The Mission of the Church: Justice, Part 3 (Hunter and the Exercise of Power by the Church)


Christians in a democracy: Foreign policy

One of the thornier issues that the American church must wrestle with is how the church should operate in a democracy. In fact, in the US, there are enough Christian voters that the church’s position on public policy issues really matters. Satan (and many politicians) are fortunate that the American church is politically divided. Were we ever to unite, we’d be the most powerful voice in American politics — which scares me. I mean, are we wise enough to have that kind of power? If so, I’ve seen precious little evidence of it.

So let’s start with that. If the obligation to love our neighbors — even our enemies — means anything, it surely means that we don’t take political positions and vote without bothering to do our homework and know what we’re really voting for or against. We can’t let ourselves be used — by the politicians or even by activists within the church. Just because someone says that asylum seekers will be criminals and rapists, well, we should check the facts. (And if you only read or listen to one side of the debate, you aren’t studying the question — you’re seeking affirmation.)

Love requires that we deal with our enemies based on truth, not fear, suspicion, or political convenience. If I’m going to close the border (and I’m no fan of open borders), I need to close it taking into account the facts on the ground. I should figure out what makes for a sensible immigration policy — and I might even take the trouble to see if there’s something I could do to help people have better lives in their home countries so they don’t need to leave to earn a living. After all, maybe their poverty is caused by our own policies. I really don’t know the answers, but I know when I’m being sold a line.

Domestic policy

To me, domestic policy is even harder than foreign policy because it covers so much more ground. There are just so many ways that domestic policy bumps into biblical concerns. So let’s try this division:

  • Private, secular concerns
  • Private, religious concerns
  • Public concerns

Private, secular concerns

Let me explain. If my church wants to expand, and the zoning laws impose unfair requirements for parking, the church is well within its rights to go before the city council and request a variance. They can even sue to enforce their rights under the First Amendment and Congressional laws that protect churches from local laws that are unduly burdensome on churches.

But we should not imagine that this is the mission to which we’re called. We’ll manage to be a church and do mission even if we have to meet in the city park or in houses. We’re just exercising legal rights the church happens to have in this country — much as Paul claimed his right as a citizen of Rome to appeal to Caesar.

When we act for our private, secular needs, we just need to be careful to be truly loving in our conduct. We should be respectful of our neighbors. We shouldn’t use the law to become a burden on those around us.

Private, religious concerns

A little more difficult are First Amendment issues. In this country, churches have certain rights as churches. And it’s okay to assert those rights. It’s perfectly legitimate for churches and Christian-owned businesses to challenge the government’s right to force them to pay for medical procedures they find sinful, for example.

Now, again, this is generally not mission. If the government makes churches pay for abortions, that’s repellant, but changing the cost allocation so that the government pays for abortions rather than the employers is no great victory for the unborn. The abortions still happen, even though we might be allowed to not have blood on our own hands.

Public concerns

So it’s what lawyers call “public policy” issues where mission and law mingle. In a democracy, we can vote for or against candidates based on their position on abortion, gay marriage, etc. Much of this has become moot because the Supreme Court has taken these decisions away from democratic institutions. But some issues remain in the hands of Congress and the states, and to that extent, we have to wrestle with what is properly mission and what is properly left alone. It’s not easy.

So maybe the place to begin is a consideration of power. The general rule for Christians is clear enough —

(2 Cor. 12:9-10 ESV)  9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 

(Jdg. 7:2 ESV)  2 The LORD said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.'” 

(Deut. 8:17-18 ESV)  17 “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’  18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.”

There is a principle running throughout scripture that we should trust God for our victories and not attempt to win by our own might. But that doesn’t mean Christians should flee all forms of power.

The most thoughtful study I’ve seen on the question is from Hunter —

The practice of leadership for the Christian is sacrificial in character. The quality of commitment implied in faithful presence invariably imposes costs. To enact a vision of human flourishing based in the qualities of life that Jesus modeled will invariably challenge the given structures of the social order. In this light, there is no true leadership without putting at risk one’s time, wealth, reputation, and position. In a related way, the practice of leadership is selfless in character.

James Davison Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Kindle Locations 3575-3578). Kindle Edition.

In short, in this realm, selfishness is forbidden absolutely. God sometimes gives power (or leadership) to his people, as was true of Daniel and Ezra, but that power must be exercised selflessly and even at risk of personal suffering.

In a democracy, voters become leaders. We have the power to select our leaders. It’s not as much power as we might like, but our votes matter, and our decisions are the exercise of power over others. Therefore, we must vote exactly contrary to what the politicians tell us. We must vote as Jesus would — by emptying ourselves and becoming servants of others. We vote for what’s right and true, even if it hurts our own prospects. We try to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

The reason that leadership is sacrificial and selfless is because its practice is an expression of “power under submission.” The gifts, resources, and influence one stewards are not one’s own to use as one wishes but rather they belong to God: they exist under his authority, and believers are held to account for how they steward them.

In short, faithful presence in practice is the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity. It represents a quality of commitment oriented to the fruitfulness, wholeness, and well-being of all. It is, therefore, the opposite of elitism and the domination it implies.

James Davison Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Kindle Locations 3583-3586). Kindle Edition.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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