By Ben Cachiaras
Shortly before his recent unexpected passing, my friend, Christian Standard editor Mike Mack, asked me via email: “How can we love one another in a culture where there is so much sharp disagreement? . . . Would you write something on the challenge of fighting for relationships?”
Before his untimely death, the burden on Mike’s heart—and likely many of our hearts—was to see Christ followers navigate the nasty culture wars, the lack of civility, and the political polarization to live out faith in God-honoring ways. “How do we disagree without hating?” he asked.
Indeed, some people now contend we are more divided than we’ve been since the Civil War, to the point of dysfunction. Right and left are no longer two opposing sides that keep each other in balance; John Mark Comer says they are two rival religions locked in holy war with zealots fighting it out online and, increasingly, in the streets.
The greater tragedy, which prompted Mike to commission this article, is that this same ugly division has entered the church. Rival ideologies have gathered their tribes and gained allegiance, pitting us against one another. People “are often willing to do whatever it takes to elevate their own group and undermine their rivals”—even if it means being nasty or hurting someone, Adam Grant wrote in Think Again. We know this to be true because we lived through 2020, when—as Preston Sprinkle has noted—factions fought tooth and nail over mask mandates, lockdown measures, the efficacy of vaccines, and not only who should be the next president, but whether anyone who disagreed with your point of view could possibly be a real Christian.
And it is breaking the heart of our Lord. Jesus prayed we would be united as one, protected from the schemes of the evil one which he warned would appear in the form of disunity (John 17:11, 20-23). As we approach another election year, we must do more than brace ourselves. Instead, we must embrace four key concepts, each a critical aspect of Jesus’ kingdom.
LOVE: We’ve got to learn to disagree politically and still love unconditionally.
When asked to boil down the entirety of Scripture, Jesus told us to love God and love people (Matthew 22:37-39). Paul said love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). And yet Christians fight and fling dirt at each other over issues of race, immigration, politics, and more. It’s as if we believe being passionate about our position on an issue justifies spiritually immature behavior.
But if we don’t have love, we are nothing but an obnoxious, blaring alarm (1 Corinthians 13:1, 3). Even if you think you’re right, without love—as a Christian song from more than a decade ago said—“you ain’t nothing.”
Tribalism erects barriers and divides us; the gospel crashes those barriers and draws us together in Christ. If your gospel isn’t strong enough to crash through political walls, it’s a false gospel (Ephesians 2:14-22).
Jesus didn’t say, “Ridicule your enemies.” He didn’t teach, “Put up with your enemies. Just try to ignore them.” No, Jesus commanded, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43-48). Tolerance is not a high enough standard for Jesus and his people. It’s time to take Jesus’ teaching more seriously and embrace love. Our faith will not be proven by how deeply we love our friends but how deeply we love our enemies. The people who tick you off. The ones you can’t stand (Luke 6:27-36).
Imagine if, this next election cycle, Christians in America were primarily known for the very thing Jesus said we ought to be known for—not our politics, but our love (John 13:34-35).
UNITY: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
Paul reminded us in Ephesians that we are one body and one Spirit, with one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all (4:3-6). And he stressed that it will take some hard work to keep that unity. Strive for it! It’s as if he was saying, “Christ has made you one. Now act like it!”
Jesus’ people are not held together by political affiliation. And we must never let it drive us apart. The picture of God’s people joined around the throne one day reveals a wonderfully diverse collection from every tongue, tribe, and nation. There is unity despite the diversity because Jesus is at the center (Revelation 7:9).
The early church’s rapid growth amid the pagan Roman Empire was fueled by the core distinctives that marked Jesus’ followers. Specifically, their communities were truly diverse and welcoming, crossing lines of race and ethnicity. Their gatherings included folk from all socioeconomic groups; they cared for the poor and shared with those who had less. They staunchly resisted the practice of infanticide and abortion, and resolutely upheld marriage and sexuality between one man and one woman for life.
Think about those distinctives for a moment. They are all part of orthodox Christian faith. But nowadays, if you care about race or the poor, people assume you’re a “liberal Democrat” and are therefore opposed to the sanctity of life and traditional marriage. On the other hand, if you uphold the sanctity of life and traditional marriage, you must be a “conservative Republican” and unconcerned about racial justice and helping the poor. Our version of Christianity isn’t taking the empire by storm because the empire has taken hold of us. Many Christians choose one side and ignore or demonize the other. Instead of uniting around Jesus and presenting a compelling alternative way to live in the world, we have adapted to the categories and parties handed to us.
We’ve become political about our religion, and we have imported a religious zeal into our politics. Politics are “America’s new religious war,” The Economist noted in a March 2021 article. So many have been taken captive not by Jesus, but by their preferred brand of politics which we’ve baptized and correlated with Christianity itself. It’s a form of idolatry. As John Mark Comer has noted, a growing number of people are more loyal to their ideology or political party than to Jesus and his teachings. Honestly, if we could get some people as fired up about Jesus as they are about their politics, we’d have a revival on our hands!
One of the saddest outcomes of the pandemic was the church swapping that happened as people migrated to churches not over doctrinal matters, but over such issues as masking and politics. This resulted in a more homogenous church, where we gather according to our cultural preferences with others who are politically like-minded.
Now, it seems, we no longer strive for unity, but instead settle for uniformity. This robs us of a central feature of the gospel which brings together people from all walks of life into a beautiful new community that does not merely mirror the way society gathers, but which demonstrates the gospel’s power by uniting diverse people around Jesus, the one and only source of our unity.
It’s wonderful to find the affinity of people who are “like me” at church. But the church at its best leads us to the special joy of relating to, appreciating, understanding, valuing, and loving people who are radically unlike us. It shapes our hearts with Christlike sympathy, compassion, and understanding. It fosters humility and broadens our frame of reference so we can begin to imagine how to take ourselves out of the center of things and love the world like Jesus.
It’s helpful to remember that Christian is a noun. It is our primary identity. All other descriptors are adjectives that modify our core, which is found in Christ. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, an American or an Australian, slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female—all these categories are secondary to our primary identity which is that we are one in Christ Jesus our Lord (see Galatians 3:28).
What would happen if we remembered that we are one . . . and acted like it?
LORDSHIP: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
When politics and faith became entangled during the crusades, the result was an ugly blemish on the name of Christ. It is said that when some soldiers were baptized before going to war, they would hold their swords out of the water. They were saying, “I’m not surrendering this part to God. Jesus can be Lord of the rest of me, but I know he wouldn’t approve of what I want to do with this sword, so it’s not going under.” They would “convert” to Christianity without fully surrendering to Christ. They forgot that receiving Jesus as Savior meant obeying him as Lord.
How easy it is for us to do the same today! It’s as if we have been baptized completely, except for our mouths, so we then feel free to speak however we choose on social media about our opponents. As if our fingers were not baptized so they are free to type scathing ad hominem attacks against fellow believers, ignoring Jesus’ command to love and pursue peace. As if our heads didn’t go under, meaning our minds are free to care more about our ideology and our political bent than Jesus’ teaching. When we are baptized, we are immersed completely. Our entire being surrenders to Jesus—including the priority we give to politics. We adopt the politics of Jesus, which is the new way of his kingdom.
For the Christian, our primary pledge of allegiance happened at our baptism. This is what unites us. It is the basis and only hope for our unity. What would happen if our primary identity was “Christian,” and our only master was Jesus?
MISSION: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18).
If you want people to leave your church, be turned off by your preaching, and become disillusioned with Christianity in general, make politics and ideology more important than theology. There is an exodus from American congregations across our land. Much of it isn’t because people are less interested in faith; it’s that they are less interested in politically induced slants and rants.
We live in what can be labeled a “post-Christian” culture. We are on a mission field! People who show up at a church in this climate aren’t looking for your political views or ideological bent. They’re looking for God.
The moment we wade beyond biblical justice and scriptural teaching into partisan talking points, we alienate a huge percentage of the very people we are sent to reach. Why would we be OK with that? Jesus died for them and wants to welcome them, but we’re fine with chasing them out the door?
Some church leaders feel they are being “courageous” by “taking a stand” on the issues. This is how we justify relaying our own personal preferences and ideas with political overtones. “What if it’s actually not courageous to take a partisan position and say something partisan from the pulpit?” Carey Nieuwhof asked in New Exodus? Four Reasons People are Leaving the Church, “What if being courageous these days means becoming an alternative to the culture, not an echo of it?”
Jesus ushered in a different kind of kingdom, inviting us all to participate in a radical, countercultural community that doesn’t parrot the categories of modern politics. It is built on a way of living and being that is so much larger, so much more beautiful and lasting than anything portrayed by modern political categories.
A church that loves like Jesus, is united in Jesus under the lordship of Jesus for the mission of Jesus—that is what our friend Mike Mack wanted to see. That is what our Lord calls us to be. And that is what a hungry, watching world desperately needs.
Ben Cachiaras serves as lead pastor of Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.