Leadership and Sound Teaching Needed to Avoid a Partisan Church

One of my favorite movies is “The American President.” It is a classic comedy that tells the story of President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, and his attempt to date lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade, portrayed by Annette Bening, while balancing his job and re-election campaign.

Of course, Shepherd struggles with the balancing act and his popularity declines, unfortunately for him during a time when his administration is attempting to pass a crime bill and legislation that would protect the environment. This creates some tension in his staff, especially with Lewis Rothschild, played by Michael J. Fox, who is his assistant for domestic policy. In a key Oval Office scene, Rothschild confronts Shepherd regarding his declining popularity and how Republican Bob Rumson, played by Richard Dreyfuss, has controlled the narrative by attacking the president’s relationship. In response, Shepherd offers one of the best lines in the movie.

He says:

Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.

That last sentence has been on my mind this week. The reason is because the church had an unfortunate reminder of what happens when our political engagement is too closely aligned with our political views. Even with my deep appreciation of public theology, like others I find myself wondering how some in the church miss it when it comes to engaging our political leaders, while others get it right.

When I think about how followers of Christ can allow their political witness to be more aligned with their political party than their walk with Christ, I think about Shepherd’s response to Rothschild. It is appropriate and telling. I believe the reason why the church falls short in its political witness is because we are not teaching what it means to appropriately engage the public square. In the absence of leadership and teaching, people will follow whatever seems right.

It is a leadership issue, foremost, because too often leaders in the church are guilty of leading their communities into strict adherence to one’s favored political ideology. Instead of seeing where Christ challenges Democrats and Republicans, a leader will only focus on that which supports their intended ideology. This is not Christian leadership. It is partisan politics, and it has no place in the life of the church.

Leaders must be willing to engage the political process. We do so by challenging our leaders, seeking them to be people of high morals and integrity, and to advocate social and economic justice. This is why I appreciate Adam Hamilton’s sermon at Tuesday’s National Prayer Service. Hamilton’s words were an appropriate interaction with the political process. It was challenging, while at the same time optimistic in calling our leaders to be visionary in their service.

This is also an issue of discipleship. We are not doing a good job teaching what it means to be a follower of Christ. Because of this, people will look for clues of how to follow Christ through the world, which leads to our political engagement to look more like the world than like Christ.

Discipleship must be at the center of our ministries. This is not simply discipleship of how God loves you and wants you to be happy. It is more than that. It is discipleship that centers on the truth of Christ, what that truth means, and how it applies to our lives and our world. We must take seriously our theology and sharing that theology with our people.

Until we have stronger leadership that appropriately engages political issues and take seriously our call to equip our congregations through teaching theology, we will continue to have problems with pastors and churches being too partisan in their witness. These actions only harms the greater mission of the church and prevents the entire body from spreading the love of Christ.

My prayer is that the church will no longer reflect Democratic and Republican values, but instead reflects the love and truth of Christ and what this means in the public square.

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