Partisan politics creates dividing walls that can feel impenetrable.
Seven years ago, we planted a church in the heart of Washington D.C. We meet in a historic building four blocks from the U.S. Capitol building. While we have our fair share of politicos on both sides of the aisle, we also have folks who work in media, communications, education, defense, non-profits, coffee shops, and many other jobs you’d find in any other city.
National attention is always focused on the individuals voted into office and sent here to work, but our primary focus is the people who call D.C. home. There’s more to life here than party lines.
We can’t escape politics, however—nor do most of our people want to. Political engagement is important, especially for Christians in positions where they have to work out gospel-informed values for the good of all people (this includes those on both left and right).
In many ways D.C. is comparable to ancient Athens, filled with those who “spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). The picture of people discussing ideology in the marketplace, with idolatry on full display through monuments and cultural temples, is familiar.
From the beginning, we’ve prayed and worked toward political diversity in our church. And praise God, our church is politically diverse. But the past few years have pulled back the curtain on deepening divides that have affected churches across America.
In the midst of a right focus on the need for diversity in churches, and particularly in new church plants, one often-neglected consideration is political ideology. Remember that Jesus had a zealot and a tax collector in the same group of disciples. It doesn’t get much more politically diverse.
Here are six lessons we’ve learned in planting and cultivating a politically diverse church.
1. Open and Closed Hand
It is essential to establish the “closed hand” issues to which the church will cling and the members will submit. We lay these out in our statement of faith.
At the same time, it is just as important to establish “open hand” issues. These are secondary/tertiary theological and philosophical matters—which may include certain beliefs and practices of the church—but where diversity is allowed within the membership’s views.
From the beginning of a church plant, it is crucial to establish your open- and closed-hand commitments with clarity. Otherwise, you can expect those who join to have their own plans for where the church will stand.
We’ve found that we need to be more explicit about the things the church is unwilling to fight and divide over. We celebrate the diversity of our church openly in membership classes and members’ meetings, and we make it clear that divisions over open-hand matters have no place in the church (and could even be cause for church discipline).
As for politics, there is no place for partisan platforms or division in the church, nor diminishing other members because of their ideological perspectives. From the beginning of a church plant, it is crucial to establish your open- and closed-hand commitments with clarity. Otherwise, you can expect those who join to have their own plans for where the church will stand.
2. Don’t Avoid Political Issues
This is probably the most tempting mistake for a church-planting pastor. Churches have too often tried to cultivate political diversity by avoiding politics altogether, or thinking they can be apolitical and “just preach the gospel.” But contentious times will expose the anemia of that approach.
We hear ‘political’ and immediately think ‘partisan.’ But Christ’s kingdom is political without being partisan.
Christ’s kingdom is inherently political. Now, we hear “political” and immediately think “partisan.” But Christ’s kingdom is political without being partisan.
It’s unwise to chase the news cycle, but it’s pastorally irresponsible to avoid applying God’s Word to the issues God’s people face in their lives.
3. Dismantle Partisan Narratives
As James Davison Hunter wisely observes, “Politics is always a crude simplification of public life, and the common good is always more than its political expression.” It takes a lot of work to get underneath partisan narratives and drive toward nuanced truth, especially in a society that perpetuates polarized simplicity.
We must do the hard work to show that partisan rhetoric falls short. There’s a greater vision of hope and justice. Biblical Christianity doesn’t fit neatly into any partisan platform.
Biblical Christianity doesn’t fit neatly into any partisan platform.
In D.C., we challenge people to stay engaged in political work and even within parties, but with a clear view to the shortfalls of the “gospels” each party preaches.
4. Preach God’s Word and Christ as King
Stick closely to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. Apply it to real-life issues. Scripture doesn’t avoid the hard realities of life or the brokenness of this world, but casts a vision for God’s work of renewing and restoring all things.
The congregation needs a regular reminder that Jesus is King over all—and that he has no political party. As Mark Dever has said, “The Jesus we share is more important than the politics we don’t.” This emphasis is especially important as a church is planted. We must pursue unity under Jesus our King.
5. Lay Down Personal Rights for the Sake of the Gospel
The apostle Paul did this (1 Cor. 9). It is unnecessary and unhelpful to demand all Christians lay down the right to partisan political involvement and investment. We need Christians engaged in politics.
The harder it is for your people to figure out how you vote, the better you can serve them and challenge their ideology.
As a pastor, though, the unity of the church and the advance of the gospel across partisan lines are worth relinquishing this right. The harder it is for your people to figure out how you vote, the better you can serve them and challenge their ideology.
6. Pray for Unity in the Spirit
There are countless ways a church plant can get sidetracked or fractured. The contentiousness and rhetoric of political divisions can wreak havoc in churches. It takes a miraculous movement of the Spirit to bring unity across dividing walls of hostility. The good news is that’s exactly what the Spirit does, as we all fix our eyes on Jesus Christ.
Navigating partisan divides can feel overwhelming, and they’re dangerous when they seep into the church. Church plants have the opportunity to shape a culture, from the outset, that depends on the sufficiency of the gospel and a devotion to Jesus as our only King.
We have the privilege of equipping our members to work for the good of people and the glory of Christ across party lines. Let’s plant churches, then, that expose the temptation to find justification in political affiliation—and instead proclaim the hope that comes only by grace through faith in King Jesus.