The small politics of the church

Mar 24, 2015 by

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If you read a lot of Anabaptist theology you know that a key insight regarding the social and political witness of church is this: The social and political witness of the church is simply being the church.

That’s it. The church should be the church. That’s Christian political engagement, being the church. Or, at the very least, having political activism flowing out of the life of the local church.

This imperative distinguishes the church from conservative and liberal/progressive Christian politics, which can be tempted by theocratic impulses and, thus, contaminated by Constantinianism and the temptations of Empire.

Being the church — really being the the church — is a political intervention, the church is a counter-politics to the politics of the State. Which means that to think politically in the church is to think locally, focusing on addressing our social and moral ills within the common life of the local congregation.

For example, the goal of the local church is to “have no needy person among you” (Acts 4.34). We are to address poverty locally in our communal sphere of influence, among ourselves. To have no needy person among us.

Relatedly, we also deal with issues of work locally. Paul says that “the one who doesn’t work shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3.10). Importantly, that statement has nothing to do with the welfare state and entitlements. Paul is speaking to a local, congregational and relational issue. The conversation about work is between people who know and love each other.

At my church, Freedom Fellowship in Abilene, Texas, we serve a weekly meal. And sometimes you hand a mop to someone and say, “Hey man, it’s your turn to clean up.”

The point here is that the Christian approach to poverty and work is inherently personal, relational and local. Christians practice a “small politics.” These aren’t laws being passed by the government but a common life being negotiated among friends.

The State is no substitute for the church. The call, then, isn’t to give up the church for political activism but to invest more radically in becoming the church.

I’m put in mind of a quote by G.K. Chesterton that I’d like to tweak: “The church has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and MortalityRichard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared. 

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