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Not since the Civil War, some thoughtful observers are saying, has our nation been so divided. Never so polarized. Never with so many of its citizens set so bitterly against each other.
Since I wasn’t around back then, it’s a little hard for me to compare. But over the last three or four years, I’ve seen enough emotional yelling, unrestrained table pounding, and enraged blame-shifting to know that something more than typical politics is at work. Or just look at your calendar. There are still 13 months to go before the next presidential election—but we’re going at it as if we were in the last week of the campaign.
And it’s not just in the sanctuaries of electoral politics that you’ll find all this ruckus. The exchange spills over, naturally, to the news media. From there, it jumps into the worlds of entertainment, music, and even sports.
What concerns me most, though, is the manner in which this to-the-death squabble has invaded the walls of so many of our local churches. Drop in during what we used to call “fellowship hour,” and you’ll find anything but fellowship. Sometimes it’s been just good, vigorous discussion. But it’s getting more and more animated—and it’s the animation that scares me. When that energetic discussion turns into insults and abuse, truth and integrity are no longer the victors. Satan wins that round.
Let me describe four different congregational types, strictly out of my own experience and imagination. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether your own local church fits any of these profiles.
Congregation A steers clear of anything resembling political involvement. Whether from its pulpit, its Christian education program, its teaching of its youth, or its informal discussion (remember the “fellowship hall”?), it diligently follows half of the ancient proverb: “We just don’t talk about religion and politics here.” It’s not a formal prohibition, but informally, it’s pretty consistently observed.
How do we resist our culture’s propensity to fill every conversation with ugliness and insults?
Congregation B is bolder. Under the heading of “Biblical Worldview,” its leaders don’t hesitate to bring up subjects like abortion, care for the environment, or immigration. They may differ with one another on the applicability of specific Biblical sources, and they may not all come to exactly the same conclusions. But they believe such Bible-based teachings are available to us, even if it may take some hard work to pry them loose. The goal in this category is to equip congregants with thoughtful conclusions on a variety of topics, so that those people can—either individually or in small-group “fellowship”—take their conclusions into the public marketplace of ideas.
Congregation C is even more specific. It may or may not take time and effort to equip its people in the development of a thoughtful Biblical worldview. No matter. The leaders of Congregation C decide for everyone which political positions and measures ought to be enacted—and they rally the forces needed to bring about such action. “Vote for Proposition X,” they say.
Congregation D takes the next logical step by endorsing specific candidates for various offices. A Sunday morning pastoral prayer in such a church won’t just include a minimal request that God would oversee the work of civic leaders, as instructed by the Apostle Paul, but will regularly go beyond that to ask God to bless the good guys (by name)—and punish the bad guys (by name)—at next Tuesday’s election. (Action like that, of course, puts at jeopardy that church’s tax exempt status with the IRS, and ultimately jeopardizes the integrity of the tax returns of all the church’s members. Churches like that need to take care to inform their members of such possible consequences.)
So here’s the challenge. How do we fulfill our roles as church members without letting our gatherings degenerate into nothing more than meetings of a political precinct? How do we bring specialized spiritual equipment to our next discussion of Donald Trump—so we don’t beat up on each other in the “fellowship hall”? How do we resist our culture’s propensity (enhanced by too many government leaders) to fill every conversation with ugliness and insults?
In short, how do we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (“love, joy, peace,” etc.) so that when onlookers see God’s people talking about their political differences, it’s in an altogether Biblical and constructive tone?