Religion and politics don’t mix

A beaker filled with water to which oil has been added, demonstrating insolubility of oil in water.

When I was a boy, conversations around the dinner table helped knit our family together. Many words of wisdom from my father and mother were delivered in that setting, including : “Religion and politics don’t mix.” I wonder: Have we forgotten this wisdom?

A woman had been part of her denomination for decades. However, she recently left because leaders in her congregation strongly hinted that to be “Christian” means voting for a particular political party. This story comes from my home country, yet as a missionary living in West Africa, I encouraged pastors to strictly avoid endorsing specific candidates or their parties, to merely ask people to pray then vote their conscience. This was in accordance with the long-standing informal policy of my denomination.

In the global village now connected via the internet, these same pastors now know instantly what world leaders say. They hear American politicians promising to remove any remaining legal obstacles to U.S. churches endorsing political candidates and they hear the applause of church leaders. Yet is this wise? Such a move could be disastrous, making congregations satellite campaign offices instead of places where people can come to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. It would take our eyes off the unshakable Kingdom (Hebrews 12:28) that Jesus taught us to pray would come (Matthew 6:10), encouraging instead the church to down the cup of temporal power, a poisoned chalice that so far we’ve only been sipping.

The temptation is real in multiple countries. It was campaign season, and a West African politician approached one of our pastors and his associate, inviting them to visit his home. There, he pulled out a dresser drawer filled with money. “I’ll allow you to help yourself to this money,” he promised. “All you need to do is next Sunday endorse me from the pulpit.” That day, the two pastors resisted the temptation. Instead, they told me the story and I commended them for their courage.

Jesus knew something of this temptation. Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness eating nothing, he was famished. Matthew 4:1-17 (CEB) recounts three ways that the devil tried to entice our Lord to abandon his mission. His final method was to tempt Jesus with power, taking him to a high mountain and showing him all the world’s kingdoms. “I’ll give you all of these if you bow down and worship me,” he offered. Yet Jesus replied: “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, ‘You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him’ ” (4:10). When offered rulership – its power and its perks – the Son of God firmly refused. He would not be deterred from the holy mission his Father had set before him.

An election is just around the corner in Kenya. Last Sunday, our pastor encouraged people to register to vote, but added: “In our church, we don’t endorse candidates or parties.” My pastor knows the wisdom of neutrality, that the witness of the church can be compromised if we are not careful. I think he’d agree that what my parents insisted around our family dinner table is good advice. Religion and politics still don’t mix.


Image credit: Carpenter Valley Assocation


Howard Snyder on the kingdom

A group of theologians was discussing the Gospels. After a long exchange, one lamented: “Jesus promised us the kingdom, and instead all we got was the church!”

Many of us can identify with the frustration of our sister. She looked at the church with its divisions and failings and she desperately longed for something better.

If we ache for the full in-breaking of the kingdom of God in human history, there’s a reason. Jesus was the one who taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NIV). The word “kingdom” appears 54 times in Matthew’s gospel alone. By comparison, the word “church” appears a mere three times. For this reason, some have called Matthew the “Gospel of the kingdom.”

For an idea so important to Christian theology, one would think that there would be unanimity about is meaning. If only life were so simple. In Models of the Kingdom: Gospel, Culture, and Mission in Biblical and Historical Perspective (Wipf and Stock, 2001), Howard Snyder investigates eight distinct ways that Christians across the centuries have interpreted the kingdom concept:

1. The kingdom as future hope;

2. The kingdom as inner spiritual experience;

3. The kingdom as mystical communion;

4. The kingdom as institutional church

5. The kingdom as countersystem;

6. The kingdom as political state;

7. The kingdom as Christianized culture;

8. The kingdom as earthly utopia.

The models evaluated

The first option only sees God’s kingdom in terms of Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem descending at God’s command. The kingdom is none of our concern; God will bring it about only as the final curtain descending on the stage of history. The second and third options allow for a present experience of the kingdom but spiritualize it. Jesus said: ” The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21, KJV). Howard Snyder (p. 41) calls this “Inner Kingdom” of the second option the most individualistic of all eight, whereas the “mystical communion” model at least has the merit of including a communal aspect. While John Wesley had some room in his thinking for other models, it is here where he placed his accent by underscoring the necessity first to save one’s own soul before turning to other tasks, such as helping others work out their own salvation or overturning the kingdom of Satan to set up the kingdom of Christ (Snyder, 62). Continue reading