Culture Friday – Political divisions and the church

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Friday the 21st of August, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Culture Friday.

BROWN: It’s election season, so it stands to reason even if America were otherwise unified, we’d be desperately divided during a presidential campaign.

And it’s not as though this is some kind of unique political moment. 

This parody makes the point.

AUDIO: John Adams is a blind, bald, crippled, toothless man, who wants to start a war with France … haven’t we had enough monarchy in America. I’m Thomas Jefferson and I approved this message because John Adams is a hideous …

EICHER: Actual words from history. 

But a modern adaptation obviously, put together by the people at Reason TV, making the point that political division has always been with us. 

We want to talk about that and how it’s affecting the church. And another issue that divides the church: and this one isn’t necessarily about politics, but pandemics.

Reading from a recent LifeWay Research study:

Pastors say that churchgoers have vastly different perspectives on handling COVID-19. ‘Some are scared to death, … others are convinced it’s a hoax,’ one pastor said. ‘Trying to minister to both ends of the spectrum is exhausting.’”

Let me say good morning now to our friend Trevin Wax.

He’s senior vice president of Theology and Communications at LifeWay Christian Resources and a visiting professor at Wheaton College. He is the general editor of The Gospel Project, and the author of multiple books too numerous to mention.

Trevin, good morning.

TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Good morning, Nick. Good morning, Myrna.

EICHER: I’ve certainly noticed how we’ve divided into COVID camps among our friends and church families. But I didn’t think of it from a pastor’s point of view. You deal with lots of pastors. What are you hearing about the challenges they’re facing?

WAX: Well, in my personal conversations with pastors from across the country, I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence that there is some level of division in different congregations. But this research study was interesting because it had an open-ended question asking what are the particular—the most pressing issues, the biggest stress points for the pastor. And only eight percent back in March and April said that division in their congregation over how to handle the pandemic, only eight percent said that was an issue. That jumped to 27 percent in the most recent survey, which was far above any other stress points, pressure points that were mentioned.

I think what that says to me is that the early decisions to shut everything down, go online, pivot to different kinds of ministry, that was relatively simple. It wasn’t easy. It was hard from an emotional standpoint, but it was simple in how to pull that off. I think what is challenging right now for pastors is the reopening conversation is much more complicated. There are many perspectives as to what exactly are the best procedures, the best posture to take, the best positions on how many people in the congregation, what that should look like. And there are people in the congregation that have widely varying views as to the seriousness of the virus—from people who say “This is so serious we can’t believe our church is not taking sufficient precautions” to people who are saying “This isn’t as serious as people are making it. Our church, our leaders are keeping us from worship and from kids ministry and from other things that we really believe need to go on in this moment.” I don’t think that’s the majority of people in the churches. Those tend to be the louder voice in the churches. And so I think a lot of pastors who feel the deep sense of responsibility for preserving the unity of the church are having a challenging time when they have members in their congregation that just see things so differently.

EICHER: Well, that’s interesting, Trevin. You know, that’s why I mentioned that quotation from the pastor describing the two sides of the coronavirus issue. Do you have some advice to pastors on how to get through this moment?

WAX: Well, I’ve been encouraging pastors to look for something that we would call the fellowship of the trenches. They need camaraderie in this moment. Nobody, no pastor went to seminary and took a “How to lead your church through a global pandemic” course. That course is not on the seminary list. So, everybody is struggling, grappling, trying to figure out the best way forward. And the differences, depending on context, region, geography, the nature of your church, the members of your church, the risks for your church, all of those are different. We’re in the realm of wisdom here. We’re not in the realm of a black and white, right and wrong for every congregation across the country.

So I’m encouraging pastors to find a camaraderie of other pastors who have similar situations so they’re able to maintain a sense of sanity, a sense of humor in this—you need pastor friends who can say, “Boy, you wouldn’t believe the earful I got on a voicemail from a church member.” And then another pastor saying, “Yeah, well, let me forward you an email I just got.” Just so that they’re able to recognize that this is going to pass. We’ve got to keep our heads and our hearts in this. With church members, I believe that the quiet majority of churches across the country, they may not agree with every single precaution or lack of precaution they see the congregation taking, but they’re bearing with their pastors and their church leaders because they recognize this is a moment for wisdom, discernment, that we need to extend grace to each other when we don’t all come to the same conclusions. I recommend those people, which I believe are the majority, they need to reach out and encourage their pastors. Because their pastors are hearing from loud voices on the two opposing, polar opposite sides of how you would do this, whether it’s those who say everything should open back up, we need to take a stand. Or those who are saying how could you put people’s lives at risk, we really ought to be still online. The very loudest voices on both sides of that debate are being heard by the pastor.

So, the quiet majority in the congregation who, again, may not completely see eye-to-eye with everything their church is doing, but recognize it’s an unprecedented situation, it’s a challenging time. I recommend they reach out to their pastor and give them a word of encouragement because according to the responses from this Lifeway  research survey, pastors really do need that encouragement in this moment.

BROWN: Trevin, you’re right. This is a challenging time. There are so many different voices. No matter what a pastor does or says, somebody’s going to be unhappy. I was listening to one of your recent blogs and, in it, you say, “the only way to live without approval of others is if we follow—is if we know—we have approval of God in Christ Jesus.” And I would love for you to unpack that, because I think that’s encouraging and would be encouraging to pastors listening.

WAX: Well, pastors know that our job at the end of the day is not simply to please everyone, that we are—there are going to be times where you make people upset and there are going to be times where we may offend. Unintentionally, of course, but there are times when that’s going to happen. I think it’s important for us in a moment like this to recognize that we need to be reassured of the deep love of Jesus for us—shepherds that are looking after the flock, after the sheep that have been entrusted to us. We as shepherds, though, ultimately point to the Good Shepherd and the Good Shepherd is the one who laid down his life for us. And because of Jesus, we have the approval of God. We can live without the temporary approval of people. My point in that video that you mentioned, Myrna, is to say that unless we are overcome by the love of God, we will be overcome by the fear of man. And so pastors need to walk forward with confidence that whether or not they make all the right calls in this moment, they recognize that Jesus the Good Shepherd, he’s for them. He’s on their side. He’s not standing against them. He’s for them and is for the good of the flock.

EICHER: Speaking of division, let’s talk politics. We’re at the end of the Democratic convention—on the cusp of the Republican convention. 

I really like that parody ad we played earlier, because it’s a nice reminder that politics has really always been that way.

We know the famous military axiom that war is the continuation of politics by other means. You might flip that: that politics is the continuation of war by other means and I’d add, politics is preferable to war.

But this year just seems especially fraught—any special words of wisdom on how to navigate this one?

WAX: Well, the thing that we have to remember every four years, every election cycle is that politics is important. Politics is not ultimate. And I think it’s easy in times like this for us to assume that the levers of most influential change happen in Washington D.C. or happen in the halls of government when really the most influential things that happen week-to-week are happening in local congregations all across the country that are worshipping the true king of the world, Jesus Christ. We have to put things in perspective.

First of all, there’s a great big world out there that’s a lot bigger than just our own country and our own politics. As important as our country is for the world situation, this is the first thing we have to remember. The world is a lot bigger. But then we have to remember that the kingdom is a lot bigger. So, that’s not to downplay the importance of politics. Our involvement in the political process is a way that we love our neighbors. It’s a way that we care for the world that God has entrusted to us, for the culture and the society that’s around us. Politics are important. But at the same time, I think we have this tendency especially in very heated political seasons to ratchet up the rhetoric to where you’d think our life depends on what happens in the ballot box and what happens in Washington D.C. every four years based on who’s occupying that White House.

And the truth is, as important as that is and as important as our civic duty is, there are more ultimate things. And if we lose sight of those more ultimate things, we are likely to make an idol out of political power and then our Christian formation becomes warped and distorted as a result. And so I just would encourage people: do your duty. Vote. Follow the issues. Look at the party platforms. Consider the issues at stake. At the same time, step back and remember that God is sovereign. Jesus Christ is still king and there’s a whole world out there with a kingdom that’s growing because of what happened on Easter morning, not on election day.

BROWN: Trevin Wax is senior vice president of Theology and Communications at LifeWay Christian Resources. Trevin, thank you so much for joining us.

WAX: Thank you for having me.


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