September 1st, 2013

I’d rather be good than Democratic or Republican.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

September 1, 2013

Tossing the rope

Today is the final sermon in a series of messages on “Things We Don’t Talk About in Church.”  For the most part, the subjects we have covered in this series are topics interwoven into our daily lives – alcohol, sex, and money, for example – so it’s odd that we don’t talk about them more in church.  Why not?

One reason is that we avoid conflict.  Sitting in a hospital lounge this past week the day after my Dad’s hip surgery, the topic of homosexuality came up.  One brother prides himself on being the family liberal.  Another brother attends a very fundamentalist Baptist church.  My niece, a lawyer, was with us.  I didn’t like how my rising anxiety caused me to react, so I left the room for a while.

Another reason, one that applies only to some of these subjects, is that they don’t come up in the Bible that often.  That’s true of abortion, as we said a couple of weeks ago, and it’s true about today’s subject, politics.  We ran across Romans 13 a few weeks ago, but it’s about the State, which is not exactly the same thing as politics.  Our form of government, a 2-party democratic republic with checks and balances among branches of government on the local, state, and national level, was unknown to the writers of the Bible.  Ancient Greeks had their city-states, and the word “politics” comes from their word “polis” (city), but it was quite different from our system.

Politics as we know it is a tug-of-war between values.  Usually there are noble values on both sides of the struggle.  I realized this recently in reading the longest book I’ve ever read.  Last year when my kids asked me for a Christmas list, I requested a copy of Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.  The new musical was in theaters, and Linda and I were also going to see the Broadway version in February.  I wanted to read the book, but didn’t know I was asking for a book of over 1200 pages!  My sister, a teacher of both French and history, told me last week that French writers of Hugo’s era competed to recount lengthy and precise details.  If you’ve seen the play or the film, you remember the scene where Jean Valjean carries Marius through the Paris sewers.  In Hugo’s mind it enhances the story to spend 17 pages on the history, design, and flaws of what he calls the “entrails” of Paris – the underground sewer system.

What I found fascinating is Victor Hugo’s frequent switch to the present tense, which my sister says is even more dramatic and significant in French.  The story is told in past tense, but Hugo switches to the present tense to make a point.  Here is an example:  “On that day Cosette’s gaze drove Marius wild with the delight, while his gaze left her trembling….The whiteness of a young girl’s soul, compound of chill and gaiety, resembles snow: it melts in the warmth of love, which is its sun” (774).

Hugo does something similar with politics.  His historical novel is set during a failed popular uprising that followed the French revolution about 30 years.  It wrestles with those who are unjustly condemned to a life of poverty or prison or prostitution (“the miserables”).  In one of his present tense musings, Hugo says that politics wrestles with two problems: “the production of wealth” and “its distribution” (722).

Does that sound familiar?  In modern American politics, the Republican party’s core value is how to motivate individuals to produce more wealth.  The Democratic party’s core value is the state’s role in equitable distribution of resources and opportunity.  Tony Campolo says if a man is drowning a hundred yards off shore, a Republican will toss out 50 yards of rope and yell, “I did my part; now you do yours.”  A Democrat will throw out 200 yards of rope and drop his end of the rope.[1]

Hugo criticized both sides.  In the mid-nineteenth century, he saw England as giving too much emphasis on wealth creation.  “It is a false and dangerous state of affairs,” Hugo wrote, “whereby the public wealth depends on private poverty and the greatness of the State is rooted in the sufferings of the individual” (723).  In other words, if the nation as a whole is richer, but only a few enjoy it, that’s immoral.

The foil in Hugo’s day was communism, or “equal sharing.”  This, Hugo said, “abolishes competition and, in consequence, labour.  It is distribution carried out by a butcher, who kills what he distributes…To destroy wealth is not to share it” (723).  In other words, if you just take away what the wealthy have and distribute it indiscriminately, there’s no incentive to work.

The goal, Hugo says, is simultaneously to “encourage the rich and protect the poor.”  It seems to me almost two centuries later in the U.S. that remains the struggle.

But what does all this have to do with the Bible, or faith?  What are the underlying values of the Christian that we need to apply to our politics?  As I turn to 1 Timothy 2, I realize the Bible favors neither wealth production nor equitable distribution as a core value.  Said another way, the Bible values both individual responsibility and care for the poor.  Both parties have their insights and their blind spots.  My ultimate loyalty lies elsewhere.

When Paul comes as close as he ever comes to dealing with what we call politics – our relationship to the state – he either speaks about submission to the authorities (as he does in Romans 7) or he speaks about prayer, as he does in 1 Timothy 2.  I see four Christian values for this passage that relate to politics.

Truth (vv. 5-7): If I distort the facts but gain votes, is it worth it?

The core value of truth is central in 1 Timothy 2:1-7. There’s a rather unusual phrase in verse 7 – set apart appropriately by hyphens in NIV – that is comparable to underlining, italics, or bold print, or all three.  Paul says, “I am telling the truth, I am not lying.”  Paul places himself voluntarily under oath.

The specific truth Paul tells is Ultimate Truth.  “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men – the testimony given in its proper time” (5-6).  Paul says God has appointed him to proclaim and teach what Paul calls “the true faith” to the nations.

Christians are committed to Truth as a primary value.  It’s always a tragic distortion of our faith when the Church at large or individual Christians are caught trying to cover up truth or resist new areas of exploring truth.  Christians have sometimes resisted scientific advance, but that’s not who we are.  We should be most passionate of all people to learn more about our world and how it works.

We believe a sincere quest for Ultimate Truth will lead us to the one true God and his Son Jesus Christ, through whom God has provided for our salvation.  He alone is the “mediator,” the go-between who bridges the chasm our sin has created before God.

Here is one area we find our Christian values sometimes at odds with political values.  In politics the end is what matters.  Whether it’s emphasizing individual responsibility and reward or providing for equitable distribution and opportunity, it’s always a temptation to tell partial truths or spin the truth for a political end.  If you hide some of the truth about your past or private life, but still get elected to office and end up doing good things, is it worth the tradeoff?  If you selectively use the facts in order to achieve your legislative agenda, isn’t the political end more important than the means?

During the last election cycle, Pastor Bryan Roberts used his blog to call politics “the Las Vegas of Christianity – the environment in which our sin is excused.”  He added that in politics hate and slander are even applauded.  He says Christians should engage the political process with a goal of elevating it.  It’s yet another place where we shouldn’t try to out-world the world but display a distinctively Christian lifestyle.

The Bible has a word for substituting falsehood for truth, especially when it’s Ultimate Truth:  idolatry.  If my political party’s ideals trump my passion for God’s truth, that’s idolatry.  Tony Campolo says if I make the mistake of remaking Jesus in my image to the point that I really believe he’s a Republican like me or a Democrat like me, that’s not just bad religion.  It’s idolatry.[2]  As a political Christian, I need to desire above all else the truth.

Goodness (3-4): Would I rather win a political fight or win others to Jesus?

Back up a couple of verses.  Paul says in vv. 3-4, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Focus on the word “good.”  Earlier this year I asked the congregation to take the suggestion offered by Pastor Mike Ashcraft of Port City Community Church (PC3) in Wilmington, in a book called My One Word.  Did you choose a word for 2013?  Do you remember what it was?  Now is the time to dust off that word and see how God is continuing to use it in your life.  My word has come up repeatedly in my study of the Scripture this year.  Here it is again:  “This is good, and pleases God our Savior.”

Goodness is a basic Christian value.  As I said earlier this year, we have watered this word down, and made it the low rung on the totem pole or good, better, and best.  But in its biblical sense, you can’t be better than “good.”  It’s a pure word, an absolute word, like “unique” or “perfect.”  Without abusing the word, you can’t say something in “more perfect” or “most unique.”  To be “good” is to be excellent, surpassing, precious, or magnificent.  Jesus is the “Good Shepherd.”  Can you imagine a better shepherd than he?  “Good works” in the Bible are not average efforts.  My “good” is my best!

I’d rather be good than Republican or Democratic.  Goodness is a fruit of the Spirit.  It means kindness, uprightness, benevolence.  In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is an ex-convict on the verge of returning to prison for crimes much worse than the one that initially landed him in the galleys.  A priest shows him extraordinary kindness and grace, lavish and foolish by this world’s standards, and Jean Valjean’s life is transformed into a life of goodness.  He blends opposing political ideals – creating wealth as an entrepreneur and striving to better the lot of the poor by providing jobs and seeking justice.  Ultimately he invests everything in rescuing one little girl’s life from poverty and want and giving her the chance at a future worth having.

Whatever your politics about the role of government, when you contribute or volunteer with Pregnancy Care Center, when you sponsor or adopt a child, when you bring cans of food for the Backpack ministry, when you support an African orphanage or go on a mission trip to Guatemala, when you give to the Good Samaritan Fund or work with Samaritan’s Purse, when you volunteer at CCM or the Soup Kitchen, you exhibit goodness.  The role of the church is to promote goodness rather than any political goal.

Our desire for a world of goodness ultimately draws people to Jesus, and Paul says God’s heart is everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.  Paul is not saying that everyone will be saved, but that God our Savior wants everyone, everywhere to come to him.   Sometimes it seems to me that some Christians are more concerned about their political goals than they are that anyone else would be saved.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of them all.”[3]  Given the choice, would you rather win a political fight or bring people to Jesus?

Peace (2b):  Is my passion for power or for love?

As we work backwards in our text, we are getting closer to the part of the text where Paul tells us our primary responsibility toward the State is to pray.  In verse 2, he says what he hopes will come of those prayers.  Pray “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (emphasis added).

Peace is a core value for Christians.  Peace is between nations as well as within nations.  As Christians, we want the world at peace so that the Gospel can go forward.  Right now in Syria there’s not opportunity for evangelism.  In Egypt, Christians and churches are being threatened.  In Pakistan, a handful of remaining Christian missionaries are considering leaving the country.  Those are some of the most potentially violent places on earth at the moment, and I’m quite sure not many people are coming to Christ.  They are focused on survival.

But conflict is not always a matter of swords and guns.  Politics within nations can also rob peace.  The devil is very pleased when our politics so disrupts that sharing our faith and gathering for worship and learning and community is distracted.

Look at the quote on the front of your bulletin by Tony Campolo: “The biggest problem Christians face in their involvement with politics is that politics is about power, while being Christian is about love.”[4]  Power itself is not a four-letter word.  Power is a necessary part of human interaction.  But unchecked power is dangerous to the soul.  As C. S. Lewis wrote,  “The descent to hell is easy, and those who begin by worshipping power soon worship evil.”[5]

Politics is about power, but the Gospel is not about power.  The genius of Jesus and Paul was a legacy of faith that “works” in any political system from ancient Rome to modern America, that transforms lives and creates community under communism or democracy, that confronts evil among the self-indulgent rich and the desperate poor.  We can’t be so tied to a political party – or even to a nation – that we fail to confront evil, call people to repentance, and face our own blind spots.

Christians are as prone to want power as much as anyone else, and just as prone to abuse it.  Paul didn’t say, “Pray that Christians will gain political power.”  He said, “Pray that we can live peaceful and quiet lives.”  The Christian ideal is not that the government advances our faith for us.  That’s been tried frequently through the centuries, and almost always with disastrous results.  Our goal is that the government stays out of the way of our living out our faith and sharing it with the world.

Prayer (1-2a): Who’s in control?

Now we are finally ready for verse 1.  “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority….”

Our primary relationship to the State is one of prayer.  It’s probably helpful to remember that when Paul instructed Timothy as the pastor of the church in Ephesus to teach his people to pray for kings and all those in authority, the emperor was the infamous Nero.  He hadn’t yet reached his peak of abuses, but his power was unchecked and frightening.

In the blog I mentioned earlier by Pastor Bryan Roberts, he refers to both 1 Timothy 2 (praying for leaders) and Romans 13 (respecting authorities) and says,

If you’re mocking your governing leaders on Facebook, the Holy Spirit is grieved. We should spend more time honoring our leaders and less time vilifying them. This doesn’t mean praying the President will be impeached; it doesn’t mean praying your candidate will win. God commands us to pray for our leaders—for their wisdom, for their hearts and for them to be led by Him.

In other words, we are to pray FOR them, not AGAINST them.

Prayer is not about instructing God or manipulating him.  It is about trusting him.  It is about releasing my need to control outcomes.  It is about God’s sovereignty.  C. S. Lewis wrote, “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”[6]

If that’s true, then prayer is simply saying, “God, I trust you enough to know that kings and all those in authority are under your control – not mine.   Guide them, bless them, help them, use them.  Give them your heart, and open them to their own faults and blind spots.  Even when they err, use them to accomplish your sovereign purposes.”

This might be a good time to remind you of our Elder-led prayer time once a month in the Althouse Room.  This Tuesday evening at 6:00 we will gather to pray for individuals, for the church, for missionaries, for our nation, and for the world.  What greater priority do we have than to pray together as a body?  Come join us.

Politics the reality

I have wondered whether this sermon sounds like I think the Bible teaches us that Christians should be a-political.  Do I mean to say, “Stay out of the way and just let God guide whoever is in office”?  No, I don’t.

I’m not against politics.  It is the reality of human relationships.  For the next few months (from now until Advent), we will be studying the book of the Bible written to show what it looks like when there is no politics – no government.  “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” is the refrain of the book of Judges.  The picture is not pretty – over and over again.  We start there next Sunday.

I believe Christians should vote, should advocate, should struggle, should run for office, should serve.  I am humbled by those who are willing to invest the time and energy required to serve the public good.  They should go for it, and we should encourage and pray for all politicians, especially our fellow believers, whether we agree with their specific goals and policies or not.

But Christians, when we do get involved in politics on any level, need to stay humble.  No one person or party has all the right answers.  We need to be careful about demonizing the opposite party.  I really don’t believe anyone in the Democratic party wants to give it ALL away, to tax and spend into a reckless socialism that removes all personal responsibility.  Nor do I believe anyone in the Republican party wants to strip away all compassionate concern for those less fortunate – to eliminate all social security, Medicare, unemployment, and so on.  If the extremes are 1 and 10, it seems to me most of the debate is between a 3 and a 7.  These are legitimate debates, and we ought to have them.

We need to advocate for what we believe is right, and listen to others as well.  Another Tony Campolo quote:  “It is not so much that Christians of various stripes on the political spectrum ought to be looking for common ground as that they ought to be looking for higher ground.”[7]

The higher ground is that when people see me, they don’t see a Republican or a Democrat.  They see a believer in Jesus, one who values truth, goodness, peace, and prayer.  Amen.


[1] Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? 5.

[2] Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? 2.

[3] God in the Dock, 199.

[4]Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God, 167.

[5] The Allegory of Love, 483.

[6] Christian Reflections, 33.

[7] Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? 16.

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