Should evangelical Christians belong to a political party?

Is the path to political power paved by compromise?

Are pragmatism and partisanship in politics off-limits for the faithful Christian?

The Politics of a Confessing Evangelical

In his recent article “Neither Progressive nor Conservative: The Politics of a Confessing Evangelical,” Steve Bryan tackles some of these questions, while urging evangelicals to reject the poles of “leaning forward” (progressive) and “looking backward” (conservative) in favor of other sources of wisdom. He advocates a confessional evangelicalism.

As opposed to the lightly churched, mostly white social group/voting bloc that recently emerged in American politics, confessional evangelicalism is a multiethnic global movement that has its roots in the historic confessions of the Protestant Reformation.

The reformational roots of confessional evangelicalism give rise to a “reformist” impulse, but not of the progressive sort that foresees an “upward arc of history.” The reformist nature of evangelicalism requires a constant return to the scrutiny of Scripture. It’s pressing forward into the future by retrieving treasure from the past.

In the political realm, this impulse among confessing evangelicals may lead believers to align with certain “progressive” political objectives, but for different reasons than unbelievers. Reform must be a return to faithfulness, or a recovery of something lost. The same impulse will lead confessing evangelicals to align with political conservatives at times, based on a shared agreement on preserving something valuable from the past. But the primary focus must be on receiving and spreading what the apostles handed down to us.

Not Partisans, But Prophets 

Does this mean confessional evangelicals will line up somewhere near the political center? No, Bryan says, we must be “saltier.” We’re not players or partisans, but prophets—“a witness to canonical affirmations of what is true and good. In bearing witness to the life-giving goodness of God, prophets will invariably espouse ideas that place them confusingly all over the political map, and often off it.”

In other words, we are not far right, far left, or in the center. We’ve got a different map. Prophets speak from the wilderness. 

It is the place far from the halls of power where prophets hear the word of the Lord with uncompromised clarity so they can speak with uncompromised conviction. Only by declining the influence that comes to party insiders can their words reverberate inside the halls of power with truth that comes from above.

In the end, Bryan writes:

Our witness may be fundamentally spiritual, but, if it is faithful, it will often prove surprising—and inconvenient—to political leaders of every stripe. . . . What “rulers” need most from evangelicals is not our political support but our clear confession, our loving witness to the God who alone is good, and a commensurate commitment to the good of our neighbors.

Yes and No

There’s much to commend in this article. The politicization of evangelical Christianity is one of the besetting sins of the American wing of evangelicalism, leading many Christians around the world who share the same theological commitments to shake their heads in amazement at the partisanship, rancor, and divisions evident among us, particularly those that break down on racial lines. Yes, we must remember the evangelical essentials that connect us to the global church, and our historic Reformation roots, including the Trinitarian commitments of the era that preceded the Reformation.

We can only withstand the insanity of our times if we look above the controversies of the moment and find our footing alongside believers outside our immediate time and place. We must recognize what is stable, and what is fleeting. So, yes, we need more believers with that transcendent reference point, unafraid to speak from the wilderness, aware of the ways in which neither party fully aligns with Scripture.

Only the Wilderness? 

But I reject the idea that to be prophetic, we must eschew the halls of power altogether and embrace the wilderness. There may come a time when evangelical Christians can only speak from the wilderness, and there are examples of this in Muslim-majority nations and in other countries even now. When the Nazis were on the march, the prophetic Nein! of the Barmen Declaration, a loud cry from the exiled, was the way of faithfulness.

But is it not possible to be prophetic and in some way still partisan? Does faithfulness preclude belonging to a political party?

If so, how would we counsel a Christian who feels called to serve in the political sphere? Identifying with a political party comes with plenty of challenges and is fraught with spiritual dangers, but what other alternative exists for the Christian who seeks to be a faithful presence within the halls of power rather than outside? What do we make of Paul’s description of Christians in the very household of Caesar? What happens when a politician is converted and becomes a confessing evangelical? Is renouncing one’s position and moving to the wilderness the only way forward?

Along these lines, are we to assume that being all over the map in terms of politics (usually the case if we are following Christ and not the dictates of our political party) must prevent us from identifying with a political party?

Yes, we should always feel “politically homeless” at least at some level, as no political party can capture the full breadth of Christianity’s social ethic. But does faithfulness require us to forgo making principled, pragmatic decisions in the meantime? I don’t think so.

So, whenever someone says we are to be neither progressive nor conservative, we must reply with both a “yes” and a “no.” Yes, we are kingdom independents who must never let partisan loyalties blind us to the greater call of Christ. But no, we must not assume the only path to faithfulness for the confessional evangelical is to reject a political party and only speak prophetically from the wilderness.

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