called the “strong” position. With this, he introduced the idea of “disputable matters.” (Note Roger Olson’s take on disputable matters in The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity.) Could believers with hot commitments to the opposite sides of the most-divisive issues hang together? He seemed to believe that it was not only possible, but—per Ephesians—that it was the central statement Jesus made to the demonic world. For Paul, the whole gospel was at stake, as if majoring on one’s position on disputable matters (doctrine!) was playing on the devil’s court, as if doing so dramatically undervalued what Jesus came to offer, as if disputable matters could themselves become idolatry.

Of course we all make choices. Visitors to my church will quickly notice by inference our take on any number of things—on, say, what until recently was a major hot-button issue: whether women can preach (a robust yes for us). But they won’t hear us belittling churches who feel differently.

To revisit a previous question: why have so many people from such diverse worlds who’d assumed churches weren’t for them enthusiastically found such value?

Because what Jesus came to offer, all by itself, is some—to borrow a phrase—serious ******* ****.

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