Five Ways to be a Christian During an Election Year

Traditionally, Labor Day is the start of the general election. The two-and-a-half month period between Labor Day and Election Day is when most voters turn their attention the election, examine the issues, and decide on a candidate to support. Essentially, September is the beginning of the stretch run to Election Day.

Followers of Christ will face many decisions in the days and weeks to come. These decisions are the same that any American faces during an election year, such as who to vote for or what issues are important to me. The difference for a Christian is that these decisions must be answered in relationship with our faith in Christ. It is imperative that a Christian remembers that our calling to follow Christ includes how we engage the political process. Indeed, our electoral decisions must be formed from our faith in Christ and not based on worldly desires or expectations.

What does this mean for the average church member? In previous posts, I’ve discussed how pastors should avoid partisanship in the church and how to use social media in an election year. While these thoughts might be beneficial to a pastor, they are not necessarily helpful to the average church member who is trying to figure out how to follow Christ during an election year.

Considering this, here are five suggestions for how a Christian might engage the political process.

  1. Do not hold undue allegiance to a political party. Our country is defined by our partisanship, which is formed out of our strict adherence to being a member of the Republican Party or Democratic Party. While it is certainly acceptable for a Christian to be a member of a political party and involved in politics, a Christian must be aware of how much value they place on being a member of a certain party. In other words, our political party must not become central to our identity. For many people, being a member of a certain political party defines who they are and how they see others. It becomes their god. Followers of Christ must not base their personal identity on their political affiliation or see their party as their god. Our identity must be formed by our relationship with Christ. Nothing is to come above this relationship and our identity as a child of God.
  2. Watch your words. So far, this has been a nasty election. Both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have used negative campaign tactics, which have also been used by their surrogates. Christians must rise above the rhetoric and negativity that is associated with most political elections. In everything we do, we are to be witnesses of Christ’s love, teaching, and holiness. Our participation in the electoral process is not exempt from this. Followers of Christ must be careful that their words and actions to someone are not based on hatred or animosity simply because that person holds a different political viewpoint. Our actions must be defined by Christ’s love and respect. To take any other action would hinder the body of Christ and weaken our witness.
  3. Educate yourself on the issues. A voter should take the time to educate themselves on the issues and a candidate’s positions. This is an important electoral duty. Christians also have this responsibility. Education is an important part of our relationship with Christ, as Paul reminds us in Romans 12. We are called to continually transform our mind. Christians must be aware of the issues that face our communities and understand the positions of those who seek to lead in the coming years. We cannot depend on others to tell us who to vote for or what someone supports. We must do this hard investigative work ourselves.
  4. Remember that the mission of the church is not dependent on an election. The mission of the church will go on regardless of who wins in November. This is important for Christians to remember. The mission of the church is not to make political disciples. We are called to make followers of Jesus Christ, through the preaching of the Good News and sharing of Christ’s love with others. This is the work we are called to do. It is a work that will continue no matter if a Democrat or Republican occupies the White House.
  5. Pray for our leaders. As followers of Christ, we must pray for our leaders and the election. This is not a prayer seeking God’s blessing for our preferred candidate. Instead, we pray that God’s will will be done in the election and in our country. We pray for the protection of our leaders. We also pray for their discernment and leadership.

Christians have an important role in the upcoming election. We have the job of being witnesses of Christ’s love to others in the political process. Hopefully, these tips will serve as a guidance for how followers of Christ might be witnesses of God’s love in the voting booth.


What Abraham Lincoln Teaches Pastors About Leadership

Abraham Lincoln is the country’s greatest president. His achievements in four years in office are many. To name a few, Lincoln guided the Union to victory in the Civil War, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and guided the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage in Congress.

Lincoln is an important leader to study and understand. This is especially true for pastors who are interested in improving how they lead their respective churches. Lincoln offers a great case study for pastors wanting to effectively and gracefully lead their communities.

Here are five key leadership attributes pastors can learn from studying Lincoln.

Lincoln did not compromise who he was. Lincoln was a storyteller. He had an anecdote for every situation. The stories had a purpose. They helped to articulate Lincoln’s position on various issues, such as how to prosecute the end of the war. That doesn’t mean that they were always appreciated. Lincoln’s stories were sometimes met with disdain by members of his cabinet. They felt Lincoln’s storytelling was undignified, but Lincoln never stopped telling stories. He remained true to who he was.

That is an important lesson for a pastor. Many pastors get caught up in “being” like someone else. So much so that we forget to “be” the person and leader God desires us to be. True leadership must be authentic for it to inspire others. For instance, I am a writer. If I was to stop writing and focus my abilities on artistic expressions of faith, which I am not gifted to do, I would not be true to myself. I would suffer, because I am not doing something God has called me to do, and my church would suffer because they are not being authentically led. Pastors should learn from others, but it must not keep us from using the gifts God has given us.

Lincoln did not allow obstacles to become permanent. From what we can learn of Lincoln’s childhood, Lincoln faced difficult circumstances. His father put him to work for others. His mother died at an early age. He had a limited formal education. The obstacles continued as Lincoln became an attorney and politician. He incurred debt from a business deal. He was removed from an important case in Cincinnati and had his counsel ignored by Edwin Stanton, who was one of the case’s key attorneys. He was defeated by Stephen Douglas to represent Illinois in the Senate.

With each obstacle, Lincoln never lost his focus or ambition. He educated himself. He paid off his debt. He learned from other lawyers. He kept active in politics. Each obstacle provided Lincoln an opportunity to learn and grow. Lincoln never allowed these moments to become permanent distractions.

Pastors can get caught up in their own obstacles. There are many obstacles in a pastor’s life that range from the personal to the pastoral. Pastors have a tendency to make these obstacles a crippling millstone. These obstacles end up harming our ministries and cripple our effectiveness to lead. Pastors must be willing to learn from the difficult moments that impact our lives. An effective pastor does not allow obstacles to become defining attributes.

Lincoln was not afraid to place strong leaders in major roles. When Lincoln was elected in 1860, he faced the problem of being relatively unknown. He was also not seen as the leader of his own party. That position was held by William Seward, whom Lincoln defeated for the Republican Party nomination. Recognizing his weaknesses and the need for capable leaders in his cabinet, Lincoln appointed his rivals to key positions in his administration. Seward became his Secretary of State. Salmon Chase, who never lost sight of his own presidential ambition, was named Secretary of Treasury. Edward Bates would be Lincoln’s Attorney General and Montgomery Blair would serve as the Postmaster General. Lincoln even named Stanton, the same person who refused to accept his counsel, as Secretary of War. Each of these men could have been president in their own right, but came to appreciate Lincoln’s leadership strength.

In appointing his rivals to important cabinet posts, Lincoln showed confidence and humility. Lincoln knew who he was, both in his strengths and weaknesses. He was confident enough to appoint others who were perceived to be more capable. Lincoln was not easily intimated or influenced by the views and opinions of others. At the same time, Lincoln showed great humility. He knew he had weaknesses and needed the help of others to lead the country.

Every pastor should have confidence and humility. Pastors should have confidence in their talents and be willing to share leadership with others who are gifted and talented. This doesn’t mean that pastors skirt from their responsibilities, but that they allow others to participate in leading the church. Pastors should also be humble enough to recognize their weaknesses. Often, pastors will try to lead in every area and not ask for help. This is the cause of burnout for many pastors. Pastors must be able to step aside and give opportunities to people who are more suited for a given task.

Lincoln took time to make a decision. During his four years in office, Lincoln faced several difficult decisions. Most important was the decision Lincoln had to make about slavery. When he entered office, Lincoln’s main concern was the preservation of the Union. That was his main goal, but he was also concerned about slavery and wanted it to end.

Lincoln waited a year before fully addressing the issue of slavery. He had to think through his own views about ending slavery and had to wait for the right time to make a decision. The radical base of his party felt Lincoln was too slow in addressing slavery, while others felt he shouldn’t address it. When Lincoln announced his desire to end slavery and sign the Emancipation Proclamation, he did not waver. The decision defined his presidency and the Civil War.

Pastors today believe quick action is the sign of an effective leader. This is perhaps in keeping with our fast-paced culture. If a decision is not made immediately, we believe people will doubt our leadership or say we are not moving fast enough. Leadership patience is not a virtue many pastors have. Pastors would be wise to take time to think through a given issue. This leaves room for a pastor to spend time in prayer and to hear God’s desires.

Lincoln was always learning. Lincoln had a deep passion for education. He always wanting to learn and to grow in his knowledge of different topics. This included learning about military strategy and theology.

Lincoln’s education in these two areas served him well. His military self-education on helped him to realize that many of his generals were failing to understand the Confederate army. He became an active commander-in-chief primarily because of his own understanding of the military. Lincoln also grew in his faith throughout his presidency. Prior to his election, Lincoln had faith in God but had serious doubts and questions about faith. These questions guided him to learn more about theology and faith. This time of study helped him to craft a Second Inauguration Address that set the tone for reconciliation between the North and South.

Pastors must be leaders who learn. This education must go beyond sermon preparation. Learning must include personal growth in our faith in Christ and learning about different theological topics. At the same time, pastors must learn about the issues that our communities face. For instance, we cannot lead through a time of economic crisis if we are not willing to learn about what caused the current crisis.

Lincoln is an important American figure and leader. He has inspired generations through his words that defined the Civil War as not just a battle between North and South, but a battle between right and wrong. Lincoln’s leadership qualities, those listed and not listed, should be studied by anyone in leadership, especially pastors who seek to effectively lead their churches and communities of faith.

Sunday Sermon: Deep Worship

One of my favorite worship songs is not found in many hymnals. This includes the one we use each Sunday or some more recent editions. It is a powerful song that has been recorded by several artists. If you listen to K-Love or Air1 it is very likely you have heard this song.

The song is “Here I am to Worship.” Written by Tim Hughes in 1999, the song reflects on Paul’s words in Philippians 2 that calls us to humble ourselves in the same way as Christ humbled himself in becoming human. I first heard the song when I lived in Chapel Hill, N.C., and was a member of Christ United Methodist Church. It was frequently sung during the contemporary worship service as a transitional piece. The song would help move the service from a time of praise to a time of reflection.

Listen to one of the verses:

Here I am to worship./Here I am to bow down./Here I am to say that you’re my God./You’re all together lovely./All together worthy./All together wonderful to me.

The words are simply beautiful. They remind me of some fond memories of a community that helped me to see God’s grace and God’s call for my life. At the same time, it is also a song that reminds me of why we are here today. This morning, we gather as a community to worship the Lord.

What does worship mean for you? If I was to make a guess, I would suggest that we have many different understandings or feelings when it comes to worship. Some look forward to this time of worship all week. Others are here because it is expected of a good and faithful Christian. As well, there are probably some who wonder why we need to come to worship at all.

Worshiping as a family is one the most important things that we do as a community of faith. It may also be the most puzzling. I believe worship can be the most misunderstood and confusing activity in our relationship with Christ. Often, we believe worship only takes place for one hour, and no more, on Sunday mornings or other special occasions. We also think worship is about a certain style, whether it is traditional, blended, emergent, or contemporary. Yet, deep worship is about none of these thing.  Deep worship goes beyond any of our expectations.

Deep worship is not about a specific style or about what music is played. Worship is more than about our time together each Sunday. Worship calls us to a deep relationship with God. Worship of God is our response to God’s action and love. It is our communal and personal act of rejoicing, remembering, revering, and responding to the Father’s love, as witnessed through the life of Jesus Christ, and revealed to us through the Holy Spirit. We were made for deep worship and are called to deeply worship the Lord.

We need to turn to Psalm 95 to help us to understand what it means to deeply worship the Lord. Traditionally, this Psalm has been seen as a call to worship. It was written for the Feast of the Tabernacles, which was one of the most important feasts for the Israelites. During this feast, the people would remember their journey in the wilderness after being rescued from slavery in Egypt. Even though it was intended for that specific context, there is much for us as we consider what it means to deeply worship.

The Psalm begins with the word, “come.” Have you ever notice how often we use a form of come in our communications? Will you come overhere? Are you coming to dinner? Will you come to church with me? In each of these usages we are inviting someone to join us. We want them to participate in something that is taking place and care about, whether it is something new or something that has always occurred.

With this opening word of Psalm 95, the Psalmist reminds us that we are invited to come and join in the worship of the Lord. Worship is already taking place when we enter the church. During our time of worship, we join the community of saints, those throughout the world and those in heaven, in worshiping the Lord. Deep worship is a beautiful act where we come together as one body to worship the Lord.

When we come to worship, we are invited to experience the presence of the Living Lord. That is why we say we come expecting that something will happen during worship. We expect to meet Christ here, to feel his presence, to feel his love, and to be transformed in these moments together. This is a joyful expectation. It is this joy that calls us to “sing to the Lord.”

The joy of the Lord gives us a clue about deep worship. Authentic and deep worship is a time of rejoicing. One of the biggest complaints about worship today is that it is boring. Some say that reciting old creeds and using liturgies from the church’s earliest days is the cure for insomnia. Some say worship is not enjoyable unless it includes loud music, big lights, and a production that equals something you might see at a concert. Friends, let me let you in on a little secret: The style of worship is not important. The style of worship is not what leads us to a time of deep rejoicing of the Lord.

Deep rejoicing occurs when we approach the Lord with thanksgiving. Rejoicing is our act of praising God because he is the “great King above all gods.” It is a way of giving thanks. Deep worship inspires us to praise God for all that the Lord has done. We rejoice because God created this world. We rejoice because God created each of us. We rejoice because God never stopped loving us. We rejoice because God sent his son to live among us. We rejoice because God is right here with us today. In all of this, we give thanks. Rejoicing is our way of expressing our love of the Lord as an offering in response to everything the Lord has done.

That brings to mind another aspect about worship. Not only is worship an invitation to experience the presence of the Lord and a time of rejoicing, but it is also a time of remembrance. Deep worship is like a family reunion. Every reunion includes a retelling of old stories about family members that have been passed down through the ages. It is an act of remembrance of those special moments that remind us of our loved ones.

This is similar to what the people of Israel meant by remembrance. An act of remembrance would call to memory God’s actions in such a way that it would inspire current and future obedience. 1 Chronicles 16:24 speaks of this type of remembrance. It says we are to “[t]ell everyone about the amazing things [the Lord] has done.” In worship, we remember what God has done throughout the generations. We remember them so it will inspire us to tell everyone about the Lord. Often we believe we do not need to be reminded of what God has done, because we have already heard the story. Friends, we need to be reminded again and again. Remembering what God has done through the generations and in our lives gives us hope in difficult times and helps us to live in faithful obedience. We must always be reminded about what God has done. This act of remembrance calls us to a deep relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.

Remembrance, we hope, not only calls us to a deep relationship through faithful obedience, but it also inspires in us a sense of awe and reverence. This is what the Psalmist hints at in verse 6. He writes, “let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” Deep worship should take our breath away. In the living room of the parsonage we have a photo of a forest. I’m not sure where this forest is located. The photo is stunning. Its central feature is the rays of light beaming through the trees. It overtakes the entire photo and leaves you breathless.

That is what deep worship feels like. Deep worship inspires awe and wonder when we experience the presence of the Lord. Worship should humble us before the Lord. Showing reverence is our spiritual offering to the Lord. Reverence is not impersonal, as if it is something we do at a distance. When we meet the Lord and have a personal relationship with the Lord, worship is not only a communal act, but is also intimately and deeply personal.

Deep worship also calls us to respond to these experiences. Worship calls us to make a response. Our response to worship is found in how we will continue worshiping after we have left the sanctuary to go out in the world. This is what the reader faces in verses 9-11. When tested, the people of Israel refused to follow the Lord at Massah. They left the presence of the Lord by trying to find their own way and refusing to trust in the Lord. As a result, those in the wilderness did not experience the Promised Land.

Worship calls us to respond through faithful obedience to God’s act of salvation. Our response should be to always worship the Lord. Worship is not limited to one hour on Sunday mornings, but it is a daily act of rejoicing, remembering, revering, and responding to what the Lord has done in our lives. We deeply worship by living our lives as committed followers of Christ, who seek a deep relationship with our Lord. We respond to our worship, by recognizing that worship does not end when the final hymn is played. It continues by the way we live out our lives.

Friends, deep worship is truly powerful and transformative. It calls us to come and experience the presence of the Lord. It brings us to a place of rejoicing and calls us to remember why we worship. Worship brings us to a place of reverence and calls us to respond to what we experienced.

As you leave today, my hope is that you will take some time to think about what worship means to you. Think about each of these perspectives of worship. Which has been the most important in your walk with the Lord? Which might you need to ask God to show you how to embrace? Which have you never considered before?

For each of us, my prayer is that these words will be our deepest desire:

Here I am to worship./Here I am to bow down./Here I am to say that you’re my God./You’re all together lovely./All together worthy./All together wonderful to me.

Adjusting to Being a Dad: The Dad I Want to Be

Since announcing that Abbi and I are expecting our first child in February, one of the most common reactions I have received is that I will make a great father.

I appreciate the vote of confidence and hope that one day my child will be able to say that about me. As Abbi and I prepare to welcome “Little P.K.” into our home, I have contemplated what it means for me to be a great father. In other words, what kind of dad do I aspire to be for my child.

The kind of dad I want to be is:

  • Someone who shows the love of Christ to our children at all times.
  • Someone who takes the lead in their discipleship and growth in Christ.
  • Someone who does not force my child to be involved in every church activity, simply because they are “the pastor’s kid.”
  • Someone who believes being with my family is more important than my “job” as a pastor.
  • Someone who teaches my child what it means to love WVU, in the good and the bad, to root for the Cardinals, and to cheer on the 49ers.
  • Someone who takes as much interest in their life as I do my own.
  • If I have a daughter, someone who is not afraid of drinking from an imaginary tea cup.
  • If I have a son, someone who is willing to take him fishing … even though I haven’t been in 20 years.
  • Someone who will be their biggest supporter.
  • Someone who will be honest with them.
  • Someone who will allow them to be who they are and not what I expect them to be.

If I can do that, I will humbly say that I did my best.

I am sure there are other things that I could add to this list. So, I will open that to you. What other traits or qualities makes a great father?

Social Media, the Pastor, and the 2012 Election

Social media plays an important role in our lives. Many of us cannot go a few hours without checking Facebook, Twitter, or some other social networking site. These sites are important communication tools that helps us to stay connected with our friends and families.

Pastors and other church leaders are among the most active users of social networking sites. There are several benefits for this. Social networking sites allow for increased connection among members. It easily advertises church activities. Facebook and Twitter can also help in connecting with other pastors across the church. Of course, there are several other benefits that make it worthwhile for a pastor to consider how social media sites can enhance the ministry in a community and congregation.

Social media also comes with a risk. Many have written about this from the perspective of boundaries, arguing that social media creates challenges to proper ministerial boundaries. However, I want to approach an issue regarding social media and the pastor from another angle. That is this: In an election year, does a comment or action on social media constitute an endorsement of a certain candidate or ideology?

This is not a straightforward question. There are several components that must be addressed. What can a pastor do or not do during an election season? What constitutes an endorsement Is a Facebook or Twitter site that of a private individual or that of church leader? What does a social media endorsement look like? Each of these subordinate issues will help us to discern this larger issue regarding the pastor, social media, and the 2012 election.

What Can a Pastor Do or Not Do?

In the simplest terms, a pastor cannot lead a church in a partisan direction. Interpreter Magazine has published a reminder of things pastors and churches can and cannot do in an election year. The list is focused on actions that would jeopardize a church’s tax status. A church is a nonprofit organization and can only educate. It cannot take a side that would support or endorse a candidate or partisan position.

There is also another reason a pastor should not lead a church in a partisan direction. That is because the church should not be defined by the realities of this world and the battles that exist between the “left” and the “right.” As followers of Christ, we are called to be defined by the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ, which calls to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to all the world and making disciples of all people.

If we lead a church in a partisan direction, it would limit a church’s ability to authentically proclaim the Gospel. A specific church that is defined by its association with a partisan perspective prevents it from being seen as a true witness of Jesus Christ.

A pastor must be careful about his or her words and actions during an election year. Sermons must not promote the virtues and qualities of a specific candidate. The pulpit must be free of any association with Republican or Democratic politics or candidates.

What is an Endorsement?

The other part of this larger question deals with endorsements. An endorsement is a public statement of support for a particular candidate. Endorsements can come in several forms, such as a public speech, a letter to the editor, or a campaign donation. These are public activities that announces an individual’s support for a candidate.

This has implications for social media. In our age of social networking, a social media endorsement would be any action or activity that shows a person’s support for one candidate or another. It could include “liking” a candidate’s page on Facebook, making a comment about whom a person will vote for, or writing a post defending the qualities of one candidate over another.

A pastor cannot make a public endorsement of one candidate or political party. Individually, a person who serves as a pastor can support one particular candidate over another and can discuss this with others, so long as it is not within the activities of the church or their role as a pastor.

This raises another important question: Is the individual ever separated from their role as a pastor? The answer to that question is “No.”

When the public sees an individual who serves as a pastor, they always see a pastor. Even in a secular age, a pastor is an important leader in many communities. The role of pastor is not easily separated from the person. When an individual person who is also a pastor makes a comment in support of one candidate or another, a person hearing this comment has a hard time not associating it with the person’s work as a pastor.

Is Facebook and Twitter an Extension of Ministry?

That acknowledgement helps us with this question about social media. While many of us share our personalities through social networking, these sites are a continuation of our ministries. Social media enhances what a pastor is able to do through their ministries in the local church. Even if a pastor uses social networking tools to connect with friends and families or to share photos of their children, a pastor must be wise to see social media as part of their ministries.

Does a Comment or Action on Social Media Constitute an Endorsement of a Certain Candidate or Ideology?

In conclusion, we turn to the larger purpose of this article. Can a pastor’s actions on social media be construed as an endorsement and action of support of one candidate or idea over another? The answer is most certainly yes.

Because the pastor cannot be separated from the individual and, thus, social media becomes an extension of his or her ministry, any action on social media forums must be done with the greatest of care. Liking a candidate’s Facebook page, for instance, is a public act of support of a specific candidate, which could be construed as an endorsement of that particular candidate.

As with all things, a pastor would be wise to establish deep boundaries with their use of social media, especially in an election year. Among these boundaries could include: Do not like any page or photo of a group or candidate that is involved in partisan politics; Do not make a comment in support of one candidate, group, or party; Do not link to articles that promotes a specific candidate.

The most important thing for a pastor is to simply be careful and attentive to what they are doing and how someone can perceive their social media usage. A good advice may be  to see ourselves as a lay member or a person who is interested in joining our church. Would our social media activity promote that we are a partisan political advocate or that  we are an authentic prophet and messenger of God’s love and truth during an election year?

Sunday’s Sermon: Grace in a Time of Polarization

I find American history fascinating to study. As you likely can guess, one of my favorite topics to examine is how presidential elections have been contested.

For instance, did you know that the 1796 election was the first to feature political parties? John Adams, a Federalist, defeated Thomas Jefferson, who was a Democratic-Republican. The outcome contributed to a difficult administration for Adams, because, with the rules in place at that time, both the president and vice-president represented opposing political parties.

Today, we believe our elections are the “dirtiest” ever. That all the campaign ads, rhetoric, and talking points are worst now than ever before. However, when we look at history we see that earlier elections make our modern campaigns seem quite tame. The elections of 1824 and 1828 were the nastiest campaigns contested, and featured the same two individuals, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. These two men did not like each other and stopped at nothing to win the presidency.

Another interesting fact about elections, and truly American history, is that the church has played an important role in many of our most important elections and debates. In the book A City Upon a Hill, author Larry Witham details how preachers and ministries have influenced the course of American history. This was especially true during the period before and during the Civil War. Preachers on both sides of the conflict interpreted Scripture based on their political affiliations. Sadly, this has been a common theme throughout much of the American church’s history.

As we approach the stretch run of the current election season, I believe we are experiencing a moment of opportunity where the church has a unique opportunity to take on the challenge of healing the divisions and discord that exists in our country. Followers of Christ are uniquely positioned to speak above the partisanship that exists in our country, and speak to the deeper truth of what it means to live with grace and show grace to others.

There is no better time than now for each of us to take on this calling. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates that the country is defined by a state of polarization based on partisan politics. The study also said that polarization has been on the rise for nearly a decade and is at its highest point in 25 years. Polarization occurs when two different ideas or groups compete for the same space. This causes supporters to align themselves with “their side.” It also creates distance and distrust among various groups and people.

We can feel this and, perhaps, have experienced this. Republicans refuse to support Democrats. Democrats dislike Republicans. Someone who considers themselves “independent” or “moderate” is lost in the shuffle of the two extremes. It is a vicious cycle, which brings disunity to every element of society. Unfortunately, partisan polarization can also find its way into the church. Too many churches are defined by their affiliation with political “conservatives” or “liberals,” instead of desiring to be a community that lovingly proclaims the message and hope of Jesus Christ through their words, actions, and deeds.

As followers of Jesus Christ, how can we rise above partisanship and speak grace in loving ways? How can we do this in a culture where grace is seldom recognized? Paul’s words from Titus 2:11-14 gives us an answer. Paul says we can by living in response to the grace shown to us through Jesus Christ.

In this pastoral letter, Paul is giving words of encouragement and commissioning to Titus. He is a  young servant who was set to join Zeans and Apollos in their mission in Crete. This was likely going to be a difficult appointment, so Paul’s letter focused on the most important things for ministry in that situation. This included instructions for ordination, right teaching, and even what it means to submit to leaders in government.

Paul’s discussion about grace comes within the context of discussing “the kind of living that reflects wholesome teaching.” In verse 11, Paul writes that “the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people.” According to Paul, God’s grace has broken into the world through the loving presence of Jesus Christ. The presence of Christ breaks into the darkness caused by our disobedience to God’s desires. We call this darkness sin. Christ’s grace offers us a way out of our sin, through the freedom and peace that comes from faith in Christ. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved, unwarranted, mercy offered by God to all people through faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone can experience this grace. It is not for a few, but freely available to all. God’s grace transforms us and calls us to live obediently to the desires God has for us.

Grace serves as our great teacher. It teaches each of us what it means to leave the ways of the world and to live for Christ, even in polarizing times. We think that these times are the only time that Christians have faced difficulties in being the witnesses of Jesus Christ. When we look at church history, this certainly isn’t the case. At several points in our history, the church has   struggled with what it means to live grace-filled lives in deeply divided or secular times. The church has always been called to share the message of Christ with a world that struggles to understand the message of Jesus Christ and his righteousness.

This begins by looking within our own heart. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, grace shows us how our actions might be counter to God’s desires. Ungodliness, to Paul, is living a life that is counter to what God has planned for us. It places our own needs and desires first. It is a life that lives in the ways of the world, and not in a deeply committed relationship with Jesus Christ.

When we are defined by things that are counter to the will of God, it can impact the very things that we care so much about. It damages the very things God has given us to enjoy. In terms of today’s time of polarization, living in ways counter to God’s desires limits our ability to see the goodness in someone who does not support the same things we do. When we are defined by division, we are unable to see honesty in someone else’s word or opinions.

This has some implications for the church. As followers of Christ, when we are defined by animosity, distrust, negativity, or resentment we are not unified under the common banner of making disciples for Jesus Christ. This is an example of a church that has forgotten its purpose to being the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ to a lost word.

No group of people, especially followers of Christ, should be defined by attitudes that are counter to God’s desires. No church should be defined by division or attitudes that seek to create separation between one group or the other.

We need grace to see us through this time and help us to live in ways that, on our own, we cannot. Grace helps us to turn away from actions that would seek to divide. Grace shows us how worldly living is counter to the message and desires of Christ, who came to show us the way of the Father and calls us to be holy as the Father is holy.

Indeed, grace shows us a deeper way to live. As followers of Christ, we should be people who are in the practice of building bridges across the vast differences that separate so many people. We do this by being people who live grace-filled lives and who desire to share that love with others.

Paul continues in Titus 2:12 that a grace-filled life, one that is guided by the Holy Spirit, is defined by the wisdom of God’s truth, righteousness that comes from seeking holiness, and a devotion to God in love. This time of life allows the presence of God to be our guide in every thing we do, whether it is how we live, how we work, how we discuss issues, or even how we vote.

God’s grace helps us to take on actions that reflect the presence of Christ working in us and through us. These actions are based on our common desire to love others, to share peace with one another, and to build community in times of disharmony. These actions helps us to speak love, hope, and grace to all people in all times and allows us to be aligned with Christ’s mission and purpose.

Grace also gives us the strength to live by love in difficult times. A community that is defined by people who honor truth, who seek to uphold holiness, and who love others as God has loved us are best suited to build bridges across division by pointing all people to love of Christ.

When we are a people of God’s wisdom and righteousness, and who devoted to showing love through the grace of Christ, it changes our perspectives. As Richard Mouw writes, it allows us to be a people who display “uncommon decency” in this world.

Decency through grace is missing today. It doesn’t mean we are always nice. There are times when we must show holy frustrations, like Jesus at the Temple, and stand firm for truth and justice. What it means is that we “are called to be agents of God’s righteousness” who have a “gentle and reverent concern for public righteousness” by imitating the “divine character” of God in our relationships with others. We treat all people as Christ would treat them, because of the grace of Christ that lives in us and, also, in them. We share a common hope with each other, because of our great hope in Christ’s living presence and ultimately Christ’s return.

Let me say it again: As followers of Christ we are uniquely positioned to be bridge builders in these polarizing times. We cannot build these bridges on our own. It is only through the presence of Christ living in us and working through us that we can take on this needed challenge.

Friends, today we can be bridge builders simply by following in Christ’s footsteps. Jesus routinely interacted with the people who were cast aside by religious leaders. Jesus called all people to live in accordance with a greater reality and hope. We can share this love of Christ, the grace of Christ, by walking with people on all sides and not being defined by partisanship and polarization. More importantly, we can do so by being defined by the love of Christ, the hope of Christ, and the truth of Christ’s love.

In the coming months, each of us will have an opportunity to be bridge builders.  We will interact with people who want to separate us based on political lines. How will we rise above the partisanship and live by something greater? How will we be people who build bridges built on grace in the upcoming fall general election and beyond? How will we always live by God’s love, wisdom and righteousness, because we are recipients of God’s grace?

My hope is that we will do so by sharing the grace of Christ with all people.

How the Wesleyan Quadrilateral Can Help in Times of Polarization

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, America is more polarized than ever before. The study, which has examined political polarization for 25 years, found that polarization has drastically increased during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barrack Obama.

This should not come as a shock to anyone. Nearly everything in our culture is defined by whether it is “liberal” or “conservative,” such as where we get our news, where we worship, or even where we buy our chicken. It is the rare event, group, or person that has not been labeled by our polarized culture.

Political polarization makes it difficult to engage and understand the complex issues that face our country. For instance, something as important as job creation can be boxed into a “liberal idea” or a “conservative idea.” Polarization makes it difficult to hear or engage the other side, because we want to promote our view or our idea over that of the other side. 

Of course, polarization can affect the church and its people. In a polarized culture, religious groups on the left and right often express that following their way is the only option if someone wants to be truly obedient to Christ. It can be difficult for a Christian to engage the public square when everything is defined by extreme perspectives.

This brings us to this question: How can a Christian interact with public issues in a polarized culture? I believe we can by using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can help us.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is based on the research of Albert Outler, a noted Wesleyan historian who used much of John Wesley’s work to determine how he did theology. There are four main areas. Scripture is the prime authority with tradition, reason, and experiencing helping to interpret or understand an issue. By using this method, we can keep several things in focus. It gives a Christian the ability to experience and understand God’s desires on a certain issue and it can provide a healthy balance to the talking points that are published by political parities and interest groups.

So, how does the Wesleyan Quadrilateral help us engage a public issue?

First, Scripture must be the place we begin our theological work of engaging an issue. We begin here because the engagement of any must be grounded in our faith in Christ and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Beginning anywhere else would place various thoughts or desires on top of our relationship with God. It would bias us as we read Scripture and seek to understand a given issue.

Scripture must be held as the prime authority because it is God’s narrative of salvation for the world. It is God’s truth and law. Every verse and chapter describes God’s love and the hopes God has for humanity. Thus, we must prayerfully engage Scripture and seek God’s desires for us and our communities.

In engaging public theology, we come to Scripture with this question: What does God say about this issue? We want to see, first, if the issue has been addressed in a given passage. If it has not, then we want to examine the larger narrative of how God has addressed similar issues.

It is important to note that we are not looking at the New Testament only. All Scripture is important. To eliminate one section of the Bible because it is too hard to read or understand limits our relationship with God and it places us in the uncomfortable position of being a redactor of Scripture.

After we have prayerfully engaged Scripture, then we want to take on the challenge of examining tradition, reason, and experience. There is no real order for which one is used next. It is really the individual’s preference. Each is used not to correct Scripture, but to help us to think through the things we are thinking about after we have looked at Scripture.

With tradition, we want to see how the church has addressed this issue. This does not mean we limit our investigation to only modern sources. We must engage the entire history of the church, from the Church Fathers and Mothers, to the Reformers, to modern-day theologians such as John Howard Yoder or Stanley Hauerwas. If we only engage modern sources we are preventing ourselves from experiencing the depth of knowledge available to us from the community of saints.

Also, a modern-only engagement with tradition says that the early leaders of the church have nothing to say to our more enlightened minds. This is wrong. When we examine the history of the church’s writings, we will see that the entire history of the church has thought about and struggled with the same issues we are discussing. Our engagement with tradition must cast a wide net.

Looking at our experiences is where our modern perspectives can be effectively used. Here we take a look at how a specific issue has affected our lives or how we have seen it affect others.

Experience can be the most dangerous of the three interpretive tools. This is because we live in a self-focused culture that sees the individual as central to all things. Individualism has had its benefits in American culture, but it can hinder deep theological engagement.

There are two main traps that we must be aware of when it comes to our experiences. First, our experiences can make us believe that our perspective is always right. Second, we can believe that our experience is authoritative. Both of these traps are self-focused. It says we are the most important and that our experience is what matters. This prevents us from reviewing our experiences. It is possible that our experiences may not be relevant to a situation, because we may not have any experience with the issue or our experiences would not merit deep and truthful engagement.

In these instances, it would be best to learn from others and gain their perspective. Interviewing others is an important tool when we look at our experience. It allows us to learn from others an see how a specific issue has affected their life as a Christian. If our perspective of an issue has only been from one side, interviewing someone from a different perspective will help us to learn more about the issue. It may also allow us to hear more about what God desires.

Finally, we have to take time to reason with what we have learned. This is our time to think things through. It is perhaps best that reason is the last tool that we use, because reasoning allows us to process what we have read, learned, and experienced.

There are several key questions we can ask to help us. What did Scripture say about this issue? What did it not say? What were the thoughts of key theologians throughout the history of the church? Whose thoughts had the most influence on me? What experiences have I had with this issue? What did I learn from others? What did I think about this issue before I began to study it? How have my thoughts changed?

After we have spent time in deep study, we should take time to pray and ask God to open our hearts to the Lord’s desire for these issues.

This may seem like a complicated process, but it is something that we all can do in engaging public issues and our faith in Christ. Each of us can take Scripture and engage our experiences (what we have see), reason (what we think), and tradition (what we believe) regarding different issues. When we do, we will experience Christ desires and be more prepared to live in a polarized American political environment.