Politics in the church

In my Annual Conference — Indiana — there is some post-conference grief being expressed because members of an evangelical caucus communicated with members who wanted information about general conference candidates who would share similar theology. I’ve also heard that others engaged in similar activity, but the complaints I’m hearing are aimed at the evangelicals.

On the day of the elections and since, people have expressed anger and disappointment. Some have accused their brothers and sisters in Christ of ugly motives and anti-Christian conduct.

I’m a local pastor without a vote, and I am not a member of any caucus group in my conference, so my thoughts about all this are more as an observer than anything else.

I find it odd for people to say that there is something wrong with people doing political things in the midst of a process that centers on voting for candidates. If we want to take politics out of such things, maybe we should cast lots like in Acts 1. If that is not the way we want to go, it is naive and silly of us to expect politics to play no role in the decisions of the church. I can think of at least two reasons why this is the case.

First, our United Methodist polity is hugely influenced by American republican principles. From the Christmas conference on, we have been doing politics, which is simply unavoidable when you have lots of people trying to organize themselves for common action. Organizing a global denomination involves politics. All you have to do is look at the system our conference adopted in 2014 for the endorsement of candidates to see that this was a political process long before we gathered to vote.

Second, wider church history is full of politics. Last week, a lot of preachers spent time contemplating the mystery of the Trinity and wrestled with how to preach about it. It does not take a great deal of knowledge about church history to know that the ecumenical councils that settled on the final formula of the creed and the Chalcedonian definition were political affairs. So was the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Any one who has ever been part of a local church knows that politics is alive and well in the local church, too: bad politics and good politics.

Politics is a human activity, so it is prone to corruption and sin. But it is also an unavoidable part of human life. All the great movements of history that we praise — Civil Rights, abolition, the Methodist movement — were political. Politics is just the name for something that humans do. As a church, we should do our best to prevent sin from corroding our politics, but we should not pretend that politics itself is antithetical to the nature of the church.