Politics in the New Testament (June 21, 2015 version)

In the previous blog posted a few days ago I raised the question whether or not there should be politics in the church. On the surface the obvious answer would seem to be “no.” Jesus’ teaching is clear. “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other for a second strike. If someone curses you, offer instead a blessing. If someone abuses you, pray for him or her.” (Matthew 5 among others) This seems to leave little room for “competing interests” in the church. All subgroups in the church should adopt the self-sacrificing spirit of Jesus toward others.

Yet all who have experienced religious institutions recognize that political action is alive and well in them. Church people struggle to find a balance between competing interests among ethnic groups, people from different economic backgrounds, and people with differing theological perspectives. While it seems they should be exempt from politics, theological discussions are easily politicized when the outcome of a theological discussion would favor the competing interests of one side or the other in a church. Is there any way to get rid of politics in the church?

A careful look around the New Testament suggests that the Sermon on the Mount was not often followed to the hilt, even in the earliest church. Within a short time of Pentecost, competing interests arose in the Jerusalem Church (see Acts, chapter 6). It seems the Jerusalem Church set up a safety net for the widows in the church who may have been abandoned by their families when they accepted Christ. The Greek-speaking members of the church complained that the Greek-speaking widows of the church were not getting their fair share of the daily distribution of food. The complaint was brought to the apostles and they responded that it was not their responsibility to turn away from preaching to be arbitrators over food distribution. They invited the church instead to appoint seven men to take care of the matter.

But there are two elements in the story that are puzzling if these “deacons” were simply being appointed to relieve the apostles of administrative responsibilities. First of all, the seven “deacons” hardly confined themselves to menial tasks. The two we know the most about, Stephen and Philip, did a lot of preaching themselves, and in Philip’s case, he even did a lot of traveling. So the seven “deacons” behaved much as the apostles did. The other puzzling element in the story is that the seven deacons all had distinctively Greek names. While some of the apostles had adopted Greek names, their primary names were Hebrew: for example, Peter was a Greek name, but that is only because of translation, his real name was Simeon and Jesus’ gave him the Aramaic nickname Cephas, the linguistic equivalent of Peter (“Rocky”). So it seems likely that the seven “deacons” were added to leadership to ensure that the interests of the Greek speakers were fairly represented in the councils of church leadership. The problem in the church was competing interests, the solution was to make sure the neglected segment of the church was represented in the decision processes of the church. Sounds like a political solution to me.

A little later in the book of Acts (15:36-39), Paul and Barnabas are contemplating a second mission trip together. The previous trip had been hindered somewhat when John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, suddenly abandoned the apostles at a difficult time. Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance to prove himself, but Paul would have none of it. There arose such a sharp disagreement (the underlying Greek word is the root of the English word paroxysm) between the two apostles that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him to Cyprus and Paul sought out a different companion for his mission to Asia Minor and Greece. Couldn’t one or the other of the two apostles have “turned the other cheek?” Couldn’t they have worked it out in the “spirit of Jesus?” Maybe they could have, but they didn’t. Instead they chose to go their separate ways, pursuing a political solution to strong differences.

A less-well-known story in the Book of Acts has to do with Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem in Acts 21:16 and following. Paul, Luke and a number of others, including at least one Gentile Christian named Trophimus, came to Jerusalem and stayed at the house of Mnason who had been an early disciple of Jesus (probably one of the 70 or 72 mentioned in Luke 10). The text tells us “the brothers received us warmly” (Acts 21:17). So at first glance, Paul and company seem quite welcome in Jerusalem. The next day, however, it is clear that thousands of believing Jews in Jerusalem did not yet know Paul was there (Acts 21:22) and these were believing the worst about him. Following the advice of the apostles to appease this other group of believers, Paul is arrested in the temple and his mission in the Book of Acts is brought to a close. Clearly, the church in Jerusalem remained divided between Greeks and Hebrews many years after Acts 6. Mnason, a Greek believer from Cyprus, was happy to welcome Paul. The rest of the church in town thought other thoughts about him. The end result was pretty ugly.

This brief survey of just one book of the New Testament makes it clear that politics in the church are the norm rather than the exception (see also Galatians 2:11-14). If the apostles themselves could not avoid it, church leadership today will not be able to eradicate politics from the church. Instead, it is wiser to be aware of the politics and find ways to manage political action in a way that causes the least possible damage to the gospel. In the shadow of San Antonio, the New Testament way to handle such politics would seem to me to call for a Yes vote on the ordination issue. That will ensure that those who prefer to ordain women will get a fair hearing in their various constituencies.

One thought on “Politics in the New Testament (June 21, 2015 version)

  1. Janice Blair

    Thank you so much for your teachings. It is like being able to be a student even at my age of 78.

    Reply

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