The day before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, a small book by Jonathan Leeman and Andy Naselli was released: How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics? Nobody knew at the time how much we’d need it. Faint cracks in relationships between Christians have become deep chasms as we disagree over one political issue after another.
There is a detail hidden in the title of this short book that’s key to its wisdom: it’s a book about loving church members. It’s not a book about bringing civility back to politics or about how Christians should engage in political vocations. Even less is it an argument for a set of political doctrines that Christians should embrace. At its heart, this book applies the theology of church membership associated with 9Marks to a specific threat to church unity.
It isn’t a stretch to see it as an appendix to Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop’s 2015 book The Compelling Community. The focus is on fellowship not political philosophy, and this makes for a disarmingly simple and yet very helpful resource for churches. There’s a sense in which this framing of the problem of political disagreement is politically naive: the authors don’t engage either with questions about why contemporary political disagreement is particularly fraught or with the broader range of psychological and social forces that sort us into political tribes and make it hard to change our minds.
We need thoughtful discussions of these questions, but what the authors have given us is more important. Political disagreement among fellow Christians is a problem that rests on foundations in theological anthropology: creation, fall, redemption, the human task of discernment, and believers’ obligation to maintain the unity of the Spirit. This theological ballast is often invisible—the bulk of the berg is below the waterline—but it means that anyone who is committed to those truths will find the logic compelling and the solutions not bound to one historical moment. A church member will feel the weight and find wisdom. That’s the book’s genius and limitation.
Diversity Is Not Disunity
The bulk of the book is structured around six recommendations. The first two invite us to correctly frame the relationship between church members and note the implications for political disagreements.
We need to adjust our expectation that church members will all think the same about political matters and that any disagreements in this arena fundamentally threaten our unity. Rather, God designed his churches to be “gatherings of his followers from every tribe and tongue and nation.” As the authors write, “Your church and ours are communities of former enemies learning to love one another. They are communities of political rivals working together” (27–28).
Recognizing what a church is requires us to see that our diversity—whether in ethnicity, gender, age, or even political affiliation—can bear witness to the reconciling power of the gospel. There’s been nothing like the church in the history of the world. Every other nation has been united either by powerful men with swords or by family relations, including ancient Israel.
Recognizing what a church is requires us to see that our diversity—even in political affiliation—can bear witness to the reconciling power of the gospel.
Yet now a new nation exists, held together by neither sword nor family but only by Word and Spirit (28). You show up at the church’s gathering on Sunday knowing your job is to beat those swords into plowshares (29). As Christians enact love across boundaries—including those of political affiliation—the church gathering becomes a powerful witness to the peace that Christ has won for us. Love amid diversity is “gospel-revealing” (to borrow a phrase from Mark Dever). So we lean into the challenge of loving those who politically offend us because together we might become witnesses not merely to our theory of justice but to the Lord. This is the wonderful performance art of the church, the theater of divine glory, in which the manifold wisdom of God is being declared to the cosmos (Eph. 3:10).
It’s possible to overplay the “loving across diversity” theme such that there are no matters on which Christians must share a common judgment. Consequently, the authors correctly maintain that loyalty to Christ and the faith that flows from hearing the gospel results in a definite core of Christian doctrine that must be maintained as the basis of church unity. This requires us to make a distinction between whole-church issues—“the things that we as a church agree a Christian must believe or practice” (30)—and those that belong to the domain of Christian freedom.
The latter half of the book is devoted to the thorny business of helping us distinguish which issues belong to each category. The primary tool for doing this is the distinction between “straight-line judgments [in which there] is a simple straight line between a theological or ethical principle found in the Bible and a political conviction” and “jagged-line judgments” in which a biblical principle will require a number of extrabiblical supporting premises or judgments about states of affairs in the world before it yields a political conviction (40).
There’s a helpful discussion of how to keep “calibrating your conscience” in matters of Christian freedom (48). They give a stirring reminder to keep focused on what’s most important: true justice will come when Jesus brings his kingdom to consummation, so keep making disciples. It’s saddening but self-evident that we need good pastoral wisdom in this area.
True justice will come when Jesus brings his kingdom to consummation, so keep making disciples.
Even in Australia where I write—which has one of the world’s most blessedly boring polities—divisions within churches over the legitimacy of COVID-19 vaccination requirements and extended social isolation rules have been disastrous. Churches and families have split. This has been especially the case in smaller rural communities that we already struggle to resource with gospel ministers. Pastors who are barely coping with the anxiety of shepherding their people through the change and uncertainty of the pandemic are broken by the vitriol from congregants who oppose their decision about how quickly (or not) to relax mask-wearing or resume in-person gatherings. I can only imagine the plight of and pray for those pastoring churches through the febrile heat of American politics.
We need to know how to love church members with different politics. We need to be theologically pastored through these strained relationships. We do, however, also need theological wisdom that moves us to action outside the relationships we have with each other in church. There’s a world of difficult issues of justice that Christians must engage with as soon as they leave the church building.
Better Approach than Punditry
As much as the distinction between straight-line and jagged-line political judgments is true and necessary, it inevitably succumbs to the reality that every specific course of action in the political sphere involves some degree of jagged-line judgment. Therefore, one of the potential dangers of a book like this is that pastors may feel that having said something like this, they’ve said enough. That won’t always be the case.
Regardless, beginning with these foundations will be more fruitful than any amount of punditry about the fragmentation of mass media or some other bête noire of contemporary political polarization theorists. For Christians, “working for justice, loving the justified” (55) flows out of the new political reality we confess when we pray “your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10) and is nourished as we proclaim and embody these gospel truths to one another.