Digging in Deeper: Matthew 5:43-44

“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (CSB – Read the chapter)

I don’t mind owning the fact that I am pretty deeply influenced by the thinking, preaching, and writing of Andy Stanley. I’ve been engaging with his teaching for every bit of the last twelve years for sure and maybe longer, so I guess that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. And I really don’t listen to any other preaching. I should, but I only have time for so many podcasts. In any event, Andy has a new book out that I am just nearly through reading. It’s called Not In It to Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines the Church. It’s brought together several ideas that have been cooking in the back of my mind for several weeks into one well-argued package. Let me process some of this with you.

Not In It to Win It isn’t so much a book as it is a rant. A passionate one at that. You can hear his heart on the matter as he goes. The book is a call for churches to remember that Jesus, not a particular political party or ideology, is our Lord. And if Jesus is our Lord, then giving our primary devotion to a political party simply won’t do. Whether it is the Republicans or the Democrats, when we align ourselves too neatly with a particular party, we naturally alienate unbelievers who happen to identify themselves primarily with the other party. His point is simple: if our political positions render us incapable of making disciples out of a whole group of people, then perhaps it is time to reconsider whether or not we’re holding those positions in ways that honor our professed Lord.

The book itself came out of the fact that Andy, like the rest of us, has lived through the last couple of years. There is not anyone who doubts the rapid and visceral polarization of our nation along partisan lines over the past few years. Partisanship has been a feature of our national dialogue since our inception as a nation. But there has nearly always been a larger worldview that kept us united in spite of what divided us. Well, mostly united. Sometimes our divisions have gotten rather heated…like Civil War heated. Gratefully we’re not there yet or near it.

But what the last few years have brought is the vanishing of the basic guiding assumptions of the Christian worldview from the public square and the national consciousness. Absent that larger story in which all of our individual stories fit, we have been left to write our own stories along the lines we have always written them. Those lines are unfailingly dividing lines. We put all the people who are like us on one side of the line, and all the people who aren’t like us on the other. And do you know what we call people on the other side of the “them” line? Enemies.

In other words, our political culture has become great deal more concerned with identifying and defeating our enemies than we have been in a very long time. When victory over our enemies becomes the goal, things like compromise and working together for a common goal go out the window. Rank partisanship is suddenly the name of the game. Why risk giving your enemy the chance at even a slight PR victory when you can defeat and humiliate them?

And if this were just something happening outside the church among the unbelieving masses, it certainly wouldn’t be a good thing, but people who don’t follow Jesus behaving like people who don’t follow Jesus isn’t exactly much of a surprise. In fact, it’s normal. It’s what they do. And while we may be able to see the folly of it, judging them for it is not our job. But the trouble is that over the last couple years in particular this partisanship has not merely leaked in to the culture of the church, it has fairly well been ushered in the door and given the seat at the table reserved for honored guests. Pastors and church leaders of all shapes and sizes have not just taken positions, they have taken sides and made sure everyone knows it.

This is a problem. A serious problem.

A few weeks ago—and I probably mentioned this then, but the story just won’t leave my head—I saw a Facebook post from a fairly prominent pastor from my own denomination castigating the SBC leadership not for something like the gross immorality that was to be revealed by the Guidepost Solutions report, but for having some staff members who expressed congratulations and well-wishes for the newest Justice of the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The problem was that Judge Jackson is a liberal jurist appointed by a Democrat President. The odds are good that she will write and sign on to opinions this pastor agrees with in only a tiny minority of the total cases she hears while she is on the bench. In his mind, for anyone—let alone leaders in his own denomination—to express congratulations to such a jurist as this is not merely politically grating to him, it is unfaithful to their confession of Christ as Lord. In fact, he goes on to say that if a member of his own staff had expressed such a view, he would have fired them on the spot for so offending his sensibilities on this matter.

Now, you don’t have to agree with Judge Jackson’s political views, judicial philosophy, or the worldview she brings to bear when deciding cases in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus. You don’t have to like the fact that she has received a lifetime appointment as a relatively young woman to the highest court in the land. Personally, I don’t, and would have preferred someone from a fairly different ideological mold had received the nomination. But to speak not only as if Judge Jackson herself is the enemy, but also those who would support her, and even those who would merely congratulate her and acknowledge the historical significance of a black woman being appointed to the Supreme Court for the first time is the enemy as well is a problem. Can you really imagine Jesus making such a statement as that? It sounds a whole lot more like something That might come from the lips of one of the Pharisees He tangled with so often.

What this pastor has done is to reveal something. He has revealed that people who hold to a political mindset that differs from his own aren’t welcome in his church. Can you imagine Jesus saying someone who doesn’t believe like Him is not welcome in His church? I’ll be honest: I struggle a bit with that one. Let me ask a question: Do you suspect there are any unbelievers who live close enough to this pastor’s church so as to be considered meaningful prospects for them who hold to a set of political views that would have had them celebrating Judge Jackson’s appointment to the bench?

That seems a pretty reasonable assumption to me. But what do you think are the odds such a person as this, having seen this Facebook post (and people Facebook stalk churches and their pastors before ever setting foot in the door these days—we recently had an 84-year-old first time visitor who told me she did), is going to be interested in visiting his church any longer? I would be willing to wager they’re pretty low. This statement has rendered himself and his church incapable of engaging a certain group of unbelievers with the Gospel. Let me put that another way: By taking sides politically and doing so publicly, there are people they can no longer reach with the Gospel. You might eventually win a political debate this way, but you won’t win the game the kingdom of God is playing.

When we as followers of Jesus—whether as individuals or even whole churches—join in the political partisanship of our culture, we are no longer following Jesus first, but rather whichever political party to whom we have given our allegiance. And if we aren’t following Jesus first, we really aren’t following Jesus at all. Jesus was nothing if not clear on this matter. You cannot serve two matters. You’ll either love the one and hate the other, or else you’ll be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and…well, Jesus said “Mammon” in that moment, but you can really fill in that blank with anything else and be on pretty firm theological ground.

Instead, in the context of that same sermon, Jesus said we should do something radically different from what our culture—or any human culture for that matter—has ever done. Drawing “us versus them“ lines is unfortunately a totally natural thing for us to do. In a sense, our survival as a species has depended on it. The presence of sin in the world fairly well mandates the practice. We have enemies in this world. They take all kinds of different forms, but they are there all the same. Sometimes we choose them. Other times they chose us. The reasons someone falls on one side of that line or the other from us are manifold. That’s simply the way it is. But Jesus told His followers that we aren’t simply to go with what is normal when it comes to our enemies. What’s normal is to hate them, to oppose them, to fight against them, to do whatever it takes to win. Jesus said we are to be different. He said we are to love our enemies.

Everyone expects the church to have enemies. Again: that’s normal. But what if we refused to treat them like it? What if instead we welcomed them, were kind to them, listened to them, sought to understand them, looked to learn from them, took the opportunity they provided to reflect on and reevaluate our own assumptions and beliefs to make sure they are what we really want to hold in light of the Gospel? What if we loved them? What if we committed all the resources at our disposal to doing everything possible to move them in the direction of Jesus? Do you think that might make us stand out a bit from the culture around us?

Now, to be clear, this isn’t the way to make a big church nowadays. I heard a story recently of a pastor whose church grew by 1000% during Covid. Why? Because he started leaning hard into political and cultural positions that were popular in his community (but which had nothing to do with the Gospel) and the people started rolling in the doors. He didn’t just play the “us versus them” game, he perfected it. Playing politics and taking sides can grow a big church in big hurry. Sticking with Jesus’ command to love our enemies probably won’t. But it will result in the Gospel being shared and the kingdom being advanced. On the whole, that strikes me as somewhat more consistent with the whole make disciples of all nations things Jesus said before He left.

Today is Memorial Day. It is the day we have set aside as a nation to intentionally remember and honor those brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives in defense of the freedoms we so enjoy; the freedoms that still make us the envy of the rest of the world. It is right and proper that we do this too. Such sacrificial love as they have demonstrated for their country is a noble virtue that should be celebrated. We want more of that. “That” not being lives given in defense of our freedom, but rather the sacrificial love that drive them to be willing to do it.

Perhaps the best way to honor their sacrifice, though, is to honor the even greater sacrifice Jesus made on the cross because of His perfect love for all of humanity to save us from our sins. And the way we honor His sacrifice is to accept Him as Lord and treat Him as such by doing what He said. That is, we make sure we practice things like loving our enemies rather than treating them like we normally would without Jesus’ words and example so that we don’t eventually tear apart the nation those heroes gave their lives to protect and defend. As churches, it means we refuse to take sides on non-Gospel issues so we don’t cut ourselves off from being able to share the Gospel with anyone. It means we remind ourselves often that our chief loyalty is not to a political party, but to Jesus. It means we reject partisanship in all its forms, and intentionally create communities where people who are vastly different from one another on any number of cultural or political grounds are nonetheless united by their common love for Jesus and their commitment to advance His kingdom ahead of their own.

If we are going to see the political dividedness that everyone sees tearing apart our nation addressed in a way that maintains our unity amid diversity, it is going to have to begin with and in the church. There isn’t anywhere else it will start. Our nation needs it. Our King demands it. We as His people only have one choice: to do it. Let’s get started.

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