Paul said, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (1 Cor. 5:12) This is where my mind went when I watched An (Un)Civil War: The Evangelical Divide posted online recently by CBS News. In the next moment, I was asking question Joshua asked the commander of the army of the Lord: “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (Joshua 5:13)
If you know the Lord’s answer to Joshua’s question, think about it for a moment. The subject here is the modern form of evangelicalism that is highlighted in the CBS piece linked above: hyper patriotic, nationalistic and political. I will come back to the Lord’s response to Joshua before I conclude. (You can read the passage now if you are too curious to wait.)
I hardly watch the news anymore, and CBS is certainly not my “go to” news source. I don’t have one. The portions of the CBS piece that are ringing in my head are the clips of the evangelical leaders preaching and explaining themselves in their own words.
I do understand that these clips are selected and don’t represent all that these leaders stand for or all that they might say. What they reveal, though, is enough to move me to write.
The clips show various preachers unapologetically “speaking the truth” from the pulpit, which the commentator calls “sermonizing a brand of social conservatism defined by conspiracy and apocalyptic rhetoric”. The words of the commentator are not what catch my attention, but they should be noted for the way they are perceived.
The piece focuses on what is described as a “power struggle” in evangelical circles. That is how the world sees the difference in opinions by evangelicals: a power struggle inside Christianity “at war within itself”.
One firebrand pastor (Greg Locke) touts the amount of support for his position, seeming to affirm the perception that it’s all about power and influence. In the world of politics, the number of evangelical constituents (over 1 in 4 Americans) is a matter of power and influence to political pundits. Locke’s comment and the concern expressed in the media piece align on that basis.
(I question whether 1 in 4 Americans are really evangelicals in the way I and most people of genuine faith define evangelicals. The statistic is a political one, not a religious one, but that is a topic for another day.)
One pastor is heard saying, “But we shouldn’t talk politics in religion. Says who? Satan?! That’s the only way they control us!”, he says. “To get us to be silent.”
Indeed, power, influence, and control are at the center of this phenomenon. At the same time, Locke claims that the Bible is the issue, “Here is what the Bible says. Boom! We’re going to go with it!”
Locke views himself as fighting for the Bible, fighting for ‘God and country”, trying to wrestle the United States out of the grip of the left and Satan. But, is that really what is going on? What about the Bible?
Are they actually preaching what the Bible says?
There is so much to be said here, but I want to focus on just three things: 1) what the Bible says; 2) what the message of the Gospel is; and 3) whose side God is on in this struggle.
Locke, head pastor of Global Vision Bible Church, touts himself as a “Revivalist, with a Firebrand social media following because of his boldness for Truth”. His book, “This Means War: We Will Not Surrender Through Silence“, is an Amazon bestseller.
At the rally in Washington on January 6, 2021, Locke was present preaching what he called “a revival of patriotism”. Locke says, “I want conservatism. I want values. I want morality”. He adds, for emphasis, “Make America godly again,” pulling on the shirt he is wearing with the same words on it, and echoing Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again”.
From the pulpit, he rails against “the left” and the devil. He says we have a “cowardly pastor problem” in America because they don’t speak up. One person supporting him says every pastor in America needs to preach politics and “stand up for God”.
One couple interviewed in the piece explained that they left their previous church to join Locke’s church because “where they were going politically wasn’t lining up with us”. The woman adds, “They are not speaking against abortion and all this trafficking, and our pastor does, because it’s the truth”.
This is the backdrop for my comments today. I am not really going to try to say all of “what the Bible says” here, but I will make a few key points about that sacred text that should guide us.
First off, anyone who thinks the Bible is a “conservative” (or a “liberal” text) as defined by modern American politics is ignoring large segments of Scripture and preaching an American, political gospel that doesn’t resemble what Jesus preached. Because the CBS News piece focused on the conservative side of the political spectrum, I will also focus on it. That doesn’t mean I think the Bible supports a “liberal” political agenda, however.
The Bible is an ancient Middle Eastern text that was countercultural in its own time, and it is no less countercultural in our time. Jesus started his public ministry when he read from the Isaiah scroll in the local synagogue. Jesus announced that he came to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind and to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18, quoting the messianic prophecies in Isaiah 56 and 61). His focus was the poor, the imprisoned, the disadvantaged and the oppressed.
The first church was known for selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to all who needed them. (Acts 2:45) They redistributed their wealth among those who needed it. This doesn’t sound very “conservative” to me. How about you?
Yes, but someone might say, “The state wasn’t mandating it!” That is the modern, conservative response. People should be free to be generous on their own. The state should not be mandating what we must do with our own property and money. Let every person give of his or her own free will.
As a conservative-leaning person, politically, I appreciate this response. There is room for legitimate disagreement on how we should take care of those in need. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, but he doesn’t prescribe exactly how we must do it.
American evangelicals like Greg Locke, however, claim a biblical mandate for the way it should be done. (Or how it should not be done, more accurately). It must not be mandated by the State.
Jesus told us, however, to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (speaking about taxes in context). He didn’t tell us to resist paying taxes to Caesar.
In fact, a focus on power, influence, and control over the state (Caesar) is not an emphasis we see in Jesus at all. Can you think of one time Jesus addressed Caesar?
Jesus didn’t lead an uprising against the Roman state, which is one reason he was abandoned by the many people. They were hoping for a political coup. Jesus lead a movement of a different kind – a movement to introduce people to the kingdom of God. (More on that in a moment.
Jesus said that we should give God what is God’s. In saying this, Jesus was making the point that we can give God what is God’s, though we also give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. How we do that may require the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit, especially when giving to Caesar seems to conflict with giving to God.
I am not going to try to address that here, but I note that there was more conflict with Caesar in the first century Judea than we have with our governing authorities in the United States. Caesar killed people on crosses for opposing him. Both Jesus and Paul said, nevertheless, that we should be “subject to governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), and both of them died on Roman crosses.
The point I want to get to is that Jesus focused on the kingdom of God, not on the kingdoms of this world. Jesus was more concerned about advancing the kingdom of God than taking over or advancing a kingdom in this world. Jesus plainly said:
“My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
Jesus did not call us into a fight to gain control of the kingdoms of this world. Jesus came to “preach the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43), which is not a kingdom of this world. He came to seek lost sheep and to invite them into His kingdom, and Jesus commissioned us to do the same thing in the last instruction he left for us:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
Jesus came for the sheep who hear his voice. (John 10:27) He came to provide them eternal life. (John 10:28) He came to give them spiritual power to overcome the world of sin and death.
When Jesus said, “Take heart; I have overcome the world”, he was not talking about political power, influence, or control. He was speaking about his impending death on a Roman cross. (John 20:25-33) Jesus was talking about the power to overcome the human inclination to protect ourselves at the expense of others (which is the thrust of sin within us) and the power to lay down his life.
Jesus overcame the world by staring death in the face and submitting to it. He did this to save all mankind from the stranglehold of sin and death. He overcame the world by his death. Paul summarizes this way:
“God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27)
The worldly Jews fought to overthrow Roman power, and they expected Jesus to join them. Even Peter objected to the necessity of Jesus suffering and dying, but consider how Jesus responded:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matt. 20:23)
Jesus was not concerned about overthrowing the Roman government and placing a himself on the throne of Caesar in the first century. What are we to make of it in the twenty first century? Has God changed plans?
Listen to the instruction he gave his first century followers:
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.’” (Matt. 20:24-27)
If we can take Jesus at his word, our calling is not about gaining the world. It’s not about gaining political power, influence, and control. Our calling is about following Jesus so that when he comes in glory, we will be counted with him!
Our calling includes making disciples who follow Jesus who will also be counted with him when he comes again. Our calling is to preach the same Gospel Jesus proclaimed – the good news to the poor about the kingdom of God.
Cut to a clip of the rally in Washington on January 5, 2021. Greg Locke comes to the stage and asks, “Are there any patriots out there?” When the cheers subside, he begins his impassioned speech, saying, “God is on our side!”
Is God really on his side?
As Joshua stood contemplating the conquest of the promised land, he asked the angel of the Lord whether he was for them or for their enemies, and the angel responded, “Neither!”
Think about that: This was God’s anointed man about to lead God’s chosen people into the land God promised them.
Yet, the angel of the Lord was not on their side. The angel was not on the side of Joshua’s enemies in the land, either.
God doesn’t have a side. God is not with us or against us in these things. The only thing that matters is whether we are aligned with God in fulfilling His purposes by obeying what He commanded.
One thing we know for sure is that God desires that no one perish. (John 3:16) God seeks His lost sheep wherever they are, and whichever “side” they are on. This is God’s purpose.
Anyone who aligns with God aligns with God’s purposes. Anyone who aligns with a kingdom of this world, right, left or in the middle, is not aligning with God, but with Caesar.
Everyone, the whole world, is God’s field in which He is planting, watering, and growing the seeds of His kingdom. The various kingdoms and political subdivisions of this world do not present any boundaries to God. God’s kingdom is not of this world and is not constrained to the walls that we have erected in the world.
In fact, Jesus came to break down the walls that separate us. (Eph. 2:14) He came to create in himself one new humanity (Eph. 2:15) – not a national or global superpower – but a people who are reconciled to God through the cross (Eph. 2:16) giving us all access to the Father through one Spirit. (Eph. 2:18)
God is interested in making us citizens of His kingdom. (Eph. 2:19) Our alignment with the kingdoms of this world, which are passing away, is of no eternal consequence. (1 John 2:17) (Unless, by that alignment, we are working at cross purposes to God!)
I will end where I started. When Paul asked, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (1 Cor. 5:12), he might as well be speaking directly to us today. He followed with the rhetorical question: “Are you not to judge those inside?”
We seem to have it exactly backwards. A large segment of the American evangelical church is focused on preaching about abortion, trafficking, family values, and similar things to the world. We are trying to impose those standards on the “kingdom” of the United States through the political process, but are we advancing the Gospel in the process?
I would not say that God doesn’t care about things like abortion. Indeed, God will judge the world, but this is why Paul says it isn’t our business. “God will judge those outside” the church. (1 Cor. 5:13) That isn’t our job, as Paul pointedly reminded the Corinthians. (At least, not yet.)
He says we should be focused on the church – the kingdom of God – not the kingdoms of this world. Jesus gave his followers the commission to make disciples and teach them to obey his commandments – not to impose those standards on the people in the world who are not disciples of Jesus.
Jesus came to call people to his kingdom, which is not of this world, not to create a kingdom in this world that is governed by his people. God desires His people to be conformed to Christ, not for His people to conform the world to the standard of the church.
Jesus called us to be a city set on a hill, not to turn the valleys into a city. How do we stand apart? Jesus called us to be salt and light, not to turn the world into salt or turn the glare of the light into the eyes of the world.
We don’t promote the kingdom of God with a political platform. We promote the kingdom of God by preaching the Gospel to those who are alienated from God, inviting them to be reconciled with God, and discipling them who respond to become citizens of God’s kingdom.
When Paul said that we should not judge the world, he was distinguishing between how we should treat people in the world from people in the church. He said:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” (1 Cor. 5:9-10)
Paul does not not tell us to dissociate from the world. He didn’t tell us to build walls (political or otherwise) between the church and the world. In saying these things, he echoed Jesus who was criticized for hobnobbing with tax collectors and sinners.
Paul told us, instead, to hold people in the church to God’s standards (not the world who does not purport to know God, but the people in the Church who do).
Ironically, Greg Locke, the firebrand pastor preaching a political gospel, divorced his wife of 21 years to marry his secretary and has been arrested six times and placed on probation five times. If Locke followed Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, he wouldn’t be railing against the sin the world. Paul also might have disqualified him from serving as a Christian leader.
The world has a judge – God the Father. They will die in their sins if they do not accept by faith the grace God offers freely to them. The focus of the instruction from Jesus to us is to share that Gospel with the world – not to judge it!
God doesn’t take a side in the political battles and power struggles that are fought in the world. Though God would be with Joshua and the Israelites as they entered the promised land, it wasn’t because God was on their side. It was because they were furthering the purposes of God.
Are Locke and the people he is leading in preaching his political gospel furthering the purposes of God? I don’t think so.
When Jesus died on the cross, he did so in furtherance of the purpose of God, opening up access to the kingdom of God to all who hear his voice and respond in faith. Our focus needs to be the Gospel Jesus preached (the good news of the kingdom of God) and teaching disciples of Jesus to obey his commands. Anything else is proclaiming a different gospel.