Political Church?

A little while ago, I blogged about ‘Four Hard Books‘, which I’ve been starting to wade through. I’ve been reading, and am right on the cusp of finishing, J. Gordon McConville’s Being Human in God’s World.

This is a book (Review dropping later this week!) which takes seriously the Old Testament understanding of what it means to be human, and with a discussion of the purpose of it. Fundamental to McConville’s work is an appreciation and obedience regarding where it is that we are called to be human. We are being human in God’s World, not our own, as the title reminds us. It is vital, throughout the bible story, to consider the importance of where we find ourselves and what God is calling us to. This is a question that provokes much thought and much spelling of ink even today.

One articulation of the Question, very much in vogue as the world reels from the different but similar plitical upsets of the Brexit Referendum, and Trump’s election as President-Elect of the United Sates of America, relates to how the church should be involved in politics, or even if it should be.

Several chapters in, McConville opens a chapter provocatively titled ‘The Political Self’ thusly:

In its depiction of the human experience, the Old Testament is inescapably political… Humanity as “image of God,”… has (among other things) strong political implications and expresses both a status and a vocation. The vocational aspect of the “image” involves rule in the widest sense, not only the ruling of human society but also the exercising of responsibility over the earth, with a basic liberative orientation… There is, however, no systematic thesis in the Old Testament concerning ideal forms of political life. Rather, the political dimension is embedded within the persons and events in such a way as to show that it is inseparable from the story of humanity itself, with its stubborn tragic tendency

Bear in mind that the author of this is a Christian theologian, and he is not writing about the Church, but humanity generally. At the heart of the Gospel narrative, the salvation history that we see embodied in Jesus and breaking through in the Kingdom of God, is a rediscovering of what it means to be truly human, and an invitation to flourishing for the whole human race. With that in mind, with the humanity of the Church being one of its defining characteristics, the question of what it means for the Church to be political is an important one to engage with.

I think there are a few things to learn from what McConville writes.

  1. The Church is inescapably political – because its founding documents, and fundamental building blocks are inescapably political. Whether you see the Church as an alternative politics, the ambassadorial outpost of another Kingdom, or just another institution that exerts influence, the Church is political.
  2. Vocations are different for different people – and the Church is a family with brothers and sisters leaning into a range of vocations. How does your church work to affirm and celebrate, equip and pray for, those amongst the body who have an explicitly political vocation?
  3. The Church’s vision for human flourishing is greater than any political system – both preceding and subverting the ways of our world and culture. I personally don’t think Christian leaders should have encouraged their flocks to vote for Donald Trump. Or Hilary Clinton. I also think, personally, that we too easily get swept up in the modes of thought that our culture demands, rather than looking out further, reading and praying deeper, and pondering how the Kingdom might break into a myriad of interlocking relationships and systems. We do have a stubborn tragic tendency – and it is from this, mired in sin, that the Church as the Bride of Christ is liberated. We are called to be responsible for the earth – and it is in this stewardship that the shape of things to come and the embodiment of hope begins to emerge. Can we in the Church think longer term than our culture can imagine?

These are just three areas that McConville’s political musings have set my mind meandering down. What does it mean for the Church to be political? How can the Church engage in politics, particularly in supporting its members who are already doing it? How long term, for our planet and for our people, can the Church think and act?

We are called to be human in God’s World. The Kingdom is coming. Everyone is invited. What does that mean, if we recognise the reality of a political church?

I like how McConville closes his chapter;

Instead of adjudicating such questions, the Old Testament brings disparate voices into play. The fundamental tension lies between the pragmatism that almost inevitably devolves upon rulers and the prophetic voice that seeks to turn it back to first principles – both the origin of all things in God and the particularities of Israel’s heritage: the call to remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and therefore need to take their place in the world as a, literally, extraordinary people; the receipt of the goods of life as a gift; the cultivation of harmony among fellow humans; a repugnance at the accrual of wealth and power in centers of privilege.

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2 Responses

    • Tom Creedy

      Hi, Mark, thanks for the comment!

      I’m grateful for the heads up – one to add to my reading list, perhaps for 2018!

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