SETTING THE TEMPERATURE – Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries
Jim Lyon, General Director, Church of God Ministries –
The people business is, well, complicated. Let’s take, for instance, the present political stage in the United States. A new President has been chosen; he sits now in the Oval Office; he’s busy pursuing his agenda. But, not everyone is comfortable with his agenda. Or, his team. Or, fundamentally, him. Quarrels fester. Marchers march. The talking heads discuss. Heels dig in. Facts are in dispute; alternative facts is a phrase suddenly now imbedded in English vernacular. Some imagined that the unpleasant edge of the last presidential campaign might fade once the polls closed. Alas, not-so-much.
I love politics; I have always loved politics. I have always sensed that my calling in Christ was not to divorce my faith from the public square but, on the contrary, to engage it. As a young man, I pursued a career in public service. I represented, for a brief time, 74,000 people who lived along the shore of Puget Sound in the cities of Seattle and Shoreline, in the Washington State House of Representatives. I learned then that the people’s business in government could be rough-and-tumble. I stumbled into some awful headlines; I said things I wish I had not said; I struggled in the shadow of personal ambition juxtaposed with the common good. I was young (just twenty-five when I launched my first campaign), idealistic, in a way naïve, and yet also dogged in the pursuit of what I believed to be right. I was forced to make some choices that I did not want to make. I found myself calling political opponents to apologize for my intemperate speech. In the end, I landed on issues and in tenor as I believed Jesus would have me land, not where, by human reason, my political career would best be advanced. I learned that some of those across the aisle with whom I had the most profound disagreements were as principled as was I—and most excellent company off the House floor. I learned to not take opposition personally, but to believe the best about others, even in the heat of argument. It was a tough, growing, stretching time for me. It honed my sense of self and has informed the way I have interacted with others ever since.
My political career ended as I was drawn into the Christian ministry. But, I have never lost my fascination with politics or my sense that government service can be a noble and high calling. There have been times, as a pastor, in which I stood forward to challenge what I considered to be untoward, even unrighteous, conduct in public affairs. I likened those years to a kind of pick-up basketball game, in which random players, without referees, throw a few elbows, play to win, but then walk off the court to share a beer—no, I never drink alcohol, I drink orange juice. Like I said, the people business is complicated.
But, public life is not a pick-up basketball game. Government is not a business. Living in the White House, charged with bringing a nation together, is not like living at the top of Trump Tower, accountable to only your gut instincts. Venting on social media, personally diminishing those who dare suggest another point of view—or using Facebook to personally disparage the President and those in his camp—is not a pick-up basketball game.
This is not a game at all. We live in an age when the stakes are very high. And in this tumultuous time, as in all times, relationships are key. How we relate to each other, how we treat each other, how we speak to each other, how we represent our ideas to each other, will determine whether or not the whole thing blows up. Yes, I said blows up. We are walking through an explosive minefield. At home. And, on the world stage. Jesus did not suggest we consider the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31); He commanded it. If you want to be respected, speak respectfully to and about others.
I walk a fine line in my post at Church of God Ministries. The Church of God is a house divided, deeply, by current events. There is no consensus except that there is no consensus. I have my views—and I think I’m a pretty smart guy, well-informed, politically savvy, worth hearing, and all the rest. But, you won’t catch me posting them. Anywhere.
Why? Because my job is not to divide the body of Christ, but bring it together. My allegiance to the kingdom that is not of this world is greater than my allegiance to American politics. I do not want anyone to walk away from Jesus because he or she felt like they had to walk away from me on issues of less than eternal consequence.
Not everyone who works at Church of God Ministries—at home or abroad—sees this in the same way. Some have felt compelled to speak their minds on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other channels. They do so personally, not on behalf of the ministry that employs them. At both ends of the political divide, we have received objections from our church family who have been offended or concerned by personal social media posts from our team. Some have taken their financial support and walked because I declined to speak up for or against Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in the last campaign.
There are some in the Church of God who support the trajectory of the new President’s policies (even as there were some who embraced the last); there are some in the church who vehemently oppose the President’s plans (even as there are some who detested the last). When taking a stand, I am asking all of our staff to do so thoughtfully, respectfully, speaking as Christ would speak, speaking the truth in love (as the Scripture commands). Our political speech must conform to this standard of expression as does all the rest of our speech. If those who hear (or read) you miss the loving frame of your comments, you have failed your Christian witness.
But wait, Jim. Will you not speak when an undeniably moral cause comes into view, when public policy indisputably contravenes a biblically grounded moral order? Yes, I will. The New Testament is no stranger to speaking truth to power: John the Baptist was having none of the “we’re not looking for a Sunday school teacher to lead the government” line so often heard these days; he stood tall when he publicly rebuked Herod for his outrageous sexual conduct while, at the same time, professing to be the palace guardian of the culture’s Jewish Old Testament heritage. The king, of course, exacted a terrible price for the Baptist’s boldness. Jesus was not cowed by that same Herod or later Pilate, clearly articulating kingdom principles. Paul bravely claimed high ground when he declared the gospel before Agrippa and Festus. The Old Testament is rife with the prophetic voice daring authorities to straighten up.
The trick is identifying what is truly heaven’s cause and what is a subjective political call. William Jennings Bryan said every great political question was essentially a great moral question. I would concur, but again, there are great political questions and less significant ones. Not everything that roils the news is a great question.
Jesus cautioned us to be wise as serpents and, at the same time, innocent as doves. This tension must rule our heads and hearts, always. Keep your powder dry; be certain the Lord has called you to stand forward before you upset the apple cart. Regularly find news from varying perspectives, don’t be reduced to a news ghetto, subscribing to outlets that sing only your song. Be balanced; if you’re outraged (and you should be) by the Charleston Church shooting (and the twisted political frame that inspired it), you’d better be outraged by the murder of men in prayer in a Quebec City mosque, too. If you believed Bill Clinton was unfit to be in the White House because “his wife couldn’t trust him” (a popular tag in the 1990s), you’d better think carefully about separating Donald Trump’s private life from his public one. When defending your ideas (scrubbed by Scripture, knowing Jesus is the author of your passion), be careful to wade into the fray in a way that moves your audience to Jesus, not just the proving of yourself right. Remember, Jesus is the subject.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed that the church is too often the thermometer instead of the thermostat. We too often simply reflect the temperature of our time instead of setting the temperature of our time. Every follower of Christ has a responsibility to be a thermostat. Make it your ambition to change the temperature of the room, moving it closer to heaven’s set. Let no one doubt your love. Let no one intimidate your calling to speak truth.
Jesus calls us to be salt and light; influence is the measure of kingdom success, not rosters, lists, numbers. I believe the Lord is going to use this Movement to change the world. We will punch above our weight. We will have opportunity to do so, by the Lord’s appointment. We will find ourselves in the vortex. However and whenever it unfolds, we must be the people of Jesus. Redeeming. Reclaiming. Reconciling. In the way Jesus did. And does. Pray.
Be tireless in the way you manage your correspondence to enhance and strengthen the unity of the church. This pleases Jesus. Do not swallow wrong, but neither allow political passions to separate you from other believers. Jesus is the subject.