Divisive political rhetoric threatens fellowship within churches

(CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr)

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Harsh political rhetoric threatens to divide churches and sever ties of Christian fellowship, a seminary professor and some Texas Baptist pastors agree.

Roger Olson, professor of theology and ethics at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, wrote a recent blog calling for “calmness and civility” in a divisive political season.

Olson 130Roger Olson“Never in my lifetime have I experienced the kind of harsh rhetoric being thrown around between and among equally devout Christians over political differences of opinion,” Olson wrote.

In particular, he noted Christian Facebook “friends” using social media to demean and insult anyone who holds contrary political opinions.

“Seemingly, it isn’t enough to express and defend one’s political beliefs; now many educated, normally civil and respectful Christians are going out of their way to offend even friends who disagree with them. … Christian friendships are being broken and crushed in this way,” he wrote.

Real fear

Van Christian, pastor of First Baptist Church in Comanche, observed the same situation within his community and his congregation.

“Honestly, it seems more contentious this year than at any time in my 30 years of pastoral ministry,” Christian said.

In the volatile political climate, church members who hold to minority views feel they have to stay “underground” and avoid letting anyone—even fellow Christians—know they hold contrary opinions, Christian noted.

“They dare not let their political preferences be known in any public setting—including church,” he said. “They don’t feel like they can be open without risk. The fear is very real. They feel like the bond of Christian fellowship is not strong enough to withstand political differences.”

Straining family ties

Divisive political rhetoric also strains family relationships, said Kyndall Rothaus, pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco.

“I know several people who cannot discuss politics with their relatives because it would cause too much turmoil,” Rothaus said. “I hear this the most from adult children who cannot talk to their parents about their political views.”

Need for humility

Taylor Sandlin, pastor of Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo, observed politically generated division “in the larger Christian community,” if not in his own congregation.

“My church has a long history of articulating the position that reasonable Christians can come to different conclusions,” he said. “It has been an especially cantankerous political season, but that hasn’t spilled out into Sunday school and Wednesday night meetings, although I don’t know about what is discussed around the dinner table.”

Sandlin recognizes the importance of finding ways regularly to talk about “how reasonable and compassionate Christians might hold different political viewpoints.” Unfortunately, instead of “robust debate” about serious issues, too much political discussion in American society—even among some Christians—has degenerated into shouting matches, he acknowledged.

“It’s not bad to say, ‘This is my best thinking about a particular political matter, but I still might be wrong,’” Sandlin said. “Humility is a Christian virtue.”

‘We were the breeding ground’

As candidates take an increasingly “belligerent” tone in public debates, their supporters tend to adopt that same approach in conversations with people they know, including fellow church members, Christian observed.

Olson agreed, writing, “The overall lack of civility in our American political climate is seeping into our own Christian communities and friendships.”

Seepage flows both ways, Christian noted, pointing to the bitter battles Baptists waged against each other in the 1980s and 1990s. Southern Baptists waged war within their ranks over issues such as biblical inerrancy and doctrinal uniformity, and now the larger society adopts a similar approach in demanding political conformity, he observed.

“We were the breeding ground,” he said.

Lack of maturity

Spiritually immature Christians feel threatened by different opinions and uncomfortable with the radical demands of Christian kindness, Sandlin observed, and that carries over to the larger culture.

“It’s a sign of collective immaturity that sees anyone holding a contrary idea as a threat to one’s own self-identity,” he said.

Christians need to remember they are called to love one another—not agree with one another, Sandlin noted.

“We are commanded to love and pray for our enemies,” he said. “Shouldn’t we do the same for our political opponents, whom we should see as something much less than enemies?”

Culture of disrespect

Regardless whether politicians learned the take-no-prisoners approach from Baptists or whether Baptists learned it from politics, it has created an intolerable situation within Christian ranks, Olson wrote.

“Something has changed in America’s social climate—especially with regard to politics and government. The atmosphere is one that encourages disrespect and even hostility—not only toward candidates and politicians but also toward friends who support the ‘wrong ones,’” he wrote.

“This culture of disrespect and even hostility has filtered into our churches and among Christians, and we need to call each other out about it. Here’s the message: ‘Hold your political opinions more lightly than you do your fellowship with friends and fellow Christians, and do not cross the line from expressing your opinions to ridiculing or demeaning people who happen to disagree.’ As I write that it seems so self-evident to me, and yet I suspect many will disagree and go right on using Facebook and other outlets to express not only their views but also their hostility and low opinion of those who disagree.”

Don’t let fear win

Christians should bravely demonstrate Christ-like love, not allow fear to control their actions and speech, Rothaus stressed.

“I believe that hostility is fueled by fear, so I address fear as often as I can through sermons, through prayers, through meditation, through example,” she said. “I advocate for love, kindness and compassion towards those who are different from us. I try to keep reminding us all that Jesus loved even his enemies. If we don’t address the fears that are lurking in all of us, we will never find our way to a better and more loving world.

“In times like these, the key to civility is courage. It takes bravery to loosen your grip on the need to be right. It takes bravery to listen. It takes bravery to consider the person before you without judgment.” 

Remember ultimate allegiance

Preachers must accept their prophetic role if they hope to fulfill their pastoral responsibility to make peace among church members whose political viewpoints create division within a congregation, Christian insisted.

“We have to try to remind folks of their primary allegiance that supersedes all others,” he said. “Our ultimate allegiance is to Christ. Our identity is in him. It’s more than identifying as a Republican or Democrat. It’s more than identity as a supporter of Hillary or a supporter of Trump. We should be Christ’s supporters.”

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