In our Lent series on contending for the faith, Lee Gatiss turns to the issue of church politics.
Politics are inevitable. As the ancient philosopher Aristotle famously said, we are by nature political animals. Where two or three are gathered together in Jesus’s name, there will be church politics! But our politics should not be violent or merely worldly. They ought to be characterised more by what they are fighting for than what we are struggling against, given how Jude speaks of contending for the faith. Inevitably we must stand against things which oppose the truth, as Christians always have (for example, when the Nicene Creed deliberately states that Jesus is “begotten, not made”, which was a crucial point against Arian/Unitarian heretics).
Yet our real struggle is not against flesh and blood, pressure groups, lobbyists, heretical teachers, and compromising authorities, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Such forces cannot ultimately be defeated by earthly means, such as money or public demonstrations or media savvy. Even the best Synod speeches, knock-down tweets, and dank memes cannot prevail in the end. Only gospel weapons will conquer spiritually, as we live a life worthy of the calling we have received, being completely humble and gentle, being patient and bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:1-3).
Evangelicals can fall into a trap here, and try to contend on worldly terms. Mike Ovey, contrasting worldly “theologians of glory” with what Luther called “theologians of the cross”, urges us, “Think of the way that Anglican Evangelicals rejoice in our programmes, rejoice in our conferences, boast about our networks and our apprenticeship schemes, and in particular—in our theologies of glory—we rejoice over the way that we have got things done. Is that kind of Evangelical pragmatism anything other than a theology of glory?” (Gatiss, Ovey, and Pickles, Be Faithful)
Boasting in numbers, or relying on them, can never be sufficient in this kind of spiritual warfare, even if our numbers really were as impressive as we like to think (which they may well not be). As Peter Toon memorably put it, “It is possible to be a large, growing and powerful party in the Church without making significant achievements in the realms of personal or corporate holiness or theological enterprise.” We may seemingly be powerful politically, but spiritually be very weak indeed, or positively displeasing to God in the way we conduct our politics.
We must be politicians of the cross, not politicians of glory. It is in our weakness that we often see something of God’s resurrection power at work. As the Lord said to Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This may not always transform our circumstances — we have no promise of ecclesiastical success to cling onto or “cash in” — but God is deeply invested in making sure we stand firm in the faith to the end. If a witness to the gospel survives for another generation, however weak and feeble it may seem, that displays the manifold wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10).
It is important, if we are to make headway, to involve people willing to contend lovingly for the gospel in the workings of our denomination. Evangelical churches must enthusiastically populate the system of synods and councils with men and women of ability and reliability in order to make it work for them effectively. The gospel must be applied in every area of life, not least in ecclesiastical politics, with rigour and passion.
However, we must not rely solely on ecclesiastical politics, or on letters to The Times to achieve our gospel goals. In terms of strategies for long term change, people involved in writing public letters to the newspapers or to bishops regularly overestimate the importance and effectiveness of writing letters to the newspapers and to bishops, as opposed to the lasting impact of building solid gospel ministries in local churches which are confident and equipped to fight valiantly for the truth where they are. Working more effectively and politically within the system is vital, but it is sometimes necessary to circumvent systems designed by those with maintenance rather than mission in mind.
Institutional procedures which can be wise and prudent in many circumstances, can come to constitute a blockage on gospel flourishing. The word of God is not chained (2 Timothy 2:9) so we should not be wedded to every aspect of the current institutions of the Church. We must reform, adapt, and supplant existing frameworks if needs be. Radical action beyond existing structures is often needed to keep the church vibrant and alive. What worked in the past may not necessarily work in the future; but, equally, what failed before may be worth another try now.
Above all, we ought never to lose sight of the bigger, strategic picture. Our fight is not with earthly powers of flesh and blood, with all their resources and nefarious tactics. “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2).
Our real struggle is with spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Our political and ecclesiastical fortunes in this world may ebb and flow, but if we are contending for the gospel we are involved in a long term struggle of much greater significance. The only weapon of any value in our campaigning is the word of God, as we stand firm with Christ our captain, come what may.
Questions for Reflection
1. Does the fact that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” mean that we shouldn’t be involved in any kind of politics?
2. How can we keep our political efforts in the right gospel perspective?
3. When might we be tempted to “practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word”?
Catch up with the whole series of Lent posts here.
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.