Politics in the Church:
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons (James and John) came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of Him. “What is it you want?” Jesus asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.
During this past U.S. political season, many people were and still are acutely sensitive and constantly evaluating and reevaluating their traditional feelings about politics. In thinking about it personally, I’ve observed some striking similarities in secular politics and what is described as politics in the church.
We’ve all heard this statement, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It’s true. Without proper safeguards and accountability, it happens.
And it is also true that whatever any organization rewards, it also reproduces.
If it rewards radicalism, it also reproduces radicalism.
If it rewards mediocrity, it also reproduces mediocrity.
If it rewards achievers and producers, it also reproduces achievers and producers.
If it rewards creativity, it also reproduces creativity.
You get the picture.
True leadership should openly strive for the authoritative allocation of value.
But I’m sure you have also noticed that the most qualified leaders are not always elected. Disappointingly, it is certainly true in secular politics. And even more disappointingly, it is also true in church politics. For some reason, we have come to expect better quality results from politics in the church than in the secular world.
The Real World of Church Politics
Let’s face it. Human relationships can get off track, even in the church. Although you and I would hope for, and may even work toward, a perfect fellowship and a perfect operational system in the church where we serve, the truth is, it just doesn’t happen.
There’s probably almost nobody completely satisfied with what goes on in the church at every level – local, state, regional, national and international – if for no other reason than because we can’t run things ourselves in our own way. We tend to wonder why our prayer isn’t answered, “Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heaven.” And why the Holy Spirit doesn’t immediately straighten everything out – right now.
Politics in the church. What are the implications for us in our work for God?
Obviously, I’m speaking of the earthly expression of the church. I’m referring to “church” as it is presently constituted on earth, and not to the universal spiritual church, the church triumphant, whose members are known only to the Omniscient God.
Parallels in Secular Politics and Church Politics
• Politics represents the attainment and exercise of power and influence.
• Politics results in who gets what, when, where, and how.
• Politics is the production of intended effects.
• Politics is the art of saying what the most people want to hear.
• Perception is the only reality that counts.
• Elements of successful leadership include both conflict and consensus, alliances and antagonisms, and at times warfare, both ideological and rhetorical.
• Confrontation on “issues” becomes almost unavoidable.
• Staking out a position on populist issues is almost inevitable.
Immediately after Jesus revealed the ordeal He would face in His near future –mocking, flogging, crucifixion, and resurrection – came this innocent-sounding request from one of the church’s classic stage mothers:
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons (James and John) came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of Him. “What is it you want?” Jesus asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Matthew 20:20-21
But what this request really embodied was nepotism: 1) publicly honoring only her family members, and 2) a personal request for preferential treatment and favor for her sons.
This signaled a possible beginning of a struggle for dominance and power. This untimely request was raw nepotism and proved to be a distraction, which also triggered anger in the other disciples that Zebedee’s wife would ever stoop so low. (Please see verses 22-24.)
New Testament Evidences of Politics in the Early Church
Early in the Book of Acts, just when the early church was getting started and you would have expected everything to be going great, controversy arose over the feeding of widows. Some were being given favored treatment; others were being neglected. Peter then recommended the appointment of the first church deacons, whose responsibility it would be to see that equity was maintained (Acts 6:1-7). Politics in the church.
Once when the socially outcast Samaritans angered the disciples, James and John asked why Jesus didn’t just give them power to call down fire from heaven and destroy the town as Elijah did (See Luke 9:51-56). Politics in the church.
Judas Iscariot, the treasurer, complained that Mary wasted money when she anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. “It would have been far better,” Judas argued, “to have taken that money and given it to the poor” (Matthew 26:9). Politics in the church.
History tells us that James, the brother of Jesus, was the first bishop of the Jerusalem church; but Peter also played a leading role. It was Peter whom the Lord used to take the Gospel message to the Gentiles at the home of Cornelius (See Acts 10). Being a Jew, Peter found this difficult. God had to shake him up through a powerful vision. Only then would Peter agree to enter the home of a Gentile. Afterwards, even though the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, and even though God had indicated His grace was available to all men regardless of race, the elders in Jerusalem were still reluctant to grant full acceptance to those outside traditional Judaism (See Acts 11:1-18). Politics in the church.
What these examples confirm is that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ simply does not necessarily remove all human differences and all challenges in human relationships. Peter and Paul were both great men, men touched and anointed of God; but they were still men, still human, and still capable of mistakes and disagreements. These examples also lead us to conclude that it is not logical to expect the church on earth today to be perfect.
In fact, what we label and sometimes denounce as politics in the church, may not be all bad. Most of us condemn only certain elements of what has come to be for us, socially and spiritually, the normal and accepted way of doing business. For example, we may condemn the churchman who lets it be known he desires a certain position, but we praise and value the system, which permits us to cast a meaningful vote in the first place. It is true that our system in the church is far from perfect, and generally those who occupy leadership positions are not perfect, either. But neither are we.
We help vote people into positions of influence and authority, and then whine and complain throughout their entire term, and state unequivocally that we are going to vote them out of their position at our first opportunity. In my opinion there is very little support and almost no prayer offered for God to grant them His divine grace to lead. Often there is not even the slightest effort to apply the golden rule to “do unto others as if we were the ‘others.’” Some cannot lead. They will not follow.
Scriptural Solutions to Politics in the Church
Jesus taught His disciples, and us, that everything done in the church should have service primarily in mind – Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant (Matthew 20:27). This concept establishes precise guidelines for the church on earth.
Those who aspire to lead, who seek position, should always do so to serve, not for honor, prestige, or personal gain. At the same time, those we choose to lead, those for whom we cast votes and thereby place in positions of power, should be men and women duly equipped and qualified to serve – not someone we simply admire or someone popular or with a one-dimensional talent or ability. His primary purpose in filling his leadership position should not be to simply get re-elected so he can finish building his own political dynasty, but to serve Christ and serve the church with faith and spiritual authority, along with our prayers and support, and with the heart of a servant.
The early church gave specific instructions for the choosing of deacons. The disciples pointed out first of all that, even in the church, some tasks are more important than others. This calls for setting priorities from God’s view. It was inappropriate for the disciples to give up preaching the Word to administer welfare to the widows. Others would be chosen for that task – men of honest report, men full of the Holy Ghost, and men of wisdom (See Acts 6:3). These deacons would take care of the routine church business so that the disciples could give themselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the Word (See Acts 6:4).
Today, when we choose leaders in the church, we would avoid many problems if we would simply follow the Scriptural pattern. In other words, making certain our leaders at every level are men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom – this will bring politics in the church into perspective.
Further instructions on the matter of leaders was given by Paul in his first letter to Timothy. “It isn’t wrong,” Paul wrote, “for a man to desire the office of bishop. He desires a good work.” (See I Timothy 3:1)
But let’s look at the qualifications for such an office. The qualifications are clear. The standards are high.
A Bishop must be:
blameless – the husband of one wife – vigilant – sober – of good behavior – given to hospitality – apt to teach – not given to wine – no striker – not greedy for money – patient – not a brawler – not covetous – one who rules well his own house – having his children in subjection with all gravity – not a novice – with good report of them outside the church – grave – not double-tongued – holding the mystery of the faith in pure conscience – proven blameless – with a wife who is also grave, not slanderous – faithful in all things. (I Timothy 3:1-11)
Clearly, God’s Word tells us what types of leaders are needed in the church. Basically, the same standards for bishops also apply for the selection of deacons in the local church. God has set up His standards for us to follow in every way and at every level.
And, you will notice that nowhere does it say that they must all be preachers or pastors or have a marked out career path within the church. We should seek out the most qualified person. Wherever there is an opening that does not specifically call for a preacher to fill it, then we should be open to utilizing business leaders, construction workers, teachers, beekeepers, fishermen, farmers, lawyers, doctors, engineers – anyone who fits the scriptural criteria to be considered for positions of authority at any level. What we don’t need are so-called “professional leaders.” Regrettably, that’s almost all who are ever elected – whether as a head of state or within the denominational church organization.
It is obvious that the use of the term “politics in the church” can have either a positive or a negative ring to it. If, by even referencing such a term, we refer to selfish motives, to carnal ambitions, to ego massage, or to cheap political manipulation and human intimidation, then we must all condemn and reject such practices with boldness and stop at once rewarding any such behavior; then, alter our electoral standards before voting the next time.
On the other hand, if we use the term “politics in the church” to designate organized methods by which the Body of Christ on Earth conducts business and sends forth the good news of the Gospel, then we deal with a positive solution to an ongoing human relations challenge.
Since Jesus made service to others a chief tenet of His teachings, we should make serving the Lord and others the object of our efforts on this earth until Jesus comes again.
At 211 degrees, water is hot.
At 212 degrees, water boils.
And with boiling water comes steam.
And steam can power a locomotive.
It’s that extra one degree, just one, that makes a world of difference. And often, it’s that one extra degree of effort in servanthood, and in life, that separates the good from the great.
The beauty of 212 degrees is not only its simplicity, but also its many applications. This principle can be applied not only to 212 degrees in service, but 212 degrees in attitude, 212 degrees in vision, 212 degrees in leadership, 212 degrees in genuine kindness, 212 degrees in commitment, 212 degrees in focus; and the list goes on.
Whether you’re a layman in the pew, a preacher in the pulpit, or an elected or officially appointed leader in the highest realms of church government, you’ll get it. In fact, once you’ve heard this simple uncomplicated analogy for excellence, it’ll be hard to ever forget.*
At every level, the church today is in desperate need of – and is deserving of – God-called leaders who are a full 212 degrees in every positive category.
* Used by permission, 212: The Extra Degree by Simple Truths, LLC, Mac Anderson, Naperville, IL USA