Are you tired of politics yet? As an American citizen living in India, the past few months have felt like watching a political soap opera of global proportions play out on both sides of the sea. Meanwhile, the battle raging on Twitter and cable news plays out within our own families and churches in often shocking and painful ways. But in some ways, this shouldn’t be surprising. The message of Christ has always been political and always contentious.
When the early church proclaimed the arrival of God’s kingdom to a world under Roman occupation, they made an inherently political statement. As believers, we are to challenge the powers of sin and death wherever we find them, and they are often most clearly seen in human systems of money and power.
Christians cannot stand idly by and watch sin in the shape of social injustice, as brief readings of the Old Testament and James alone make clear. But Christ said to make disciples, not Christian political systems. We cannot “fix” the earthly kingdom, but we cannot close our eyes and sing hymns while it burns down either.
As believers, we are to challenge the powers of sin and death wherever we find them
This tension is one that the church has grappled with throughout history. The theologian Jacques Ellul described it this way: “We are caught between two necessities which nothing can alter: on the one hand, it is impossible to make this world ‘less’ sinful; on the other hand, it is impossible for us to accept it as it is.”
But Ellul offers another perspective: this tension is exactly the reason why Christians can do what no political campaign or social movement can ever do. It is for this exact reason that God has sent us into the world: to be salt and light.
In Matthew 5:13, Jesus calls His followers the “salt of the earth”. What does salt do? In the first century, salt wasn’t just a seasoning, it was a preservative that prevented food from rotting. As followers of Christ, we are not only a sign of His coming kingdom, but we push back and “preserve” our communities from the forces of sin and death. We accomplish this both through preaching of the gospel and through social and political action, changing individual hearts while fighting against unjust laws and systems that allow evil to proliferate.
Also in Matthew 5, we are told to be the “light” of the world. When Christians display the glory of God, they reflect His light into a world of darkness. This has two effects: it exposes the darkness for what it is, and it attracts those lost to the light of Christ. “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven,” Jesus commanded. For all its failings, no one can deny the role of the church throughout history in fighting injustice and serving the poor.
Here, also, is why Christians must be a witness to their cultures. Christians are the world’s “conscience”, calling out sin wherever it may be. By necessity, this often involves speaking against certain policies. Whether sin is in the mistreatment of the marginalised, environmental destruction, hyper-materialism, killing of the unborn or immorality, the church shines the light of Christ into the deepest darkness.
As followers of Christ, we are not only a sign of His coming kingdom, but we push back and “preserve” our communities from the forces of sin and death
As “salt” and “light”, Christians fulfill a redemptive role in a way that no social movement ever could. Most political movements swing to extremes, but Christians alone understand that the problem is sin both without and within. They recognise the clear link in Scripture between the gospel and social efforts. And the Church, secure in the knowledge that Christ’s kingdom is coming, does not need to worry about accumulating political power and security.
What does this mean practically? It means Christians will never fit in perfectly with any political ideology because they speak truth to both sides. They should not be manipulated into following political leaders who abuse the name of Christ to secure votes, whichever end of the spectrum it is.
Christians do not need to sacrifice their “salt” for favourable legislation. They should defend and uphold the dignity of all human beings, even at great cost to themselves. And importantly, they may (and should) disagree on the best ways to go about being salt and light in their respective cultures. But these discussions must proceed out of mutual love for Christ with this common mission in mind. I believe the divisions within the church are more emblematic of spiritual warfare than anything related to voting machines.
Only through the continued fellowship and unity of the gospel can Christians navigate a tricky political landscape without compromising their witness.
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