Turning Down the Heat: Principle and Strategy
This article is excerpted from Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew?
Christians who never find themselves disagreeing with each other over politics either do not care about politics or have segregated themselves from other Christians politically. Neither of these solutions to disagreement is worthy of our calling. Jesus our King commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, which means that we ought to care about public life. Jesus our Savior died to break down the walls that divide us, including the political ones, which means that those of us who happen to be Democrats and those of us who happen to be Republicans ought to be able to worship together under the same roof. To segregate politically is to declare that the cross failed and that Jesus’ prayers in John 17 are ineffective.
So how can we stay engaged with the world and stay together in the church? To put the matter another way, How can we genuinely care for the world while also turning down the political heat in church? In what follows in this piece and four subsequent ones I will offer some advice on how to address this perplexing question.
What will help first of all (the subject of this article) is to distinguish between moral principle and political strategy.
Shortly after Ronald Reagan’s election, one of the deacons in my church rose up in public worship and publicly thanked God with these words: “O Lord, we bless you that at last your man is in the White House.” His prayer drew a fiery response from a church member that mystified him. His surprise grew from the failure sufficiently to draw the distinction between strategy and principle. The institutional church (and the individual believer as well) must speak out on the standards and values that the King of the church loves. But the moment we move into the realm of strategy—the moment we begin to wrestle with just how we are to bring those standards and values to bear upon our culture—we must be careful, humble, and gracious with one another.
My deacon was entitled to his conviction that Ronald Reagan was the best man for the White House at the time (just as someone might believe that Hillary Clinton is the best choice for 2016). But he needed to hold that conviction loosely and take care as a leader in the church not to place divine sanction upon a fallen and imperfect instrument. God’s law (the source of our highest principles) must not be compromised, but its application in public life (what we are calling strategies) must be left to the individual operating freely under the reign of Christ. One of the Scriptures’ high principles is the sanctity of the human conscience in areas where biblical prescriptions are unclear or incomplete—and politics is invariably such an area. (See Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 for discussions on the conscience.)
Let me illustrate with reference to the hot-button issues of abortion and gay marriage. The institutional church has an obligation to resist abortion and to promote biblical marriage. Scripture says, “Thou shalt not kill” and upholds permanent, monogamous, heterosexual union, and so must the church. But the institutional church has a further obligation to acknowledge that a host of different legitimate strategies (legislative and otherwise) exist for applying these principles.
Consider gay marriage. Though the Supreme Court has recently decided the issue, anger continues. Christians who agree on traditional marriage genuinely disagree over the most effective way to make traditional marriage stronger in our culture. Some of us are furious over the Supreme Court’s ruling, having long fought for laws forbidding gay marriage. We have argued that to legitimize it would be an assault on something fundamental to human nature and a source of terrible confusion to children (if we are legally against polygamy, some argue, we should also be legally against gay marriage). Other traditionalists among us find the issue more complex. We do not have a ready answer to the argument that laws against gay marriage are discriminatory and troublingly akin to earlier laws forbidding interracial marriage. We doubt that such laws will have any effect on gay partnerships (citing the failure of prohibition to end drinking), and wonder if the only effect of church advocacy of such laws will be to drive the gay community farther from the church—the one place where that community might find the grace and love that bring change. Some of us may believe that the best way for the church to nudge the culture in the right direction is to make traditional marriage more attractive by cleaning up its own act—to deal with dysfunction, pornography, and abuse in its own ranks.
With regard to abortion there are numerous strategies for ending or reducing the killing. Some of us choose to take direct action—we offer counseling to women, or march for life, or write political leaders, or vote for pro-life candidates. There are some of us, on the other hand, who are not persuaded that direct action is the most effective route. These friends argue that abortions have tended, ironically, to rise during pro-life administrations because other policies during those administrations have tended to make it harder for women with troubled pregnancies to carry their children to term. Those among us who view matters this way may choose action that makes things easier for mothers in crisis to preserve their babies. That action can include supporting crisis pregnancy centers, adoption services, and even voting for pro-choice candidates who support policies that reduce the need for abortions. Still other believers among us may choose to focus their efforts on dialogue with the opposition in hopes of finding common ground that will at least reduce abortions.
The church should be a safe place for spirited arguments over these issues. And it can be, as long as we do not make second-class citizens of each other by treating strategies (which are fallible) like inviolable principle and condemning one another over them.
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