Navigating Politics

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Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”
Matthew 28:19 ESV
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
Matthew 28:20 ESV
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The wise are those who know how to navigate life.
Tremper Longman III
A few of you have perhaps spent the afternoon glued to Donald Tusk’s twitter feed, and are now avidly awaiting to see whether MV3 will happen on Monday. Or perhaps not. Most of you, perhaps, are fed up with the endless talk about Brexit on every single news programme on very single day, and can’t believe that the elders thought that it was a good idea to get me to come and talk to you about politics tonight.
So, let me put your minds at rest. Despite the clever title, I’m not going to speak about Brexit, bills, or backstops. The subtitle is what matters: “How should a Christian navigate politics”. What I’m going to share with you tonight is not about Brexit. It’s about what God expects of us as Christians, and it’s therefore relevant to all of us, regardless of how we view politics, or where we stand on political issues.
No doubt some of you want to know where I stand politically, so you don’t have to waste your time listening to me if I’m a loony Trotskyite or a Brexiteer headbanger.
I am not a politician, and I’ve never been a political activist. I’ve previously been a member of a political party – although not at the moment because currently no parties currently reflect what is important to me.
But despite a little disillusionment, since turning 18 I’ve voted in every election and referendum, including local, European and even Police and Crime Commissioner. elections I usually vote for the party I used to be a member of, but I’ve also voted for two other parties, either for tactical reasons or because of the strength of the local candidate.
I’ve always been fascinated by politics. I’m the sort of person who stays up until 4 o’clock in the morning to watch Election Night Special. I read political news and political books and listen to political podcasts. I’ve written articles for the Evangelical Magazine on the Church and State, on how should Christians vote, and on whether Christians should be progressives or traditionalists. But I’m not involved in politics beyond that.
I’m not going to tell you what party I normally vote for, or whether I voted leave or remain. If I’ve done my job well, we should be able to get to the end of this talk, and you not be at all sure whether I vote for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, Plaid, UKIP or someone else. You shouldn’t have a clue whether I voted leave or remain. Because if I’ve done my job properly, what I’m going to say isn’t political, it’s biblical.
Nowadays, we live in a very polarised society. The whole Brexit vote has made that very clear. But such polarisation is a childish fantasy. Life is not black and white, and politics shouldn’t be.
So what I want to do this evening is to encourage us to remember six truths in tension.

Politicians have a responsibility to do what is right and

Politicians are not responsible for the darkness

God hold politicians accountable. He expects them to act justly and in mercy. And while that doesn’t always happen in British politics, I’d far rather be living under the British political system than many other political systems around the world, including those in the New Testament era.
But what is righteous for the State isn’t necessarily the same as what is righteous for the church. Church and State are quite different, and God expects different things from both. Christian political campaigning often fails to understand this.
For example, it’s is not the state’s responsibility to evangelise. That’s the church’s responsibility. In this country, it isn’t government policy that is closing churches, it’s spiritual weakness.
And it isn’t the state’s responsibility to ensure the priority of Christianity. The state was right to repeal blasphemy laws. How could the state be equipped to decide whether Christianity or Islam or atheism is more deserving of its support? We shouldn’t want the state making a theological judgement.
But this separation of Church and State doesn’t mean the Church should be silent on political issues. If the Church is independent of government, it has a greater right and responsibility to hold government to account, particularly in policy areas where the Bible clearly lays out the Christian position.
Equally, it doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics, any more than it means Muslims or Hindus or atheists shouldn’t be involved in politics now. In modern Britain, we need politicians who represent various religious (and non-religious) viewpoints. It’s right to insist there must be a place in the public square for Christians to express unpopular views that reflect our Christianity. It’s wrong to assume that this right shouldn’t be extended to Islam and atheism.
So while it’s true to say that politicians have a responsibility to do what is right, it’s equally true to say that politicians are not responsible for the darkness.
We all love to blame other people for the mess that we’re in. If Brexit has achieved anything, it’s achieved that. And in the church, we can often point the finger at politicians and the political system and blame the state for the current moral and spiritual decay. But listen to these words from John Stott:
If the house is dark at night, there is no sense in blaming the house for its darkness. That is what happens when the sun goes down. The question to ask is: where is the light?
Again, if the meat goes bad and becomes inedible, there is no sense in blaming the meat for its decay. That is what happens when the bacteria are left free to breed. The question to ask is: where is the salt?
Similarly, if society becomes corrupt (like a dark night or stinking fish), there is no sense in blaming society for its corruption. That is what happens when human evil is unchecked and unrestrained. The question to ask is: where is the church? Where is the salt and light of Jesus?
Why did Britain legalise gay marriage? Not because of progressive politics. Britain legalised gay marriage because over many generations the church failed in its mission to point people to Jesus Christ so that they would trust in God, rather than in men.
So that’s the first set of truths we have to hold in tension: Politicians have a responsibility to do what is right and Politicians are not responsible for the darkness.
Here’s the second set of truths.

Politics matters because it changes lives.

Only Jesus can change the heart.

Christians tend to wrongly polarise over this issue. Some Christians argue that only Jesus can fix the human problem. Politics is never going to save us, they say, and therefore Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics. Instead, we should preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Society will never be turned around by secular politicians, it will only be turned around by the gospel of Jesus. If you’re really pessimistic you’ll say it will only be turned around by the second coming of Jesus.
On the other hand, there are other Christians who speak about our moral responsibility to ‘seek the prosperity of the city’, as Jeremiah told the exiles to secular Babylon. They tell us that we should demonstrate Christian love by getting involved in social action, and in political initiatives designed to do good to others. They tell us that God cares about politics, and all Christians should actively campaign for social justice, the environment and an end to poverty and war.
So which is right?
They both are. We need to hold both these truths in tension.
It’s absolutely true to say that it’s the gospel, not politics, that speaks most clearly to the human condition. It’s quite correct that many of the problems faced by our politicians are caused by human depravity, and failing to ask for the wisdom that God gives. If our society and our politicians followed Christ, then many of problems that politics tries to solve wouldn’t be problems at all.
But at the same time, we must recognise that politics affects every person in society, and it affects the vulnerable and the powerless most of all. We must remember that God cares about widows and orphans and the poor and oppressed, and he expects us to care about them too. If politics makes a difference to their lives, God cares about that – and we should too.
Many of us we forget one of those truths. Or, more likely, although we know in our heads that we need to hold both truths together, we forget one of the truths in practice. So let’s briefly take each in turn, and let me ask you some questions to help you diagnose whether, in practice, you’re holding these truths together.

Have you forgotten that only Jesus can really change the heart?

Does your Facebook or Twitter feeds say more about politics than they do about Jesus? If it does, your non-Christian friends may well conclude that the People’s Vote or making sure we leave the EU gives you greater hope than Jesus Christ does.
Would your non-Christian friends say you are as passionate about sharing Jesus Christ as you are about arguing about politics? If they wouldn’t, it’s likely they’ll conclude that you believe politics will make more of a difference in their lives than Jesus would.
Do you get more worked up by Christians falling foul of political correctness than you do by non-Christians going to hell? If your Facebook feed is full of links about street preachers being arrested, or Christians getting caught up in so called equality laws, but isn’t full of links about the glory of the gospel and the need for salvation, your non-Christian friends are going to conclude that you believe the primary problem in Britain is politics, not lack of faith in Christ.
So, whilst none of us actually believes that politics is more important than Jesus Christ, you can see that very probably some of us behave as if politics is more important than Jesus Christ?
If some of what I have said has struck a chord with you, how should you respond? By repentance. If politics has become an idol, we need to cry out for help and mercy. But repentance also means changing our behaviour. When news of the Brexit referendum was first released, I saw many Christians post Bible verses such as Psalm 146:3,” Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” That’s a great sentiment. But better still, perhaps is to post the verse alongside a brief explanation as to why you believe that.
But perhaps there’s an even better response that posting Bible verses. Nowadays, witness that invites questions from your friends, tends to be more effective than one that just preaches at them. So perhaps in the middle of a political argument with your friends you could simply say, “Of course, I’m not saying that Donald Trump/Jeremy Corbyn/Theresa May is going to solve everything. There’s someone else who’s got far better ideas about the future than them.”
The chances are that your friend will ask you who that is, thinking perhaps you want Jacob Rees Mogg or Chukka Umunna to take over. Then tell them about Jesus, and what he stands for. You might be surprised about what the Lord could do through conversations like that.
A few years ago I was having a discussion with a friend about rich bankers. In God’s providence I’d recently been reading the book of Ecclesiastes, so as part of the discussion I quoted some verses in that book, particularly 5:10, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” This really struck a chord with my friend – that had been exactly her own experience, as she had come from a fairly wealthy background. She was astonished that a book nearly 3,000 years old said something that resonated so deeply with her. And without her telling me she went home and read the whole of that book of Ecclesiastes. Now that wouldn’t be top of my list of evangelistic Bible books to read for someone entirely new to the Bible, but that’s what she did. And so over the next few days, we had lots of conversations about the Bible, and within a fortnight had been converted through a Christian friend back in London.
But while some of us have forgotten that only Jesus can really change lives. Others have…

…forgotten that politics matters?

It’s easy to just stop caring about politics. But politics matters. That’s actually why we grumble about them. They do make a difference, for good and ill, and they make the biggest difference to the most vulnerable. The more vulnerable and powerless you are, the greater politics makes a difference. Politics matters because people matter.
And politics matters to God because he cares about the vulnerable and expects us to protect them. If you’re wealthy, it doesn’t particularly matter if politicians reduce the funding of the NHS. But if you’re vulnerable because of your poverty and powerless to get private health care, politics makes a huge difference to your life.
So because God calls us to care for the most vulnerable, we should be concerned about politics. This is especially true in a modern democracy, where we have a far greater influence than people did in Biblical times. We have a responsibility to support politicians when they do what is right, and challenge and hold them accountable when they do what is wrong.
So let me ask you some questions that will help diagnose whether you’ve forgotten that politics matters.
Do you pass up opportunities to vote? Often the people most likely to complain about politics are the very people who don’t vote. Voting is so easy, there’s really no excuse not to prayerfully cast your ballot every time there’s an election — even if you think that none of the parties deserve your vote. None of the rulers in New Testament times ‘deserved’ the support of the early Christians, and yet they’re repeatedly told to respect them and pray for them. How much more should we influence politicians for good through our votes?
Do you rarely pay attention to the news, or read quality news sources? If you’re getting your political news solely from what happens to turn up on Facebook or Twitter, rather than seeking out trusted sources, then you’ve probably forgotten that politics matters.
Do you vote for the same party in every election, without taking the trouble to understand their policies? Many of us vote for the same party out of habit, or out of laziness. But as Labour supporters are discovering, parties change, and the needs of the country change. I would suggest we ask three questions of each candidate or party before we vote:
What difference will their policies make to the well-being of others?
How much can I trust them to deliver what they promise?
How likely are they to win the vote and put their policies into practice?
If some of this strikes a chord with you, how should you respond? If we have become apathetic or cynical, we need to cry out to God for help and mercy.
When we think of our politicians, we need to remember the biblical doctrine of common grace. God is more than able to use secular politicians to bring about his purposes and do his will. We need to remember the New Testament commands to obey civil authorities and honour the king.
So we’ve seen that politicians have a responsibility to do what is right, but politicians are not responsible for the darkness. How we’ve seen that only Jesus can really change lives, put politics still matters because it changes lives.
Now, thirdly:

Christians should be conservative and

Christians should be progressive

This is a huge issue in the United States, and thankfully a smaller one here. But there are still many people who believe that all Christians should vote for a particular party. Those who take this view tend to link Christianity with right-wing politics, which is one of the reasons why Christians sometimes have a reputation for being unloving and uncaring, and why so many liberals think that Christianity is not for them.
We need to be very clear that God does not support the Republican party any more than he supports the Democrats. There is no command in the Bible that Thou Shalt vote Tory. God is bigger than party politics.
Several years ago, I wrote to all the candidates in a particular general election, asking them for their views on a handful of topics that would be of particular interest to Christians. I said I would share their answers with other people in the church, to help us decide who to vote for.
Most of the candidates replied, but I was particularly struck by one comment. The candidate commended me for including a question about how we should care for widows, orphans and strangers. She strongly implied that other Christians had given her similar lists of questions, but concentrated only on moral issues such as gay marriage or Christian freedom – and I think she felt that by focussing on those issues the people asking the questions had almost predetermined who they were going to vote for.
I think lots of us fall into the trap of thinking that Christianity can be tied to only one political view. So let me give you some questions that will help diagnose whether that’s an issue for you:
Do you limit your political engagement to issues that you can campaign against? One of the big complaints about parliament at the moment is they know what they’re against, but no-one knows what they’re for. But that’s true of Christians today. We’re known only for what we’re against. If you think Christian political engagement should be about saying ‘no’ to bad legislation, then you’re in danger of tying Christianity with a conservative world view, rather than a progressive world view.
Have you ever suggested that no decent person could take the opposite political view to you? I saw this a lot from Christians immediately after the Brexit vote. Some remain Christians were retweeting suggestions that those who voted ‘leave’ were at best bigots, and worst racists. No doubt the small numbers of bigots and racists in our country tended to voted leave. But by suggesting it was impossible for a godly Christian to vote ‘leave’ with a clear conscience, we’re making the mistake of tying Christianity to one political view – a progressive one.
Most Christians in Britain are instinctively conservative with a small ‘c’. I don’t mean that we all vote Conservative with a big ‘C’, but that politically, we’re traditionalists. We tend to believe society is in decline, thanks to the diminishing influence of religion in public life, an increasing number of broken homes, abortion on demand, fewer people attending church, and an increasing acceptance of cohabitation, drunkenness and homosexuality. We look at these changes and conclude that Britain would be a better place if these changes could somehow be reversed. Politically that makes us conservatives, and perhaps understandably so.
But Christians haven’t always been conservatives. The apostles were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6). Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other reformers were instrumental in radically changing European society, achieving sweeping changes in church life and wider society. The 16th century Puritans went even further. Although most Christians today who admire the puritans are traditionalists, in their own day the Puritans wanted more change, more quickly almost anyone else — they were radicals.
But not all Christians are radicals, of course. In the Bible, King Josiah is praised for conservative reforms such as reintroducing the Passover, which ‘had not been observed like this… since the days of the prophet Samuel’.
Some Christians say we should be progressive at times when society is improving, and conservative at times when society is declining. So at the moment, they say, Christians should be conservative.
But life isn’t that simple. Society is always getting better, and it’s always getting worse. That’s one of the points that Jesus is making with the parable of the wheat and the tares. The weeds and the wheat grow up together, the good grows up with the bad.
William Wilberforce is a great model. Wilberforce was a radical. In the 1700s, he helped found the Society for Missions to Africa and the East so was one of the pioneers of the modern missionary movement. Five years later he helped establish the British and Foreign Bible Society to distribute Bibles around the world, and later still he helped establish the first animal welfare charity (which became the RSPCA). And that’s not forgetting his radical campaign to outlaw the slave trade. All these projects are the product of a progressive and forward-thinking mind, and by any definition, Wilberforce was a progressive.
Yet at the very same time as that he was also campaigning for the ‘Reformation of manners’, an attempt to put a stop to ‘the rapid progress of impiety and licentiousness’. The idea for this reformation came from a similar attempt some hundred years earlier. It was a conservative, perhaps even a reactionary campaign.
Wilberforce didn’t choose between being progressive or being a conservative. He chose to be both. Like any evangelical traditionalist, where Christianity or society had moved away from biblical truth, he sought to take it back. But he didn’t try to the nation back to a golden age, because he seemed not to believe there was no such a thing. He was looking to the future.
We find that same attitude in the New Testament. At one level, Paul’s teaching was very conservative. His own testimony was, ‘I worship the God of our ancestors… I believe everything that is in accordance with the law and written in the Prophets’, ‘I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen’ (Acts 24:14, 26:22). His beliefs were conservative beliefs, but he was also incredibly progressive, for example in integrating Gentiles into the Jewish church.
Think for a moment of all the modern political campaigns that Christians have tended to support. Almost all of them are calling for the government not to do something. We’ve said ‘no’ to liberalising Sunday trading, ‘no’ to gay marriage, and ‘no’ to limitations on free speech. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to say ‘no’ to those things, but I am asking why Christians aren’t also known for saying ‘yes’ to visionary initiatives. We talk about traditional values and Britain’s Christian heritage but we rarely talk about the future. We defend the status quo but we don’t define what should be ahead. We warn of what society might become but we don’t show what it ought to be. We try to pull back those we believe are going the wrong way but we don’t lead others forward.
The result of all that is that our prayer meetings can end up sounding like Daily Mail editorials, railing against the latest example of political correctness gone mad, or barmy imposition of liberal ideology on hard-working British families. Meanwhile, child poverty, mental health issues and the spiritual darkness that so many are lost in never get a mention.
There’s two things we can do to help us put this right.
First, we must get our political news from both progressive and conservative sources. By law, TV news has to be fairly balanced, but that doesn’t apply to newspapers or websites. So, if you consume your news online it’s vital that you balance your input. Just about the worst thing you can do is to rely on your social media feeds for news. Not only is there a real danger of fake news, but you’re also in an echo chamber, and tend only to hear voices that your friends agree with. If you care about disciplining your mind, you need to consider both sides of the political coin. Personally, for political news, I make sure I read at least the Guardian, the Telegraph and the BBC. That exposes me to a wide range of opinion – some of which drives me nuts, but all of which helps me to a far less polarised position than I would otherwise take.
The second thing we can do is to ensure all our politics must be influenced by the Bible, rather than just be the traditional categories of left and right. Many of us can be much more influenced by our upbringing, our friends, and the media we consume that we are by the Bible. So when we vote, or when we express political opinions, it often doesn’t cross our minds to consider what the Bible might have to say about the issues in front of us. We look at the world through a political lens, not a biblical lens.
Some statements in the Bible would tend to be associated with conservative politics. For example, the doctrine of original sin, the strong emphasis on self-discipline, on the need for law, order and punishment, the stress on personal responsibility, and statements like “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
But at the same time, there’s a lot in the Bible that would tend to be associated with progressive politics, such as condemnation of the self-interests of the wealthy, the strong community or social emphasis, the importance of caring for the most vulnerable in society, and a toleration — at least in the New Testament — of those with whom you don’t agree.
Thinking biblically about political issues helps us understand that it’s not just a case of right vs left, or conservative vs progressive, but that’s there’s good – and bad – on both sides.

In conclusion

Christians should navigate politics by holding politicians accountable for their leadership – but not blaming them for the failings of the church. We should take politics seriously because it changes people’s lives – but never forget that only Jesus can change the heart. And we should remember that to think and act Christianly means that we must be both conservative and progressive in our views and in our thinking.
It’s not an easy task, but if all the roughly two million evangelical Christians in Britain prayed and campaigned and voted Christianly, then Britain would be a far better place.


What struck you most as you thought about navigating politics?
What was most controversial?
What one thing will you ask God to help you with?
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