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Christian Unity in a Politically Diverse Congregation: Why Both Sides Are Right

Baptism provides a theological framework for helping us gladly and charitably embrace each other as Christian brothers and sisters in the midst of our political diversity.

Introduction

In this two part series we are going to explore how our baptism can help us achieve Christian unity in light of our political diversity. And here, I’m thinking specifically of Calvary Memorial Church. Calvary is a politically diverse church (we have somewhere around a 50/50 split of Democrats and Republicans), and 2020 has been an especially politically fraught year. Everything has been politicized—from mask wearing, to the role of the police, to race.

I suspect that many of us just try to paper over our political differences. We know that Christian unity is important; and so in the spirit of Christian unity, we do our best to love those we disagree with. After all, Jesus calls us to love morally sinful people. And so in the same way that good Christians choose to graciously love fascists and communists and bank robbers and crooked lawyers, the Christian Democrats among us choose to love the Calvary folk who have committed the moral sin of voting Republican; and the Christian Republicans among us choose to love the Calvary people who have committed the moral sin of voting Democratic.

And I suppose that’s better than us hating each other.

But the gospel actually gives us more resources for living together in unity than merely tolerating each other’s political immorality. The goal of today’s sermon is to see how baptism provides a theological framework for helping us gladly and charitably embrace each other as Christian brothers and sisters in the midst of our political diversity.

Now I know that some of you are a bit scorched-earth when it comes to politics. For you, the other side is the embodiment of all things evil—of everything that is wrong with the world. And so you have no category for understanding how a fellow Christian could vote opposite of you. If that’s you, let me encourage you to take a deep breath and listen as charitably and reasonably as you can over the next two weeks, and consider the possibility that just maybe there are good Christian folks who have all the exact same Christian values that you do, and who want to see Christianity flourish in exactly the same ways you do, but for Christian reasons, are choosing to vote in a different direction. Once our little sermon series on politics is done, if you are still convinced the other side is politically immoral, then you can go back to loving them as a bunch of misguided sinners.

There are going to be two main parts to today’s sermon. First we’re going to start by looking at two gospel truths that we see in baptism, as articulated by Paul in Romans 6:1-8. And then I want to draw out the implications of baptism for Christian unity in the midst of our political diversity.

The Two Gospel Truths of Baptism

All of Romans 6 is about baptism. There’s a lot to say here; but the main thing I want us to focus on is how baptism communicates two distinct, but inseparable, truths, or movements, of the gospel.

(Read Romans 6:3-8)

Do you see the two movements? Dying and rising with Christ.

Have you ever wondered why God chose baptism as the initiation rite for the Christian faith? It’s because baptism enacts the gospel story of how the convert has died to sin and death and has been raised to new life. In baptism we go under the water as a sign of our union with Christ in his death. And then we are raised up from the water as a sign of our union with Christ in his resurrection. Baptism is a sign of conversion, because it pictures what happens at conversion—we die to our old way of life, and are born again into a new way of life. Baptism, then, preaches the two core truths of the gospel—that we must die with Christ to our sin and death, and that we must rise with Christ to the newness of life.

To be baptized into Christ’s death is to explicitly acknowledge that we have been born into a damaged and broken world—a world marred by sin. To be baptized is to acknowledge that we are in danger and need to be saved—that we need a benevolent power greater than us who is able to fix the problems we can’t fix. But baptism isn’t only a statement about our sin and the world’s brokenness. To be baptized into Christ’s life is also a statement about the hope of the world to come. To be baptized is to express faith that God’s resurrection power is able to fix what has been broken; that the broken “world that is,” will become the “all things new” world of the future.

The message of the gospel is always two-fold—we must die with Christ to our old life of sin; and we must rise with Christ to “the newness of life.” We spend our whole lives living out these two baptismal truths. That’s what sanctification is. It’s growing into our baptismal identity.

Every time we acknowledge God’s power and our weakness; every time we acknowledge that God is the rule maker, and that we have sinned; every time we acknowledge that God is the master and we are the servant; every time we choose the path of suffering and endurance; every time we humbly submit ourselves, in our brokenness and sin, to God’s redemptive care; and say “Not my will, but your will be done”—we are living into the reality of our baptismal death with Christ.

In the same way, every time we triumph over difficulties through faith, every time we experience the Holy Spirit’s victorious power over sin, every time we see miraculous healing, every time we see someone respond to the life giving hope of the gospel, every time we see liberation and freedom and new life, we say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—we are living into the reality of our baptismal resurrection with Christ.

Our whole life is spent living out these two truths. We will never be done dying with Christ to sin and death until the final resurrection, and we will never reach the fullness of “the newness of life in Christ” until the final resurrection. The whole of life is a journey. Some moments will call for us to die afresh with Christ. And other moments will call for us to rise with Christ in victory. Both are essential and life-long aspects of the gospel.

Now, very likely most of us—by personality or life experience—will resonate a bit more easily with one aspect of the gospel over the other. Some of us are really good at the dying with Christ. Others of us are really good at the rising with Christ. This is natural, and in keeping with Paul’s vision of the “many diverse members” of the one unified body of Christ (1 Cor. 12). It takes all kinds, and that’s why we need each other. Which baptismal truth are you better at—dying with Christ or rising with Christ?

Image: Image courtesy of Calvary Memorial Church

Because baptism involves coming to terms with the truth of the world as it is, in all of its brokenness—and who we are in all of our brokenness—dying with Christ compels us to focus on the reality of the world in all of its brokenness. No Pollyanna, pie in the sky, utopian idealism. We have to face the facts square in the race. And because the truth of the matter is that our world is broken and we’re broken; and because we are prone in our sinfulness to move away from God’s ideal, therefore we need rules; and we need justice to hold us accountable to those rules; and we need to follow Christ into the path of sacrifice, and endure through difficult obedience, even when it calls us to self-denial, even when we must lay aside our own preferences like Christ taught us, and say, “Not my will, but your will be done.” We need to embrace individual responsibility, just like we will have to do at the great day of judgment—just us and God. We need the accountability of the community to help keep us on the narrow way, and we need tough love in our lives.

Some of you are very good at dying with Christ. You resonate with this list of Christian virtues; that’s where you live. But others of you are more focused on rising with Christ. That’s your home.

When you think about what it means to be a Christian, you think about kindness, because God has been so kind to you. You think about the freedom that you have in Christ, and the gracious fairness that God has extended to you, and that you want to extend to others. You think about how the gospel has empowered you to be everything that God has created you to be. You think of the spiritual healing and joy that has come into your life because of Jesus, and you think about how the community of faith comes together to assist those in difficult circumstances (like our benevolence ministry), and you think of compassion and the tender love of God for his children.

The truth is, we need both sets of Christian impulses. They are meant to go together. If you’ve got truth, then be mindful of kindness. If you’ve got freedom, then don’t neglect your need for rules. If justice comes easily, then work on fairness. Don’t just sacrifice for others, empower others. Don’t just try to heal sufferings, learn to endure through suffering. If you’re good at denying yourself, then work on joy. If you tend to focus on community, then don’t neglect individual responsibility. If you find it easy to be compassionate, then grow in your capacity to hold others accountable. If you are quick to show tough love, then learn to be just as quick in showing tender love.

Don’t let yourself become lopsided. Embrace and live out both baptismal truths. We need each other for this. You have strengths and Spirit-enabled impulses that I don’t have. I have strengths and Spirit-enabled impulses that you don’t have. You teach me how to rise with Christ, and I’ll teach you how to die with Christ, and vice versa. Together, as we learn to die and rise with Christ, we become the whole mature body of Christ.

Now let me summarize these two baptismal truths again: Dying with Christ is a reminder of the world as it is—in all of its sin and brokenness—and my part in it. Rising with Christ is a reminder of the world as it should be—the world that will be in all its ideal perfection—through God’s redemptive grace—and my part in that coming ideal world.

Now let’s take this framework and apply it to politics.

Conservative and Liberal Impulses

Our political landscape is divided into conservatives and liberals. But have you ever wondered why some values are considered “conservative” and some values are considered “liberal”? What holds conservative values together as “conservative”? And what holds liberal values together as “liberal”? What are the defining characteristics? Most of us know conservative and liberal values when we see them, but we may not always be able to explain why some values are conservative and some values are liberal. I’ve been doing a bit of reading and a lot of thinking lately about what makes a particular value (or virtue, or impulse), either conservative or liberal. Here’s my best shot at providing some definition.

The conservative impulse can be defined as “seeking to cut with the grain of the world as it is, given all of its dangers and shortcomings.” Conservatives are generally not idealists. They see the world as it is in all of its difficulty, and they try to get others to see the world the same way. Because the conservative impulse seeks to come to terms with an imperfect and often hostile world, it values order, repentance, structure, safety, morality, rules, justice, individual responsibility, self-restraint, and accountability. And perhaps above all, the conservative impulse values strength, insofar as strength is the effective agent that protects and secures all other virtues. This is why politically conservative people tend to valorize the police, firemen, and military. Because all of these (in their best forms) are meant to provide safety, security, and stability in the midst of a dangerous world.

The liberal impulse, on the other hand, can be defined as “seeking to progress beyond ‘the world as it is’ into the world as it should be.” Liberals are much more likely to be idealists; they don’t want to settle for a broken and harmful world. As a consequence, they value—and try to get others to value—compassion, equality, dignity, fairness, patience, unmerited grace, care for the marginalized, and community responsibility. And perhaps above all, the liberal impulse valorizes love, insofar as love is the final and ultimate goal of all the virtues. This why political liberals tend to value racial empowerment and concern for the poor. Because these reflect what the world should be like, even if it isn’t.

So in sum, the conservative impulse insists that we come to terms with the world as it is—in all of its shortcomings and hostility. The liberal impulse insists that we must imagine and work toward the world as it should be—in all it’s ideal potential. With that framework in mind, consider these two lists of conservative and liberal values.

Image: Image courtesy of Calvary Memorial Church

Conservatives, because they focus on the dangers of the present world, are concerned to come to terms with truth; there’s no use pining away for some utopian ideal that doesn’t exist. And because the world is harmful and prone to chaos, we need rules; and we need justice to enforce those rules; and we need people that are willing to sacrifice to see justice done. We need people who can endure through difficult circumstance, even to the point of self-denial. And because the world isn’t ideal, people need to know how to tighten the belt in the present, in order to get the long term reward. Conservatives are people who value individual responsibility and who don’t pass their problems off to the community to fix.

Liberals, on the other hand, because they want to make a better world, focus on kindness, freedom, fairness, and empowerment. Liberals want everyone to be able to become all that they were meant to be; they want everyone to flourish. As such, liberals focus on healing, joy, and community assistance. For the liberal, the community doesn’t exist just to keep people in line, but also to lend a hand when things go wrong. Liberals focus on compassion and love, and when they think about love, they think about tender love.

Now wait a minute, you say. That’s the same list from before. Well yes, in fact it is. Go figure.

Remember what we saw about the two truths of baptism? Dying with Christ in baptism is a reminder of the world as it is—in all of its sin and brokenness. Rising with Christ in baptism is a reminder of the world as it should be—in all of its ideal perfection; the world as it will be through God’s redemptive grace. Dying with Christ is a basically conservative movement of the gospel; rising with Christ is a basically liberal movement of the gospel. And the point I want to make here is that politically conservative and politically liberal impulses actually map on to the baptismal story of our dying and rising with Christ. Which is another way of saying, both conservative and liberal political impulses are, at a basic level, consistent with the truths of the gospel.

Now that’s not the same thing as saying that politically conservative and liberal platform positions are consistent with the gospel. There are many manifestation of these impulses in North American politics that are not true, accurate, or faithful to Christianity. So I’m not saying that everything on the political right or left is a true reflection of Christianity’s “dying with Christ” and “rising with Christ” impulses. But what I am saying is that the two basic impulses that animate a Christian’s political actions are in fact, distinctly Christian. Christians who more naturally resonate with Christianity’s “dying with Christ” movement of the gospel will often (not always) more naturally resonate with conservative political strategies. Christians who more naturally resonate with Christianity’s “rising with Christ” movement of the gospel will often (not always) more naturally resonate with liberal political strategies. And here we have to learn to be gracious to each other.

Political issues are enormously complex, and there is often an extended lag time between cause and effect. It’s not always easy to know which baptismal truth should take precedent at any given political moment. What’s needed, more truth or more kindness? More tough love, or more tender love? More individual responsibility or more community assistance? Shoot, that’s hard to know when raising kids, let alone trying to raise a country. When the Christian mom says, “We need to help the kids embrace their freedom in Christ” and the Christian dad says, “We need to help the kids submit to Christian boundaries”—they both are drawing from true and genuine Christian impulses. Both freedom and boundaries are absolutely essential to Christian flourishing. Both are baptismal truths.

In the same way that good Christian parents can genuinely disagree about which baptismal truth should take precedence at any given family moment, good Christian citizens can genuinely disagree about which baptismal truth should take precedence at any given cultural moment. So let’s be generous to each other. We have good people here in our church.

If your true and legitimate Christian impulses slant you in a different political direction than me, I may think you are wrong about what is most needed. But I honor your impulse as genuinely Christian. The world needs to die with Christ, and the world needs to rise with Christ. Let’s not dismiss each other’s true Christian impulses as inherently sub-Christian. Let’s honor both lists of virtues as Christian virtues, even if we can’t agree which list should take precedent.

Conclusion

I know some of you are thinking,

Yeah, but what about when the “other” political party adopts policies or takes positions that are explicitly anti-Christian? Are you saying that it’s okay to follow a preferred Christian impulse all the way to supporting abortion on the left, or racism on the right? (And I’ve heard that from both sides the last few months). From where I sit, Pastor Gerald, the other political party is so destructive and so anti-Christian, there’s nothing good there. No Christian impulse would lead a good Christian to vote for that party.

That’s a great question, and it’s really the nub of the whole thing. But it will take an entire sermon to answer it, so you’ll have to come back for part two.

For now, let me encourage all of us to consider the impulse that undergirds the political engagement of the mature Christian person sitting opposite of us on the other side of the aisle—is, at its core, consistent with the truth of the gospel—whether that’s the conservative impulse of dying with Christ, or the liberal impulse of rising with Christ. Let’s avoid the hubris that insists that mature Christians who vote different than us are driven by sub-Christian, or even anti-Christian impulses.

Gerald Hiestand is the co-founder and part-time director of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He also serves as the Senior Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois. He is the author, with Todd Wilson, of The Pastor Theologian.

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