In our first session of this series we discussed the fact that our allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom, rather than to any earthly kingdom. In the second, we learned that our hope is in Christ and his kingdom, rather than in any earthly kingdom.
This was the easy stuff, because much of it was theological and theoretical. Today gets more difficult, because we move squarely from the theoretical to the practical with the question, "How does a citizen of Christ's heavenly kingdom interact with the government of our earthly kingdom (in our case, the United States of America)?"
I do recognize that in exploring this question, it's possible that toes will be stepped on, and I have no desire to step on any toes, but this morning the word of God may step on your toes, and make you uncomfortable. If it does, that’s a sign that humility, confession, and repentance are needed.
As we begin, I want to make mention of the fact that I will, at a couple points in the message, make reference to social media platforms such as Facebook. If you’re not on Facebook or other forms of social media, and are unfamiliar with what they are, for our purposes today, you just need to know this: Facebook is an online forum where people can share things they’re thinking about (or, more often than not, things they haven't thought about, but should have), or that they’ve read, and other people can write comments about it, disagreeing, agreeing, or asking questions. Or "yelling."
The big question for today is: "What is the Christian ethic for engaging our government and its politics?" As we explore this question, we'll break it down into several areas of expectation. We begin with prayer.
This is one of the few places in scripture where we are encouraged to pray a selfish prayer. Paul tells Timothy that it's actually in our best interest to pray for our leaders.
In the process, he also gives us some insight into the reason for government. Government exists for our protection and peace.
One of our scripture readings for this series was 1 Peter chapter 2, and you may have noticed this concept crop up there. Government exists for our protection – this is its God-ordained purpose.
With that in mind, the church is not intended to have an adversarial relationship with government; we are intended to support the government with the most powerful tool we have – supplication before the throne of God.
We pray here in church each week for our government, but I suspect that few of us do much prayer for the government outside these walls. I know I spend more time talking (and griping) to others about our government than I do talking to God about it. This needs to change.
Instead of whining and complaining about the government, pray for it. But pray fervently, sincerely and with grace.
In many of our conservative evangelical churches, even if you knew nothing about who was president, you could infer their party affiliation from our prayers; if the president is a Republican, we give thanks to God for a "godly leader" and a "God-ordained leader," and if the president is a Democrat, our prayers become sermons against ungodly leadership. Oddly, when the president is a Democrat, we rarely use that phrase "God-ordained leader." Our hypocrisy shines through when we do this.
As we begin our prayers for our leaders, let's keep in mind the purpose for which they are in office -- to protect us, and provide us the capability to have a quiet and tranquil life (a life of peace). With all that our government does, we ought to find plenty to give thanks for:
Can you imagine the thanks that the people of Jesus’s day would have given for these blessings?
So we give thanks for our leaders! (I know, for most of us, that’s not going to roll easily off the tongue, but you should try it!)
And from there we move to prayer of petition. Give our leaders wisdom to make choices that’ll keep my family safe, protect us from criminals, and keep soldiers from knocking at my door.
As we learn of specific situations in the world, we can have more specific prayers. This world is unimaginably complex. Division, hatred, polarized viewpoints, bigotry, poverty, ignorance – and that’s just our country!
Beyond that, our president has to understand the ins-and-outs of every Middle Eastern regime, of Sunni, and Sufi, and Shiite, and all the African genocides and Asian dictators.
I’m glad I’m not president, because I don’t understand a tenth of a percent of what I’d need to know. And so I should probably stop telling God what should happen. Oh Lord, give our leaders wisdom to understand all of these insane, complex problems that face our world, because I haven’t got a clue what needs to be done!
Notice again that government is here for our protection.
Imagine the people Peter was writing to – he just got done saying, “You’re foreigners here,” and they were probably be thinking, “Yay! We’re free from this kingdom! We don't have to obey them!”
But Peter sure does spoil that idea with the instruction he gives about being subject to leaders.
We have several scripture passages we can look at to give us some more thoughts on being subject, or obedient to leaders:
Jesus cleverly shows the people that the coin (which has Caesar's face on it) originated with Caesar, and so must be returned to him. At the same time, with the added "and to God the things that are God's," he affirms what the apostles later state more directly in the book of Acts:
On the subject of civil disobedience, it would be good to look at a more obscure story from the book of 2 Kings. We're probably mostly familiar with the story of Naaman, and how he was healed from his leprosy by washing in the Jordan River, but there's a part of the story that you probably weren't told in Sunday School.
After being healed, Naaman returns to Elisha with an odd request:
It seems that Naaman was the elderly king’s right-hand man, and when his master visited the temple of their false god Rimmon, he required Naaman's assistance to bow down before their God. In effect, then, Naaman is also bowing before Rimmon.
So Namaan asks, “Is this okay?”
I think it's a healthy exercise to ask ourselves what we would have told Naaman in those circumstances. I think our answers would be:
But Elisha's response is very different form this -- he simply says, “Go in peace.”
Elisha is essentially telling him to go ahead and follow the king's command on this matter. Elisha knows that Naaman was not, himself, performing an act of worship, so he guided Naaman to continue serving his king.
I tell this story to point out that we might have a tendency to invoke civil disobedience more quickly than God intended! Be very careful, and very prayerful, when you consider acts of civil disobedience.
Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as an excuse for evil. Remember that we were not intended to have an adversarial relationship with the government.
No cheating on taxes. No looking for ways to avoid following the laws of the land. We’re better than that. We’re the church of Jesus Christ; the spirit of God lives in us, and the power of Christ flows through us, and we’re better than that. If we’re not, we must humble ourselves, confess our sin, and turn from our evil ways.
One thing that I’ve found absolutely appalling in recent years is how completely comfortable and shameless many Christians are about sharing falsehoods on social media. If I had a nickel for every time a Christian shared a flat-out slanderous statement about the president [President Obama at the time this message was originally presented] on Facebook, I’d have a whole lot of nickels.
For example, every year I would see (over and over again), Facebook posts from my Christian friends complaining that: “Obama won’t declare a national day of prayer!” So every year I would go to the White House website and look for that year's proclamation of the National Day of Prayer from President Obama, so people would see that they were sharing slander against the president. As an interesting side note, the Obama administration actually went to court to defend his right to declare the National Day of Prayer. The court documents are online, and you can read them for yourself!
Often, when I defend politicians from slander at the hands of some of my Christian friends, I get odd replies like: “So, what's the deal? Are you a liberal?” or “Huh. I didn’t know you were an Obama supporter.”
I’m a truth supporter. Truth is more important than politics. So yes, to the extent that I will pray for a politician and defend them against slander, I'm a supporter.
It embarrasses and shames me that it is my Christian friends who most often need correction for slander where our government is concerned. If you think politics is more important than truth, then you are declaring that you belong to the kingdom of this world more than you belong to the kingdom of Christ.
There is no political race that is more important than truth. There is no political stance that is more important than truth. There is no law on the books that is more important than truth. There is no article or amendment of the constitution that is more important than truth.
If you can’t defend your stance without a lie, don’t defend it. If you can defend your stance without a lie, then do so, and don’t stoop to a lie.
Understand that if you use a falsehood to defend a viewpoint, you weaken that viewpoint, even if the viewpoint itself is a good one.
You need to be comfortable stating the truth and correcting lies, even when it doesn’t support your political/policy view. Especially when it doesn’t support your view.
A weird thing will start to happen. Your friends will tell you something about a political issue, and you’ll realize that the argument they’re using to defend their viewpoint is bogus. And so even though you agree with their viewpoint, you’ll protest their bogus argument. Because truth matters more. And they’ll look at you like you’ve grown a third eyeball.
The world doesn’t hesitate to spread lies to support their views. Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter. They’re secular parties in a secular government, and they won’t hesitate to lie to you. But you will not lie. You are better than that. Because you are the church.
The idea of honoring the leaders over us is not something the church is particularly comfortable with, or good at. But our discomfort with “respect/honor” doesn’t change the Biblical mandate
We’d rather respect the amber waves of grain than the leader who governs it.
We’ll sing, “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies,” but please don’t expect us to extend any grace or respect to the people who currently lead.
As I was preparing for this message, for a week I jotted down notes of names Christian friends have called political leaders on social media: incompetent boob, stupid a-hole, idiot, moron, Obummer, Oldbummer, Osama, hildebeast (that last one was a pastor’s nickname for Secretary Clinton). We have bought so completely into the ways of this world that we – without hesitation – give in to malice in the way we speak of others, and particularly those in positions of authority.
When we use nicknames like these we show the church’s malice and disrespect, and show a deep need for confession and repentance in the church.
You don’t have to agree with your leaders, but the moment you give in to malice in the manner in which you speak of them, you have declared your allegiance to the kingdom of this world.
One polititican I've noticed stands out for his civility; even in the midst of sharp disagreements, he always refers to his colleagues by their proper titles. It may not be much, but it’s something, and I’m working on that habit as well. I can disagree with any leader, but I must do it with respect, and without malice.
If your habit is to refer to political leaders with malice and disrespect, your first step is to acknowledge that it is sin, and repent of your sin, and then, maybe starting to use peoples’ proper titles is a good second step to retrain yourself in godly speech.
The world uses insults to disrespect and dishonor people, but we do not. That is not who we are. We are better than that.
[The following two paragraphs were written in response to one of my listeners who asked the following question: "Is it wrong/dishonoring to say that I think a candidate is self-centered, and has poor impulse control?" I addressed that question in the next message, but felt it fit more appropriately here]
I think there's a big difference between dishonoring someone and honestly reflecting on someone's personal qualities and abilities. For example, very few people who call President Obama an "idiot" actually think he literally is an idiot (he's actually a very intelligent man, and most people realize that). The word "idiot" is used for the deliberate purpose of demeaning and belittling him. On the other hand, when you say that you think a candidate is self-centered, and has very poor impulse control, you’re not saying those things in order to be demeaning; you say them because you literally believe them to be true. By putting themselves into the national election process, they, by default, are inviting that sort of honest reflection and scrutiny on their character and abilities. The distinction may be a fine line, but there is a distinction, and the distinction lies primarily in the heart of the person who is making the statements.
To that I would add, the distinction also lies in the manner in which we express those statements. And additionally, if we use written media to share our thoughts, we need to remember that body language and facial expressions are absent from our opinions, and therefore extra grace and care need to be added to your thoughts.
These are the words Jesus spoke to his disciples as he sent them out into the countryside to do his work. Basically, he was telling them, "The world is messed up, you need to be wise in how you approach it!"
The serpent reference is interesting, because in the book of Genesis, Satan is described as a crafty (or clever) serpent. Perhaps, in giving his instruction, Jesus was subtly reminding his disciples just what they were up against.
Part of being discerning is being well informed. The problem is, for so long we've been steeped in the mentality of “the media lies to us,” which causes us to distrust those sources which we refer to "mainstream media." So we gravitate to non-mainstream media sources.
We need to remember that just as there is no candidate that represents the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and there is no party that represents the kingdom of heaven, there is no media source that represents us.
The danger is that we tend to look for media sources that match our viewpoint, and once we've found them, we don't bother fact-checking them. At the root of this is a somewhat arrogant presumption that I must be right, and therefore news source X must be a good one -- not because it's been fact-checked, but by virtue of the fact that it agrees with me.
Then we share their stories on social media, and in so doing we are saying the following to our friends
The result is that we create a giant echo chamber in which we are only hearing stories that match our view of the world, and if those stories are not true, we’ll never know it.
Some helpful hints in your quest to be a discerning consumer of information:
Be as crafty as Satan, but as harmless and innocent as a dove, and that brings us to…
I love the salt comparison in these verses. If used properly, salt doesn’t make recipes taste salty – it just brings out the natural flavor of other things in the recipe. For example, consider toast with butter, as opposed to toast with salted butter. The second doesn’t taste saltier – it tastes more buttery!
Grace takes our speech and makes it more of whatever it is: more encouraging, more reproving, more edifying.
But we don’t always respond to each other, and to the world, with grace.
I remember once Michelle Obama gave a speech in which she talked about how amazing it was to live in the White House, realizing that it's a house that was built by slaves, and coming to realize how much progress we've made as a nation since those days.
And right-wing news media took one sentence out of context to make it sound like she’s complaining about living in a house built by slaves.
What does this have to do with grace? Well, when someone is being slandered -- even if it's someone I don't agree with, I feel like I have to say something! So when a friend posts a link to one of those horrible "news" articles, I commented (with grace): “This link is a video of her speech – if you watch this section, I think you’ll see that that’s not what she was saying.”
When a second friend shared the same article, I copied and pasted my response.
When my third friend shared it, I was gritting my teeth while I replied, and maybe I wasn't quite as gracious.
And by the time a fourth friend shared it, grace had been thrown out the window and replaced with sarcasm. Later I had to go back and offer that person an apology for my ungracious speech.
If you’re not the person on the receiving end, a sarcastic, insulting, or ungracious response can be funny. But it’s not gracious or productive, and it's certainly not funny to the person on the receiving end.
And the fourth person didn't do anything worse than what the first had done, so why did they not get a little grace too? The problem was not the fourth person -- it was the person engaging with them -- me. Apparently I'd exhausted my supply of grace for the morning. And that was my problem, not his.
I should be better than that. Not because I’m anything special, but because I am the recipient of Jesus’s grace.
That wonderful, matchless grace of Jesus,
Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain,
All sufficient grace for even me.
Broader than the scope of my transgressions,
Greater far than all my sin and shame,
Oh magnify the precious name of Jesus,
PRAISE HIS NAME!
And when I respond to others, I need to fill my cup to overflowing with the grace Jesus has given me, and share that grace with others.
If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying with grace. If it’s not worth saying with grace, it’s not worth saying at all.
If I dig down into that well of grace and find that my cup comes up empty, I need to pray, “Fill me up, Lord, or shut me up.”
And I won’t expect the people of this world to speak to me with grace – after all, they’ve never received that matchless, all-sufficient grace. Even when they speak to me without grace, I will reach into that well of grace and my words will pour a cupful of the grace of Jesus all over them, and they won’t know what hit them!
By the grace of God, I will not be the person who responds without grace.
By the grace of God, none of us will, because we are the church of Jesus Christ, we have the spirit of God and the power and grace of Jesus flowing through us, and we are better than that.