Church and Politics, Part One

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” – Matthew 22:21

“Keep politics out of the Church!”

Someone recently said that after I made comments about how Christ-followers are called to speak out against social injustice and even march in protest against white supremacy. I doubt that that individual is alone in their sentiments. The notion of keeping politics out of the Church is both commonly and strongly held by many.

In the next couple of weeks, I’d like to address why I think politics do belong in the Church if we’re going to be faithful to our calling. This week I’d like to address three common misunderstandings that lead people to believe that politics don’t belong in the Church.

The first misunderstanding is around the principle of the Separation of Church and State. Some people mistakenly believe that this means that the Church shouldn’t interfere with or even address political issues. However, the separation of Church and State was first articulated by Thomas Jefferson when he wrote, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” In other words, it’s about the State not interfering with the Church, not the other way around.

The second misunderstanding is around the mission of the Church. Some believe that the Church should only be concerned with “spiritual” issues, primarily with what happens after you die – how to get into heaven and how to stay out of hell. But Scripture teaches us that God is involved in every facet of life and creation, which means EVERYTHING is spiritual, even the political process. Furthermore, a careful reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus wasn’t much concerned with what happens after we die. Jesus focused on how we live, experiencing the fullness of life here and now and forever. Following Jesus means living into God’s dream (aka The Kingdom of God) of love, forgiveness, peace and justice for all people and the restoration of all Creation. The mission of the Church is to both proclaim that dream and advocate for its realization (“on earth as it is in heaven”).

The final misunderstanding is around the definition of politics. Some people, when they hear the word “politics”, assume we’re talking about political parties – Republicans, Democrats, Independents, etc. And so, they naturally assume that mixing Church and politics means advocating for one political party over another. But politics is a much broader category than individual parties. It has to do with the organization of society, the creation and enforcement of law, and the stewardship of resources. The political process determines whether and how society reflects the values of the Kingdom of God. In the Gospels, the Kingdom of God is always juxtaposed to the kingdom of Rome, and by extension any system of governance in any organization or society. Jesus’ teachings around the Kingdom of God are always challenging our politics to be better and more mindful of our neighbor, whether we’re part of a particular political party or none at all.

Jesus once said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but give to God what belongs to God.” Those words could lead you to believe that the Church should stay out of politics, until you remember that what belongs to God is…everything.

Next week I want to trace the history of kingship in ancient Israel, revealing the failure of human leadership and the gracious gift of God to hold leadership accountable through the prophets. Our own faith has its roots in the rich soil of the prophetic tradition, which is one of the primary reasons that politics belong in the Church.

Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN

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  • Sharilyn Figueroa

    Two of your statements stood out to me: “Politics is a much broader category than individual parties.” & “What belongs to God is…everything.”

    I think someone saying keep out of politics is saying “don’t try to influence me to think about my party choice.” Both parties are complicit in the mess we are in, and each side is spending a lot of their time, energy, and treasure trying to pull us to their side. Churches should help their parishioners, as you are Jeff, to understand what our focal point should be – not try to influence which side we should choose. Thank you for this message.

  • Curt Carlson

    I was very pleased with your comments. You said that “following Jesus means living into God’s dream of love, forgiveness, peace and justice for all people and the restoration of all Creation.” Our environment is experiencing extremes of storms, floods, forest fires and droughts that our world’s scientists clearly credit to the excesses of us humans. Yet there is hope in the “restoration of all Creation” if all of God’s people come together and put politics aside and put “stewardship of resources” at the top of our agenda and take appropriate action. That action can be individually, as a group and through our government who is suppose to represent our needs. Thanks for your message.