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Friday, April 8, 2005

Religion and Politics

Two events occurred this morning to prime the old thinking pump: the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Vatican City and receiving the February 28, 2005, issue of The Journal: News of the Churches of God in the church's mailbox. I have not read through an issue of that publication for a long while, so I skimmed through it before passing it on. It did not surprise me one bit to read a litany of complaints, criticisms, and controversies from one end of it to the other. I usually do not read The Journal for this very reason. It depresses me, and I take that as a cue to continue to avoid it.

Regarding the Catholic Church, I have read and heard a great deal—especially over the last few weeks—about the deals, schemes, plots, and machinations among the members of the College of Cardinals when it is time to elect a new Pope. My essay of March 4, 2005, "John Paul II's Successor," summarizes some of the latest speculation about who will emerge as the next Roman Pontiff due to the various blocs that already exist among the electors. Between now and the first sign of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel, the media will carry blow-by-blow accounts of the cardinals' politicking.

Closer to home, right on the fold of The Journal's first page is the languid headline, "The United Church of God's council of elders chooses not to affirm Roy Holladay as president." Page 3 carries a commentary, "The UCG turns 10: It's now or never," in which the author advocates a grassroots push to make "ordinary members'" desires for the next president known. The next page is top to bottom on speculation about how the council will align itself to elect a certain man as president, as well as the tumultuous history of UCG's presidency. The rest of the issue was every Tom, Dick, and Mary's opinions on doctrinal issues ranging from Passover to church eras to the nature of God.

Intriguingly, the page-4 predictive article, "Here is how council will select Jim Franks as UCG president," by Dave Havir, devotes its last handful of paragraphs to a comparison between the College of Cardinals' and the UCG council's processes for selecting a new head. Havir writes, "Whether loyal Catholics like to admit it or not, political maneuvering behind the scenes by the well-entrenched College of Cardinals is going on. . . . The same is true with an organization like United." The entire article illustrates step by step the wheeling and dealing that has already been done among the council members.

Is this surprising?

It should not be. When United decided to adopt a quasi-democratic, corporate governmental structure, politicking became an instant by-product. But this is not confined to United. When other churches chose their forms of government—hierarchy, presbyterianism, congregationalism—politics resulted for them as well because it is not a product of government but of human nature. It is essentially a human approach to accrue power or to end up on the winning side of a dispute.

A survey of the New Testament on the subject of politics proves to be an interesting study. We discover that those who stoop to politics or other devious means to get their own way are the bad guys. The ones in white hats are the apostles, evangelists, and other saints who submit to the will of God concerning His delegation of authority. Did our Savior once condescend to become involved in the political maneuverings of the Jewish sects of His day? Did he try to make an under-the-table deal with Pilate? In the church council at Jerusalem, do we find evidence of back-room "discussions" to push through the apostles' agenda? Do Paul and James take pot shots at each other over law and grace, pitting church members against one another?

No. They are all shown to be men and women who "walk[ed] by faith, not by sight" (II Corinthians 5:7). Sure, they disagreed at times—Paul's rebuke of Peter in Antioch is the best known (Galatians 2:11-16), as well as Paul's dispute with Barnabas over Mark (Acts 15:36-41)—but they never took the road to factions and voting blocs to get their way. They exercised the fruit of the Spirit to work in accord, or at the very least not to get in each other's way (II Corinthians 10:13-18).

While attending Ambassador College in Pasadena during the mid-1980s, I had the opportunity to work as an "Office Assistant" in Church Administration (August 1985-August 1987, that incredible period during the last half-year of Herbert Armstrong's life and the first years of Joseph Tkach's tenure). However, even from my lowly position, I could see politics at work in the corporate environment of the Worldwide Church of God. Running errands to every department on campus, where corporate intrigue thrived, I grew to abhor church politics because its worldliness and destructiveness were plain to see.

My brush with church politics nearly twenty years ago brings back frustration and sadness when I see it happening again within the churches of God. It does not bode well for the organizations that practice it because, frankly, they are exposing before the church and the world their works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) rather than godly fruits of the Holy Spirit working in them (verses 22-23). The apostle Paul warns in a preceding verse, "But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another" (verse 15).

If this is symptomatic of the majority of the converted membership, the whole church of God has a great deal yet to overcome. We still have not shaken off from ourselves the ways of this world. We have a frightfully long way to go before we recapture the "one accord" of the early church (Acts 2:1, 42-47). Let us contemplate this as Passover approaches (II Corinthians 13:5).