The politicizing of the church

June 22, 2012

The church and the state have become increasingly entangled since Constantine's rise to power in Europe in the early 4th century. Theologians call this time the Constantinian shift where Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire. As Christianity was legalized, persecution virtually stopped. The church began to acquire power, wealth, and land in Europe like never before. Theology was altered and the "spiritual interpretation" hermeneutic began to take root, dramatically affecting the church's witness of the coming Day of the LORD. The empire had become the Kingdom of God, the pope was the "vicar of Christ" to execute God's will on the earth, and anticipation of Christ's return began to slip from the eager expectation of the faithful.

The Christian church has continually sought political influence even after considerable worldview changes since Constantine in the 4th century. Secular culture looked upon the church with disdain, seeing religion as a "crutch" for unenlightened, unscientific minds. The church, refusing to deny the existence of God, compromised theology with science and culture. Though space prevents me from giving sufficient treatment to this subject, the distortion of the church's mission and hope that began with Origen, Constantine, and Augustine has lived on through modern times.

I began pondering this again a few days ago when a friend sent me this recent sermon by John Piper where he takes a bold stand for the Bible's position on marriage between one man and one woman. I loved everything he said, but was especially moved by his last point:

Don’t press the organization of the church or her pastors into political activism. Pray that the church and her ministers would feed the flock of God with the word of God centered on the gospel of Christ crucified and risen. Expect from your shepherds not that they would rally you behind political candidates or legislative initiatives, but they would point you over and over again to God and to his word, and to the cross.

Please try to understand this: When I warn against the politicizing of the church, I do so not to diminish her power but to increase it. The impact of the church for the glory of Christ and the good of the world does not increase when she shifts her priorities from the worship of God and the winning of souls and the nurturing of faith and raising up of new generations of disciples.

Piper's words must be repeated. Expect from your shepherds not that they would rally you behind political candidates or legislative initiatives, but they would point you over and over again to God and to his word, and to the cross. The church is to be strong and powerful - not as a political influence that changes culture or laws, but as a witness to the glory of God in the face of Christ (Romans 15:6; 2 Corinthians 4:6), the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 15) and the coming Day of the LORD (Acts 17:31) - all by actively fleshing out the wisdom and longsuffering love of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-29; Colossians 1:24).

The New Testament constantly exhorts us to live in holiness and speak boldly of the Day when Jesus will return to bring all unrighteousness to an abrupt end (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; 2 Peter 3; 2 Corinthians 3:12, Philippians 1:10). We must be sober about this message and be careful that political activism does not replace the bold proclamation of the "gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:4). The full word of "suffering before glory" alone has the power to turn men from sin and bring sound conversion (Romans 1:16, Luke 24:26).

Instead of being built on the bedrock of belief in Jesus as the glorious LORD and promised Christ who would rule from Jerusalem and restore all creation to its original glory, Christianity is increasingly being defined by particular stances on morality and social justice issues. If the church compromises the true gospel for a watered down message of moral reformation or "justice now" in the name of Jesus, it exposes our belief in two lies: 1) that social renovation and retaking dominion is our primary mission or 2) that the most number of people will be saved through transforming revival, righteous legislation or the ending of injustices.

I'm not advocating that Christians remain silent about society's moral decline. We must never befriend sin or injustice. We must also remember that standing for truth is always costly, because there is no "self" in the truth of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:29). John the Baptist endured severe consequences for his boldness in rebuking Herod for his sin - he was put in prison and later beheaded (Luke 3:19-20; Matthew 14:3-4). For us today, I believe we must reevaluate what we hold in first place in our proclamation, how we speak about sin in light of the cross and coming judgment, and when we expect God's justice to be established. Let there be no doubt - Jesus sees all of the earth's unrighteousness and will establish His eschatological kingdom of justice at His return. Until then, He is restraining from judgment in amnesty, not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance before that Day (2 Peter 3:9-16). This is our message in the face of sin and injustice.

When American media's premiere presentation of Christianity scarcely speaks of Jesus and always calls attention the church's stance on social issues, something is clearly skewed in our message. How far have we strayed from the obsession, hope, and mission of the early church? Where is the bold proclamation of Jesus as the Christ and the subsequent cross-centered lifestyle of longsuffering love towards the wicked that provokes them to repentance? Is it not in suffering that we find the greatest display of God, His glory, His plans, and His desires?

My prayer is that my website, writings, and teachings will always point you to God, His word, and the cross, and that you would have power from the Holy Spirit to exemplify it in your life as you boldly testify to Jesus, His glory, and His soon return.

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About the author

Joshua Hawkins is a pastor, Bible teacher, and content creator for disciples of Jesus from College Station, Texas. He co-hosts The Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast, a weekly audio show exploring how a first century Jew would have understood the Gospel. He's also an all-around tech nerd and enjoys road cycling.

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