We are only halfway through the year 2020 and we’ve already had to navigate a global pandemic, a historically volatile economy, and unprecedented civil unrest. If that weren’t enough, we are going to have a presidential election take place in a deeply divided America this fall. In the face of cultural storms and upheaval, it’s imperative that we faithfully prepare and shepherd the people God has entrusted us with through increasingly stormy cultural waters. If we want our congregations to come out of November in a state of unity and holiness, then we need to prepare them to engage a culture that is trying its best to tear them apart. As we hurtle towards months of increasing partisan debate, rage fomenting social media posts, and increasingly combative campaign narratives, Scripture directs us to three critical shelters to shield our hearts from turbulence so that we can be a people who are still on mission in the middle of the storm.
#1 – The Shelter of our Identity
One of the byproducts of the growing partisan rancor gripping our country is the rise of identity politics. People have begun to see themselves and those around them primarily through the lens of their political perspective. Who we watch on TV and where we shop, eat, and go to school are now driven more by political affiliation than ever. This partisan identity has drawn clear lines in the sand that determine if someone is on our side and seeking the salvation of our country, or if they are opposed to us and want to destroy everything America stands for. There is no middle ground and the stakes are high. As this political climate has mingled with the church, we find ourselves just as divided, angry, and suspicious as the world around us. The primary antidote to this growing division as we swing into election season can only be found in calling our people out of partisanship and into the identity given to them through the work of Christ on the cross.
Look at the way we see this play out in Ephesians 2:12-22. The deepest divide in the 1st century church laid between the Jews and Gentiles. The ethnic, cultural, and religious tension between these groups was, at the very least, on par with the political tenor of our time. A common saying by Jewish religious leaders at the time went something like, “The reason God created Gentiles was to fuel the fires of Hell”. If that couldn’t make American cable news, I don’t know what could. In the face of that division, this section of Ephesians illustrates how through the death of Jesus, these two factions were made one. The same identity that knit those groups together serves as the first place we should run when outside divisions threaten the church. As November edges closer and our people face the temptation to view the world through the political ideology most attractive to them, morality, life coaching, and relevant programming will not stop the relational erosion that can follow. The only way they will see who they are and, by extension, who the people they disagree with are is to constantly hear and live out of the only identity they have that is going to last forever. If they understand who they are in Christ, treating those in the church as brothers and sisters in Christ will begin to make sense, loving their enemies will be an attractive response to being attacked, and the church will exist as it’s been created to be the body of Christ, a Holy Temple.
#2 – The Shelter of our Hope
Elections are a powerful cultural moment because they are vessels of hope. People hope that injustice will melt away, mouths will be fed, and borders will be secure. Elections represent a picture of the possibility of a greater tomorrow. It’s so easy to get lost in the hope we are promised through a democratic society. We have enjoyed the fruits of arguably the most successful democratic government in the history of the world. It’s natural that we will be filled with a sense of pride and expectation that our nation is strong enough to solve any problem. That’s largely the idea we’ve been taught growing up in the United States of America.
Hope in the power of the state is hardly an American issue. The Old Testament gives us a high definition picture of the struggle the people of Israel had with turning to the power of military might, money and machinations of the state rather than the power of God. In Psalm 46, we see scripture implore us not to put our hope in Armies, but in the Lord who is sovereign over those armies. Political and social engagement by Christians is not evil; Scripture doesn’t shame us for engaging our culture. However, as cultural conflict erupts around us, we can’t allow our people to forget their ultimate hope. If our hope is rooted anywhere but the eternal life we have been promised through the work of Jesus Christ, we will be willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the hope that can be promised by the power of the world.
This was the very stumbling block at the heart of many of God’s people’s rejection of Jesus Christ during his incarnate ministry. If he wasn’t there to deliver political or military salvation, he couldn’t be worth following. If we are to caution our churches from making a similar error in how we define the kingdom of God, we can only shepherd those we are called to care for into the overwhelming, unassailable hope of eternity that has been planted into our souls by our Savior. The world can turn upside down, we may be persecuted, we may suffer, we may be mocked, but we can never be denied what Christ has won for us. In that hope, we can be free to worship and obey God regardless of the storm raging around us.
#3 – The Shelter of our Mission
One of the difficulties we are brought face-to-face with as we move into seasons of heightened political focus is that of mission creep. On both ends of the political spectrum, we find people advancing ideals that have some overlap with biblical values, and we often find the same people advancing those ideas using Scripture to engage people in their cause. God is clear that social justice issues matter. God is clear that morality and holiness are foundational characteristics of his people. What can happen to us in the middle of the intersection of biblical values, politics, and faith is the exchange of the mission of the church for the mission of a party. We do not have a partisan mission; God is not a tool of a political party. There is no human political system, ideology, or faction that will perfectly reflect the message of the gospel or the mission of the church. It is simply impossible to serve two masters. Again, let me be clear: I do not think it is helpful to shame our people for being involved in politics or holding political viewpoints. Healthy political engagement holds a place in the world. However, when the mission of a party replaces the mission of the church, turmoil always trails closely behind. God’s people getting entangled in the debate over which candidate or party is “God’s party” only leads to division and destruction.
This season is going to bring a multitude of agendas that will grab at the hem of our soul and peddle cheap copies of salvation. The only way we are going to avoid trading our calling for these temporal trinkets is by clinging to our mission. In Philippians 1:20, Paul writes that his hope is for Christ to be exalted in his body. When our mission is to exalt Christ with everything we have, any other agenda pales in comparison. There is a great deal of fear in the church in this cultural moment that we may lose the ease and safety we have enjoyed in being able to worship and live the life that Christ has created us to live. Those fears do not seem to be unfounded. However, we aren’t called to make the world a safe, comfortable place to exalt Christ with our bodies. We are called to exalt him with our bodies regardless of the cost. Paul goes on to write that to live is Christ and to die is gain. If the earthly cost of following Christ is irrelevant then we have nothing to fear. Only when we truly stop trying to make sure the world is set up so that we can have comfort and obedience will we be able to have a singular focus on the true mission of the church. There is nothing here on earth that is more valuable than the inheritance we are promised.
We are moving into a season that will be filled with fear, uncertainty, anger, and misinformation. Let us boldly and lovingly prepare the church to love one another, place our hope in only the promises of God, and fulfill the mission we have been called to. If we are going to survive a spiritually hazardous November, we must shelter our people in Christ. Only he will preserve them.