The history of the Christian Church could be written as a history of the struggle to maintain purity of belief and practice in the face of pressure to conform to culture. Many of the divisions within the Christian family tree are the result of disagreement about purity: see Acts 15, the Donatist Controversy, the Radical Reformers (aka Anabaptists), and the Holiness movement, just to name a few. The root of the struggle is a desire to adhere to Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:2: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” When disagreement arises about how much conformity is too much, divisions happen.
This desire for purity – purity of doctrine, of lifestyle, of allegiance – is a good thing, although it can be pursued in harmful ways. But the call to Christlikeness is complicated by the simple fact that Christians who live in the United States are residents of a secular, pluralist society with a government that was intentionally designed to force compromise. A call to uncompromising faith does not fit easily with a social system that requires compromise. When the Christian desire for purity collides with the demands of being a good citizen or resident of a secular pluralist society, serious conflicts are inevitable. Navigating these conflicts with integrity requires Christians to seek clarity over purity.
The Demands of Clarity and Purity
Clarity demands that we differentiate what is and what is not compatible with Christian teaching. Purity, in contrast, demands that we reject everything if a part is incompatible, or accept everything if part is compatible. Clarity lives with dynamic tension. Purity lives with static rigidity. When Christians apply our desire for purity to American political and social movements, which have different foundations and different aims, we adopt or reject such movements wholesale, instead of discerning what is and what is not consistent with seeking the Kingdom of God.
Purity demands a binary. Pure/Impure. True/False. Right/Wrong. All/Nothing. Truth without any mixture of error. For some Christians this leads to isolationism (e.g. Amish communities) or separatism (e.g. some Mennonite communities). But for many Christians this leads to baptizing that which is incompatible with the Word of God for the sake of affirming what is compatible; or, conversely, condemning what is compatible with the Word of God for the sake of rejecting what is incompatible.
Purity or Clarity in Partisan Politics
This conflict is most evident when it comes to partisan politics. Christians who identify with the Republican party often do so on the basis of the party’s position on abortion. Christians who identify with the Democratic party often do so on the basis of the party’s position on social justice. Both see their party identification as informed by and rooted in their Christian faith. But the desire for purity demands an all-or-nothing allegiance. It offends Christian sensibilities to align with only part or to compromise some values for the sake of others. So instead of seeking clarity by differentiating what we do and do not affirm about the party’s positions, we seek purity by adopting political positions that are inconsistent with Christian teaching. The entire party platform is deemed compatible with the Word of God, and the opposing party’s platform is deemed completely incompatible. In order to maintain purity, we Christianize the entire platform, use Scripture to defend it, question the faith of those who align differently, and in so doing we distort our vision of the Kingdom of God to the point of unrecognizability.
Seek first the Kingdom of God. Desire a pure and single-minded pursuit of Christlikeness. For the sake of pursuing Christ alone, Christians should seek clarity as we live in the world without being conformed to it. Clarity enables us to live in a secular pluralist society without succumbing to its deficiencies or excesses. Clarity requires us to navigate complexity with discernment and humility. It is more difficult than purity, because it requires us to think. Clarity might lead us to change our minds or our affiliations or our priorities. A Christian who is seeking clarity is able to criticize and reject some elements of party platforms while affirming others. A Christian who is clear about the nature of the Kingdom of God is able to partner with non-Christian organizations and movements where their aims converge while articulating the limits of the partnership. A Christian who is seeking clarity welcomes disagreement among Christians as an opportunity to see Truth still more clearly. A Christian who is seeking clarity always feels a bit out of place in the world and is deeply uncomfortable with elements of all political parties, even if he chooses to be very active in party politics.
Clarity is difficult. It requires thought and study. It is uncomfortable. Christians are never promised ease or comfort.
Our minds are renewed, not anesthetized.
The world needs Christians who are pure in our pursuit of the Kingdom of God and clear in our engagement with the world.
A forthcoming series of posts will explore how this framework can be applied to the 2020 election. A previous post examined one way this framework applies to the Black Lives Matter movement.