There Must Be Factions

Christian Unity is Founded on Truth

“Lord, please help our church not be divided over politics…”

This seems to be a common prayer and sentiment in Protestant churches. It’s a noble aspiration, but if taken to its logical conclusion, it can discourage civic engagement on behalf of God’s truth.

Consider two different interpretations of this exhortation. One: that our congregations would adhere more and more closely to God’s truth, knowing that this is the only path to true unity. Two: that congregants would come to understand and accept that fellow members may vote and think differently on political and cultural matters and place unity above these disagreements. 

To the extent that this second meaning is intended or presumed, we are playing with relativistic fire, despite how seemingly obvious and biblical this language might seem on the surface. It is easily construed as implying that one’s political affiliations and beliefs resemble one’s favorite ice cream flavor, that there is no higher, objective truth against which they can be evaluated, or that a church should never be in the business of endorsing moral positions. What follows from this is moral equivalency: who’s to say which party or system of belief has a greater claim to upholding biblical justice? An additional subtext is often that it’s more important that we all get along anyway.

This is fundamentally a Positive World message. When a culture holds a generally positive view of faith, faith-informed perspectives are prevalent and prominent in the public square. As a result, such views tend to be marbled into the platforms of different political parties and worldviews, as the Overton Window is generally favorable to these views. (Consider the once robust cohort of pro-life Democrats.) In this context, it is still dangerous to maintain the fiction of an absolute moral equivalency, but intelligent people can at least debate the merits of various political allegiances. But this is clearly not our present context.

This “unity over division” perspective also evinces a deeper category error. I will take great pains not to relitigate the Great Keller Debate of 2022, but the kind of moral equivalency this perspective fosters is manifested in calls for a biblical justice that transcend Team Red and Team Blue. The category error of this “biblical justice” perspective lies in placing it alongside Team Red Justice and Team Blue Justice as a third, better alternative. Consider what this presupposes: First, that “biblical justice” is not what faithful Christians have been seeking in developing conceptions of justice all along; and second (as a corollary), that “biblical justice” has been epistemically unavailable to these Christians but has somehow now been revealed to this select group of contemporary evangelicals. By positioning “biblical justice” as a third way rather than the end to which we all strive and the standard by which we evaluate competing views, they preclude any Christian from contending that either Team Red or Team Blue is closer to the target of biblical justice. In practice, this outlook tends to promote either a quietism about cultural and political topics or a selective focus on topics where the demands of biblical justice and our cultural priorities and proclivities seem to largely align.

Contrary to the third-wayers, it is patently obvious that one team is closer to this target. To put a fine point on it: One of the two political parties happily presided over, and continues to champion, the slaughter of millions of human beings made in the image of God. Abortion is not the only salient political issue for Christians, of course, but it should be close to black-and-white for the faithful Christian. (Not to mention, there are countless other issues on which Team Red, despite its manifold flaws, is far closer to the target.) If you are a Christian who votes Democrat and/or holds progressive political views, you owe your fellow Christians a thoughtful justification for this choice, rather than simply claiming that Christians transcend political divisions.

That’s a difficult justification to make. Cases like this elucidate the false unity that the “unity-over-division” view espouses. The pro-choice member who stands firm in his view poses a near-impossible challenge for a church with these commitments. On what grounds can this member be reproved or corrected?

In such cases, the “unity over division” view incentivizes silence and passivity. Any moral stand could jeopardize the unity of the church; therefore, none should be taken. If such a perspective is allowed to predominate, confidence in the power and efficacy of God’s truth—specifically that it has vital things to say about contemporary cultural and political issues—is liable to wane. Even worse, it evinces a lack of faith in God’s power to effect true unity among His people. It attempts to substitute an artificial unity for the real thing: the perfect unity of Christ that transcends all differences not by diminishing them, but by bringing about conformity to Christ and his word by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul goes so far as to say that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized” (1 Cor 11:19 ESV, emphasis added) and that it is precisely those who act “contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught” that cause divisions in the church (Rom 16:17 ESV). True biblical unity is always unity in the truth.

This is not to say that we have all the answers, of course. But by reinforcing that true unity will only come as we adhere more and more closely to God’s truth—and, realistically, not fully on this side of glory—a church encourages discussion of what that truth entails for faithful civic engagement, rather than silencing such discussion in the name of unity and thereby enabling moral relativism. This approach encourages the church to speak boldly on issues where God’s truth is clear, or clearly applies. We should be exuberant in our celebration of something like the Dobbs decision, for instance; a tax cut or stimulus bill, perhaps not.

The third-way, “unity-over-division” view is attractive because cultural engagement is messy. The illusion of clean hands is more easily countenanced than the idea that we may have advocated for an immoral cause (or, to be more cynical, than the risk of losing the respect of one’s non-believing peers). Moreover, I’d imagine many churches are wary of being associated with other churches that take cultural and political engagement too far. Yet in all of this, there is a certain irony to Protestants–those who broke from the Roman Catholic Church over matters of truth–pursuing a superficial unity at the expense of boldly proclaiming the truth. We will fail and fall short, as we always do. But this is no reason to avoid the fray.

“Lord, please help our church adhere more and more closely to your divine Truth…”

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Carter Skeel

Carter Skeel Carter Skeel is director of development at the Institute on Religion and Public Life.