Politics and the Christian Mind

The longer I study Christian Scripture, the more convinced I am that the Christian mind is a peculiar oddity. (I’ve written on this before, here, here, and here.) Put differently, through what Wesley called the “ordinances of God”–which include worship, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, the reading of Scripture, and fasting–our habits of mind become different than they were before. In this day and age, it is particularly important that we seek what might be called “cruciform” habits of mind, which will mean that we think, speak, and act in peculiar ways.

Transformation and Preparation

The verse that will immediately come to mind for many is Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” According to Paul, then, the present transformation (metamorphoō) that God effects in our lives comes through the renewing (anakainosis) of our minds.

It’s noteworthy that the imperative is plural. In other words, Paul’s instructions in Romans 12:2 are not to one person, but to the whole church. It’s not “you” but “y’all.” The transformation of individual minds brings a change in the collective mindset of the church. With the renewing of the mind, moreover, comes an ability to discern the will of God. Therefore, it should be characteristic of the church to be able to discern God’s will. Correlatively, apart from renewal, the human mind cannot consistently discern God’s will.

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I am not suggesting that Christians will always walk in lockstep with one another. What I am saying is that the transformation that God works in our minds should begin to lead us toward a common vision of our life together. To the extent that this doesn’t happen, to the extent that we cannot collectively discern the will of God, perhaps it is because we have not pursued the ordinances of God with sufficient fervor. Or, perhaps we avail ourselves too freely of influences that lead our minds away from a transformed vision. Put differently, perhaps we have too much conformity and too little transformation. I count myself as in no way immune to this intellectual illness.

Another relevant passage is 1 Peter 1:13: “Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed.” A literal rendering of the beginning of this verse is, “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind; be sober minded!” Sobriety in the ancient world can be a metaphor for spiritually enlightened thinking that allows us to see the world as it really is. This doesn’t happen on its own, however. It requires preparation–and thus we are back to the ordinances of God.  Sober-mindedness means that we guard ourselves from the “drunkenness” that comes from imbibing too much of what the world has to offer and too little of the living water of Jesus Christ.

There are cruciform habits of mind. We cannot form these habits on our own, but rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to shape our thoughts, desires, and will. Here’s another way of saying the same thing: God can so shape our hearts that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes the lens through which we see all the world around us. This, I think, is what Paul means when he makes the remarkable claim, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). The mind of Christ is an all-consuming attitude, a way of seeing and thinking and being in the world. On our own it is utterly beyond our grasp. We are entirely reliant on the Holy Spirit, whom we encounter in practices such as prayer, the reading of Scripture, worship, and the sacraments. We must, as Wesley insisted, attend upon all the ordinances of God.

Thinking Politically

In many cases, our first instinct as postmodern Westerners is not theological, but political. The reason for this is obvious: we do attend consistently upon the ordinances of politics. It is hard not to do so these days. We are bombarded with politics through the various forms of media we access. The world around us is bound to shape our thinking, particularly if we are not intentional about the renewal of our minds through the church’s means of grace. What’s more, especially in this time of deep polarization and mistrust, our drive to protect the political ground we’ve taken, or to take political ground from our opponents, can be quite strong. In other words, it’s not simply that the ambient culture is so deeply politicized, but political statements often evoke strong emotional–often defensive–reactions within us that keep such thoughts at the front of our minds.

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For Christians, this presents a serious problem. Our national political parties do not develop their policies based upon Christian theological reflection. Of course, sometimes the values of Christians come to bear on these policies, but no party can claim that its policies unequivocally stand upon the firm foundation of Christian belief. Policies emerge from a whole host of both pragmatic and ideological concerns which may or may not have any relationship to the Christian life. What’s more, political groups at times claim Christian values and identity as a way to gain support and leverage power. As a result, they offer a distorted view of what it means to think and live as a Christian.

One might counter that every theological claim is also political. To this I would respond that every theological claim has certain political implications. I am not, however, willing to collapse theology and politics. Theology is faith seeking understanding. Politics consists of the means by which we influence communities of people toward certain ends.

One might further protest that politics has always been a part of the life of the church. No doubt this is true. Over the last few years I have become better acquainted with church politics than I ever would have wanted. To make matters worse, church politics often mirrors the politics of the surrounding culture. That is certainly the case in the United States today. Nevertheless, this doesn’t have to be so. In some cases, the church has rightly come to understand itself as a counterculture, not a mirror of the surrounding culture. This requires ongoing self-examination, confession of sin, and a strong ecclesiology.

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Here’s the rub: unless we choose to abstain entirely from political life (which I am not recommending), we will have to cast our lot with some party, probably Democratic or Republican in the United States. These are the options available to us. I’m in no way suggesting that Christians should withdraw from politics. I only want us to realize the limitations of a primarily political view of the world. We must understand our political allegiances are imperfect and contingent. There will be times when we simply must part ways with the parties we support. This will be the inevitable result of having been properly formed in the faith.

Our minds require renewal because our thought processes are broken by sin. That is the human condition. Politics cannot renew the mind. It cannot renew the church. It cannot save the world. Only God can do that. Christ taught us, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). Our minds belong to God. Let us understand them thusly.

 

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Politics and the Christian Mind

  1. Dr. Watson,
    Once again you spur us on to the fullness of the Christian life, even to the pint of the mind’s renewal in the mind of Christ, something vitally needed in our time and one that will require a great deal of fortitude and patience for all of us in the trenches. Thank you.
    Part of what I continue to struggle with in the current schism of the United Methodist Church is that, when I listen to either sides (and my own conference is very divided), each side sounds a little more or less like the Democratic or Republican Party at-prayer. We are in, and probably have been for some time, the grip of a secularist captivity of the Church. The concern seems to be “on the right side of history” (we have forgotten that the god Chronos ate his own offspring).
    In contrast, human history is becoming more evident to be what Tolkien described as “the long defeat” with only glimpses of a final victory which will come with the return of Christ. We are not “getting better and better” on our own. No technological advance in medicine has yet delivered on halting mortality. No politics has brought (or will bring) the Kingdom.
    Perhaps we need a more humble “cultural mandate” of working toward the Church becoming “more Christian.” That is something that can only happen as we teach and practice the Means of Grace. Such is a slow, patient work taking place one congregation at a time, one home at a time, one person at a time (as Wesley put it, “snatching brands from the burning.”

  2. Timely word. Clear and concise. Reading your post I am reminded of our conversation we had a few days ago over dinner. The church readily thinks politically but often stutters and stumbles over thinking theologically. As Wordsworth said, “The world is too much with us late and soon.” Colossians 3:2 puts it, “Set your mind on things above not on things below.”

    Historically, our Wesleyan Holiness tradition has commented extensively, and at times excessively, on the notion and sin of “worldliness.” Yet, the subject has a history, language, discourse, and concerted action surrounding it in the WH tradition. Identifying the sin of “worldliness” is not a novelty among traditional Wesleyans, and neither is a firm call to repentance and transformation. Over the years I have also frequented Pentecostal churches and the Eastern Orthodox Church and have found they they also have had frequent conversation around the subject. I can recall numerous poignant sermons and engaging Bible studies addressing issues of worldliness and warning the flock of its deadly consequences. We were then taken to the Scriptures to understand how believers should think and act on such issues.

    On the other hand, it seems that my denomination (the UMC) and some of the contemporary evangelicalism that I am exposed to, is not concerned much with “worldliness.” I hear more messages and teaching on cultural relevance than on cultural transformation. Perhaps, we have been so inundated and intoxicated with the cares, deceit and lusts of this world (per the parable of the sower) that we have become inoculated. We can no longer hear the conviction of the Spirit. In our drunkenness, as you mentioned, we are no longer mindful of the prophetic stance of God’s Word against the corruption of this present darkness (see 1 Jn. 2:15-17).

    Not conforming to the world and being transformed in our minds by the Word of God is indeed a tall order. However, the Lord commands and expects us to do that very thing through the power of the Spirit. In fact, if we are to avoid the attrition of apostasy that seems to be eroding away at the church’s character and witness and to embody, once again, a living, credible testimony, then it is imperative that we heed the exhortation of Romans 12:1-2. Do not be conformed to the world’s way. In fact, we are to be crucified to the thoughts and ways of the world. Further, we are to called to transformation. Romans 12 says this occurs by receiving a new mind, the mind of Christ, which comes through the Word of God. I think the church needs to train believers to repent of worldly thinking. Following, we need to train believers to think theologically not only about matters of theology but all matters of life. As you rightly stated, this involves daily cruciformity, as expressed in our “habits of mind” and in our lives (Eph. 4:22-24). Thank you for trumpeting a clear sound and call to the church with this “now word.”

  3. Hi, David! Almost entirely I have to agree. There is one element though:

    > Here’s the rub: unless we choose to abstain entirely from political life
    > (which I am not recommending), we will have to cast our lot with
    > some party, probably Democratic or Republican in the United States.

    I’ll suggest that the Lord did not abstain entirely from political life — but He also did not support any human power-groups over any of the others, of which there were a great many. I will suggest that He does not, has never, and will never declare domination in righteousness for any human power-group, in direct opposition to human claims all through the Christian era. I will suggest further that if we wish to do right, we do likewise.

  4. Christ reminds us to Be in the World but not Of the World. When we not longer keep God,Christ and Scripture as our base, we revert to the temptations of the world. When we look to worldly vision ie Political Parties we loose clarity of God’s Will and move further away from God’s Word. God is the Rock of our lives he does not move or change, but by being willing to move into the world’s views we forgo the Great Commission , because we are not longer disciples ourselves. Why do we even accept PostModerism or anything else that draws as away from Christ. It is time to do an about face and return to Christ. 2Chronicles 7:14.

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