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Handling political controversy

Controversy is normal and inevitable in politics, even between Christians. Politics is more often about means than ends. Politicians usually agree about the sort of society they want their nation to be but disagree about the policies for realising this. Political controversy is often about conflicts of interest because our interests are not identical. Politics is ultimately about the exercise of power and political parties compete electorally for power to achieve their visions for society. Lobbyists compete to influence those in office to achieve our visions. However, we live in a fallen world in which human sin sometimes corrupts how we conduct our campaigns and handle controversies with those who oppose us.

Controversy is not inherently wrong. Matthew 15:1-20 demonstrates that Jesus engaged in controversy with the Pharisees whom he accused of hypocrisy. The Council of Jerusalem was called to resolve a controversy about how far Gentile converts should obey Jewish law and traditions. Galatians 2:11-21 records a related controversy between the Apostles Peter and Paul. Today, it would be a sin for Christians to remain silent when we see evil being done. If politics is about choosing the values on which we are governed, we should expect it to involve controversy. Campaigns we launch, such as a campaign to abolish or limit the scope for abortion, must expect an opposing campaign to protect a woman’s freedom to choose to abort. Moreover, Christian involvement in politics will itself be controversial for secularists who think religion is a private matter that has no place in the public square.

Notwithstanding the inevitability of controversy, it does have its dangers. Some enjoy controversy for its own sake, without regard for the consequences. In Galatians 5 the Apostle Paul describes discord, selfish ambition, dissensions and factions as acts of the sinful nature and commends kindness, gentleness and self-control as fruit of the Spirit. Believers are the body of Christ, “so that there should be no division in the body” (1 Corinthians 12:25). Those who are temperamentally confrontational need to remember this when they engage in political or any other type of controversy. There is also the temptation to ‘baptise’ personal prejudices with a dogmatic absolutism. Controversy can hurt those who are ‘thin-skinned’. It is when controversy undermines Christian unity, distorts perceptions of the faith and damages Christian mission in the wider society that it becomes a serious problem. So, whilst it is right to campaign vigorously for causes rooted in our biblical worldview and conscience, it is essential that we conduct our campaigns and handle our differences in a distinctively Christ-like manner.

When we enter a political controversy, perhaps we should first ask what our motives for doing so are. Is our purpose to serve Christ, pursue personal ambition or win an argument at any cost? Are we acting on a God-given conviction or a personal prejudice? Do our arguments and methods reflect the values of the Kingdom of God or those of the world? Is controversy sufficiently justified to risk causing division between Christians? Could our disagreements be discussed in private, face-to-face meetings rather than public controversy? Before charging into a controversy we should ponder Oliver Cromwell’s question to his opponents, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.’

St Paul’s letter to Titus commends this attitude, asking Titus to remind Christians “to slander no-one, to be peaceful and considerate, and to show true humility towards all men”. (Titus 3:2) The Apostle urges us to “avoid foolish controversies” (3:9). His primary concern was with doctrinal and theological controversies that threatened Christian unity but we should be equally concerned about any controversy that divides Christians and brings the Christian faith into disrepute. The causes on which we campaign, investing our time, resources, spiritual and emotional commitment, will matter a lot to us but nothing is as important for Christian discipleship than our relationships – with God and with our fellow human beings.