This piece was originally published at The Christian Post on October 19, 2012.
In North America, we who are Christians often reduce Jesus to a dashboard crucifix or bobble headed doll and the church to an incubator for the cultivation of privatized religious affections. Our Lord is to be sovereign over our souls, but he is also Lord over all spheres and his lordship has a bearing on all things, including how we engage the state and every other domain. The visible church is not a voluntary association of religious individuals, whose true allegiance as individuals is to the state, the market, or nuclear family. I have written about this subject in Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (co-authored with Brad Harper), and will likely write future blog posts on this subject. For now, I will simply clarify the point on ‘voluntary association of religious individuals.’ While we have the freedom to worship as we see fit in America, we have often surrendered that freedom to the passions of individualistic consumer compulsion, and so have carelessly picked and chosen churches based on what scratched our itch or our individual nuclear families’ itch (such as which churches have in our estimation the best religious goods and services packages for our families and us), which is often changing, and so too our ecclesial allegiances.
Whenever we Christians privatize our affections or privatize the visible church, including surrendering our religious freedom to the enslavement of individualistic consumer compulsion, we create a vacuum for other lords and other institutions to take the place of Jesus and the church as having primacy in our lives. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with the privatization of Jesus and the church in Nazi Germany. There Jesus’ sphere of influence was in the minds of many German Christians relegated to the sphere of the church. So, too, the local or visible church was privatized in the minds of many, so that it had no voice in challenging prophetically the intrusion of the state into matters pertaining to ultimate allegiances. Hitler saw himself as a messianic figure and the Third Reich as a millennial kingdom. The Barmen Declaration that Barth drafted is one of the great theologically robust ‘political’ statements written concerning Christians’ allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. While we are not dealing with Hitler-like figures in the American context, we do find that the state and the market convey the sense of omnipresent status in many quarters. Representatives of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements respectively challenge what they see as the intrusion of these institutions in the lives of individuals and their communities. But do those who are Christians within these movements frame their challenges first and foremost in light of Jesus’ lordship and the visible church, or in light of individual rights and freedoms? Certainly, as Americans, individual rights and freedoms have their place, but even they must be submitted to the lordship of Christ and the visible church. I hope to write further on this subject, especially in view of the Church and State conference that I am hosting next week.
For now, I will conclude with these words: bipartisanship is not an excuse for privatizing our faith. Our faith does bear on decisions we make in the sphere of the state pertaining to matters of great import in Christian Scripture, including caring for the orphan, widow, and alien in their distress as the church engages the world at large, including the state and market. While the relation of the church (and other religious bodies) to the state is certainly a complex one, we must always be willing to advocate as the visible church and as citizens whose allegiance is first and foremost to Christ who concerns himself first and foremost with those on the margins (Matthew 25:31-46). In this light, we must call on the powers that be to make sure that their economic policies, for example, reflect the common good of everyone, not a superior class or classes of people or a given race. It also requires of us in the visible church that we make sure that we do not separate into niche ghetto communities based on economics or ethnicity, but model for the society at large an inclusive community made up of those of different life settings. Our ultimate allegiance is to the Lord who in his abundant wealth became poor so that together we might become rich in God and care for our brothers and sisters in need. Moreover, those Republicans and Democrats and those of other political stripes in our churches must be marked more by the stripes on Christ’s back for the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3) and the poor (Luke 6:20, see also verse 24) than by their parties’ colors, their stock portfolios, or nuclear families.