Rev. Charles Drew is pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in New York City, an evangelical church serving Morningside Heights, New York, with a particular focus on Columbia Univeristy, other nearby schools, and the local poor. He is the author of The Ancient Love Song: Finding Christ in the Old Testament, A Journey Worth Taking: Finding Your Purpose in This World, and Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit in the Same Pew.
I remember leaving my church in Virginia early one Sunday afternoon and discovering that during the service a well-intentioned church member had placed leaflets promoting a particular pro-life candidate on every windshield in the parking lot. When asked by the church leadership not to do this sort of thing again, the member was genuinely mystified. Her mystification grew in part from her failure to distinguish sufficiently between the responsibility of the individual Christian citizen and the responsibility of the institutional church.
Years later a member of my New York church was as troubled over the war with Iraq as the parking lot lobbyist had been over the killing of the unborn. It was unfathomable to him that any Christian could be supportive of (or even silent about) a war that was, in his view, built upon a flimsy rationale, driven largely by greed, and responsible for the death of tens of thousands of civilians. Had he confused private and corporate callings as the parking lot lobbyist did, he would have leafleted the church with anti-war flyers.
What the parking lot lobbyist had done, and what the New York member might have done, was to equate their individual sense of calling with the calling of the church as a whole.
Let me elaborate: Each of us has particular public callings arising out of our gifts, training, and motivations as they intersect with the opportunities and needs that confront us. Those callings will vary widely in their particulars, will shift with new seasons of life and shifting opportunities, and may align us with different groups of people at different times. We have an obligation to heed the Lord’s voice in those particulars, and the church family should encourage us to do so.
But the church as the church has a more precise set of obligations which we must also heed and from which the particular callings of the individuals within the church ought not to divert us. They are essential to the well-being of the world and the glory of God, and if the church does not do them, or is unduly diverted from them by other things, they will not get done. Those obligations are to disciple the nations (which includes evangelism and works of mercy done in the name of Jesus) and to pray for the kingdom of God to come.
Sometimes the inner compulsion to act in a certain way (the voice of individual calling) becomes acute. At such times we are understandably tempted to think that every Christian should join us in whatever it is that we are doing, or at least afford it the same priority we do. But that would be a mistake.
Think of the parking lot lobbyist. Imagine what would have happened if everyone else at church, or if even a dozen others, had done the same thing with their (different) heart-felt concerns. It would have been annoying to many and infuriating to some. It might have diverted some from their own embryonic sense of calling. It might have deterred first-time visitors from returning. And it would have left church leaders having to devote energy to assessing each of the initiatives the congregants were supporting and making pronouncements about them. In the ensuing muddle, the church would have been drawn away from giving attention and energy to her essential obligations.
I am not suggesting that the church should discourage member activism in public affairs. Nor am I suggesting that the church should forbid its people from talking about their activism. What I am saying is that the church needs to be a place where individual public callings are neither privileged nor ranked. If public discussions take place under the auspices of the church, those who speak need to understand that they are not recruiting to their cause, but rather doing something much more humble: They are giving an account of their (fallible) efforts to figure out what the King wants them to do with their lives in the public sphere. They are doing so not to prove that their calling needs to be shared by everyone else, but rather to encourage their brothers and sisters to listen more carefully for theirs.
A good exercise, though it must be entered into thoughtfully and with much prayer, is to hold church-wide public discussions on hot social issues, featuring members of the congregation who are addressing the same issue but in varying dimensions or through different strategies. The purposes of such meetings, made clear to the church, would be twofold:
First, to demonstrate how different callings can lead to different types of engagement (from conversation, to teaching, to lobbying, and so forth) and even to different (and perhaps opposing!) strategies for addressing the same issue.
Second, such an exercise can help a congregation learn how to debate and to disagree peaceably. This latter purpose is as important as the former, since we have been called to model the kingdom of God by our love. If we (in whom Christ dwells) cannot lovingly disagree, how can we expect the culture around us to?
A Note From Our Managing Editor
This article is the third in a series of excerpts we are running from Rev. Charles Drew's excellent book Body Broken: Can Republicans and Democrats Sit In The Same Pew? We are hoping to provide our readers with several resources you can bring back to your church or small group to work on carrying your faith into the 2016 election season, but we think his book is a great place to start. If you are interested in reading it for yourself or working through it with a small group, you can purchase new copies directly from us online.