2020 has been a year rife with division, much of it long political lines. As Sen. Ben Sasse elucidates in Them: Why We Hate Each Other, and How We Can Heal, we are increasingly uniting based on who or what we’re against, rather than forming partnerships for the welfare of our neighbors. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the saying goes, and the church is not immune from such lines of thought. Many have begun to question whether or not her partisanship threatens her ability to be prophetic.
What hope do we have of bridging these political divides – for sanity’s sake, and for the sake of the church’s witness to the world?
The Curious Case of Matthew the Tax Collector and Simon the Zealot
We are not the first Christians to experience polarization and partisanship within the church. The words of Matthew 10:1-4 provide a list of the Twelve Apostles whom Jesus called to follow him prior to his death and resurrection. Included in the list are the names of Matthew the Tax Collector and Simon the Zealot.
Hoping for material prosperity, Matthew pledged allegiance to Rome, lining his pockets through his work as a tax collector. Longing for freedom from Roman occupation, Simon pledged allegiance to the Zealots – aggressive instigators who sought to overthrow the occupying Romans by force. Each was simply doing what was right in his own eyes – a course which inevitably pitted them against each other.
Their disunity was a product of divergent narratives of hope.
Divergent Narratives of Hope
Like Matthew and Simon, in our natural state of being enslaved to the patterns of this world (Ephesians 2:1-2), we all have a tendency to yield unwavering and uncritical allegiance to political leaders who cater to our unique version of the American Dream. The hope we express may be explicitly secular (possessions, comfort, power, etc.), but it may also sound quite spiritual. “If so-and-so is elected, Christians will be persecuted! I want a leader who will have Christians’ backs!” Statements such as these can still belie the reality that our greatest fear is the loss of liberty, and that our greatest hope is for America’s elections work out in favor of Bible-believing Christians. We naturally place ultimate hope in earthly kingdoms, and in earthly kings.
As with Matthew and Simon, so too with us: one person’s narrative of hope will necessarily exclude another’s. Many of our divisions – and the demonizing, name-calling, and vitriol which characterize them – illustrate our mis-informed narratives of hope, and the false-Messiahs in which we trust.
We need a better hope – and a better King who will deliver it to us.
The King and His Kingdom: Hope Beyond This World
The gospel message reminds us that the world’s biggest problem isn’t persecution or political hardship. Rather, it is the absence of God’s shalom from the world and from our lives. Sin prevents Earth’s realities from being aligned with Heaven’s priorities (Genesis 3). Yet through Christ our Savior, we are brought of a darkness and into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). We are granted here-and-now citizenship in the Kingdom of God (Ephesians 2:19), even as we await the ultimate redemption of all things (Romans 8:18-25).
As followers of Christ, we have a Kingdom which far surpasses that of any political platform, in which there will be no more sorrow, sickness, sin, or death (Revelation 21:1-5). And, we have a King who far exceeds the politicians of earth in grace, glory, and power. This King will reign, and his Kingdom will be established, whether through or in spite of the results of America’s elections (Daniel 2:44, Luke 1:32-33, Revelation 11:15, etc.).
While this perspective does not preclude Christians from being active in the political process, it should free Christians from being obsessed or fixated on politics as a source of transcendent hope or of existential fear. No civic hardship or political setback will prevent Jesus from establishing his Kingdom. Consequently, gospel-informed unity is possible within Christ’s church, and gospel-driven charity is necessitated towards the world which still lives in darkness.
Christ-Focused Discipleship: The Pathway to Unity and Charity
Although the divide between Roman-approving tax collectors and Roman-hating Zealots likely exceeded that which exists between today’s “Right” and “Left,” the first fourteen verses of the Book of Acts reveal a marvelous unity between the former foes Matthew and Simon. No quibbling over politics could separate these brothers whom God himself had joined together.
How did this supernatural unity come to pass? The answer, as Pastor Garrett Kell recently tweeted, is Christ-focused discipleship. As they followed King Jesus throughout the course of his ministry, “Matthew learned to love Rome less. Simon learned to love Rome more. They both learned to love Jesus most.”
Christ-focused discipleship doesn’t render politics irrelevant, nor does it resign us to an endless cycle of political subjectivism whereby we all simply “agree to disagree.” Christ-focused discipleship simply reminds us of our first love (Revelation 2:4), encouraging us not to look first to public servants to accomplish what Christ has already guaranteed to do – whether that be to eradicate disease (Revelation 22:1-3), promote racial/ethnic justice (Revelation 5:9-10), end abortion (Revelation 21:4), etc.
This perspective frees us from treating civic engagement as a work of first importance, allowing us to exert our energies where Christ has explicitly commanded us to labor – for instance, remaining ever-eager to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” within the family of God (Ephesians 4:3). Just as we cannot unite in ways which contradict the word of God (such as through doctrinal compromise), so too does Scripture forbid us from dividing over matters that are not of eternal import (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 1 Corinthians 3). While not all political differences fall into this category, many of them do.
Even when our differences preclude authentic unity, Christ-focused discipleship reminds us that we are more similar to our opponents than we are different from them. That we have been brought under the gracious rule of King Jesus and aligned with the standards of his Scriptures is not our own doing; we have no grounds for a superiority complex (Ephesians 2:8-9). The transformation of our opponents will not happen as we demonize them, but as the Holy Spirit renews their minds and regenerates their hearts, just as he did with ours (Romans 12:1-2, Titus 3:5-6). Christ-centered discipleship equips us to interact with our opponents in charity and with a compassionate gospel witness, even as we cling to biblical convictions.
In this year of great disunity, it is that never has it been more important for Christians to cast their eyes upon Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2), and for ministry leader to prioritize the proclamation of the gospel message (Romans 1:16-17). We need more of Christ’s Kingdom being manifested on earth, and his Kingdom comes through Christ-focused discipleship. Only through Christ-focused discipleship can the church enjoy Heaven’s unity in the midst of a divisive political climate. And only through Christ-focused discipleship can a lost, dying world be set free from its false, divergent narratives of fear to find the only Hope that lasts.
Helen Lemmel said it best nearly 100 years ago.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace!