Putting Political (and Church) Parties in Their Place

 

            In speaking of political parties in either government or church, I’m not talking about weekend benders, Washington D.C. cocktail gatherings, nor fellowship hall potlucks after church.  The word “party” in the New Testament of the Bible means what we would understand as either a special interest group who lobbies to get their agenda accomplished on the backs of others, or a group of like-minded people who stand opposed to another group with a different set of ideals through belligerent, manipulative, and/or bullying tactics.  The consistent ideal of the Scripture is that a “party spirit” belongs to the sinful nature, part of the old person, and has no part with the redeemed person in the kingdom of God.
            The word is, in Greek, ἐριθεία (English transliteration, eritheia). It appears as a vice which the Apostle Paul condemns as being contrary to the fruit of the Spirit.  It is translated in various ways throughout the different versions of the Bible as “rivalry,” “selfish ambition,” “strife,” “faction,” and “dispute,” just to mention a few.  It is to have a contentious spirit that continually strives and cajoles to get its way.  It’s just the opposite of scanning the horizon of human need and seeking to implement what is in the best interest of the common good of all people.
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 2:19-21, ESV)
 
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3, NIV)
 
“For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.” (James 3:16, KJV)
 
Whenever churches, ministries, organizations, and even governments devolve into opposing groups or parties which are constantly at odds with one another, this is a situation that is not to be lauded but condemned.
            Seemingly lost to many are the comments from George Washington concerning the understanding of a party-spirit which, for him, was this biblical idea of contentious rivalries which did not have in view the interests of all people.  In George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address when leaving the presidential office, he sagaciously and prophetically said that political parties:
“are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion….  The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
 
 
Washington went on to say:
“In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.”
 
            I’m grinding on this current party-spirit reality because we have gotten to a place in both our political discourse and our church rhetoric where we take opposing parties for granted – as if it’s okay.  It’s not okay, and we need to resist it.  Furthermore, I am in no way advocating for everyone to think and believe the same way.  Monolithic groupthink is only a form of the party-spirit which seeks to conquer all opposing views and corral them under a certain group’s views.
            Its possible to celebrate individual thought, identify yourself with organizations which labor to change a situation, and engage in lively debate with one another without having a party spirit.  What’s not okay is a spirit of rivalry which aims to colonize other people’s minds and strip them of critical thinking skills that either advance a selfish group agenda or push power politics to maintain the powerful at any cost.  God will not contend with this situation forever.
            If one person dominates and determines how a church ministry operates; if one group of families holds power and refuses to listen to others; if two or more groups can be clearly identified as engaging in the power politics of fear; if the aisle down the middle of the church building is symbolic of division; or, if individuals exhibit anger and jealousy when they are not properly recognized in the church; then, there is a party spirit within that church, ministry, or organization which needs to be addressed before the spirit of rivalry destroys the Body.
Working against a party spirit, and establishing a spirit for the common good requires:
·         Leaders naming the factious spirit
·         Calling-out individuals with bad behavior
·         Valuing the voices of others not in power
·         Great courage through trust in God
·         A calming presence from leadership
·         Humility and wisdom
·         Being filled with the Holy Spirit
·         Bearing one another’s (everyone’s) burdens
·         Sharing wealth, stature, recognition, and privilege
·         Not hiding from or ignoring marginal people
The best antidote to a party spirit is to have the heart of servant.  Recovering politics as public service, and reestablishing church ministry as sacred service puts the focus away from bad spirits of sectionalism and sensationalism, placing it squarely on those people who need the services which you have to offer.
“For even the Son of Man [Jesus] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
 
Groups are not inherently evil.  But if they only look inward as to how they can benefit themselves – and do not look outward to include, help, serve, and uphold others very different from themselves – then there is a “party spirit” which is contrary to Holy Scripture.
            Prayer is always the best place to begin facing down a party spirit.  Only solid spiritual resources can effectively combat bad negative spirits.  Party spirits won’t go away on their own – they must be faced down with the fruit of the Spirit.

 

            Everyone and every organization must confront party spirits at various times in their existence because its just the nature of living in this fallen world.  What we do when we see them is the critical step….

The Politics of Fear

 
 
            We all have personal fears.  They may be different, all the way from snakes and creepy clowns to public speaking and talking on the phone.  Whatever the fear, being afraid can multiply exponentially when a group of people collectively fear something.  When that happens, the politics of fear takes over and faith is replaced by what a church thinks might happen.  Most church problems and conflicts do not arise out of doctrinal differences, but out of a clash of fears. 
 
Consider just a few scenarios.  One group of people think women should serve in leadership capacities the same as men, and another group believes that women can only serve in limited leadership roles.  The former group fears that if women are not allowed leadership status that the church will wither for lack of fully utilizing the giftedness of half or more of the congregation; they fear the church will not grow.  The latter group is afraid that if women attain leadership roles that the men of the church will become lazy and not serve; it is only, they fear, a slippery slope to an all-female run congregation with no men leading.
 
A more obvious scenario is the so-called “worship wars.”  One group holds to a more traditional and liturgical form of worship with hymns and responsive readings.  They fear that if this form changes it will dilute the true worship of God and degenerate into an unfamiliar form that they will not like; they are afraid of change.  Another group believes that “contemporary” worship (usually understood as praise songs and choruses with a simple sing and speak liturgical model) is the way to go because they fear people will leave the church for another if things do not change.  One group fears change, the other fears not changing.
 
Fear is a reality that all pastors and church leaders must navigate.  And God himself knows it.  This is why the command to not be afraid is common throughout Holy Scripture. We find, as well, that the command to not be afraid is given often to leaders.  The patriarch Isaac was told to not be afraid because God was with him (Genesis 26:24).  The prophet Jeremiah was told to not be afraid because God was with (Jeremiah 1:8).  Jesus was pointed with the synagogue ruler concerning his dead daughter:  “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (Mark 5:36).
 
Non-anxious leaders help congregations deal with fear because their calm presence in the face of competing anxieties creates the environment that everything is going to be okay, that engaging in faith will work out, and that God’s promises and presence trumps all realities.  Before facing the conquest of the Promised Land, the Lord commanded Joshua to be strong and courageous and boldly engage the enemy, with the result that the people acted in faith and took Jericho.  David courageously and confidently faced down Goliath, and later led the people of Israel and Judah as king because he understood that the Lord was his strength, and, so, fear could melt away.  David’s best friend, Jonathan, acted in faith while all his fellow Israelites were hiding in fear from their Philistine enemies.  His courageous stepping out emboldened everyone else to win the battle.
 
Jesus Christ has promised that he will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  We have the promised presence of the Holy Spirit as we engage in Christ’s mission to be witnesses.  God’s steadfast love is with us.  Therefore, we choose to live above the fray of naked fear and trust the kingdom values of humility, meekness, mercy, purity, and peace-making in facing down whatever issues are gripping the church.  God, in his sovereignty, has ordained certain persons to take the lead in recognizing the presence of the Spirit and moving forward in faith, not fear.  Faith and fear cannot co-exist.  “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) is the Apostle Paul’s way of saying not to give in to the politics of fear within the church.
 
So, how will you live?  How will you lead?  In what ways can you bring a non-anxious presence to the people for whom you minister?  How does knowing that God is with us change how you face difficult problems and people?  Can you think the thought that courage is a spiritual discipline?  How will you stretch your faith muscle so that the weakness of fear can take a back seat to your decision making?
 

 

May the power and presence of God’s Spirit fill us all now and always with faith to accomplish God’s will.