Church and politics

August 9, 2011

“…[A]ll Church power, whether exercised by the body in general or in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative…”

Book of Order (PCUSA), G 1.0307

American presbyterians have always confessed that the power of the church relates to matters that are doctrinal and spiritual, and that the church has no coercive power (it can declare things but not physically compel individuals to do xyz).

This historic principle has been interpreted loosely by some and rather strictly by others. The classic example of the strict interpretation is the doctrine of the spirituality of the church expressed by, among others, Charles Hodge. He wrote, “The church can only exercise her power in enforcing the word of God, in approving what it commands, and condemning what it forbids.” There is a narrow scope of things that the church can speak on with authority and it is in those matters of doctrine and discipline expressly stated in Scripture. Individuals may be politically active, but church courts oughtn’t be. 

In contrast to this limited view is a broader view of the church’s role in society. This view is also captured in the PCUSA Book of Order. In G-1.0200 “the promotion of social righteousness” is listed as one of the Great Ends (or purposes) of the Church. In other words, the Church exists to promote Godliness in society.

These two views exist in tension with one another in presbyterianism, especially in the broader presbyterianism of the Presbyterian Church USA.

An example of this is the recent arrest of Herbert Nelson, Director of the PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness.

Rev. Nelson was arrested for praying in the rotunda of the Capitol Building. He was part of an act of civil disobedience aimed at expressing indignation at the government for its failure to reach a tenable way forward in raising the nation’s debt ceiling without unduly penalizing “the least of these” by cutting social support programs. Read more here. From the story:

Joined by Presbyterian ministers Jennifer Butler, Executive Director of Faith and Public Life, and Michael Livingston, past-President of the National Council of Churches, Reverend Nelson led religious leaders in prayerful civil disobedience, kneeling down in the Capitol Rotunda to pray for a debt ceiling deal that does not sacrifice the poor on the altar of political ideology.  His participation was a matter of personal conscience and public witness.  He said, “We are in a political quagmire. Due to the inability of the Congress to work together, the good of people across the globe is being compromised by the self interest of our political leaders. I am convinced that this is not the fault of Republicans, Democrats or Tea Party members alone. Too many Congresspersons of all parties are trapped in a space where commitment to the common good is diminished for the sake of personal gain and the seduction of power. In this process, the American people and others all over the world are left to suffer.  Our denomination cannot stand idly by and watch while the mandate of the gospel to love our neighbors is violated in the halls of Congress.”

Some questions that arise in my mind:

  • Does this action violate the purpose of the church?
  • Does it witness to social righteousness?
  • Who chooses which issues the church will speak to or protest? Why are we not protesting other ills?
  • What if the actions of the church too closely mirror one party?
  • Is it possible for the actions of one to speak for the entire church?