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The Bible, Church, and Politics

“The Bible does not speak into the civil order without being read by a believing community. It is not only a story about a community . . . it is read in a community which owns it as their shared story.

“That story is about a people, a civil reordering in their very existence, not only potentially or by implication. No ‘bridge’ or ‘translation’ is needed to make the Bible a book about politics. The new order, the new humanity, does not replace or destroy the old, but that does not make the new order apolitical. Its very existence is subversive at the points the old order is repressive, and creative where the old is without vision. The transcendence of the new consists not in its escaping the realm where the old order rules, but in its subverting and transforming that realm.”

~ John Howard Yoder, For the Nations, 84.

17 Comments

  1. robert wrote:

    Amen.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  2. Stephen wrote:

    This point seems very basic. But in a recent conversation with a pastor, he volunteered to me that he did not think that Jesus was a political figure. In American christian circles there seems to be either an intentional obfuscation of the implications of churchly community, or a complete misunderstanding about the very basic meaning of the word politics. Or both I guess.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I honestly think it is the latter. Many times what I would consider a routine usage of the word “political” is met with total befuddlement by lots of my acquaintances.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  4. Brad A. wrote:

    Indeed, Stephen. I was having lunch with one of our pastors, and I asked him what portion of our congregation would raise their hands if asked “Do you think when you come to worship your politics should be left at the door?” We agreed, probably about 90%. I told him my response would be, “Then we’ve got the wrong politics.”

    Excellent Yoder quote.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  5. Brad E. wrote:

    That’s exactly right. When “politics” means “voting/activity/opinions/allegiances in American democratic governance,” it makes complete sense why Christians on the entire spectrum would agree that “that thing called politics that is so divisive” should be left at the door. Not to mention the fact that churches are tax-exempt non-political entities per the government’s view, and therefore in Christians’ minds as well.

    How difficult, then, to reshape our vision of what politics means. Is it possible for particular churches (i.e., not in the academy or in trained theological discourse)? Is there another word to use? What is a strategy?

    Great post, great comment. So, very, important.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Stephen wrote:

    interesting side question: should churches reject tax exempt status?

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Dave wrote:

    I think it’s the latter as well. Most people I know/meet pretty much accept the sphere sovereignty way of thinking about the world. This is not to say anything about said people, because I accepted the same way of thinking once, and had never heard an argument against that kind of splitting up reality or even an articulation of some other way of thinking. It seems to me that this “sphere sovereignty” (I’m speaking in loose terms here, not referring to the Dutch Reformed understanding) is a dominant assumption in modernity and/or postmodernity.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  8. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Or another way: should churches organize themselves as legal corporations?

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  9. Brad E. wrote:

    I was just having that conversation with a fellow member at my church who is a city planner here in Atlanta. He helped me understand — in the context of talking about a house church in California being made to stop meeting or pay some sort of monstrous fee to “organize” as a body of people — that much of the tax issue has to do with the notion of community resources and expectations for help. That is, if the church building is on fire, the fire truck comes because the institutional organization that meets at that building has either paid the taxes that make fire trucks possible or is exempt from said taxes by way of what it offers to the community.

    Of course, that is an awful way of understanding the church, because it makes it one more institution (corporation?), only one that once was understood generally to be of necessary value to the community, and now not so much. Moreover, it is an institution like a country club or business because it meets at a place, expects water supply and fire aid and health aid and police assistance, and has bills to pay.

    What might it look like for a local church not to meet these requirements, but rather simply be an assembled group of people at a certain place? It seems like only then could a church faithfully (and honestly) rebuff tax-exempt status.

    Tuesday, June 23, 2009 at 9:35 pm | Permalink
  10. Brad A. wrote:

    I’m not at all convinced, though, that there’s something wrong with the church participating in a community such that it pays taxes to make sure it can receive emergency services. I don’t see anything unfaithful about that.

    I don’t think that reduces the church in any way, so long as that local body feels the need to meet in a structure of some sort. It doesn’t make the church a country club or business any more than it would make the family or any other small “community” such just because it meets in a structure that is bound by codes and receives services. Paying for services – even demonstrating concern for the local community – does not seem to be inappropriate to me.

    I think the church (in general) should consider getting rid of tax exempt status, not only for the theopolitical and ecclesiological issues, but also because it seems to be less than “giving” when parishoners receive a little slip every year to write off their taxes.

    Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 5:54 am | Permalink
  11. Brad A. wrote:

    What I have found fruitful is simply teaching a biblical theopolitics. Once folks (even some conservative evangelicals) see what Israel was called to be, and how the church was brought into that, it is no great leap to reconceive our politics.

    And I wouldn’t look for “strategy” per se. I’d rather develop habits of virtue that are counter to the prevailing politics, rooted in a counter theopolitics/theology.

    Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 5:57 am | Permalink
  12. Brad E. wrote:

    Re: taxes, I think you’re probably right (especially about abolishing the tax-exempt status), I just hadn’t really thought about the implications and dynamics of being an institutional body in the community and the services expected as a consequence.

    Re: theopolitics, thanks for the idea. From my experience, too, I have found talking about Israel clears up a lot of ecclesiological folly. From there — especially for conservative evangelical types, which you mention — the task is to find a way to articulate the church’s alternative way of functioning not as a nation, but as a gathering of the nations into God’s people amidst the nations.

    Thanks for the excellent comments.

    Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  13. Brad A. wrote:

    Or, fellow Brad, as an alternative nation…

    This depends on one’s understanding of “nation” and it is not a complete analogy. But the starting point for me is the church as a counter to these political communities to some extent on their own level, and not merely by transcending them.

    Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  14. Christina Tuituku wrote:

    I hope you don’t find this entry to be way off the mark, but since Stephen mentioned knowing the very basic meaning of “politics,” I thought I would look up the word in my 1828 Noah Webster Dictionary, just for the fun of it.
    “The science of government; that part of ethics which consists in the regulation and government of a nation or state, for the preservation of its safety, peace and prosperity; comprehending the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control or conquest, the augmentations of its strength and resources, and the protection of its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals”.
    Ethics? Morals? Certainly not obvious out side of our churches, but also quite opaque within.
    Incidentally, I believe the tax exemption for churches should be abolished for the very reason aforementioned—the tax write- off we can claim if we donate at least $2000.00. Finally, the American flag has no place inside of a Christian church. Do I hear an amen?

    Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  15. Brad A. wrote:

    Amen, Christina. You’ll notice, by the way, that even by 1828 politics was inconceivable without the state. Modernity cannot fathom a politics outside structures of coercive power, certainly not one counter to those structures.

    Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  16. bruce hamill wrote:

    If meaning is usage… does that mean we need to surrender the claim to a ‘basic meaning’ and start using a knew word which is not bound up with the nation-state in this way?

    Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 3:10 am | Permalink
  17. Brad A. wrote:

    If you mean “politics,” then I’d say no. I have no intention of surrendering such a fundamental concept, though I tend to add the prefix “theo-” to underscore the church’s commitments.

    If meaning is usage, then parts of the church have for two millennia countered the secular (i.e., absolutized temporal) use of the term. In no way does the modern state have a monopoly on the legitimate use of “politics.”

    Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 3:49 am | Permalink

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