"If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.” Carl F.H. Henry

The Impossibility of the Apolitical Church

There comes a time in any raucous election cycle where individuals, understandably tired with political fatigue, want to throw their hands up and say, “I’m not political.”

Churches do this, too.

You might hear churches or pastors say, “We’re apolitical. We don’t do politics. We just preach the gospel.”

I have to be very clear about something: The church that insists on calling itself “apolitical” or relegates “the gospel” to a message of pious sanctimony unbothered by earthly affairs has a tragic misunderstanding of what “politics” really is, and how the church’s very essence is fervently political in nature.

On the one hand, “We don’t do politics” is one way that pastors signal to their communities that they do not endorse candidates. If “We’re apolitical” means that churches steer clear of becoming electoral hubs for local or national candidates, that’s one thing. But at root, in eschewing the back-and-forth of earthly political cycles, there comes an opportunity for churches to displace temporal politics with a greater political conceptuality that sees the church’s central message—Jesus is Lord—as the most political statement ever uttered in the cosmos.

The early church knew this. Its statement that Jesus is Lord was a direct political assault on the claims of Caesar. Caesar was threatened by the church’s message because the church pledged allegiance to a higher authority, and in doing so, subjected Caesar’s temporal authority to Jesus’ kingly authority.

Consider some passages throughout the New Testament:

  • Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11 ESV)
  • The Seventh Trumpet Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15 ESV)
  • And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7 ESV)

These are just a few of the verses throughout the New Testament that portray the early disciples as possessing an understanding that Jesus’ kingship rivaled the claims of earthly kings. The early church was political, and so must we—but political as the Bible defines political, not as how FOX or MSNBC define political.

The declaration “Jesus is Lord” is the political constitution of the church. That declaration orders our life together, as that is what politics is chiefly about. It sets the parameters of our obedience and dictates how the goals of the Kingdom become our concern. So Christians who labor in the public square out of obedience to Christ aren’t laboring away under abstract metaphysical concepts about human nature; we labor out of the belief that every life is precious in the eyes of God, so anything that attacks the image of God is an attack on God’s fullest image, the Christ. We labor to protect the dignity of the trafficked, the unborn, racial minorities, the immigrant, and the poor because these people bear God’s image in full. We labor in the political square not out of the hope that Christians will be ultimately understood or appreciated, but to bear witness to the coming Kingdom and to announce, as Carl Henry said, “the criteria by which God will judge men and nations.”

It is impossible for churches to be apolitical because Jesus is a King. He isn’t a pious emblem to tuck away into our hearts with no earthly effect. Rather, understanding the political implications of confessing that “Jesus is Lord” places great demands upon us as his disciples as we bear witness to this truth in the public square.

On this topic, I highly recommend Jonathan Leeman’s Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule.