3 Causes for Political Tension Between Christians

Author: Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli
November 04, 2020

Heart-Affecting Disagreements

 

What are some disagreements that affect your heart’s posture or that hinder fellowship with another person in your church? Maybe you feel scorn. Maybe you are angry that they support a cause that you are convinced is unjust. You might even find yourself questioning their profession of faith: “How can they be Christians and support that?!” 

We can think of at least three reasons such skepticism arises in our hearts amid such disagreements.

Reason 1: Justified People Care about Justice

 

The work of government is fundamentally concerned with matters of justice, and people who have been justified by Christ—Christians—care about justice. They care about righteous judgments, which is one way to define justice from the Bible. It makes sense, therefore, that you would ask questions, even become skeptical, when Christians choose what appears to be a path of injustice. They appear to be making unrighteous judgments.

Let’s unpack all of this. God instituted governments to establish a basic platform of justice for everyone created in his image (Gen. 9:5–6; 2 Sam. 8:15; 1 Kings 10:9; Prov. 29:4; Rom. 13:1–7). That means all those conversations you have with friends and colleagues about the election, abortion, immigration, poverty, same-sex marriage, criminal-justice reform, America’s trade policy with China, or party membership are conversations fundamentally about justice.

Furthermore, anger is the God-given emotion for responding to injustice. If you hear of a child being abused, you should be angry. Anger’s purpose, after all, is to oppose. We Christians should all oppose injustice. So think again of your conversation with fellow church members over the election or immigration or welfare policy. When they disagree with you, your instincts tell you they are choosing injustice. They are recommending unrighteous judgments, and that can make you angry. 

If it’s a particularly significant issue, it can even tempt you to question their standing in the faith. Why? Think about it like this. James tells us that true faith creates good deeds and that good deeds demonstrate our faith. Our good works prove that our faith is genuine: “I will show you my faith by my works,” he says in James 2:18.

Which means, when deeds are absent, we lack evidence for faith. James even questions the faith of someone who demonstrates no deeds: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). Like Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16, 20). Are you with us so far? 

Now, instead of saying faith and deeds, let’s substitute justification and justice, which offer another way of getting at the same ideas. In the same way that faith creates deeds, so God’s work of justifying a person by grace through faith creates a concern about justice. And in the same way that deeds display and give evidence of faith, so our concern for justice demonstrates and gives evidence for ourjustification.

It’s a virtuous cycle, if there ever was one. 

Now let’s pull everything together. Politics involves questions of justice. When fellow Christians disagree with you on significant political matters, you question their commitment to justice, which in turn can sometimes tempt you to question their justification. We’re not saying you’re always right to do so. We’re merely saying it makes sense that this happens. There are theologically correct instincts at play. Plus, every once in a while, such questioning is right. 

For now, let’s consider the next reason we may feel skeptical.

Reason 2: Self-Justifying People Are Certain Their Convictions Are Just

 

We are tempted to scorn and second-guess our fellow church members whose politics disagree with ours because every one of us is naturally self-righteous and self-justifying, and fallen politics is fueled by such self-righteousness and self-justification. 

Part of Adam and Eve’s decision to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit was convincing themselves that eating the fruit was a just act. Ever since, we have been self-justifying creatures. Adam’s bite of the fruit and Pharaoh’s spilling of blood are the same thing: self-justified acts of self-rule. 

Now, people may often be right in their opinions and in their politics, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the basic posture of the fallen heart to always think that it’s right—to always think its cause is just. Even as children, we would get into fights with our siblings over dolls and trucks because we were convinced our causes were just. But Mom, he hit me first! When we were born again, wonderfully, we lost the need to justify ourselves before God through our personal and political pursuits. Christ became our justification. Whenever we walk in the Spirit, then, we become able to seek out the plank in our own eye, not just the speck in our neighbor’s eye, and to fight for what’s right, not to justify ourselves but for the sake of love. Born-again politics is a different kind of politics.

The challenge is that we are presently located at a moment in the Bible’s storyline of redemption where we find ourselves simultaneously justified and sinful. We are capable of walking by the flesh and the Spirit both. As authors, therefore, our goal is to help you be a little more theologically self-aware. Are you convinced about your own political opinions? If so, maybe that’s because you are walking in the Spirit, you love your neighbor as yourself, and you have rightly formed judgments about the issues of the day. Then again, it also might be because you are following the self-justifying script of every other political party, of every other tribe and nation, throughout the history of the world.

All this means that the anger you feel when people disagree with you politically might be the right response to injustice. But remember God’s word: we must be “slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19–20, NIV). Too often we use our anger as a weapon to destroy anything that opposes our personalized version of a just universe. We’re self-serving with our anger.

To summarize reasons 1 and 2, our anger and skepticism toward fellow church members with different politics makes sense, but it may not be as righteous as we think it is. We give with one hand what we take away with the other. 

Still, all of that is pretty theological. It’s this next reason that forces us to start getting into the practical weeds.

Reason 3: Political Judgments Require Wisdom

 

Most political judgments we make depend on wisdom not on directly applying explicit biblical principles. To put this another way, there is some space between our biblical and theological principles and our specific political judgments. Two Christians might agree on a biblical or theological principle but disagree on which policies, methods, tactics, or timing best uphold that principle. Why, then, are political disagreements so difficult? Because we lack wisdom!

What is wisdom? It’s a capacity of mind that combines the fear of the Lord with the skill of living in God’s created but fallen world in a way that yields justice, peace, and flourishing. It looks to God’s word, yes, but it also takes stock of circumstances, people, and all the knowledge available to all people through common grace. Wisdom recognizes that there’s a time to build and a time to tear down, and it’s always asking, “What time is it now?”

Think of King Solomon when the two prostitutes each claimed that a baby was hers. There was no biblically scripted solution to his dilemma. He had to think about it. If he had asked his counselors, they would have advised different solutions. Yet Solomon knew what to do: offer to divide the baby in half with a sword, which in turn exposed the real mother and the imposter. Solomon’s solution, the narrator concludes, was wise: “And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice” (1 Kings 3:28). The goal was justice; the means was wisdom.

Now pick any contested political issue of our own day, such as the controversy surrounding Central and South American asylum seekers and other migrants crossing the southern United States border. One group of Christians believes the present laws are just fine. If anything, they believe we need to tighten the restrictions in order to protect our nation and our children. Another group of Christians argues that humanitarian considerations mean allowing as many migrants in as the present law allows or even changing the laws to accommodate more. And let’s agree that “protecting our children” and “showing compassion to asylum seekers” are both biblical impulses. Still, there’s a long way to travel between affirming those two biblical principles and determining how to balance them in public policy. How many migrants should a nation permit a year? How many asylum seekers? How will that affect the economy and people’s livelihoods? What is the best way to prevent and combat drug and human trafficking? Is a nation obligated to undertake all the costs of processing the hundreds of thousands of migrants who might show up at the borders? What kinds of housing conditions should refugees have at the border? What about child-parent separation? What unintended consequences might follow this decision or that decision?

You might know your personal answers to those questions. But can we admit these are tough questions whose answers rely on wisdom-based political judgments, not explicit biblical principles? As we said a moment ago, there is some space between those political judgments and our biblical and theological principles. Political judgments depend on figuring out how to apply our biblical and ethical principles to the vast and complex set of circumstances that surround every political decision. They account for social dynamics, legal precedents, political feasibility, historical factors, economic projections, ethnic tensions, criminal-justice considerations, and so much more.

People today often treat their votes as personal expressions of who they are. Yet we would encourage you to view votes less as matters of self-expression or tribal identification and more as strategic calculations concerning these kinds of non-biblical matters. Then recognize that different Christians will make different wisdom-based calculations.

This article is adapted from How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? by Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli. Jonathan Leeman (PhD, University of Wales) is the editorial director for 9Marks. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books and teaches at several seminaries. Jonathan lives with his wife and four daughters in a suburb of Washington, DC, and is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church. Andrew David Naselli (PhD, Bob Jones University; PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is associate professor of systematic theology and New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis and one of the pastors of Bethlehem Baptist Church. This article was found here at crossway.org. 


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