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Political or Prophetic?

I grew up in the Midwest during the 1950s and got my introduction to the civil rights movement on a small black and white television set. But I don’t ever remember hearing a word in church about the plight of Southern African Americans.

In my world, “conservative” churches stood for the gospel of Christ’s death for our sins, but didn’t stand against poverty or racism. We saw as “liberal” the churches that were committed to social activism while seeming soft on the gospel of spiritual salvation.

Over the decades that followed, I’m quite sure that I have never heard anyone praise churches that remained silent about slavery, women’s right to vote, or the civil rights of ethnic minorities. I am also just as sure that I have never heard anyone reason that a socially conscious church should trade it’s spiritual message for a political reputation.

So how do we walk the political tightrope? How do followers of Christ extend the role of Jewish prophets who courageously advocated in behalf of the oppressed (Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:17-18), while together anticipating the New Testament gospel of Christ crucified, and resurrected for our forgiveness and eternal life?

In an attempt to come to terms with this tension, I’ve been thinking about the difference between political and prophetic strategies. By political I mean an effort to join and mobilize a majority of voters giving the endorsement of the church to a political party in an attempt to gain control of public policy. By prophetic, I mean appealing to reason to good will, and to faith in God to see the attitudes of Christ change individuals and groups from the inside out in a non-partisan way to appeal for social change that is for the good of the individual and society.

Let me give two examples, before trying a few more later. See if it make sense to you that:

1. A political voice often mobilizes support by concealing its own faults while calling attention to the weaknesses and limitations of the opposition. A prophetic voice is first brought to its knees by its own wrongs and failures (as were Isaiah and Nehemiah).

2. A political voice tends to speak for the special-interest groups it represents. As a result, it is likely to confront the sins of the right but not the sins of the left-or the sins of the left and not the sins of the right. A prophetic voice, in the best sense, represents the interests of all. The messenger of God, therefore, lovingly and faithfully confronts sins on all bands of the social spectrum. Heaven’s representative confronts the sins of the wealthy and the powerful as well as the sins of the poor and the weak.

Do you think this P vs P distinction is moving in the right direction? Or not?

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15 Responses to “Political or Prophetic?”

  1. wpleasant says:

    Fascinating question. I’m not certain an either/or approach is wise or even biblical. For every verse in the New Testament that seems to convey an emphasis of a prophetic voice, I could just as easily make an argument that a political (in the context of promoting social change) approach is just as equally important. I am very sensitive to this. As an African American middle aged male who was born in the segregated South, was raised in the from a little boy in the semi-segregated North, and received Christ as the result of a dedicated white couple who’s church, in the middle of a norhteastern city, reached out to me as a teenager and others of all races, nationalities, classes, and stations, I see both strategies as important. I suppose that when you consider eternity, heart change prompted by the Holy Spirit, and resulting in a genuine saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is the primary objective. Nevertheless, unless you want to rip out the pages of James in the New Testement, we can’t discount the fact that the church is also charged with being an influence in a temporal world. This website, it’s readers, and this world would be a very different place if social change were not a by-product of prohetic voices.

  2. david8a says:

    l read this blog from ecuador. our country is right now writing a new constitution (here we change constitution every other decade, no such thing as founding fathers) and people is discussing whether should be the name of the Lord be placed at the beggining of the constitution.

    we also are discussing if the constitution should ban same-sex marriage or abortion.

    last sunday, there was a pacific demonstration in my city, mainly from the christian church (here in ecuador, most people are roman catholic). my mother went to that march, but l refused: l think our church should stand for full state/church separation, because otherwise, roman catholic church would have a bigger influence on public policies.

    l also think our church shouldn’t be backing these kind of issues on a time like this, because we (as a country) should better discuss about checks-and-balances and economic guidelines, which are the main problems that have forced us to change the constitution.

    l think that is an example of a political action of the church, instead of a prophetic one.

  3. eltonteng says:


    I don’t believe I agree with your contrast of two styles of communication, which I believe is your bottom line question. The characterizations are not the problems. The issue is that these characterizations are just one of many manifestations of each of the styles. The specific message spoken through one of these voices is irrelevant. It is the action demanded by these voices that represents the true meaning behind the message.

    Your first example of political voice is one often called “negative campaigning” (as opposed to “contrasting campaigning” but that is a discussion for another time.) However, there is also political voice in the form of “positive campaign.” A political voice may also speak rightfully for a special identity group.

    “Prophetic voice” in both definitions may be abusive if used repetitively in order to cause action out of guilt and shame. A “prophetic voice” who speaks in the best interest of all may also be abusive, depending on the type of action being solicited. Cult leaders are typically excellent users of the prophetic voice.

  4. Mart De Haan says:

    This is a helpful discussion to me. For openers, as you’ll see above, I just changed my working definition of the “prophetic” voice. I’m hearing some good concerns and clarifications here. Let’s keep talking and I hope other’s will join in. The real concern behind my post is that I’m afraid many of us don’t recognize that our first responsibility is to model right moral and social behavior in the church, before we can have credibility in our appeal to the reason and good sense of others. My thought is that if the Church becomes so politicized and partisan that we identify with only one side of the political aisle– while separating ourselves from the people and important issues on the other side of the aisle– our spiritual mission in behalf of Christ will be confused and misunderstood.

  5. dep7547 says:

    While I can appreciate the value of this message, I have my own struggles with the flip side of the civil rights coin. I, too, grew up in a very conservative church, which never addressed these issues when I was a kid; however, at that time, there was a certain air from the small, semi-rural community which I grew up in that made common decency to all races a matter of common sense. In fact, back in the 1970’s, it was a weekly pilgrimage to go to church and then out for Sunday dinner. As the extended family would attend together, it was common for the first child on the scene to hold the door for the other members of the family to enter both at church and at the restaurant; if it meant a temporary separation from the family, the practice of continuing holding the door for other families in the immediate vicinity regardless of race or creed was common decency.

    Now that I am older and live in a densely populated area around Chicago, I still carry this ideal with me. However, in the past couple of years, my family and I have seemingly been singled out to receive the most uncivil opposite of this treatment from members of the African American community. We have approached entrances to buildings and have reached out to grasp the handle of a door only to have the previous holder walk in and let the door shut, deliberately not looking back–as if it would disgrace them to acknowledge our presence. The worst example was watching a seventy year-old grandmother teach her ten year-old grandson this contemptible attitude at Christmas time in 2006!

    As much as I am ashamed to admit it, I have let this attitude take me out of character–to the point where I came so close to doing the same thing to a young African American woman who must have noticed that I had reserved thoughts about returning this scornful attitude, but, then, changed my mind. She was actually quite cordial in thanking me–even though I did not deserve it. I guess you could say that the old woman from the previous incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me: That incident caused me to lose respect for elders as well as race–I mean it really took me out of character. I can think of many people whom I know that would deserve that kind of treatment, yet, they were not the ones affected by it.

    May God help me, but I fail to see what could be gleaned from such a lesson! If I had been an outsider observing this, I might have been more apt to take it as an example that would support the ideals of a supremacist group. Why would the lord want to teach me that I have the capacity to carry such hateful ideas when I have spent my whole life standing against them?

  6. Gale L. Jarvis says:

    Good Morning everyone, Mart i believe i have mentioned this before, and probably will again, i believe every thing in life is a matter of opinion, and the Lord has told me to study to show myself approved by God, not to study to see if i believe others are approved, or should fight their opinions, God is a personal God, and even though i have heard the thought many times if i do not stand for some thing i will fall for any thing, and i do believe this, but standing for some thing does not mean God desires for me to fight, or argue with others about what i believe God has proven to me to be right.
    Having an open mind at all times, and be able to listen to another person speak, i believe is a terrible problem with most of us including myself, many times we believe we know what another person is going to say, and we cut them off in our mind, and many times they are in agreement with us, but because they started with a thought we disagree with, that is the end of our conversation, i believe we need to learn how to listen, not just hear someone talking.
    My personal view of politics as we call it is, i believe God is the one that sets up, and or tears down a Government, which includes those that God has chosen to be in office, and desires for me to back who ever that is.
    Many times God has let those that hate Him be in power, but God’s will always prevails, even if those in charge believe they are winning.

  7. yvetterjh says:

    As I was reading the commentary on this subject, I could not help but recall the uneasiness I felt while sitting in Bible study group some months back. The political race had just begun to get interesting, as the world watched the candidates trade their ideas; prior to the mud-slinging.

    During bible study my Pastor was attempting to endorse one candidate over another strictly based on his color, I cringed. My mind raced a mile-a-minute as the mild case of uneasiness turned into full-blown anxiety. When I could take no more, I forcefully raised my hand to take the attention of the floor, because I had had enough. God who is all knowing knew the condition of my heart and did not allow me to speak, until now.

    Although I agree with the candidate who believes what I believe, finds importance in the same things I do, and just so happens to look like I look. I will not vote solely on the latter. And I found it highly offensive, and out of line for my pastor to stand before a congregation of people who hold his words in very high esteem, and make that implication.

    A church is full of Christians young and old in the faith and eager to learn the conditions of their belief and the expectations of God. And from the moment my Pastor accepted the calling from God to be His mouthpiece he had that responsibility. He had a responsibility to teach the word of God, and to relay God thoughts according to many issues. The pulpit is not a place to take a personal stand for hopes of achieving a personal goal. In this case getting his hopeful into the presidency, by any means necessary.

    There are many many gray areas in the bible that does not address specifics. It is the responsibility of the church to teach its members how to make a biblical decision concerning social issues. Our political preferences must not/shall not trump God prophetic calling to His church. God out into the world and teach the gospel (Mark 16:15)

  8. sallyapatterson says:

    Mart, I grew up in Missouri from 1939 – 1950, and my family had to move to California from 1950 to present; therefore, I know about the social issues during that time. However, I personally was a high school girl wanting to know why my pastor and other Christians were not attacking the evolution with Creation. I personally told my science teacher that he was wrong for teaching that I came from a monkey. I personally told him that I was created in God’s image. I quoted Scriptures from Genesis, and of course many of the students laughed at me, and the teacher only grinned since he had the power of the grade. I did not have any public or church support, but I did had the Holy Scriptures that taught me “truth” and the Holy Spirit that confirmed and comforted me that Jesus is “the truth.” My pastor and other Christians were passive about the evolution/creation topic in the 1950’s, and this had upset me very much as a teenager, but it also taught me that my personal relationship with Jesus Christ depends upon my knowing the Holy Scriptures. I am personally responsible and this means I can be a stronger witness for Him. I do not have a group mentality, and I do not want a church or pastor to teach from the pulpit anyone but Jesus Christ. I do not want any policitial issues discussed because I get enough of that in my daily life. When I am in Sunday School or in the morning worship, I want to receive God’s anointing, so that I can be spiritually blessed to go out into the world 6 days of the week.
    Even in the 1950’s as a teenager, I knew what was right and what was wrong because my Sunday School teachers had taught me The Holy Bible and it was the King James Version; therefore, I knew from what it said that Jesus loves everyone, and the song that rang in my head from birth was, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world, red and yellow black and white, they are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children in the world.”
    I took The Holy Bible and this song as truth, and I gave these writings life by my example in my life even though I came from a state that had racial discrimation. I make my voice heard in the political arena on Monday – Saturday, so that I can hear Jesus’ Comforter, The Holy Spirit, on Sunday. I know that I have Him with me 24/7, but I want to hear the calling of God that is on His servant on Sunday.

    People need to be listening to The Holy Scriptures, and they need to be acting upon the truth. If they do this, then they will on Monday – Saturday act like Jesus, and they will vote and teach their family to care for everyone. The Old and the New testament clearly tell us who to care for, and we need to do it.

    My heart has been grieving for the Christian church because of the policial parties on the platform that have been in control. If you go to a certain church in central California on the coast, you will see a picture of President Bush as big and next to the Cross of Christ behind the pulpit. When my husband and I saw this, our hearts dropped. What will they do when “Bush” leaves the office next January?

    When I was at Christian Heritage College many years ago, Tim LaHaye’s church had a sign on the platform, “Sir, We Would See Jesus.”

    I am waiting and praying for the Christian church to get back to the basics of Christianity. Please pray.

  9. sallyapatterson says:

    I disagree that there are many gray areas in the Holy Bible. It is my personal responsibility to know the Holy Scriptures, so that I can make an individual decision. The Holy Spirit will confirm the Holy Scritures on what to do and not what to do on social issues.
    If I waited for a church to teach me how to make a biblical decision, then I would later in life blame the church for wrong teaching.

  10. eltonteng says:

    This post is therefore about the Christian Coalition vs. the Sojourners, just to name a few. I don’t believe its wrong for Christian organizations (not church – there is a distinction) to endorse particular political parties or candidates. These Christian organizations, however, will have to be accountable to failures of their endorsed parties to address the biblical principles.

    Christian political movements have had to attach themselves to political parties in order to advance its agendas. Party affiliation means these groups have to compromise some of the Christian beliefs. For instance, the Christian Coalition can be criticized for their lack of tangible support for direct government intervention for social justice and the Iraq War, whereas the Sojourners has quietly decided to not publically denounce the GLAAD agenda as well as the welfare state and identity politics promoted by the Democratic Party. The part y politics are messy and the joining to the political parties does hurt these groups.

  11. JCW says:

    Greetings Mart et al.

    It’s an interesting dilemma, but if we, as a body of believers were getting it right, I don’t think it would be as much of one..

    If we stood on the simplicity of “loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and loving our neighbor as ourselves” the political voice would always take second place (or 3rd, 4th…) We would be kinder, more respectful, thoughtful, “in honor preferring one another,” and God’s will would always be accomplished more quickly. These are the very reasons the New Testament church grew the way it did.

    Because of offensiveness, stridency, pride, arrogance, and willful ignorance, the church has instead done more damage to it’s reputation than I believe it can ever repair. Christ coming back for a bride without spot or wrinkle, unless only based on his blood redemption, is nearly an impossibility.

    Christians should be in the marketplace fully and engaged but always with a attitude of humbleness before their creator and savior, hence the prophetic voice can always be heard over the political. Blessings.

  12. daisymarygoldr says:

    The solution to this P vs. P ‘Problem’ lies in the crisp reply that Jesus gave to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36). Likewise, ‘The Church’ i.e. followers of Christ are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives (Philippians 3:20).
    Christians are not called to throne or dethrone political governments rather to pray for one that will favor the spread of the gospel. If God in His sovereignty allows for a ‘Non-Christian’ government to be elected, we should submit to its authority (Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1). Even as we grapple with issues of politics, race, economy, equality etc in this earthly realm, we ought to live as citizens of heaven, conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). Revelation 11:15 is the hope that keeps us occupied with our task of spreading the Good News of Jesus, till He returns!

  13. Mart De Haan says:

    Thanks to all of you for making this such an interesting discussion. As I’ve just reread your comments it’s clear that you have expressed several perspectives while showing unmistakably that what we share is a deep sense of our accountability to Christ– who has taught us to love our enemy as well as our neighbor. In my next post I’d like to extend the list I started–in an attempt to illustrate the difference between a political (partisan) and prophetic approach to social change. Please continue to test my thoughts because I really believe that as we try to figure out how to apply the teaching of Christ to our world, we can think better together than by ourselves.

  14. wpleasant says:

    “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” John 1:10
    “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he may destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:10
    Some really good comments. Sin is at the core of social injustice. The tendency is for me, and I suspect sometimes others in this blog, to identify with political entities as the lasting source of positive social change. That is a temptation we must resist. Political parties are not even mentioned in the Constitution, let alone the Bible. There is nothing wrong with supporting a political candidate or an idea promoted by one, but it should be consistent with the principals of our personal relationship with God and what he has taught us through His word. Politics is often mingled with human conceived and human implemented works, dependent on human “power”. That can never replace God’s will and sovereignty as the ultimate hope, desire, and, in the now as well as in the end, the ultimately reality. It may at times cause us to go against the grain of the popular culture, even at the risk of persecution, but that is to be expected, or true social justice will be unachievable. When we search our hearts we need to make sure what we become participants in, and in whatever we do for Chirst in the limited time we have on this earth, is not based on a “God, you’re taking too long, so I will trust in human political “voices” to achieve Your justice”, attitude. That will in the end result in an unlasting, pride based, and superficial man concieved justice. I BELIEVE Imperial Rome, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Communist Soviet Union, Tyranny under the British Empire, Apartheid in South Africa, Slavery as an economic insitution in the Western Hemisphere, and many other unjust social systems collapsed because of God’s hand with Him using whatever means He deemed necessary to do it. It doesn’t mean that we are closer to a “utopian” world, which is a concept also at odds with the word of God. Pray without ceasing.

  15. amomangel says:

    Mart, you wrote: “My thought is that if the Church becomes so politicized and partisan that we identify with only one side of the political aisle– while separating ourselves from the people and important issues on the other side of the aisle– our spiritual mission in behalf of Christ will be confused and misunderstood.”

    It’s been a long time comin’, but my dear brothers and sisters, I think we’re finally getting it…The Lord’s church is for everyone… Yes, let’s keep praying, regardless of political parties, that the Lord’s church once again represents a safe refuge, full of love and grace for all mankind. Regardless of race, color, sexual orientation, prolife, prochoice, and whatever differences have divided us. Jesus Christ is the message and when we teach, preach, love, forgive, turn the other cheek, forgive-70-times-seven and everything else the scriptures teach us, then the Lord’s church will begin to grow again in the ways that God intended it to… for ALL of his children. Let God speak to our hearts, not men…who have done great harm to the continuity within the church.

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