Text: Mark 12:13-17
The Church’s Mission: Prophetic Ministry or Political Machine?
St Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Norman, OK on October 10, 2004
By Dr. Bruce Prescott
Jesus gave a perfectly clear mission statement for the church in the 25th chapter of Matthew. He said, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”
The very things that he had devoted his life to doing, he expected his disciples to be doing with their lives. He advised everyone that this is the standard by which their lives will be measured. Those who do what Jesus did will be blessed and inherit God’s kingdom. Those who don’t will be cursed and find themselves downcast. Some Christians get this and some Christians don’t.
I come from the Baptist tradition. In fact, I am a Baptist preacher – but, lately, I have found it increasingly difficult to be proud of being a Baptist. A lot of my Baptist brethren don’t quite grasp the full reason why Jesus wanted his disciples to visit the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. I’m sure you don’t have that problem in Methodist circles, but we Baptists have always had a problem comprehending the full mission of the church.
Most Baptists can think of no other reason to visit poor, hungry, naked and sick strangers than to tell them about Jesus. Undoubtedly, most Baptists think the only reason people are poor, hungry, sick, naked or strange is because they are sinners. They all need to be warned to repent and receive the forgiveness that Jesus died to secure for them. Then -- miraculously -- they won’t be poor, hungry, sick, naked or strange anymore. It would have to be miraculous because few Baptists think that God might actually want them to befriend these people. Minister to the poor? Feed the hungry? Care for the sick? Show hospitality to strangers? -- that’s not Baptists’ mission! God must have called Methodists and Presbyterians or Catholics and Episcopalians to care for people’s bodies. Baptists’ mission is to save souls.
That was pretty much the attitude of the Baptists that I grew up with and the Baptists with whom many of you were raised. Here and there, there were pockets of Baptists who understood that the church was supposed to minister to both body and soul, but, by and large, Baptists were mostly concerned with saving souls. And we saved them the old fashioned way -- one-at-a-time.
But, in case you haven’t noticed, over the last three decades there has been a dramatic shift in Baptist thinking. It is a shift that has profound implications for you and for everyone who lives around Baptists and other “Evangelicals.” Our rhetoric sounds much the same, but our actions are very different. If you turn the volume down and watch what we are doing, you will see that Baptists and other “Evangelicals” are giving up on the “foolishness of preaching” and we are becoming a very large cog in an enormous political machine. No longer do we trust the Holy Spirit to change society as the gospel changes and transforms individual lives. In an interview with PBS Jerry Falwell called that idea “a correct premise,” but he quickly added, “In reality, it doesn’t work out that way.” So, instead of being salt and light and leaven by sharing the gospel and letting the Holy Spirit bring about change, most Baptists have come to believe that they are salt and light and leaven by voting for politicians who will pass legislation that will force their religious values on a nation of people with increasingly diverse religious values.
But, there’s a big problem with forcing religious values on people in this country. The first amendment of our Constitution says, “Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion.” Unfortunately, throughout our history, people have acted as though the Constitution said no such thing.
For a long time, few people dared to complain when Christians passed laws that forced everyone else to comply with our religious rules and values. But now there are a lot of people in this country whose faith is different from Christianity and a lot of Christians are getting tired of having to live by rules and values that are narrower than their own beliefs and convictions. They are beginning to press the case against the informal establishment of the Christian religion that exists in our society.
That has led to a backlash by the Religious Right and that backlash is threatening to undermine the credibility of the Christian gospel. The gospel is being undermined by the incredible politicization of churches that is going on at this very moment in churches all around the country. Even as I speak the Religious Right is building a political machine to wage a culture war and push a theocratic agenda.
You read about it in the newspapers and watch it on your television every day:
This politicizing of churches – enlisting them as active participants in the campaigns of politicians and political parties – is bad for both church and state. It will destroy the foundation that undergirds all the that freedoms that we enjoy.
Religious liberty for everyone — not just Christians — is our first freedom. It’s the first freedom because it is the bedrock foundation upon which every other form of freedom rests. It secures our right to a free conscience and protects the rights of minorities. If you can strip away the right of any minority to worship as they please, to be free from indoctrination into someone else’s religion, and to be exempt from paying taxes to support someone else’s faith, then you can undermine any other right that minorities enjoy in our society.
But today, respect by the majority for the principle of church-state separation has deteriorated to a level that is unprecedented in our nation’s history. It has moved us dangerously close to a tipping point from which no one knows how we will recover.
In this church I suspect that I am preaching to the choir. But I’m concerned that the choir of people who are willing to stand up for church-state separation is far too small. This ought to be a bi-partisan issue where all Americans can stand side-by-side in the choir and sing together. That used to be the case.
My father-in-law was a lifelong Republican and, being a Baptist minister, he was also a strong and vocal advocate for separation of church and state. My father is a lifelong Democrat, and being a public school teacher, he knew that it would be a violation of public trust for him to try to pray with or proselytize the impressionable young children from religiously diverse backgrounds who came to his classroom. My father and my father-in-law didn’t agree much on politics, but at least they could agree on the value of the First Amendment. Today there are not enough people familiar with the First Amendment to realize that we are being lied to, manipulated and misled by people that have been entrusted with positions of great power and grave responsibility.
Politicizing churches is bad. It is bad for both church and state. First, let me talk about how it is bad for the church.
Contrary to what some would have you believe, GOP does not stand for “God’s own Party” and it doesn’t stand for “God’s own platform.” God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. It is blasphemous for any party or candidate to try to wrap the cross in their flag and claim Divine sanction. Jesus told us to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to render to God the things that are Gods.” (Mark 12:16-17) The principle separating church and state is a Christian biblical principle and it is time that Christians in both parties start observing it.
Politics in the church is not the only thing undermining the witness of the church in our country. The new faith-based initiatives are doing it as well.
What could possibly trivialize genuine faith and destroy its credibility more than to create the impression that it can be manipulated to serve the political purposes of the highest bidder? And that is precisely what “Charitable Choice” begun under Clinton and the “Faith-based initiatives” that were expanded by Bush are doing.
What I am saying ought to strike fear in the heart of people of sincere faith more than the threat of harm that any terrorist can do. Our nation can survive attacks like the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building and 9/11. We can clear away the ruble, bury the dead, bandage the wounded, grieve for our losses and rebuild again with a stronger sense of community and a greater commitment to justice.
I am not sure society will survive for long without the vital prophetic voices that rise up against social injustice and call on society to do a better job of feeding the poor, caring for the sick, providing for the elderly and disabled, and lifting up the downcast. Nearly all the social advances in this country have been led by a small group of men and women whose faith gave them the courage and the credibility to stand up and speak out against injustice and to ultimately prevail.
To trivialize faith, to undermine its integrity and destroy its credibility by subjecting it to the machinations of money and the manipulations of secular politics threatens more than physical well-being of a few, it threatens the heart and soul of our entire society.
Now, I’m going to talk about how politicizing churches is bad for the state.
Politics is the art of compromise and religious convictions are often very uncompromising. When uncompromising religious convictions clash, explosions often occur. Some people think that the twenty-first century will be characterized by a clash of civilizations and wars between religious cultures. Many Southern Baptists and evangelical Christians think 9/11 marked the beginning of a great clash of civilizations and they are fervently reading Bible prophecies looking for signs that will lead to the battle of Armaggedon. They do not hesitate to exert political pressure on the President of the United States to make sure that his policies conform to their interpretations of how Bible prophecies are supposed to unfold. That is why President Bush back off of his criticism of Ariel Sharon when Sharon's policies in the West Bank were undermining our President’s proposals for peace.
We live at a time when the head of a foreign government can change the foreign policy of the world’s only superpower – in literally, a matter of days -- by calling upon Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and a handful of TV preachers.
If that is not enough to alarm you, then this should. We live in a pluralistic democracy. Our nation grants equal rights and promises fair opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to people of vastly different faiths, convictions and beliefs. For two hundred and twenty-five years our country has been spared the political strife and civil wars that have characterized the histories of literally every other land on the face of the earth. But today there are a lot of Christians -- many of them holding high public offices – both in this state and in Washington, D.C. -- who believe that democracy is heresy because, “In the name of toleration, the believer is asked to associate on a common level of total acceptance with the atheist, the pervert, the criminal, and the adherents of other religions.”
These “Christian Reconstructionists” are patient revolutionaries who fully intend to make America a “Christian Nation” by force of law and/or by force of arms. Right now their agenda, what I have been calling the theocratic agenda, is being worked out slowly – step-by-step – by force of law. Here, in barest form, are the goals that they are trying to achieve. You’ll have to decide for yourselves how much progress you think they have made in advancing their goals and how you will respond to their continuing advances.
Here is Dominion Theology’s blueprint for civil society:
1) Make the ten commandments the law of the land (Could that have anything to do with Roy’s Rock?).
2) Strengthen patriarchically ordered families (Could that have anything to do with opposition to equal rights and with Baptist creeds that insist that wives must "graciously submit" to their husbands?).
3) Close the public schools and make parents totally responsible for the education of their children (Could that have anything to do with the push for vouchers and the explosion of home-schooling -- especially among Baptists?).
4) Require “tithes” to ecclesiastical agencies to provide welfare services (Could that have anything to do with 'Charitable Choice' and Faith-based initiatives?).
5) Reduce the role of government to defense of the nation and the defense of property rights (Could that have anything to do with the rhetoric about 'starving the beast' of government and policies that bankrupt the government with expensive wars while cutting taxes?).
6) Close the prisons – reinstitute slavery as a form of punishment and require capital punishment for all of ancient Israel’s capital offenses – including apostacy, blasphemy, incorrigibility in children, murder, rape, Sabbath breaking, sodomy, and witchcraft.
This last goal is breathtaking in its scope. So, let me quote Henry Kissinger’s analysis of how people typically respond to revolutionary powers that do not accept the legitimacy of the existing order:
Is there a word of hope that can be offered in the face of this alarming state of affairs?
There is hope!
There is hope if the Christian people who comprehend the true purpose and mission of the church will find the courage to stand up, speak out and do something to preserve the integrity of the Church’s witness.
There is hope if Christian people will do something to put an end to the politicization of the church in this country.
There is hope if Christian people will speak out and make it clear that TV preachers and the right-wing evangelists do not speak for them and they do not represent the best that the Christian faith has to offer.
There is hope if Christian people will stand up for religious liberty for all persons. Only then will we be able to share a gospel that is “good news” and not “bad news.”
The gospel never has been the “bad news” about legislatively coerced conformity to somebody’s “worldview.” The gospel has always been the “good news” about the love and grace for all people that God revealed in Jesus Christ.
It’s time for all Christians to stand up and start proclaiming God’s love and grace again. Then, we need to demonstrate it in both word and deed.
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