Pastoring the Polarized

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In just a few seconds on social media, pastors can discover a great deal about their church members. We can learn about their kids’ accomplishments, what they had for dinner last night, and even, if you care to know (I do not), what their cats did this morning. We can also discover just how diverse or homogeneous our churches are by observing members online. Their portfolios, posts, and comments indicate how they feel about such topics as racial tensions, economic challenges, political campaigns, or worldwide pandemics. It can be an enlightening (and terrifying) exercise if you dare to undertake it.

In my own Staten Island church family, the challenges of recent years have exposed a wide variety of political and ideological positions. These differences have spilled into online debates (more like debacles) with labels like “white supremacist” and “baby killer” used to describe fellow church members based on their political affiliations. On multiple occasions, members aimed their fury at their pastor for not saying enough, or saying too much, or merely challenging them to engage these topics in a more charitable spirit.

How does a pastor work to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) in a climate like this?

We must personally engage the people we serve in an effort to journey with them through these difficult times.

The answer comes, as it usually does, by looking to Jesus. He sets the example on cultivating authentic unity within deep diversity. Let me illustrate from a list of the twelve disciples from Matthew 10:2-4:

  • Simon Peter
  • Andrew
  • James, Son of Zebedee
  • John
  • Phillip
  • Bartholomew
  • Thomas
  • Matthew the Tax Collector
  • James, Son of Alphaeus
  • Thaddaeus
  • Simon the Zealot
  • Judas Iscariot

Extremely Different Disciples

While each of the disciples had their own eccentricities and personality quirks, the inclusion of Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot into the twelve disciples should grab our attention. Why? Because, in that culture and context, Jesus could not have chosen two men from farther ends of the ideological spectrum than these. Could you imagine putting the most extreme members of the Black Lives Matter organization and the Make America Great Again movement in the same workgroup? Jesus’ inclusion of both Matthew and Simon was even more extreme.

Consider that, in order to be a tax collector, Matthew had to sell out his family, friends, and community in loyalty to the Roman Empire which would give him the cover to get rich by fraud. Few were more despised people in Israel than tax collectors. The Jewish Talmud actually gave instructions on how to lie to a tax collector, because they assumed the low-life traitor deserved it. When Jesus called Matthew, he was a Roman loyalist who had sold out his people for own personal profit.

The Zealots, on the other hand, were an extreme group of Jewish dissidents committed to overthrowing the Roman occupation of Israel through covert assassinations of Roman officials and Jewish sellouts, like tax collectors. The only thing the New Testament tells us about Simon, other than his calling as a disciple, is that he was a Zealot. So, when Jesus called Simon, he was an operative in an anti-Roman terrorist organization carrying out guerrilla attacks on anyone who got in his way.

Unity Among Diversity

How did Jesus handle such political and ideological differences within his disciples? Jesus called both Matthew and Simon to do the same thing: “Deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). That’s right — in both the first century and the 21st century, Jesus demands that His disciples lay down secondary affiliations in order to take up our primary identity in His kingdom. It has and will always be Christ before all and Christ above all. Diversity in secondary affiliations is not a bad thing, so in order to pastor the political crazies we must be ready to challenge them to lay down the smartphones and close the laptops so we can all pick up the emblem of suffering and shame together.

Does that mean that we no longer hold to political or ideological convictions? Not at all. We must allow the Bible to shape our convictions about pressing moral questions of our day. But it does mean that we must see one another through the lens of Christ Jesus and not merely through our political perspectives.

Does that mean that we do not confront one another when we fail to love God or love our neighbor? Of course not. I have often wondered if Jesus may have looked over at Simon as he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17) to see if the former Zealot rolled his eyes or gritted his teeth. No, Jesus did not shy away from the difficult topics or the hard conversation, and neither should we.

Jesus called to himself, and spent years investing in, more than a few political crazies. But he did so with limitless love and focused personal attention. And while social media may provide a pastor the opportunity to form opinions about the people he is called to shepherd, it does not offer the best way to actually know or love them well. We must personally engage the people we serve in an effort to journey with them through these difficult times. Only then will we be able to see past the politics and ideologies and truly love them for who they are: the sheep of his pasture whom it is our privilege to shepherd.


Editor's Note

A version of this article originally published at EFCA East.

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John Welborn

John Welborn is the Senior Pastor of Salem Church in New York City’s green borough of Staten Island. He holds degrees from both Liberty University (BS, DMin) and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.A.). John has been married to Ashley for nearly 20 years and they have three children together. In addition to his role at Salem Church, he is a regular contributor to several publications and podcasts, offering helpful content primarily about ministry leadership and church multiplication. He enjoys traveling with his family, riding motorcycles, playing golf, and watching his favorite sports teams: the Georgia Bulldogs and Atlanta Braves.

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