The biggest turnoff to people about the Christian church is the politics that take place when it becomes institutionalized.
My generation is especially exhausted by inauthenticity in spiritual leaders and those who are too spineless to stand for what’s right when doing so means losing constituents. But religious politics isn’t played only at the leadership level. In fact, it begins as young people in the youth group. It deepens through cliques at Bible school and culminates in the jealous battle for favor and attention over “ordinations weekend.”
None of us are immune to it. All it takes is affirmation from the right group of people and we try to maintain it because it feels good.
I’ve been there! And the more this blog readership grows, the more I’m tempted to participate in the cowardly game. But here’s the reason I refuse to engage in it: never has any spiritual fruit come from men who bow to low behaviors such as politics. Often it is done in the name of guarding family or protecting the church, yet most times when people take part in religious politics, they end up losing their family and destroying the church.
People walk away when they get the sense you’re not in it for their eternal benefit.
So how do we avoid this worthless plight?
It helps to be able to detect symptoms of religious politics before it becomes a norm in our lives. Here are 12 that I’ve bumped into in my life.
I know I’m dealing with religious politics when:
- Procedures matter more than authenticity
- Holiness is seen as having many spiritual disciplines
- I feel threatened when others are praised for something, and I’m not
- If someone is praised for what I could do, or already have done, I assume they don’t see it in me
- Ridiculing others makes me feel significant
- Maintaining influence is more important than making sure what I’m influencing people toward is right
- I am not reproducing disciples of Christ
- I am not reproducing the fruit of the Spirit in my own family
- My life is hypocritical, but I have logical explanations for it (that people don’t challenge because it makes sense)
- Constituency means more than actually reproducing spiritual fruit
- I have no private prayer life
- I don’t know how to relate to people who don’t see things my way
And the list goes on. All of us who have been a part of church for a decent length of time know the religious politics that tempt every Christian, especially when he gains influence. Study the lives of the pharisees for more on it.
One motif of life that keeps you and me from playing religious politics
The hard reality I’ve had to face is that while I can see religious politics clearly in current leaders, it doesn’t start there. It starts here where I’m at: young adulthood.
I’m 25. I’m married and have two energetic boys. I teach school and write. Even now, it’s easy to worry about what people think and behave accordingly.
I am grateful, though, that I have a father who models for me how to lead a church and influence people without playing politics. His one conviction is that he stands accountable for following Christ. He’s not accountable for what people think of him — he’s accountable for following Christ.
If you and I want to be a different generation then those who play religious politics, then we are going to have to deeply internalize the motif of life that we live before an audience of one. What matters most is that we follow him, that we are faithful to his Word, and that we obey his Spirit even when it means losing the favor of constituents, friends or even family.
That is not a popular route to take. We American Christians are superb at playing religious politics and worrying about influence more than right-ness of what we’re influencing people toward. This ditch is on both sides of the aisle, whether we are traditional or progressive. It is excruciatingly difficult to ignore the mantra of millions and follow the voice of one. But it’s absolutely imperative if we are going to quit playing religious politics and build church communities of authenticity and life-giving fruit.
The great objection
One objection religious politicians often throw at you, though, is “We are supposed to listen to the brotherhood. We’re not islands of our own being. You can’t just go on your own and claim to be following Christ.”
Nobody is suggesting that as the alternative to religious politics, though. What we are accountable to is living faithful before an audience of one: Almighty God. He’s given us his Word, and that is what we must wrestle with. Nowhere in that Word does it suggest we listen to “brotherhood” above what we are called to through God’s Word and Holy Spirit.
We stand accountable before God, and ideally the brotherhood is a tool for helping us live faithful to him. However, sometimes even the brotherhood is in error. Religious politicians can’t step away from the brotherhood. Leaders faithfully follow Christ even when it means forging a new path for others to follow.
Yes, we will probably be criticized and ridiculed along the way. But we’re not accountable for never getting hurt; we’re accountable for doing what’s right in following Christ.
Asher Witmer is a husband, father, writer and teacher from Los Angeles currently serving as a principal at a small international school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He blogs at asherwitmer.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.