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The church and depth politics

The church and depth politics

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

The church and depth politics

May 14, 2005    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando  {0291}

NOTE:  A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

The evangelical social activist Jim Wallis has written a provocative book titled "God's Politics." Its popularity is a sign of the times. Everyone seems to be talking about the role of the church in politics.

The influence of the church upon the political life of a society is inevitable because of the church's own identity. The apostle Peter described the church as "a holy nation" in his marvelous declaration in I Peter 2:9. By this description the church is a "polis" or, as Augustine said, "The City of God." The church exists as a community within all the nations of the world to proclaim, "Jesus is Lord." Accordingly, the church must make a witness to the nations that will have political implications.

Yet, I believe it is not the role of the church to prescribe legislation. It can talk about legislation as part of its moral reflection based upon its understanding of God's revelation, but it does not exist to endorse or promote a legislative agenda. The church's role is to proclaim and live by God's purposes for all of human life supremely revealed in Jesus Christ.

How, then, can we understand how the church's witness could have long-term political implications? One of the most helpful little books about the church's witness in the world is "People of the Truth" by Robert E. Webber and Rodney Clapp (Harper & Row Publishers, 1988).
Webber and Clapp say the church practices "depth politics." They write, "We are suggesting that the church will have its intended and most powerful effect in the world not by attempting to direct government, but by moving and working at the deep social levels where identities and visions are formed."

In other words, as Christians together think through and live out our deepest convictions about God's purposes for the world we shall be able to influence the direction of societies.

The late United Methodist ethicist Paul Ramsey was critical of Christian bodies that attempted to give specific directions to governments, but he said the church should give direction to society about the way to order life according to God's purposes of justice and peace.

The most important witness of the church to society has always been its advocacy of the needs of the most vulnerable in the world - the poor, the oppressed, the refugees, the needy, the sick and children. Not everyone appreciates this witness. The 19th century philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche poured his contempt upon Christian advocacy for the weak of the world. Critics of the church like Nietzsche only demonstrated by their contempt the influence the church was having in "moving and working at the deep social levels where identities and visions are formed."

The real question for Christians is do we practice our faith in the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Faith in Christ is more than a pious sentiment. It will cause a total reorientation of our lives, transforming how we feel, think and act. As the church embodies the mind of Christ it becomes a genuine polis or City of God among the nations whose witness will result in the effects of its own "depth politics."


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.