The church is to be a witness of Jesus Christ, in word and in deed. It should testify to the transformation Jesus brings about in the life of those who believe in him, as well as in the local church. The church exists to be a witness and that is the essence of its influence. It does not exist to bring change to moral, cultural, or political structures here on earth.
According to this model, the church should not be a direct supporter of any particular political party, ideology, or economical system. It cannot be limited to any earthly regime. Outside of the kingdom of God, there is no corresponding system which fulfills the requirements given by God. The church walks in obedience to a totally different value system, which it first imposes on itself. It must not, through its teaching or by the public opinions of its pastors, back a specific political candidate, even one who rises up out of its own ranks.
It is our conviction that there is no such thing as a Christian law, a Christian culture, or a Christian political party, even though biblical values may at times be observed in all of these areas. There are only Christian men, women, and children living together in a local church community which should reflect the Savior and draw those who observe it into its fold. Individual Christians certainly have a natural influence on those who surround them through the Spirit and the Word of God. But each one should exercise this influence according to his or her own conscience without claiming to have received a specific calling or divine right.
Witnessing through the Word: The Gospel
The first time we see the word “church” in the Bible is when Peter realizes that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of the living God. Jesus tells Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter [petros, pebble], and on this rock [petra, boulder] I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17-18). Jesus builds his church through those who understand that he is the one sent by God to bring in the ultimate kingdom, and that even death cannot stand against it. This kingdom is based on “the things of God” (Matthew 16:23), which are revealed in his Word (1 Corinthians 2:1-16).
In three years, Jesus, the Word made flesh, trained eleven men whom he sent out filled with the Holy Spirit. These men were to proclaim forgiveness (John 20:20-23) and repentance (Luke 24:47), and to teach all nations how to follow Jesus as his disciples, through baptism and obedience to his teachings (Matthew 28:16-19).
The book of Acts, which covers the first 30 years of church history, tells us about the progress of the Word beginning in Jerusalem (Acts 4:4; 6:7; 8:4; 11:1; 12:24; 13:49; 19:10, 20). It shows how the disciples fleshed out the Word of Life (Acts 5:20), bringing about the conversion of thousands (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14, etc.). They also trained leaders who were responsible for the spiritual welfare of the early churches which then multiplied throughout the Mediterranean basin (Acts 14:23-24ff, 19:9-10, 20:17).
The apostles and their coworkers then wrote letters, or epistles, to the churches. We don’t find any exhortation to believers in these letters telling them to take action to change society. On the other hand, the epistles invite Christians to live differently through the strength given to them by the gospel.
Witnessing through Example: Community
Jesus uses the word “church” a second time in Matthew 18. This entire chapter lays down principles for church life. Individuals gain entrance into the community of believers by personal conversion, not by cultural or family heritage. They are to adopt the humble attitude of a child, and heed how they live so as not to discourage the young and the fainthearted. They are to seek out those who wander from the fold with a compassionate heart, and consider those who persist in sin as nonbelievers. They are to forgive others graciously.
This is the calling of the church. It should be a testimony of radically different community life. Obviously, this isn’t always the case. Even the first church, who was said to be “of one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32) as they shared all of their worldly goods, had much to learn. This local church, which was made up solely of Jews, showed a certain disdain for Samaritans and Gentiles. God had to intervene in spectacular ways so that church leaders could be shaken out of their prejudices (Acts 8:14-17; 10:9ff; 10:44; 11:17-18).
The social progress of this world is not the church’s responsibility. However, it must serve as an example to those around it. The New Testament speaks of local communities where the poorest man can become an elder or “bishop” as they were called at that time (1 Timothy 3:1-2). Women are co-heirs of the same spiritual grace and should be treated with deference by their brothers (1 Peter 3:7) and Christian masters are called to treat their slaves in a decent manner, without threatening them (Ephesians 6:5ff; Philemon).
The church speaks of the gospel and lives it out so that those who observe it may be led to Christ. The church should draw people to it and make them desire a changed life; otherwise it isn’t doing its job. Such a testimony will certainly have an influence on those who observe it.
A Living Witness: The Church in the World
We distinguish the role of the church as a body (a legal entity represented by its leaders) from that of Christians who take public social responsibility through their professional, artistic, or familial involvement. This distinction between the disciple of Christ and the church is not always easy to identify in the New Testament, but it exists. For example, Jesus closes each of his letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) by calling each individual to listen
to what he has to say. Paul also makes a distinction between the two spheres of responsibility when he invites the church to excommunicate a member who has com- mitted incest but forbids them to judge nonbelievers: “God judges those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:13). Christians have to behave in a certain way, but that behavior is not necessarily to be expected by the world, and the church has its claims upon its members, not upon society.
Protestant tradition rightly recognizes that everyone is called to be useful to society. Whether artist or doctor, lawyer or nurse, stay-at-home mom, or teacher, each disciple does his or her part “in God’s name” to build up their community. These vocations are just as worthy, just as “religious” in God’s eyes, as the call to full time ministry as a pastor or missionary. Our Christian conscience calls each one of us to excellence in our particular area of work.
Many Christians make secular commitments that they believe to be in conformity to their specific calling, including in the area of politics. But these commitments should not be done on behalf of the church or in the name of Christianity. These decisions are made on an individual basis, according to each person’s own conscience and value system. Our values are certainly influenced by our faith, but we must realize that a Christian who gets involved in politics will not usher in a “Christian society.”
It is therefore legitimate that a Christian should get involved, if he considers it
to be his role, in influencing society, whether it’s as a legislator, an attorney, a mayor, a congressman, a police officer, or any other public office. He is obviously called to fulfill his duties with integrity, in other words, according to his Christian values. He should not do it, however, on behalf of the church or in the name of Christianity. It must be the commitment of a Christian, but not a Christian commitment. This is much more than a simple matter of semantics; it has to do with the authority and protection of the church’s central message. – by Florent Varak and Philippe Viguier
Excerpted from The Gospel and the Citizen, Essay on the Christian and the Church in Politics (BMH Books 2016)
Florent Varak pastored the Grace Brethren Church in Lyon, France, for more than 20 years. He currently is director of the church equipping network at Encompass World Partners. Philippe Viguier is the current pastor of the Lyon church. Both are graduates of Master’s Seminary.
This story first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of GraceConnect magazine. Click here for your complimentary subscription to this quarterly publication.