Faith and Politics Small Group Conversation Guide - Session 1
Religion and politics are often said to be the two topics to steer away from in conversation. The prospect of having political conversations at church makes many of us anxious - perhaps even more in these unusual socially-distanced times. Yet with a biblical worldview, the church can be the safest place for such conversations.
Our hope is that this three-session guide will help your small group navigate the tensions of political or polarizing conversations with biblical principles.
Guidelines for sharing and praying together
- When sharing, speak in the “I”
- Respect others.
- Turn to wonder rather than judgment. (What does my reaction tell me about myself?)
- No fixing, saving, or setting other people straight.
- Trust and learn from silence. (When tension or conflict arises, that is normal. Welcome it as a moment for silent reflection.)
- Observe confidentiality.
Session 1 Not Withdrawing - Engaged with Civility
What is your response to the thought of a conversation around politics? Is it worry, fear, fatigue, boredom or curiosity? Responses to this question in any group might vary greatly - you may want to engage in a robust discussion of viewpoints, or you may prefer to stay miles away from any such conversation to prevent potential tensions and disagreements from arising. What does following Jesus look like in the face of the tensions and caustic responses we see from political candidates, the comments and posts we read on social media, and the complexities of the issues we hope elected officials will be able to help address?
One thing that is foundational for followers of Christ to remember is that our allegiance is to Christ before any other affiliation. Political tensions, especially when elections are close, can spark disagreements within differing political views in homes and relationships within a local church.
Authors Justin Giboney, attorney and cofounder of the AND Campaign, Michael Wear, chief strategist of the AND Campaign and Chris Butler, associate past of Chicago Embassy Church and community organizer in Chicago collectively share in their recent book Compassion & Conviction, “As Christians, our primary objective is to profess the gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations (Matthew 28:16-20). No other task should be allowed to interfere with or obscure that purpose. If the Great Commission becomes secondary, or if Christianity is understood primarily as a means of accomplishing social or political goals, then we’ve handed to Caesar what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21).”
Reverend Charlie Drew, seasoned pastor and author of Surprised by Community: Republicans and Democrats in the Same Pew, says, “Never forget that the only social institution that will survive the fires at the end of history is the church—America will cease to be, along with the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the NRA, and the ACLU. And the church will survive, not on the margins of society, but at its center. We will be the society. Our task now is to prove that this is so not simply by the fact of our engagement with the world but by the quality of it, and, above all, by the quality of our life together. We must demonstrate the winsome power of Christ to break down the walls that divide us—including the political walls. God help us. Much is at stake.”
- What groups or viewpoints are you most comfortable talking about openly? This can be anything from sports, food, etc.
- How do you feel about engaging in a conversation around politics? What contributes to this feeling?
- How did your family of origin engage talking about politics?
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
From “Other” to Image of God
The Samaritans were held in contempt as religious apostates who had mixed the purity of Israel's worship with idolatry and the worship of pagan gods (cf. 2 Kings 17:24-41; Ezra 4:1-3; Sirach 50:25-26). The Samaritans were looked at by the Jews as a lesser “other” - half-breeds, unclean and contaminated. In the story, a priest and a Levite avoid the man in need. Though both the priest and the Levite might know much about the Law and Scripture, Jesus paints a picture where the hero is not the religious Jew who avoids helping another in need but the Samaritan who crosses social and religious barriers to minister to the needs of the man who has been beaten.
As Christians, our fundamental belief is that every person is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
- What kept the priest and the Levite from addressing the needs of the man lying in the road?
- What viewpoints make it difficult for you to see the Imago Dei (image of God) in others? What might help shift this perspective?
- What does it mean to you to love the “other”, someone who is different from you? How do you approach disagreement?
From Withdrawal to Civil Engagement
“In the Good Samaritan parable told in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus points us to a man risking his life to give material help to someone of a different race and religion. Jesus forbids us to withhold help from our neighbors, and this will inevitably require that we participate in political processes. If we experience exclusion and even persecution for doing so, we are assured that God is with us (Matthew 5:10-11) and that some will still see our “good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:11-12). If we are only offensive or only attractive to the world and not both, we can be sure we are failing to live as we ought.” (Keller, “How Do Christians Fit,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/opinion/sunday/christians-politics-belief.html )
(The article is included in full at the end of the session as an additional resource).
The Barna Group surveyed young non-Christians in America about the top characteristics of Christians, and the top 3 descriptors were 1) Antigay, 2) Judgmental, and 3) Hypocritical. How unfortunate and dismaying that followers of Christ are not generally perceived as people who love as Jesus loves. Like Jesus, and like the Good Samaritan, our loving presence in the face of difference can speak volumes of who Jesus is - but it will take Christians showing up in love among people holding a variety of views, being informed and engaging in political processes out of a love for neighbor.
Guidelines for Civil Political Engagement
Excerpted from Compassion & Conviction
- Hold out hope for political opponents’ best possible motives. We ought to ascribe the best motives possible to our political opponents, given the information at hand, and do our best to separate intent from impact. Slander is when we move from arguing about effects to arguing about intent, which is a way to undermine the standing of those we are arguing with in the public square.
- Affirm the true and the good in our opponents’ argument. Even when we vehemently disagree with what someone is arguing, try to affirm what is worthy of affirmation. This can help establish common ground, and it explicitly limits the scope of disagreement, which is a buffer against contempt.
- Avoid deception and manipulation. Civility requires that we not cheat when we enter the public square, even in the name of what we perceive to be the common good.
- Ground political engagement in service. If our political involvement is motivated by service rather than self-aggrandizement, the pursuit of power, or antipathy, civility will be much more likely.
- How does following Christ call us to engage in political processes? What keeps you engaged or disengaged?
- How much does faith guide your political choices? Do you research the issues yourself, or do you rely on Christian leaders to inform you?
- Unity does not mean uniformity. Being brothers and sisters in Christ does not mean we need to agree on one political party or strategy for helping the poor. How can Christians holding different views have political conversations and interactions that look different than what’s found in the rest of our culture today? What would it take to foster dialogue and civility in such conversations?
Possible Practical Applications
- Think about your close social network, is it diverse or is it homogenous? Identify someone with a different point of view and ask to hear their point of view and why they hold those views - purely to listen.
- Proximity to someone who feels like an “other” can make all the difference. When we come close enough to another to have a relationship with them - knowing their name, their story, providing space to listen and share - the “other” can become “another” human being. Issues can become less “other” or “irrelevant to me” when we know someone impacted by them. Who do you sense God is inviting you to become proximate to?
Jesus, we come before your throne today and we just want to acknowledge that you are Lord. Help us to sit right now in that truth. That you, God, are Lord of all. Lord, will you remind us every day of this awesome truth and let it change our hearts, our thoughts and our actions in regards to politics. Lord, help us know that you alone are sovereign and that in you alone can we put our faith, hope, and trust.
Lord Jesus, may your people in this country be marked not by the first letter of a political party, but by your blood. Lord, you have chosen us. You gave us your son so that we might bear and glorify his name here on earth. Oh Lord, may we your people not exchange our adoption as your sons and daughters with the fleeting and empty identity of political labels. Lord Jesus, may we your people not put our hope in leaders or candidates or policies, but in you alone.
Lord, we also pray for the church in regards to politics. Lord, for our own body here at New Life, as well as the other churches in this city and across the country. Lord Jesus we pray for unity in the body of Christ. Lord, as Philippians 2 calls us, help us to be of the same mind, having the same love and being in full accord. That in humility we would count others more significant than ourselves. That we would look not just to our own interests, but to the interests of others.
Lord, it’s not that we all need to have the exact same opinion or come to the same conclusions about who to vote for, but Lord you call us to our identity in Christ. Lord Jesus remind us that we have all been saved. That we all bear your name. That our entire existence is to be dedicated to your glory. Lord that you have given us all we need and that no system, no leader, no plan or policy will ever add to the richest inheritance any of us could ever receive. Jesus, may these pursuits be first in the church and whatever political differences remain be seated in this context. Lord, hear our prayers and help us in this political season to mirror your glory and humility. Amen
How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t
The historical Christian positions on social issues don’t match up with contemporary political alignments.
By Timothy Keller
Mr. Keller is the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.
Sept. 29, 2018
Singing hymns at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., before an appearance by Donald Trump in 2016. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
What should the role of Christians in politics be? More people than ever are asking that question. Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply “preach the Gospel.” Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political.
The Bible shows believers as holding important posts in pagan governments — think of Joseph and Daniel in the Old Testament. Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors, whether they believe as we do or not. To work for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation requires political engagement. Christians have done these things in the past and should continue to do so.
Nevertheless, while believers can register under a party affiliation and be active in politics, they should not identify the Christian church or faith with a political party as the only Christian one. There are a number of reasons to insist on this.
One is that it gives those considering the Christian faith the strong impression that to be converted, they need not only to believe in Jesus but also to become members of the (fill in the blank) Party. It confirms what many skeptics want to believe about religion — that it is merely one more voting bloc aiming for power.
Another reason not to align the Christian faith with one party is that most political positions are not matters of biblical command but of practical wisdom. This does not mean that the church can never speak on social, economic and political realities, because the Bible often does. Racism is a sin, violating the second of the two great commandments of Jesus, to “love your neighbor.” The biblical commands to lift up the poor and to defend the rights of the oppressed are moral imperatives for believers. For individual Christians to speak out against egregious violations of these moral requirements is not optional.
However, there are many possible ways to help the poor. Should we shrink government and let private capital markets allocate resources, or should we expand the government and give the state more of the power to redistribute wealth? Or is the right path one of the many possibilities in between? The Bible does not give exact answers to these questions for every time, place and culture.
I know of a man from Mississippi who was a conservative Republican and a traditional Presbyterian. He visited the Scottish Highlands and found the churches there as strict and as orthodox as he had hoped. No one so much as turned on a television on a Sunday. Everyone memorized catechisms and Scripture. But one day he discovered that the Scottish Christian friends he admired were (in his view) socialists. Their understanding of government economic policy and the state’s responsibilities was by his lights very left-wing, yet also grounded in their Christian convictions. He returned to the United States not more politically liberal but, in his words, “humbled and chastened.” He realized that thoughtful Christians, all trying to obey God’s call, could reasonably appear at different places on the political spectrum, with loyalties to different political strategies.
Another reason Christians these days cannot allow the church to be fully identified with any particular party is the problem of what the British ethicist James Mumford calls “package-deal ethics.” Increasingly, political parties insist that you cannot work on one issue with them if you don’t embrace all of their approved positions.
This emphasis on package deals puts pressure on Christians in politics. For example, following both the Bible and the early church, Christians should be committed to racial justice and the poor, but also to the understanding that sex is only for marriage and for nurturing family. One of those views seems liberal and the other looks oppressively conservative. The historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.
So Christians are pushed toward two main options. One is to withdraw and try to be apolitical. The second is to assimilate and fully adopt one party’s whole package in order to have your place at the table. Neither of these options is valid. In the Good Samaritan parable told in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus points us to a man risking his life to give material help to someone of a different race and religion. Jesus forbids us to withhold help from our neighbors, and this will inevitably require that we participate in political processes. If we experience exclusion and even persecution for doing so, we are assured that God is with us (Matthew 5:10-11) and that some will still see our “good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:11-12). If we are only offensive or only attractive to the world and not both, we can be sure we are failing to live as we ought.
The Gospel gives us the resources to love people who reject both our beliefs and us personally. Christians should think of how God rescued them. He did it not by taking power but by coming to earth, losing glory and power, serving and dying on a cross. How did Jesus save? Not with a sword but with nails in his hands.
Timothy Keller, founder of the Redeemer Presbyterian churches in New York City, is the author of “Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy,” from which this essay is adapted.