Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Politics AND Religion?

It’s not unusual to meet a bi-vocational minister. Even the Apostle Paul made tents on the side! So it doesn’t surprise many people to learn that in addition to serving as Lead Pastor at Christian Challenge, I also have a second job. But sometimes my choice of second profession does raise a few eyebrows… and a few questions!

I serve as both a pastor AND a politician – an elected official representing Pineville’s District 5 on the City Council.

In some circles, “politician” is considered a dirty word. And to be fair, in other circles, “pastor” can have some pretty negative connotations as well! Politics and religion can both be polarizing and controversial in their own right, and often they appear to be at odds with each other. Some say I’m foolish to even try to integrate these two apparently incompatible worlds. But for me, there is no conflict.

I may have multiple jobs, but I only have one calling: to love God and love others. (See my June 4, 2016 "guest sermon" in the Town Talk for more on this.) My roles in ministry and politics both provide me with different avenues to live out that call. It all boils down to relationship. As a pastor, my primary interest is in seeing individuals reconciled with God, to see that relationship brought to a healthy place. But a pastor is also often called upon to help individuals reconcile with each other. It might be a family issue between parents and children, or a marriage issue - but I consider it a very high honor when people trust me to help them navigate difficult personal situations.

In a similar way, as a councilman, I have the opportunity to act as a mediator for my constituents when they feel like they’re not being heard. Sometimes it’s a conflict between neighbors where I’m able to step in as a third party and help both sides come to an agreement. Sometimes it’s an issue one of my constituents is having with drainage or traffic or something else where they’re seeking intervention from the City. I might not be able to solve their problem, but many times I can help them better understand the process and why things might be taking longer than they’d like. I’m honored that for four terms now, the residents of my district have trusted me enough to choose me as their representative.

But it doesn’t stop there. Because I serve as a councilman, I’ve also had the opportunity to build relationships with other elected officials, and sometimes they seek me out not as a fellow politician… but as a pastor. Because we’ve built relationships through working together on governmental matters, and because they’ve seen my heart and know as a pastor I carry secrets to the grave, many of them have reached out in difficult times to ask for prayer and have shared their own secret struggles in hopes I might be able to shed some spiritual insight into their journey. So in a way that only God could orchestrate, my two seemingly disconnected career choices come together in harmony. And that’s why I love serving in politics!

But I can still understand why many believers find politics distasteful. Aside from the history of corruption, politics involves controversy, and controversy is uncomfortable. It’s human nature to avoid things that are unpleasant. For Christians, avoiding politics can feel like not only the more pleasant route, but the more noble or spiritual one as well.

So maybe there are some conversations we try to avoid. Maybe we retreat to “safe places” where everyone agrees with us. Or maybe we just throw up our hands in frustration and try to ignore it, to disengage from the process entirely.

I’d like to challenge you to get out of that comfort zone.

As believers, I think we need to be a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable. We will be asked where we stand on certain issues, and our positions won’t always match popular opinion. That’s OK. Rather than retreat, we should be prepared to share our beliefs with confidence and humility, while leaving room for others to hold different yet equally strong convictions.

The Bible offers several examples of believers who were also active in government. Some even served in pagan, Godless governments - and yet thrived because of their faith compass. Take Joseph for example - his integrity and willingness to speak truth to power brought him into the #2 position in the entire nation of Egypt. He not only saved the Messianic line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from the coming drought, he also saved the nation of Egypt and countless others by his wise political dealings and insightful policy decisions.

Another notable example is Daniel and the “three Hebrew children” (who were not children at all!). They served under three different Babylonian kings, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius. They were surrounded by darkness and yet they stayed true to their faith while serving honorably and with integrity. They remind me of Paul’s admonition to “...prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.” (Phil 2:15 NASB)

There are many other examples of believers who served in political or governmental office, including Nehemiah, David (and all the kings), Esther, Mordechai, among others, and in Paul’s day there were even believing members of Caesar’s household, which could refer to those employed in service of Nero (Phil 4:22). Also, Erastus, the city treasurer of Rome was a strong believer who supported Paul in his ministry (Rom 16:23).

Ultimately, all of these understood that the Most High God “...controls the course of world events; He removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars.” (Dan 2:21 NLT) They also understood that “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” (Rom 13:1 NLT) In other words, GOD'S IN CHARGE OF WHO'S IN CHARGE! And since God is the one who places in authority, it should come as no surprise that sometimes He calls His own children to engage in the political process. And that is indeed a blessing for, “When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice. But when the wicked are in power, they groan.” (Prov 29:2 NLT)

What’s interesting is that many of the examples I cited served in “non-believing” governments. They were in the minority party, so to speak. And yet, they were able to accomplish much good while remaining true to their faith. They didn’t approach governmental service as a top-down mindset where they legislated morality, but rather a bottom-up perspective that focused on serving and taking advantage of the opportunities before them to advance the Kingdom of God.

My experience with politics is that it is largely the art of relationships, negotiation and shared consensus. There is always room for disagreement, but when the greater good is kept as the focus, positive compromises are reached. There are many areas in which I disagree with the people with whom I serve, but when we focus on the things we agree on, we’re able to make our community a better place. Certainly politics always attracts a few self-centered ego-minded individuals who are in it for themselves. But MOST of the people I’ve met in local politics have a genuine desire to serve the community and make this a better place. And when we care about the people we’re serving more than we care about winning an argument, people who disagree can still accomplish much good together!

 I’ve discovered that this room for disagreement applies to much more than the political realm. For over 25 years now, I’ve been a part of a weekly gathering of pastors from varying backgrounds: Assembly of God, Baptist, Church of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist, Nazarene, Pentecostal, Non-denominational, etc … and we certainly don’t agree on every area of theology! But we can have amazing (and often challenging) conversations because we value each other enough to look past our differences and focus on our common goals.

Whether it's religion or politics, if all of your friends think like you, talk like you, and believe like you… then who are you influencing? You may be comfortable, but you also may be missing out on experiences, relationships and opportunities that God has for you. Remember, Jesus said we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. (Matt 5:13-14) So step out of that comfort zone. Do it with love and humility, do it not just with a desire to be heard, but also to hear others… you just might be surprised by what God can do in you and through you!

My challenge is not to be afraid of politics or religion! Look for the opportunities to agree, and don’t be so insecure that you can’t listen to someone you disagree with. It’s the tension on the string that makes the guitar produce beautiful music. And you might just find that the person you’re disagreeing with is also motivated by love and a desire to serve. And that can lead to a mutual respect and understanding, and even appreciation for those with whom you disagree.
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