Those of us who grew up in mainstream Christian churches probably remember this guidance being given to us many times. It is a paraphrase of a challenging section of Scripture, 1 John 2:14-17, which is itself based on Christ’s message in John 17 1 John 2:14-17: 14 I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[a] is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
The part about “in the world” was meant to instruct us that we are not just idle passengers in life. Not just passive observers. Rather that we have a responsibility in the world, and not just to avoid temptation and sin, but to actively seek to do good.
The latter part, “not of it”, meant that we were held to a higher set of standards than those set by society. It meant that just because society said something was OK, that didn’t mean that it was OK for Christians. Of course that didn’t and still doesn’t mean that Christians behave in their everyday lives any better than anyone else. It just means they are supposed to. And possibly that they will be held accountable if they do not.
For Christian leaders for many years it also held another meaning. It meant that Christian leaders should be wary of meddling in partisan politics. Partisan politics is about as worldly a thing as I can think of, and John’s admonishment to us needs to be taken seriously. This message has always resonated with me, despite the fact that I am a very political person. I think serious consideration needs to be given to what John’s teaching and the old guidance to be in the world but not of it means in today’s society.
I do not believe that it means that we should not be advocates for good in the world, that we should not passionately push for those issues that our beliefs and the Spirit move us on. However, I do believe that it means we need to be cautious about letting this entangle us with partisan politics. I think we need to constantly be thinking about whether our religious beliefs are determining our political allegiances or our political allegiances are determining our religious beliefs.
For instance, I believe it is always wrong for any pastor or religious figure to try to tell his flock how they should vote, or to endorse individual candidates or parties. I think it is wrong for church leaders to pass out “voting guides” to their congregations. I think it is wrong to tell people they must believe a certain way on certain social/political issues to be a “good Christian”. I think many other things that I have seen or heard about in churches in recent years are also wrong or are gray areas at the very least.
My reasoning is founded not just on my understanding of John’s instructions or on other scriptural guidance, but also on my practical desire to see the church thrive. I would not want political conservatives or political liberals to feel unwelcome in the Body of Christ because of their political views. I would not want anyone to turn away from the doors of the church either in anger or in fear because they felt their political beliefs were trampled on or unwelcome. I fear that this happens frequently in many Christian churches.
That does not mean that preachers need to censor themselves unduly and not allow the Spirit to move them. It doesn’t mean that pastors shouldn’t challenge their congregations to think about issues of the day. To the contrary, I would love to have more of that. But that’s what it should be – present them with the scriptures and guide them in how to understand them, but don’t pound them over the head with it and dictate to them how they must believe and how they should behave. Open the way for them. Don’t seize them by the scruff of the neck and try to drag them along.
What it means is that church leaders need to be more careful in what they say, and examine their own motives more closely before speaking. That they need to pray more for guidance. That they need to be absolutely sure that they have clear Biblical guidance drawn not just from individual passages taken out of context, but also in accordance with the major themes of the Bible, the greatest of those being to love one another. Most of all make sure that they are not being influenced unduly by politics.
I think one of the reasons Christianity in America is in crisis now, with declining participation and increasing numbers of people, especially the young, declaring that they do not believe, is because many church leaders are failing in this regard. They have become worldly. Politics has corrupted them. Some started with good motives, but somewhere along the way lost perspective and allowed their passion for individual issues to blind them to all else. Others I suspect have always been more political than religious and lust for worldly power and influence for its own sake.
In any event, it needs to stop. The Body of Christ needs to be open and welcoming to all. Conservative and liberal. Gay and straight. Black and white. Native born and immigrant. We are all God’s children, and we are all sinners saved only by grace. We will not always agree on all things, but no one should be either driven out or made to feel unwelcome because of who they are or what they believe. All are welcome to share in His love.