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The Surprising Link Between The Gospel and Politics

The Surprising Link Between The Gospel and Politics

I have a friend whom I admire a great deal. I see much of Jesus in him. He cares deeply for the church. He is constantly striving to ground his actions in his faith. He practices humility in profound and tangible ways. He is remarkably transparent.

Still, the last decade or so has left him profoundly disappointed in Christian leadership. He has seen churches torn apart over political disagreement. Christian friends have turned from a lifetime of pursuing faithfulness to choosing political expediency, and pastors have used their influence to excuse the inexcusable. All of this has left him somewhat disenchanted.

He shared with me in an email, “A friend of mine, a person of the Christian faith, recently wrote to me, saying this: ‘Christianity is supposed to work—as in produce more transformed Christlike people. Why doesn’t it in case after case?’ People of faith need to grapple openly and honestly with this question. Potemkin village Christianity serves no one.”

My friend continued, “I’m certainly not arguing, then, that faith isn’t making a profound difference in the lives of Christians. But I do think we need to honestly grapple with the gap between what followers of Jesus profess and how we live—a gap that will always exist, but that is right now, at least in America, significantly larger than it should be. What should be a crevice is, in far too many cases, a canyon.”

What we must consider—what Dallas Willard asked us to consider decades ago—is that the failures of Christians are not in spite of the gospel that is being preached but because of it. Such futility is the natural result of gospels of sin management, which are invitations to take the right positions but are not themselves invitations to transformation into the likeness of Christ through interactive relationship with Christ himself. The kind of person you are is, at best, a secondary issue for these gospels.

Willard referred to this as the “Great Omission.” This “gap between what followers of Jesus profess and how we live” (as my friend put it in his email message)—what Willard called the “Great Disparity”—is rooted in the Great Omission. Though it is not what Jesus taught, “the governing assumption today, among professing Christians, is that we can be ‘Christians’ forever and never become disciples.”

To extend Willard’s argument, the failures of Christians’ political witness are not coincidental to what Christians have heard about Christianity and taken it to be; instead, they flow directly from the plain implications of what they have heard.

We will understand popular expressions of Christianity in politics and public life much better if we understand the gospel that is popular among many Christians. If salvation results from one’s mental assent to several lines of doctrine—including, and primarily, that Jesus is the Divine Fixer, the Eschatological Widget—then it should surprise no one that to have a “Christian politics,” in some quarters, essentially amounts to mental assent to a few axiomatic political positions.

I have lived and worked at this intersection of faith and politics my entire adult life. It took me so long to connect these dots. What is the popular conception of what it means to be a Christian? A Christian is someone who goes to church, who provides mental assent to a few key lines of doctrine. What does it mean to have a Christian politics?

For many Christians, and for much of the public, it has meant holding a particular position on one or two key issues. That’s it. You can advance those positions in the most destructive way possible, through the most deceitful means imaginable, but that would be irrelevant to any decision regarding whether that form of politics was meaningfully Christian. It’s the view of the gospel that allows for and is reflected by the politics.

If you have a theology that suggests you can be the worst kind of person and make it to heaven as long as you have a moment of mental assent to certain statements, then you can have an approach to politics that is full of anger, fear, and hatred as long as you hold the right positions on a handful of issues. You can go about your politics by deceit, manipulation, and dehumanization and call it Christian, as long as you’re willing to say yes when you’re expected to say yes, and no when you’re expected to say no. The “gospel” and the politics are not disconnected. These things are related. They go together.

Of course, the gospels of sin management are not the gospel, any more than a politics of self-interest and antagonism is a Christian politics.

The right and the left both try to reduce Christianity to an affirmation of their politics. This is not new. People have sought to use Jesus as a vehicle for their politics for a long time; we see it in the Gospels, and we see it today. And yet two thousand years after Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected, his life still saturates our time. The just critiques of Christians are answered entirely by the life and witness of Christ himself.

Jesus is not a fixer; he is Lord. He’s not a crisis manager; he is the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne, and he is King (Psalm 89:14).

Taken from The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life by Michael Wear. Copyright © January 2024 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan,

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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