We are smack dab in the middle of a political season. Frankly, I am glad that the Iowa caucuses are an historical event now and I can answer my phone again without listening to a prerecorded political message. But, on the other hand, I got wrapped up in the race this time. I attended the caucus for only the second time and I even spoke on behalf of a candidate. My candidate, Rick Santorum, won our caucus by a huge margin – I claim credit for his statewide win! (In case you haven’t heard, the recount showed that Santorum won Iowa by about 35 votes instead of losing it by 8.)
I got into the spirit of things and was going to go to the county meeting and perhaps be a delegate to the state meeting before I realized I had a ministry conflict and bowed out. Now, I am glad that I did.
I find myself torn between two opinions on the whole matter of political involvement. I care about politics. I am strongly opposed to the policies and practices of the current occupant of the Oval Office and sincerely hope he will be replaced. On the other hand, I am convinced that the work of the church is not political and is of far more import than anything that can take place in Washington or Des Moines. So, I am confronted with a question (well, technically, two questions).
How politically involved should I be, and how involved should our church be?
David Rogers, my blogging compatriot, has argued forcefully and convincingly that the church should be focused on the work of the Kingdom of God and not on earthly kingdoms. Americans are prone to confusing the interests of America and the interests of the church. Remember Reagan’s statement? “America is the last best hope of the world.” I love me some Ronald Reagan, but that is nonsense. Jesus is the hope of the world. The church can and will survive even if America falls. America may need God but God does not need America.
On the other hand, there are some, such as Bart Barber, who argue the importance of Christian involvement in political things. And I think his argument makes sense as well. There seems to be a movement, even among Christians, to marginalize the voice of the so-called “religious right.”
According to a good friend of mine who has extensive international experience, Americans are unique in our patriotism. Other people love their countries, but Americans have a passion about our country that most other nations do not have, according to my friend. We love our nation. More than that, we tend to see the redemption and restoration of our nation as a high spiritual priority. But is that justified? It is right? Certainly, in the NT era, no one confused the interests of Rome with the interests of the church. In fact, the argument can be made that one of the negative turns the church took came at the confluence of Roman political power with the life of the church.
Since we are biblicists, we look to the Bible for answers to all questions – even ones involving secular politics. I wrote an article during the last election cycle at sbcIMPACT examining what the Bible says about this. I’d like to revisit that here.
My thesis is that the NT attitude toward slavery can serve as a template for the church’s involvement in politics.
If we examination the biblical attitudes toward slavery we may find guidance for our involvement in political and social issues. Slavery was a social issue in the era of the Early Church. The prevailing culture thought it was normal and natural for people who were able to own slaves. How did the church respond? How did the church balance political advocacy and gospel proclamation?
I would make the following observations. I would point out that these are, in fact, observations. I am putting forward what I see in Scripture. I’ve not done the kind of extensive historical or even exegetical study that would authorize me to be dogmatic. But I will share with you my observations for your examination and discussion.
1) Slavery is always a heinous social ill.
Let’s agree that slavery is not a good thing. The Bible never sanctions or promotes slavery. In the OT Law, slavery was regulated and limited, much as polygamy. Polygamy was not part of God’s original intent in Creation, but in the Law, God regulated and limited the practice, putting obligations on the husbands to treat his wives with basic decency. In a similar way, slavery is not eliminated but is limited. Laws are put forward which prevent masters from oppressing or mistreating their slaves. God also instituted the Sabbath years and Jubilees to free slaves.
I think we would all agree that slavery is a moral offense. For one human being to claim ownership over another is not a biblical ideal. Racial slavery, the kind that was practiced in America for centuries was a blot on the moral history of our nation. Good men with great political ideas had an inexcusable blind spot – they thought it was okay, even godly, for white men to own black men. I was happy to stand at the SBC years ago and publicly repent of the history of racism and the defense of slavery that was such a part of the early history of our denomination.
The slavery in the Roman world was perhaps a little difference. When a nation conquered another, it often enslaved the people of that nation. People who could not pay their debts were sold into slavery. Whatever the reasons for the problem, slavery was a real issue in the NT church.
As soon as God extended his sovereign grace to a slave and a slave owner, the church had a problem. If two men were brothers in Christ, could one own the other? How was the church going to handle this terrible social ill?
The question is not whether slavery was wrong. The question was how much energy the church should have focused on ending the practice in the Roman Empire.
2) The church did not focus its energies on the institution of slavery.
Paul did not start a movement to end slavery in the Roman Empire. He did not go from city to city organizing slaves and lobbying for their freedom. He established churches and proclaimed the life-changing gospel. Had it been the desire of God that the church focus its energies on societal and cultural transformation, it would seem that slavery would have been a good place for the church to start.
The church had slaves. The church had slave owners. But never once did Paul or other NT writers command that the church seek to change that societal structure, nor did Paul even command Christian masters to free their Christian slaves. If the church is supposed to be a bastion of cultural engagement, it seems odd that the NT did not command that in this instance.
Paul had a perfect opportunity to make a political point when he wrote to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus. Paul did not command Philemon to free his slave. He suggested it, cajoled perhaps. But there was no moral command.
3) Paul’s commands were directed at the Christian behavior of individual believers, not the social structures involved in the practice of slavery.
Some have chided the American church for its focus on individual piety and behavior instead of on the need to transform culture and seek social justice. Yet, in addressing a social ill like slavery, his focus was almost entirely on individual behavior and not societal transformation.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. Ephesians 6:5-9
Slaves were not commanded to organize to end slavery, but to be the best slaves they could be – to honor Christ. This is not to justify slavery, but to point out that the focus was on the work of the gospel. Paul reinforces this basic truth in Colossians 3:22-25 , 1 Timothy 6:1-2, and Titus 12:9-10. Peter says almost the same thing:
1 Peter 2:18-21 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
Peter focuses on a fact that we do not often want to admit. It is a blessing to suffer here on earth for godly purposes. Blessed are those who are persecuted! Servants were to focus on being good servants and to know that if they suffered wrongs here on earth for the glory of God they would be rewarded in heaven.
This statement has horrendous potential to be misinterpreted, but it bears observation anyway. Paul, Peter, and other Christians leaders showed little concern for the social ill of slavery and demonstrated almost no concern for social transformation. It just did not seem to matter to them.
4) Christians were told to improve things when they could.
Paul makes a powerful point in 1 Corinthians 7 – a passage that primarily addresses marriage.
1 Co 7:17–24 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
His main point is that Christians should remain in the situation they were in at the time of their redemption. If one was married, stay married. If one was single, stay single. If one was a slave, remain a slave. But in verse 21, Paul tells them that if they had the opportunity to become free, they should take it. In other words, if there was a chance to improve things, take it.
We have the opportunity in America to improve things through fulfilling our duties as citizens – voting and advocating righteous behavior. I believe we should take advantage of these opportunities and I believe Paul would agree. If you have the chance to make a difference, to improve things – do it!
But the focus of the church is the transformation which the gospel brings, not the imposition of Christian principles in government or society. Where we can, we should work to change things. But we must remember that the gospel is both our primary message and our overarching strategy.
5) The church is to focus on meeting the needs of the needy.
I am not saying we should ignore eleemosynary involvement. We are commanded to care for widows and orphans and to share with those in need. A church that does not have an active benevolence ministry is not obeying the scriptures. As we proclaim the gospel, we also meet the needs both of those in the Body and those to whom we preach. Feeding the hungry and clothing the poor is part of a gospel ministry, but the focus is always on the proclamation of God’s truth and the redemption of lost sinners to Christ.
Even in that, our purpose is to help individuals, not to change societal structures.
Our goal is the gospel and discipleship – the true growth of the Church of Jesus Christ. We live in a sinful world, but this world is not our home. We are living “here” for the blessings we will receive “there”.
Processing the Data
There are two possibilities here that need to be considered:
1) I could be seeing Paul and Peter’s treatment of slavery wrongly. Maybe my observer is broken.
2) I could be drawing the wrong conclusions from what I have observed. The problem may not be the observations, but the interpretations of those observations. More specifically, maybe the slavery issue is not the template for social engagement that I believe it is.
But what I am seeing makes me believe that the NT church showed little concern for transforming societal structures or cultural norms. They focused mostly on advancing the gospel and proclaiming God’s truth. They were not totally disengaged either. If someone could get free, could improve their social standing, Paul told them to do it. They did not seek suffering, but neither did they run from it.
Frankly, I am somewhat shocked at the New Testament church’s reaction to slavery. But it is what it is. The question is what the NT church’s reaction to slavery – both culturally and within the church – means for our involvement in politics and in social justice efforts.
My conclusion, at this point, is that the priority of the church must always be on the Great Commission. While we should take those opportunities we have to improve things in this world, the improvement of social structures and cultural standards is not a primary priority for the church.
1) Our priority is on gospel proclamation that transforms people. Seeking cultural and political transformation ultimately fails because it does not change hearts. All real change is a change of heart.
2) When we have the opportunity, we can seek to improve things. We should use our privileges as citizens to vote, engage and involve ourselves in the process.
At the root, here is my belief. As Christians, we should avail ourselves of opportunities to improve our environment and culture. But the church has the task of transforming hearts by God’s power through the message of Christ. We cannot confuse gospel proclamation with American civil religion or social justice efforts.
I am uncomfortable saying that – so show me where I’m getting it wrong.