A Dispatch conversation July 25 with Rich Nathan, 50, senior pastor of Columbus Vineyard for 19 years, and Jim Leffel, 48, teaching pastor of Xenos Christian Fellowship for 16 years, about the proper roles of politics and religion.
DISPATCH – The purpose of our story is to find out why some churches that seemingly fit the profile of those becoming more and more politically engaged — megachurches, predominantly white, evangelical, often located near an outerbelt — have decided NOT to become politically active.
LEFFEL – We don’t believe that anyone in the church can speak for the church, and as a consequence, a pastor, a staff person, it doesn’t really matter who they are, they speak for themselves.
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And we encourage that. We think people, Christians in particular, ought to be politically minded and good citizens and take their place. But they don’t speak for other Christians, and they certainly don’t speak for the church.
I think there’s a long tradition of that in the Protestant tradition, where everyone is equal before God and everyone has equal access to understanding the word of God. The power of individual conviction is an important part of our ethos. It’s an important part of who we are as a people.
So we value diverse political views in our church. We’ve got people in every area of government who are a part of our church. We’re glad they’re there … judges, people in the legislative branch, people who work with legislators, the political action side. And they represent different points of view, and we’re glad that they’re there. That makes a rich discussion.
That’s a real critical thing for us.
The second thing is we are mindful of how polarized our culture is on political issues. We feel as though while individually we’ve got political points of view and we can express them where that’s appropriate, that in the context of speaking for the church that’s not the place to do that.
We have an agenda for our society that we will pursue regardless of what form of government we are in. We can build communities and families, we can care for issues of social justice and the poor, whether we have the cooperation of the government or not.
So in some ways it’s sort of a back-burner issue from our perspective.
NATHAN – We think the Gospel has political implications, but it’s not partisan. And we don’t think that either the Republicans or the Democrats have the sole possession of the implications of the Gospel.
Individuals in the church may line up regarding life issues with Republicans, they may line up on social justice issues with the Democrats, so we are not partisan, although there are political implications. That is the Gospel for our church is not simply privatized, it’s not simply a matter of one’s own individual relationship with God, but it has social and political implications.
But those implications aren’t contained by either of the political parties. There’s not an exclusive purview there.
There are several reasons we don’t go in a partisan direction. We don’t want to unnecessarily obscure the Gospel. The main message that we exist for is to announce the good news about Jesus and what Jesus came to do.
And we never want to communicate to somebody that comes here that they’ve got to go through two conversions in order to come to Christ. We don’t want to have somebody believe that first I must be converted politically from wherever I’m coming from politically, in order to then come through that to Christ. There’s one conversion, a conversion of people’s life to Jesus.
And Jesus can call people who are socialists, who are conservative Republicans, who are communists, who are monarchists, who live under a dictatorship, there were people who lived in the Roman Empire, people who were royalists during the Revolution, I mean people came from lots of political persuasions to come to Christ. So you don’t be politically converted.
And we don’t also want to unnecessarily divide the body of Christ. And I’m very concerned about people who might feel marginalized in the church because they’re particular political perspective is not what the pastor supports. So we don’t want to divide the church regarding these things. Our church believes that the public square needs to be redefined. And that the public square is not simply defined by the two political options that we have in the marketplace right now, neither Democrat nor Republican.
Part of redefining the public square for us is that we’re building a community center in front of our church, we already have a free legal clinic, we’re going to have a free medical clinic, job training programs, we’re expanding our after-school program and English as a Second Language and a whole range of recovery programs. The church needs to be engaged in community, but it doesn’t have to be engaged in appealing to government.
LEFFEL – The Gospel calls us to reach lost people without putting unnecessary barriers in their way.
I think we’re very concerned that the white evangelical church in America is almost becoming by default guilty of adding to the gospel itself through social identity, namely (the) political right for the most part. We’re very concerned about that.
What we want to do is to show what the gospel is through how we conduct ourselves as a community. The evangelical church in American is a suburban phenomenon, by and large. We have made a very conscious decision: We are moving in.
NATHAN – Likewise.
EIFFEL – And so we have an important work that we’ve been committed to for 17 years now in South Linden. We have a school there, we have a program for outreach in that community meeting social needs as well. We have a community that meets in the Bottoms, we have a major initiative in the north campus area.
And we will continue working toward the inner city, because it’s our conviction that the suburbs are pretty well represented, the cities are not.
So that is the principle way we’re redefining social engagement. We don’t feel like we need to win some kind of a political battle, to pull the levers of power to get the job done.
The church historically, when it has been at its best to bring about social change, has done so by moral persuasion on an individual level and the sacrifice of Christians setting a model for what society should look like.
And you can see that in the abolition movement, you can see that in child welfare issues historically, hospitals, schools in the Reconstruction south — these are all initiatives there were private, that were church-driven that did not require vast commitments of the government.
NATHAN – We speak different language than the government does. The church speaks prophetic language, and prophetic language is very different than political language. Prophetic language is absolute, and prophetic language concerns the kingdom of God …
The church speaks prophetically to power. It doesn’t speak in political terms. In political terms, a half a loaf is sometimes better than none. Political terms speak about compromise and about horse trading, and that’s all fine and I don’t have a problem with that.
But that’s not the terms the church speaks in. The church speaks in kingdom terms, and the church speaks in absolute terms. So there’s just a clash here of the way we speak and the language we use. The church gives up its birthright when it begins speaking in political terms which require compromise, horse trading …
One thing that I do believe is that pastors have historically served as spiritual advisers and moral advisers to politicians. We have a lot of politicians in our church and I get together with judges and state reps and we’ve got people who are on the Democratic Central Committee who go here, we’ve got people who are on the Republican Central Committee who go here … school superintendents.
But my job is to pray with them, to give them moral and spiritual counsel, they’re job is to engage the Christian mind in their particular sphere of calling.
Once they’re informed, it’s there job to carry that into their area of calling, which is the world of politics, just like a school teacher would, just like a physician would, just like other people would.
We have a diversity here. We had coming to church one of the chair people of Howard Dean for President in Ohio. And we had one of the heads of the Libertarian Party who comes here. And then we have very conservative Republicans who also come here. That’s the nature of the kingdom.
DISPATCH – Many evangelicals say Christianity has been driven or is being driven from the public square … Christians need to step in there, and politics is sort of that currency of that language and we need to be engaged there just like we are in other aspects of society. How would you respond to that decision to jump into politics?
LEFFEL – As individual Christians that have a Biblically informed conscience, I’m all for aggressive political action – but not in the name of Christ, and not on behalf of the church. I think some of the fear that is expressed among evangelicals about being dealt out culturally in our view has more to do with the church than it does the culture — that Christians have to a substantial fault have become a subculture that have made that choice to do their own thing to sort of have their own culture.
We just don’t feel that is appropriate. We think we need to work in and have a leavening influence on the culture, and not stand apart with our own political agenda, with our own educational agenda and everything else. So there would be a philosophical distinction between us and what might be called the Christian right in that particular regard.
NATHAN – For us, we’ve taken an opposite approach from the culture wars … In fact we have very deliberately taken a different side.
The phrase we use around here is we want to be the best friend that city has ever found. We want to be friends with our city. We’re not at war with our city.
We want to be friends with the school system. We’re not at war with the school system. We believe that school teachers, by and large, and school administrators, and principals and superintendents are, whether they’re Christian or non-Christian, deeply committed to the welfare of kids.
The folks that I meet in schools are doing their darnedest to push a rock uphill, and they don’t need the church firing at them. They need the church getting behind and supporting them.
There’s a verse, Jeremiah 29:7, which we use around here. God sends a message to Jeremiah the prophet and he tells him to write a letter to the people who are in Babylon, and he says, Pray for the peace of the city to which I’ve sent you. Seek its prosperity. Because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
What we teach our church is that if the city of Columbus is doing well, it’s going to bless the families in this church. So if the educational system is working, and if the cultural systems are working, and if the health systems are working it’s going to be a blessing to you guys as well. So there are going to be times and places where we differ with a political decision and we’ll make our voice know.
DISPATCH – How?
NATHAN – Speak to the mayor. I don’t have a problem with people in the church writing letters advocating certain things. That’s a good thing.
DISPATCH – So does Rich Nathan, pastor of The Vineyard, go to (Columbus Mayor) Mike Coleman, and say I’m pastor of the Vineyard?
NATHAN – Very rarely. On a few occasions I’ve done that. Mostly I see my role as a pastor to serve as an adviser to those who are primarily engaged. That’s not my primary calling. My primary calling is to teach the Bible. My primary calling is not to advocate in the political realm. On occasion I’ve been invited down to the Statehouse to speak about a bill, because I have a legal background, I was an attorney and I’ve taught at Ohio State. So occasionally I’ve spoken but very rarely.
Mostly I see like I said our job is to not be at war with our city. That’s not where the battle lines are.
DISPATCH (to LEFFEL) – How about you?
LEFFEL – We certainly send staff people down in connection with projects that we’re primarily invested in. So for instance to get (zoning) variances for our South Linden project we pounded a lot of doors …
But it’s because really what we’re trying to do is in their best interests. It’s not an adversarial relationship. We’re not asking them to do something they don’t want to do. We’re trying to help them accomplish stability in that community.
NATHAN – You were saying before about being pushed out of the public square…we’re finding exactly the opposite from being pushed out of the public square. Governments at all levels are running out of money. There’s just not enough money to go around locally, there’s not enough money to go around statewide, there’s not enough money federally.
In that place of not having sufficient funding for anything, government really is looking for partners. And so in schools, we’re not finding ourselves closed out of public schools. We’re finding public schools saying we really want your help. We need tutoring help, we need help with sports programs, we need help with English as a second language, we need counseling help, our families are getting overwhelmed …
(We were told) We want you to do a free legal clinic. We had no problem getting protection, insurance-wise, because they don’t have enough money to put on free attorneys. Legal Aid is stretched to the hilt.
Medical clinic? No problem. We will help you, we’ll get you all the licensing, everything you need to do, we’ll help you and push it through.
You want to get a bus line to bring people here? We’ll assist you with that.
I’m discovering more and more that with the social safety net being so shredded that government is saying if you can help us out, help us out.
Now there are some who have a radically secular agenda, who really do not want churches involved. We’ve met politicians like that. They do create barriers. But for the most part that’s not what we encounter.
DISPATCH – Do you do these activities: encourage voter registration, encourage votes on more nonpartisan issues, voter guides, candidates speaking at your church either from the pulpit or in another place, giving your directories to campaigns that might request them?
LEFFEL – Voter registration yes, voters guides absolutely not. Politicians having access to our database or using our church or speaking to the church – No, although our space is public, and people can use it for any kind of purpose. But it’s not something we would put on ourselves.
NATHAN – We do voter registration, and no to all the rest.
DISPATCH – What about issues, such as a school levy or a mental health levy?
NATHAN – We’ve allowed people to have a lobby table to pass a school levy, but I’d never advocate vote for this person or vote for this issue. We have done a drive for petitioning Congress regarding the Darfur (humanitarian crisis in Africa). I think we sent something like 4,000 letters from the church regarding peacekeeping mission in the Darfur and support for the people in the Darfur.
But we don’t have politicians speak here. We would never give out our directory, under any circumstances to anybody, business, politics, nothing.
LEFFEL – It’s a sacred trust. You can’t do that.
DISPATCH – We’ve talked about various ways Christians have influenced society through politics. We could have a long list; mine includes Washington, Lincoln, William Wilberborce, William Jennings Bryan, Martin Luther King Jr. Without sanctioning everything they said or did, do you approve of how they blended politics and religion?
LEFFEL – Wilberforce is a good test case. Wilberforce’s legislative reforms meant nothing without the Wesleyan revival of the 18th century. It would not have happened.
There was a very deliberate interaction between Wesley and Wilberforce over a period of years.
They were very clear that they needed to win hearts of people before they compelled through law their moral conduct. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s there.
Lincoln believed pretty passionately that slavery was a sin, that it was immoral, that it should end. But he also was convinced that compelling an end to slavery was a last resort because he wanted to win the hearts of people.
So I think that it’s a fuzzy area. I don’t think there’s a formula there.
It’s not been like prohibition, where you ram it through against the real sentiment of the population. That’s not gonna work. You have to build real people with real values who put it together and make real stands like that.
And that’s what the church does. When it’s functioning right, it helps to produce a real conscience that people live out in their life, and they begin to want the things that God wants. They want justice, and they want a better society.
And God raises up men and women to create that influence. Again, that’s a real oversimplification.
NATHAN – Some of the people that you mentioned are real heroes. (Points to a wall hanging.) This is Charles Simeon. Simeon was the pastor at Cambridge for almost 50 years. He was a chief adviser for William Wilberforce, and he was really influential in lots of social reform in England as a pastor.
And that to me is a model for pastoral work, which is to morally and spiritually advise, to pray with, encourage, assist, help a person who is called to this very difficult place. Wilberforce had so much opposition from the British East India Co., he had death threats, he was just wildly unpopular.
It took all the way until four days before he died to have slavery outlawed throughout the British Empire. He kept bringing up the same thing over and over. He’s just a model of perseverance.
(Former U.S. Sen.) William Proxmire is model of persistence. William Proxmire brought the anti-genocide treaty to the Senate floor. He spoke every day about the anti-genocide treaty for several decades, and he did a different speech every single day, because he could not believe that America would not sign on to oppose genocide internationally. And he just committed himself to doing it. I think he made on the order of 2,000 or 3,000 speeches against genocide.
And then in my office I’ve got a picture of Lincoln. And King, I’ve read and preached on his speeches and his thought. And he’s a model to me on what the prophetic voice sounds like. It’s different than the political voice. So he and (President Lyndon) Johnson came to loggerheads. Politicians would say well look at what I’ve done for you. I’ve really helped, I’ve done (the Voter Rights Act of 1965), I’m a good guy, I’m on your side.
King kept driving for more, and then he was pressing regarding poverty programs and he was pressing regarding the Vietnam War. That’s a model of what the church sounds like. It sounds prophetic, and it’s never quite acceptable in the realm of politics, because it’s a different language.
LEFFEL – And it’s not partisan. NATHAN – It’s not partisan. He was in nobody’s pocket. DISPATCH – With two self-avowed men of faith in this race for governor, do you see a role for yourselves, just as a matter of information, presenting data to your congregation about the choices they have?
LEFFEL – No. But I do think there’s a role to address inappropriate characterizations. I think we need to tell people, Read. Think it through. Make up your mind.
DISPATCH – Can you elaborate a little on inappropriate characterizations?
LEFFEL – People are political. I don’t know that it happens every year but in our place, people have open political discussions. Sometimes, you know, there’s the smirky kind of language used against the other side. And when I hear that, I feel constrained to say, That doesn’t really have a place here.
Or to characterize Strickland as a theological liberal, and demonize in that way. I think that has happened in the broader evangelical church. And when I hear that in my church, I say that’s slander, and it’s wrong.
NATHAN – I teach on issues before elections, but I teach on issues that have political implications. So I teach on abortion, and I teach on war, and I teach on poverty, I teach on issues from the pulpit.
So I do whole messages on life issues, war, when I talk through the Sermon on the Mount. I teach on environment from the pulpit, I teach on the poor and issues of justice all the time.
So that is designed to shape a Christian mind so that people are able to vote. But I would not stand up in this church, ever, and even with a sort of a nod and a wink, try to press somebody toward voting in a certain direction. We just don’t do that.
But I don’t shrink back from teaching on any subject at all.
We need to think Biblically about the issues that are affecting our lives and the life of our society. Abortion is affecting the life of our society. So is the war in Iraq. So I talk about it … Evangelical Christians — and I count myself one, so I’m not speaking outside the camp — I think it’s a mistake to have a political perspective that’s reduced to two issues: abortion and homosexuality.
You know the Bible goes so far beyond those two issues. I think those are two very significant issues, but in terms of numbers of verses in the Bible or concerns that we find in the Sermon in the Mount, there’s just so many other concerns. And that also needs to shape the way that evangelicals engage politics.
When politics is just driven by what I was call this unfortunately reductionist perspective it’s a big mistake. Because war is a Christian issue. It’s always been a Christian issue. Poverty is a Christian issue. The environment is a Christian issue.
So when Christians are just absent from the discussion, that’s a problem …
DISPATCH – Conservative evangelicals might not dispute that except they might come back and say abortion SHOULD get priority because it’s literally life and death. And while we have 2,500 going on 3,000 dead Americans in Iraq, this is something that’s killed more than 40 million unborn children. So that is a foundational issue to which we justifiably give priority. Also on marriage and family issues as a basic building block of society … NATHAN – If marriage and family were broadened out I might find that to be more sincere. It feels little disingenuous to say that homosexuality is the family agenda. It is AN issue.
But to me, the issue of divorce is the overwhelming issue because of family life in America.
Christians are getting divorced at the same rate as non-Christians, even in the Bible Belt. And Roman Catholics are getting abortions …
So it just feels disingenuous to say that the issue is homosexuality. Another family issue is out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Nearly a third of all births in America right now are out of wedlock. The issue of fatherlessness is epidemic.
I’m for talking about the family. I agree with that. But even there we’ll understand it in a more expansive way than this one issue, homosexual marriage.
LEFFEL – For which there are few political solutions. So I think the language of family values really can become manipulative and co-opt people who resonate with that language. I’m concerned about that.
Rich is right; those are the issues. And you can’t legislate don’t divorce, get your family life together, understand what it means to raise your children.
DISPATCH – Although I’ve heard gays come back with if you want to make gay marriage illegal to save the family, why don’t you just make divorce illegal?
NATHAN – Personally I’m supportive of some kind of covenant marriage approach. Or, as an alternative, we could have a two-track system: People could get a general (marriage) license or a covenant marriage license.
I would be personally supportive of more restrictions on the divorce law. As a pastor I counsel so many people who didn’t even face a speed bump when they were driving backward out of the driveway. The law as it is currently written doesn’t give people pause to stop and say do you really want to do this? You sure you’re going to be happier in five years?
Some kind of structure in law to require people to have some cooling off time, some time to really think through this is where they want to go. But once somebody heads down to their attorney, you’d better get an attorney …
That was one of the times I’ve gone down to the Statehouse, to advocate on behalf of covenant marriage. But I see that as a family issue …
I am absolutely pro life. Our church is pro life. We believe that God is the author of life and he’s supportive of life and he’s supportive of the weak, continually. God and the Bible stand on the side of the weak and the defenseless.
So an unborn child is the defenseless, and so we would be very protective of the unborn in this church. We have lots and lots of counseling for single moms. We offer all kinds of groups to try to encourage single moms to keep their children. And we support them in that decision. That’s part of our role in protecting the defenseless.
But we also want to help a single mom after she makes that decision, by giving her both financial help as well as community support. So it’s not just save the child, but also protect the single mom and assist the single mom to raise the child well.
LEFFEL – I would say that abortion is virtually a non-occurrence in our church of 5,000. And the reason for that is that we’re deeply committed to one another as a community. Our church is a network, a family of house churches all over this city.
And that what it takes to succeed in these very difficult social areas that relate to the family. It’s not a political solution.
The political realm can help, and we want to get behind where those partnerships will help. But that’s not the solution. The solution is a community of people submitted to the Lordship of Christ, and for that reason have some real common ground.
NATHAN – I don’t think in my whole history of pastoring here I’ve heard of an abortion here. Now, it probably has occurred … But it’s simply part of the culture. The culture is so supportive of single parents and there are so many ways to get assistance here that it becomes the cultural norm to keep your child and to raise your children.
LEFFEL – I want your readers to understand that no matter who they are, where they’re at, what they did yesterday or what they’ll do tomorrow, that God loves them and that they have a place in our church. The political dimension of this is not what we care about.
NATHAN – God is not a Republican or a Democrat. You don’t have to be one or the other to participate in the Vineyard.