I enjoyed a six-week internship at Christianity Today magazine many years ago. The Army paid for it as I returned to civilian life after two years as a draftee. At the same time Richard Nixon was impeached for his role in the Watergate burglary cover-up. Back then the CT offices were just a block from the White House—I even attended the House hearings at the Capital twice.
So when Christianity Today editorialized that President Trump, now impeached, should be removed from office for his efforts to involve Ukraine in a political ploy it was a little bit of déjà vu. Though in those earlier days CT didn’t register an opinion.
Yet, despite the connections, this entry isn’t about the impeachment question. Instead I want to consider the intersection of politics and faith for believers. It comes as part of real life!
Even in Bible times we have reminders. John the Baptist, for one, famously confronted Herod the Tetrarch over the king’s illicit marriage. And Herod then beheaded John (Mt. 14:1-12).
Jesus was also caught up in politics when his religious opponents falsely claimed he was making himself out to be a king. When Pontius Pilate, Caesar’s Palestinian representative for Rome, asked if he was a king Jesus answered yes but with a caveat: “But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Yet despite a distorted and empty charge Pilate still ordered Jesus to be crucified as “the king of the Jews.”
Both deaths displayed power-politics—in which leaders with life-and-death powers used their powers for evil, and not for good.
And here’s the big point: political power can shape human behaviors. And that power has huge attractions. For instance, it’s what two protestant reformers used. Martin Luther in Saxony, and John Calvin in Geneva, both coached local politicians in how to write community laws based on Bible values. Moses, leading Israel, was their model. And so Geneva magistrates burned Servetus at the stake after he rejected Calvin’s biblical teachings on the Trinity. And throngs of Anabaptists were killed—often drowned—by other protestants for their insistence on adult rather than infant baptism.
I think both Luther and Calvin failed here. Even though they were (usually) faithful in presenting Jesus’ words and values. They crossed a line Jesus set out for all believers in his high priestly prayer of John 17:14-15—”I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” “In,” but “not of,” is key.
In the plainest terms possible we can say this: “the evil one” loves to use power to impose change. Jesus, however, changes hearts through love. One controls by using external forces and false claims; and the other transforms people by telling truths and capturing hearts.
So, with this in mind, did CT try to marshal evangelical “power” to seek Trump’s removal from office? I think so. But I also grieve because many evangelical Christians are ready to excuse or ignore the obvious wrongs of the president for the sake of pragmatic changes—for “moral reforms”—that may come through his policies: by political power rather than changed hearts.
That’s not what Jesus called for. Think of Jesus, for instance, when he rebuked Peter over Peter’s rejection of Christ’s intent to be crucified: “Get behind me, Satan! … For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mt. 16:23). Let politicians pursue power, and let Christians live and love as Christ lived.
The ultimate goal of Christ’s powerful love is church-centered. We should be cleansed by “the washing of the water with the word, so that he [Jesus] might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27.) And this heart-formed holiness will also produce changed behaviors in the end. But it’s an inside-out work; and it’s upside-down when compared to power politics.
The power of love is also reflected by God’s plan to begin with Jesus in the manger rather than with Christ on his throne. One inevitably and eventually follows the other. But they aren’t to be reversed.