Red Church, Blue Church, Purple Church

Joe Reeves May/June 2024
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

One body in Christ? For America’s pastors, ministering across the political divide brings exhaustion—and opportunities.

Pressure is building for pastors in America to be overtly political. In today’s polarized environment, a diminishing number of church members are content for religious leaders to keep their politics private. For many Christians the 2020 presidential election was not only a fierce political showdown but also a deeply spiritual struggle. All seemed to agree that voting for the wrong side was distinctly unchristian, but not all believers could agree about which side was the wrong side.

As a pastor, I sensed the moral conviction that gripped my church members when one Bible teacher told me, “There’s no way a Christian can vote for Biden.” Weeks later another church leader urged with equal certainty that no true Christian could possibly vote for Trump. Both people expressed deeply held Christian values to support their conclusions. Which one was right? Or were both right? Or were both wrong?

It takes calm nerves and a strong backbone to be a pastor in America who is committed to loving and serving both red and blue together in the same church—especially as we move through another election cycle that feels more every day like 2020 2.0.

Political Sorting

Not every pastor wants their church to embrace people from both sides of the political aisle. Since 2020 the partisan messages coming from American pulpits have only intensified. In the past few years some ministries have traveled the country filling large stadiums and spreading the message that any pastor who remains silent about alleged election fraud is not a faithful pastor but a “hireling.” This sector of Christian leaders declares that preachers have an obligation to Jesus Christ to stand up and expose government corruption. In an age of clickbait sermons, pastors who target one side of the political divide or the other often go viral. The most popular clips invariably come from the angriest, most inflamed messages. Crowds grow and donations skyrocket when preachers deliver the talking points of political pundits—talking points that have been baptized in the language of Christianity.

Today people are sorting themselves into communities and churches with people they align with politically. One recent survey indicates that 57 percent of American Christians under age 50 want to belong to a church that shares their political views. The political tension in churches is no small contributor to a rise in pastoral burnout. Forty-two percent of American pastors surveyed by the Barna Group said they had considered quitting in the past 12 months, with 38 percent of these struggling pastors citing political divisions as a contributing factor.

Unlikely Teammates

Despite these challenges, this is no time for church leaders to float through another presidential election, following the path of least resistance. Faithful Christians must examine and follow the example of Jesus. Never was there a pastor who was more committed to reaching both sides of a politically polarized world than Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus lived in an age of intense political strife and national bigotry. Israel was a client state of Rome, which created widespread resentment among the masses who were weary of Roman occupation and constant government overreach. Occasional rebel groups formed to gain freedom and restore Israel’s national honor. Restlessness and revolution stirred the crowds. The disciples reflected this boisterous spirit when James and John asked Jesus if He would permit them to call fire down from heaven on some inhospitable Samaritans (Luke 9:54-56). They wanted Jesus to use weapons of force to settle social problems, but Jesus refused.

Against all odds, Jesus added both the political right and the political left to His discipleship team. He called Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15), who was a fierce nationalist and a strong defender of the homeland with all its history and culture. The disciples were eager for Jesus to stand up for their rights and do something about the terrible injustices committed by the intolerable Roman colonizers. But instead Jesus shattered their political dreams and scandalized their national pride by calling a globalist Roman collaborator to join His discipleship team. Tax collectors, who were often Jews themselves, were despised for aiding a corrupt pagan empire that curtailed state rights and robbed Israel of national sovereignty. If Jesus had asked His other disciples for a list of potential recruits to expand His discipleship team, Matthew would never have made the list. Matthew had betrayed his Jewish culture by becoming an agent of the greedy Roman elites. When the other disciples and the Pharisees—Jewish teachers of the law—realized Jesus was inviting Matthew into His inner circle, it sparked instant shock and concern. It was incomprehensible to them that Jesus would eat with a tax collector, let alone to make one a spiritual leader (Luke 5:27–30). Matthew became an awkward presence among the disciples—one that was not going away. From that point forward, the only way for the disciples to keep peace within their group would be to avoid some of their favorite topics of discussion, including the liberties of Israel.

Putting a globalist and a nationalist together on the same team is asking for trouble, which is exactly what Jesus did. Nearly every war in human history has demonstrated the motivating and uniting power of national loyalty. But in bringing together a politically divided group of disciples, Jesus showed that something much greater and deeper than nationalism must unite His followers. He selected this unique blend of disciples to illustrate the gospel’s power over politics and national pride.

It was with no small dose of irony that Jesus called the commandment to love one another a “new commandment” (John 13:34). This was actually the oldest of all commandments (see Leviticus 19:18, 34). The only “new” part of the commandment was that it would be new for Christ’s disciples to begin living it. They would never naturally love each other. But when they did learn to love each other, this would become their strongest credential. “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It’s as if Jesus intentionally designed His discipleship team with irreconcilable viewpoints on politics and liberty as a laboratory of divine love. As this diverse group of misfits became one body—the body of Christ—their unity would convince the world of the power of Christ (John 17:23).

First-Century Lessons for 2024

Jesus has shown the way forward for believers and leaders in today’s hyperpartisan political climate. The moment a church becomes so energized by political activism that it is unable to reach people from certain political persuasions, its Christian mission has become seriously compromised. Churches must develop the ability to rise above the fray. If Jesus works in His church today the same way that He worked among the disciples of old, then we can expect our church boards, our board of elders, and leadership at every level to include people from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

What are ways American churches can follow the example of Jesus during the 2024 election season?

Embrace the Simons and the Matthews. As Jesus did, make room on your team for disciples who are political outsiders. Having diverse opinions among church leaders and members holds preachers accountable for avoiding rhetoric that pleases one political base or another. After all, many congregations have “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3), and nothing fires them up more than a vicious attack on those whom they view as their political adversaries.

Preach Jesus. The government can never solve spiritual problems with political solutions. The church offers something that the government can never provide. As the country descends into political turmoil, people need something higher, holier, and more transcendent to fix their eyes on. The Bible teaches that the nations of this world will all eventually be destroyed (Daniel 2:44). Anybody who believes the Bible understands that citizenship in heaven will ultimately be the only citizenship that matters (Philippians 3:20). The Christian church must promote an enduring faith and a breadth of perspective that keeps the arguments of this world in their proper place. Jesus promised, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself” (John 12:32). If the church becomes distracted from the message of Christ, it might as well close its doors.

Be consistent. A church that is faithful to its calling must engage the culture around it. Taking a clear moral stand on certain issues that overlap with politics may at times make the church sound partisan. The church can afford this risk of being misunderstood as political only when it maintains a consistent application of its principles. There’s nothing that damages a good message more than glaring inconsistencies and favoritism. It’s common in the political world to highlight, exaggerate, and even fabricate corruption and abuses in the opposing party while covering up and ignoring equally problematic concerns in one’s own camp. Jesus called those who scrutinize one problem while ignoring a much bigger problem hypocrites (Matthew 23:23). It’s very tempting for Christians to develop a list of acceptable sins and unacceptable sins based on cultural and political expediency, but in doing so we surrender our credibility.

Strike a different tone. When the church speaks out about moral issues that intersect with politics, Christians too often repost the memes of popular commentators and parrot the messaging of the world. But followers of Christ must dial back the inflammatory language. True Christians cannot just imbibe the spirit of the world and simply stamp it as “Christian.” Jesus’ command to love our enemies was not merely a suggestion (Matthew 5:44). Love for our opponents must shine through every social media post and every political discussion. One of the best tests for the authenticity of our Christianity is how we talk about those with whom we have fierce disagreements (1 John 4:20). Even those who disagreed with Jesus “marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth” (Luke 4:22). Election season is not a time-out for followers of Christ.

Too many Christians have jettisoned the example of Jesus, believing that today’s political environment requires a much tougher tone. In his recent book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, Tim Alberta has chronicled prominent evangelical voices saying such things as “I don’t want some meek and mild leader or someone who is going to turn the other cheek. I want the meanest, toughest [expletive] I can find to protect this nation.” And “Christians are too nice” and we need to “fight fire with fire.” Disregarding the example of honorable Christian statesmen throughout the centuries, believers today are tempted to think that Christians must use unchristian techniques to save our nation.

The hostility, angst, and religious fervor generated by today’s politics are not going away. Every church in America is being tested. The stress fractures dividing our country and splitting churches will weaken some congregations and strengthen others. The demands of the crowd will make some preachers go viral and make some less popular. But those who are faithful to Jesus will continue to minister to everyone without regard to their politics.

The year 2024 provides a historic opportunity for Christians to live by the power of the gospel; to demonstrate that the Christian church in America today, like the first generation of disciples, can be a laboratory of love, showing the world that God can still unite the most unlikely people.

Article Author: Joe Reeves

For 10 years Joe Reeves was a local church pastor, serving Seventh-day Adventist congregations in Michigan and the Pacific Northwest. In 2023 he was appointed as assistant director of the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department of the Seventh-day Adventist world church and editor of InVerse, a Bible study guide for young adults.