Ed Stetzer: A Higher Allegiance

“It’s an election year.” 

I can feel the collective shiver of pastors across the United States. The truth is, those four words didn’t come with quite as much dread in the past as they do today. But we don’t live in ordinary times. As I have written before, we are in the midst of a once-in-a-generation cultural convulsion that has not just divided our culture, but it has also divided many churches. Yet, we do not pick the times we lead, and this is our time to lead well.

Left, Right and Centered

For the last few years, Christians have sorted themselves into churches that align with their political priorities and opinions, and we have seen the fallout in the church. We’ve all navigated these difficult social, political and cultural tensions. Maybe you’re a pastor and you’ve lost a job or a key church member. Maybe you’ve simultaneously been branded as both “woke” and a bigot by different people, as David Platt told me he was on my radio show recently. 

Referencing a tense political situation, he said, “I managed to be labeled both a far-right-wing conservative and a far-left-wing liberal.” And, here we go once more into the breach in 2024.

Make no mistake, such convulsion and tension do present a challenge to the church, but they also present us with an opportunity. The country has been more divided and will divide increasingly more. The question is whether we will join them in that division. We have a chance to display an otherworldly unity in the midst of this world’s division. In a series of articles*, I want to explore how Christians, and specifically Christian leaders, can lean into the opportunity that the current political moment offers.

Fortunately, we are probably better prepared for 2024 than we were for 2016 and 2020. Simply put, some people have already left mad, and many of us have learned to speak more boldly—or more wisely—or maybe some combination of the two. But how do we prepare for what promises to be a challenging year? Well, I think that remembering we are both exiles and ambassadors might help. 

Not of This World

At any given moment, the people of God can probably find an echo in the experience of God’s people throughout the story of God’s purposes. Specifically, the people of God  live in exile. While Christians have always been “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), at times we have convinced ourselves that we are at home in the world. Very few Christians maintain such a delusion any longer. The culture often rejects and opposes our faith, even considering our beliefs and practices dangerous and toxic.

When the people of God first found themselves on the other side of his discipline, displaced into Babylon, God sent them instructions through the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote them a letter. In this letter, which is found in Jeremiah 29, he explains how the people of God should live as exiles in the midst of an empire. I would define an empire as any overwhelming cultural force, so Christians now live in the midst of a number of “empires.” Politically and culturally, both the far right and the far left can overwhelm Christians and the church with the power of empire. 

Jeremiah’s letter helped Israel live as exiles in the empire of Babylon, and it can help us live as exiles in the empires that surround us. They were exiles. We are exiles. This culture and country are not our home. That’s worth remembering as some will seek to draw you in and to make it your primary focus, but it is not. Now, don’t misunderstand. We should vote. We should speak up. We should advocate. But exiles know what their primary focus should be. And, for us, that is the kingdom.

Our status is citizens of an eternal kingdom living as exiles, so what is our mission? To live as “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). We do not sit passively, but our primary advocacy is for God’s kingdom and glory. 

This struck me recently when I was in Washington, D.C., for a meeting about religious liberty. I had the privilege of sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives, in the spot where the joint chiefs sit during the president’s State of the Union address.

It was a chaotic moment in Washington, when there wasn’t a sitting speaker of the House. Just a few hours before we went in, members of the House walked out and yelled at each other. It was chaos, like much of 2024 is probably to be. And the Lord laid on my heart: This is a temporal reality. There is no promise that this American experiment will last forever. Only the kingdom of God is a permanent reality. Only the kingdom of God will last forever.

What the world needs now is not more pastors caught up in politics, but more pastors equipping God’s people to live as ambassadors in this cultural moment.

Living as Leaven

Remembering what truly lasts redirects and corrects the shortsighted vision of the politics of the moment. As Christians and church leaders, we have the opportunity to think biblically in a time when very few people are thinking biblically. So many people are being discipled by their cable news networks and social media algorithms. But exiles think differently. They aren’t fully at ease in the culture. They have another mindset, that of their home country.

We can trust that our different pattern of thinking and living is right, because we trust in a God who is sovereign. Jeremiah starts his letter speaking directly for God, who says that he, not Babylon, was in control of the exile. God had orchestrated the exile of his people: “This is what the Lord of Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon …” (29:4). God was sovereign in and through and over the exile of his people. It was God’s purpose. He is also sovereign in and through and over the exile of his people now. Our situation is part of God’s sovereign purpose.

God has us here, and he is with us here. We are exiles, but we are his exiles. And we are his ambassadors, his representatives. We need to live like it.

Jeremiah’s letter doesn’t tell the Israelites to set up temporary tents but instead to grow roots in the soil of their exile: “Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce. Find wives for yourselves, and have sons and daughters. Find wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease” (Jer. 29:5–6). He casts a vision here of simple faithfulness in the midst of the temptations of cultural pressure. 

Politics in our moment has taken on the status of religion, and this current has swept up many into its pull. As Christians and church leaders, we can give our culture the gift of faithful living, showing a better way. We can see a parallel here in Jesus’ parable about yeast that leavens bread (Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20–21). Jesus explains that the kingdom and its citizens leaven the culture to bring life, hope, healing and transformation as we do the simple work of living faithfully as a community of the kingdom.

More Powerful Than Politics

A community of the kingdom that is a faithful, living resistance to the empire of the world doesn’t withdraw from the culture of exile. Jeremiah tells Israel that they don’t have the option to withdraw and wait for exile to end. “Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive” (Jer. 29:7). Part of such pursuit of the well-being, literally “peace,” means engaging politically, but also engaging more than just politically.

Paul Tripp said it this way: “Our greatest power is not political, and the minute you believe that your greatest power is political influence, you will compromise the gospel. It always happens. Our power is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, because the gospel of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ has the power to do what politics could never, ever do; and that is rescue and transform the heart of a person.”

Now, most of us would give that quote an “Amen!” but we must take care to preserve our focus, recognizing that we can do things that distract from the focus on the gospel in our churches. When we focus on a narrow, partisan agenda, we can distract and detract from the most important eternal things.

But as Christians engage the Word of God, they will care about the unborn, racial injustice, immigrants and refugees, religious liberty and more. All of those have political dimensions, and that means we may have political differences, but the kingdom of God still creates a people and keeps us on mission. And the moment we are in does not pause the mission we are on. 

* Ed Stetzer will continue his series on navigating this year at ChurchLeaders.com/Ed-Stetzer.

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