By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
We live in troubled times in both our politics and religion--and they can be especially troubling for pastors who are trying to be disciples. Been there, done that, so I can testify on this issue. Being a pastor requires a commitment to preach the gospel, promote the church and nurture the spiritual needs of a congregation. Being a disciple requires following the teachings of Jesus. Being both can be a mission impossible.
Jesus didn’t call his disciples to worship him, but to follow him. He even rebuked a man who called him good, saying that only God is good. Following Jesus meant challenging traditional customs and beliefs and putting love over law at a time when Mosaic Law was the standard of righteousness for ancient Jews. Being a disciple was a narrow and unpopular way; but while the cost of discipleship could be high, the spiritual benefits were worth the cost.
Jesus was not very pastoral. He was a radical--even subversive--Jewish rabbi who used pastoral metaphors in his teachings, but he never promoted any religion, not even his own. He had no congregation and was more likely to criticize Jewish religious leaders for their hypocrisy and sanctimony than to commend them, and he expected his disciples to follow his example. Jesus continues to be a hard act to follow for pastors promoting an institutional church.
Today most Christian pastors are good people, but few are good disciples. That’s because the first priority of pastors is to promote the church as a popular social institution, and that requires subordinating the uncomfortable duty to follow the teachings of Jesus to belief in Jesus as the Trinitarian alter ego of God. Jesus never taught that. It’s a form of cheap grace.
Discipleship is not a new problem for pastors. It has existed throughout the history of the church. But it has reached a crisis point in America with distorted doctrines of “family values” and a prosperity gospel that more closely resembles the self-centered objectivist teachings of Ayn Rand than the altruistic teachings of Jesus. Pastors must refute these false gospels with the altruistic moral teachings of Jesus to save the credibility and legitimacy of the church.
In normal times, the Christian pulpit would not have to mix religion and politics. But these are not normal times. Distorted evangelical doctrines have promoted radical right politics that now represent an existential threat to American democracy and the church. Silent pulpits in mainstream churches only aid and abet that threat. It is a time for discipleship in the pulpit.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer the cost of discipleship was to leave the safety and security of an American seminary to oppose Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany, and it cost Bonhoeffer his life. Pastors in America don’t have to risk their lives or go anywhere to oppose political tyranny; they need only preach and practice discipleship and the stewardship of democracy in their churches.
In 2016 a majority of white Christians elected a President who is the antithesis of Christian morality. But on November 6 those voters can repent and prevent a repeat of the 2016 political fiasco--that is, if pastors can motivate their congregations to follow the greatest commandment to love God and to love their neighbors as they love themselves, including their neighbors of other races and religions--even their homosexual neighbors.
To perform this modern miracle of faith and politics, pastors must be disciples first and pastors second. They must have the courage to mount their pulpits and preach the moral imperatives taught by Jesus that are summarized in the greatest commandment and counter the radical right politics promoted by evangelical charlatans. That’s what discipleship and the Christian stewardship of democracy is all about. Let’s just hope that our pastors aren’t too late.
Jim Nates demonstrated the priority of discipleship over support for traditional values in his commentary on the issue of homosexuality in The Fork in the Road on page 11 in the September issue of The South Carolina United Methodist Advocate. Nates questioned a statement in The United Methodist Book of Discipline that says, “While all people are of sacred worth, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be ordained as clergy,” and then asked “why other practices contrary to Christian teaching...such as greed, hatred, sloth, etc.” do not prohibit ordination. Nates’ advocacy of change to allow the ordination of homosexuals opposes the “family values” of evangelicals that consider homosexuality and same-sex marriage sinful. Nates has also been one of a few United Methodist pastors who have actively participated in interfaith dialogue, and he collaborated with Rudy Barnes, Jr. and Dr. Waleed El-Ansari in preparing The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith study guide posted in the Resources listed on the home page of http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/.
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(12/15/14): Faith and Freedom
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(5/31/15): Liberation from Economic Oppression: A Human Right or Obligation of Faith? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/05/liberation-from-economic-oppression.html
(1/9/16): The Four Freedoms, Faith and Human Rights
(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
1/30/16): The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves
(3/26/16): Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery
(4/2/16): The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good
(5/14/16): The Arrogance of Power, Humility and a Politics of Reconciliation
(6/18/16): A Politics of Reconciliation with Liberty and Justice for All
(8/5/16): How Religion Can Bridge Our Political and Cultural Divide http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2016/08/how-religion-can-bridge-our-political.html
(9/10/16): Liberty in Law: A Matter of Man’s Law, not God’s Law
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(11/19/16): Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation Based on Shared Values
(11/26/16): Irreconcilable Differences and the Demise of Democracy
(12/17/16): Discipleship in a Democracy: A Test of Faith, Legitimacy and Politics
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/7/17): Religion and Reason as Sources of Political Legitimacy, and Why They Matter
(1/21/17): Religion and Reason Redux: Religion Is Ridiculous
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(3/4/17): Ignorance and Reason in Religion and Politics
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17) Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/29/17): Speaking God’s Truth to Man’s Power
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(10/21/17): The Symbiotic Relationship between Freedom and Religion
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/13/18): Nationalist Politics and Exclusivist Religion: Obstacles to Reconciliation and Peace
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/24/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christian Morality as a Standard of Legitimacy http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/03/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on_24.html
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(5/5/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Nostalgia as an Obstacle to Progress
(5/12/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christianity and Making America Great Again
(6/2/18): Musings on Good Versus Evil and Apocalypse in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(6/30/18): Who Are We? Musings on How Our Faith Shapes Our Politics and Who We Are http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/06/who-are-we-musings-on-how-our-faith.html.
(7/7/18): Whose America Is This? Musings on Conflicting Standards of Legitimacy in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/07/whose-america-is-this-musings-on.html.
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(7/21/18): Musings on America’s Moral and Political Mess and Who Should Clean It Up
(7/28/18): Musings on the Polarization of Christian Morality and Politics
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
(8/18/18): Musings on Religion and the Morality of Socialist and Libertarian Politics
(8/25/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Moral Priorities in Religion and Politics
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads