Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

The Political Responsibilities of the Christian Church

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Delivered on The Lord’s Day | September 26, 2004

Proverbs 31:8-9
Ecclesiastes 4:1-12
Matthew 5:14-16
James 2:14-26

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly: defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9

“You are the light of the world…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.” Matt 5:14,16b.

Some people in our world have adopted the notion that Christians should not participate in the political process and that separation of church and state means the church should completely abandon or abdicate its political responsibility in the world or refrain altogether from all things political. It is true that ministry should be kept above internal and external politics, but this does not mean that Christians as citizens of our nation should abandon from participating in the political process of our nation.

These same persons argue that Jesus Christ was apolitical and at best Christians who truly follow Christ should always support government and never dissent or protest against it when its ruler ship becomes tyrannical or unjust.

Furthermore, these same individuals believe that the practice of Christian spirituality is interior to the human spirit and human soul and has nothing to do with the external transformation of society or social structures.

For them, being Christian simply means going to church on Sunday, reading the Bible, attending prayer meeting and Sunday School and being oblivious to what’s happening in our world. It simply means going to church on Sunday, getting happy in worship service, experiencing a spiritual high and then going back to a world of injustice, poverty and suffering and never having an opinion about these things and never doing anything to change these things. This is not the meaning of being Christian. Christians have a responsibility to participate in the world and to transform and make that world a better place.

Even a closer reading of the Bible shows that God is concerned not only about our spiritual situation but our social condition; He is concerned for the oppressed. God wants a world where justice prevails and hunger and poverty are no more. Jesus was not just concerned about the human soul but was also concerned about the human mind, body and soul and cultivating the type of society that would make for wholesome, soulful living.  Yes, Jesus was concerned about the human spirit, but also concerned about society and how it affects the human spirit and that’s why he empowered his disciples to positively transform that society through responsible God centered, spirit filled behavior.

Jesus was interested in positive social change of society as well as the positive spiritual change of the individual. The soul of society is intimately connected to the soul of the individual. If the soul of society is sick it is because the souls of individuals are sick.  Stop saying that Christian spirituality is just about the spirit. It is also concerned about the spirit and souls of men who make up the social order.  Jesus understood that it means nothing to talk to a man about the spirit when he has no job, when his belly is empty and when he has no prospects for a meaningful, realizable future.

Luke 4:18-19 tells us what Jesus mission was through the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he anointed me to preach good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The church in Jesus eyes was not meant to be an isolated unit from society; a social club narcissistically preoccupied with its own concerns and issues with no concern for the world and its people. The church in Jesus eyes should be an extension of God’s concern for all of humanity; a concern that encompasses the total individual and the whole of society. Jesus is concerned not only about the spirit of men and women but the economic, political, social and relational conditions of the world in which he was sent to minister.  The scriptures might be paraphrased to say that “God so loved the world, the world, the world, that he sent his son to change it in every aspect and whoever believes and follows Christ can become a positive change agent in that world.

Hope United Methodist Church in particular and the The United Methodist Church in general believe in the church taking political responsibility in the world. In the 2000 United Methodist Book of Discipline there is a statement about the church’s responsibility to the political community. It reads as follows:

The role and responsibilities of the church can be seen in two basic realms: priestly and prophetic.

The priestly role of the church is to maintain the church as institution, to minister to the needs of God’s people, to uphold in its service order and sacrament. The church must have order and must also be structured in a way that enables it to optimally do ministry not in a vacuum but in society.

The church also is living sacrament that is concerned for the whole of man by ministering through Christ to the needs of men and women. The church preserves the gospel and teachings of Christ and his apostles and anticipates Christ’s return to the world to transform it once and for all. The priestly role of the church is to carry out the functions of the church as an institution in our world, to preserve order and sacrament and to keep alive the faith and beliefs that inform and propel its ministries.

The priestly role of the church is to carry out sacramental duties and responsibilities to its members and prospective members; to minister to their needs and to create a place of worship and the study of God’s Holy word where people can be empowered and challenged to live holy spirit filled lives and to know God better and to become Christ like. The church should model the faith it teaches.

Holy Communion and Baptism are just two sacraments of the church but the priestly role of the church is also to preserve the church as a place of worship, discipleship, stewardship and fellowship. It is to carry out the administrative and institutional responsibilities of the church to its members, constituents and the larger denomination and community. Just as the priests of old were responsible for preserving the traditions and rituals of the Jewish faith, the church today has a similar priestly function.

While it is important for the church to carry out its priestly role and responsibilities, the church also has a prophetic responsibility to the world. Part of its mission is to serve as a change agent for individuals and society at large; to speak to the needs of the poor and oppressed and to hold government and those who rule responsible by seeing and ensuring that those who govern have a concern for all people and not just a select few. The church has a prophetic role in calling attention to social injustice and to call the larger society back to God in “Thus saith the Lord.”

The prophetic role of the church is captured by the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” It is also embodied in the words of one of our scriptures today, Proverbs 31:8-9, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

The prophetic role of the church is in the best tradition of the Old Testament prophets who spoke truth to power and railed against the injustices and problems of their times. The prophets role was to call attention to what God said and wanted for the larger society and for his people.

The prophetic role of the church is to speak truth, to stand up for truth and to live the truth as expressed through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The church then, has a political responsibility, a social responsibility, a moral responsibility to call attention to oppression and injustices and help find remedies to the continuing plight of mankind in the world.

The priestly role of the church is primarily internal by vouching safe traditions, rituals and the church as institution. The prophetic role of the church is primarily external and social by calling attention to social and political practices that harm and undermine righteousness and goodness.

Contrary to some believers thinking, the church does have political responsibilities because it should have a prophetic voice in our world today; it should not be a co-conspirator of silence in wake of the world’s oppressions and atrocities. It should not look the other way when evil seeks to prevail and overwhelm us in our world. One writer said, ”The only way for evil to prevail is for the good to remain silent.”
As a force for good and positive social and spiritual change the church has a prophetic role in helping to improve society.
The church then should not hide its head or cloak itself behind scriptures that advocate the abandonment of political responsibility in our world. The church has a moral responsibility to uphold and support government, and to advocate for positive change when government becomes tyrannical and oppressive and society loses its way toward God.

The church is not a repository for society, the church should be on the cutting edge of leadership and constructive change for society. With all the churches we have in the world, the world should be far less filled with the hatred, divisions, oppression, war, poverty and strife if it took its prophetic role more seriously.

It is precisely because the church has largely failed to raise a prophetic voice in the midst of these continuing embattlements that the church has lost credibility in our society. In an effort to fulfill its priestly role it has also neglected its prophetic mandates.

Instead of advocating for the poor and speaking out against injustice, the church has cooperated with evil by remaining silent and has thus become part of the problem. The church has become so preoccupied with itself, with its own institutional apparatus, with creating its own little kingdom and with tending to its own bureaucracy and wheelwork that it has failed to prophetically address the concerns of society. The church then has become distracted by its own institutionalism, by its own issues and concerns that it can scarcely address the needs of the larger community. Not all churches fit this profile. Some churches have managed to balance the tension between its priestly occupations and its prophetic elucidations.

The church, in many but not all sectors, has become a narcissistic, navel gazing, self aggrandizing, self serving, country club, for members only, more concerned with itself, more concerned with staying alive than in changing the world. It is this church that wants nothing to do with serving and changing society, that has most vigorously advocated an relinquishment of political responsibility in our world.

Ironically, some people think the church is just about worship and not about transforming society.  But I am here to tell you that we can get happy all we want on Sunday but if our communities are going to hell, our families are going to hell, our children and our neighbors children are raising hell, our political, legislative and judicial system are going to and going through hell where we can’t get justice, where our communities are overrun by drugs, bloodshed and mayhem, where we can’t find jobs, or walk the streets safely at night, where we cant’ get healthcare or something decent to eat, where our world is coming apart and we cower in fear and sickness unto the death, happiness on Sunday is just a temporary reprieve or solution.

We can praise God and that’s good. We can shout hallelujah and that’s good. We can talk all we want about how good God is and that’s good, but what about our communities, what about our families, what about our relationships with one another, what about society, what about the dismal, dreadful state of politics in some sectors of our land? We can praise God in the sanctuary but we can also praise God by changing the conditions of our world. We can praise God with our lips in worship service, but we can praise God with our hips by getting up off our behinds and serving people who are truly in need.

Where is the prophetic church? The prophetic role of the church is not confined to the 1960’s. There are still social and political problems and concerns that in some respects make things worse today than they were yesterday and the church should address these concerns as a part of its continuing ministries for positive social and political change.

Jesus says in Matthew 5, “You are the light of the world, so shine your light that God might be glorified, don’t let the world put your light out.”

That’s part of our problem, we have gotten into bed with the world, we have prostituted ourselves to the world, we have sold out to the world, we have allowed the problems and challenges of living in today’s world put our light out.

Jesus says shine your light like a city on a hill. If we don’t shine the light who will? If we don’t speak the light who will? If we don’t share the light who will? If we don’t give off some light who will? If we don’t make the light available to a world wallowing in darkness who will? Who will make a difference?

It’s alright to get happy but take that happiness out into the world as social witness and awareness and change the world for the better. The world will get better when you and I get better. While we are getting happy on Sunday, we are slowly losing our constitutional rights on Monday. While we are getting happy on Sunday, we are amassing a national debt on Monday that will require us to borrow money from foreign countries to pay off our debt which will put us in hock with foreign countries long into the next generation. How you gonna give a tax cut to people which is essentially money that you borrow from another foreign country that we have to pay tax and interest on later?

While we are getting happy on Sunday, drugs are destroying our communities and our children on Monday. While we are getting happy on Sunday some politicians are making back room deals with Lobbyists that are selling out your children’s future on Monday.

While we are getting happy on Sunday, jobs are being outsourced to foreign countries at cheaper labor rates and are not being replaced on Monday.  While we are getting happy on Sunday, many of our children can’t even read at a third grade level on Monday.  While we are getting happy on Sunday, domestic violence, divorce and other family pressures are destroying families at alarming rates on Monday.  While we are getting happy on Sunday the country is being stolen right out from under us on Monday. While we are getting happy on Sunday, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. While we are getting happy on Sunday, our young black men and women are being incarcerated faster than some cars come off the assembly line at the big three auto plants. While we are getting happy on Sunday, our water supplies are being poisoned and our fish contaminated with mercury, PCBs and other pollutants. While we are getting happy on Sunday, we are all facing global warming on Monday which is having devastating consequences on air, crops and our food supplies.

While we are getting happy on Sunday, hurricane this and that and all kinds of natural catastrophes are raging through our universe sending us into cosmic and ecological tailspins. While we are getting happy on Sunday our young service men and women are being blown up by car bombs and suicide bombers on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The world is in one hellava mess and yes I said hellava because some places in our world are worse than hell but you will be more concerned about my using the word hell than getting up and doing something to get this hell out of our world!

Where is the prophetic church? Where is the church of protest, the church of justice, the church of freedom and equality for all people, the church of peace, the church of hope and the promise for a greater tomorrow? You don’t change your world by saying the church should not participate in the political process.  How is it that we are now in a society where millions of dollars are spent on campaign ads that tout and promulgate one lie after another about a candidate? Couldn’t’ we make better use of that money? What’s more where is your voice of protest for the lies, untruths and half truths that are told by those who say they represent us?

Of all the churches in this nation where are the voices of protest and redress?

Has the church outlived its usefulness? Have we become obsolete? Have we in an effort to be priestly failed to fufill our prophetic role in the transformation of society?  Have we become too smug and complacent? Have we lost the prophetic edge of moral responsibility? Why have we ceased raising our voices amid the cacophony of the world’s confusion and calamities?

The Book of James reminds us, Faith without works is dead.” We can talk a faith game all we want but if we are not working to bring about the change that we seek, then our faith is dead.

Ecclesiastes 4 reminds us, “ I saw the tears of the oppressed and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors and they have no comforter and I declared that the dead who had already died, are happier than the living who are still alive, But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

What should the church then do?

Speak the truth, shine its light, help those in need and work to transform the political and social order as Christ himself would.

It is not enough to sit and complain and to be indifferent to our political responsibility as Christians. We must stand for truth, speak the truth and advocate a concern for social justice and peace in our world. The theologos will transform the misanthropos of our world. This means that we take responsibility, that we pay attention to what’s happening to our world, our way of life and the government; that we exercise our right to vote which is a right that many bled and died to exercise; it means paying attention to what’s going on politically and not just by looking at the television set whose news are skewed in the interests of the establishment.

It means reading, paying attention and digesting information so as to be informed and so as to make the right judgments and decisions. It means righting letters to your congressman and Senator and your state representatives. It means holding your elected leaders accountable by supporting them when they serve the public interest and challenging them when they don’t.

It means knowing that the God who created this world calls for our participation in positively transforming the world. God did not mean for the church to turn its back on the world that God created. If God created it, he calls for our stewardship and care taking of it in all of its aspects. Our stewardship of responsibility means participating in the world by shining our light and helping those in need and working to make the world a better place right now, right here and forever.

It means raising voices of conscience and protest against injustice, poverty, hunger, disease, oppression, discrimination, corruption and wrong doing. It means giving credit where credit is due but working harder and smarter to ensure our children’s future. Should we spend billions of dollars for a war that has no end when people in this country go hungry, when people cannot afford health care, when the educational system of our central cities are collapsing, when people afford the basic amenities and necessities of life? Should the children of common citizens go to war when the citizens of some of our elected representatives do not?

Our role as Christians is to participate in the political process and to bring integrity to that process through fairness, compassion and a concern for justice for all of God’s people.


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