Its 2018. The year still feels young, even though we have just ticked across into May. This post has taken me a lot longer than I thought it would, but I wanted to write it anyway. Because its been burning in my mind since Billy Graham passed away a few months ago.
I’ve heard many a preacher stand on the podium and talk about the need for church reformation. It surely is an easy case to argue. I, myself, am not sure that God would look happily on every aspect of His bride at present. I’ll spare you the examples. We know that churches are made up of imperfect people. How could we expect perfection of ourselves?
There is one thing I’m sure of though, and that is that the type of reformation the church needs isn’t the kind that points at the splinter in a brothers eye without dealing with the plank in ones own. That’s why when a giant of the faith passes on some information about what he would do different, it’s wise to listen.
In the early moments of this year, one such giant died. Billy Graham left this world bound for the eternal plain and with that, the world got talking. The criticism was as loud as the praise. (So much for not speaking ill of the dead!) Thousands if not millions paid tribute to him as if he was a saint, while members of the LGBTI community detailed their hurt over the harsh words he had directed at them and others railed against his brushes with the law when it came to tax evasion.
Thousands upon thousands spoke of the impact his life had on theirs. It was one heck of a mixed bag. I don’t think even Micheal Jackson had so many negative articles written about him when he died – a fact that seems more than a little unjust. I’m grateful for the good stuff, while I also acknowledge the not-so-shiny. My own parents were converted at a crusade they attended on their honeymoon. Mine is a life that has been touched by Billy Graham’s shadow, as it were.
I’m absolutely sure the guy was imperfect, and had his not so great aspects. But I’m also sure that the way to reform the church isn’t by nitpicking giants like this.
It’s by learning from them.
I struggled to find an article in which he reflected on his life and talked about what he would do differently. When I did, I realised why it was so hard to find. It’s an area the church in the western world seems to be wading further and further into, and I wonder if it’s because of the seductive promise of power and influence. What was the one thing big Billy Graham said he’d stay out of if he had his time again?
It’s the area of politics.
In an interview with Christianity Today in 2011, he said: ““I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
Graham had in fact been tied up with President Richard Nixon, and his is a legacy that thinned the dividing line between church and state by what some call ‘a relentless pursuit of civil religion.’
It’s a cautionary note in Billy’s story, but it wasn’t explained. The interviewer carried right on through to the next question. I couldn’t help but dwell on that statement though. Why would he steer clear of politics? What’s wrong with that?
I can’t pretend to know what Billy was thinking. But I do know this: the church has always been counter-cultural. It gives me great unease when it seeks to be otherwise. Jesus wasn’t a populist leader. Quite the contrary. It was him and twelve guys. The movement started from there but it didn’t seek power and influence. It served. It served the orphans and the poor. It served the widows. It served those shunned by society. Of course it reached those in high places but that wasn’t the emphasis.
The church in the book of Acts was as small number in a big world. My fear is that, in the modern era, the church fears losing its relevance, and thus it seeks out power. But there’s a saying that contends “Power is not innocent” and there’s the problem.
After thinking about this for months, and letting it challenge my own standpoint, this is the opinion I’ve come to: The church, and the men and women of God who lead it, should maintain innocence and righteousness, should be a voice for good, and should avoid blurring the line between the State and the sacred.
I could list pages and pages of ministers who have gone off the rails when handed too much power and influence. Its a seductive thing. It allows human leaders to confuse their own ideas with the voice of God, to start believing their own hype, to turn a blind eye to abuses and injustices while saying to themselves “the end justifies the means.” It isn’t like this because people are bad, but because of the effect of power, and of the people who revolve around those in power, and potentially the way it’s easy to ignore counsel when there is no one you answer to. (Hmmm. Big can of worms there! Shutting the lid on that for today!)
When we look at the life of Jesus, we see His approach to power summed up nicely in Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus brought himself low, to the point of death, even death on the cross. He was the ultimate servant, who God then elevated. But that elevation was God’s responsibility, not ever that of a human. Politics causes us to seek out the popular vote. It seeks for man to elevate us, whereas a life of service to the church is a calling to servanthood in its purest form.
The church should be a powerful voice for good. But I believe it is best kept separate from the State. Having the two institutions separate creates a healthy tension, in my opinion, and creates potential for the other to stay on track.
There is an example of the church and state becoming completely intertwined. (Okay, theres a few. Henry VIII is one. So is the Vatican. Both of those carry obvious cautionary tales.) I’m referring to Constantine. Many laud his achievements for the advancement of Christianity, but others point out the ways in which he married a pagan state with a Christian God and emerged with a mixed, state-sanctioned faith.
This is our danger.
I’m absolutely not saying Christians don’t belong in politics. In a representative democracy, there should be room for all creeds. But I am suggesting that if you are called to the cloth, you mightn’t be called to the crown. If you find yourself edging towards the other, do consider the words of Billy Graham and ask yourself if you are crossing a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
My considered opinion is that the church should put pressure on government to maintain fairness to all people, and freedom to all religions, whilst the government should ensure that citizens involved in churches don’t find themselves at the mercy of organisations who think they are above the law. Jesus said “render unto Caesar what is Caesars.” This protects the vulnerable people who often seek out the church to find healing. There, they should find safe harbour, not political agendas.
Being a pastor or minister (the Christian type) is a sacred role. It’s there to serve and love God’s people, teaching them and discipling them according to the word of God. Its role is not to rule them. Each believer’s walk with God is their own responsibility. When the state tells us how we ought live that out, we have problems. If you can’t imagine that, go watch the Handmaids Tale. (Yes, I know dominionists will cite Genesis 1:28 when God tells Adam to have dominion – but He was referring to fish, animals, plants and insects. Not people.)
The power and pull of politics might be seductive, but it is a different calling entirely. It is to represent the will of the people, not the Will and word of God.
My fear, yes I use the word fear again, is that many a person who has sought out influence and power has done so because they fear their own vulnerability. But for pastors and ministers, and indeed for Christians, our God is our sword and shield. So what if we stay countercultural and never overpower the culture of the day? That is probably our place – to show a dark world there is a light they can follow.
I’m aware that this post may come across a bit abrasive to some. That is not my intent. It is simply to call our attention to Billy Graham’s one regret, and to urge Christians not to fear where the world will go but to have faith in a God that has all the power we will ever need. If you are a Christian in politics, great! Serve with honour and integrity. Be a person of your word. Represent your people. Find good counsel and heed it.
If you are a pastor thinking of crossing over, if urge you to consider the undue influence you may wield over people who may think your word and the word of God never differ. It’s a dangerous line to blur.
Just some thoughts! Have a fab weekend, friends.