Christian Solutions Can Vex Political World


ABILENE—Christians can be misunderstood as they offer faithful-yet-unconventional solutions to political problems, professor and author William Willimon told participants at the annual T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University.

The world may not always recognize Christians’ political solutions, acknowledged Willimon, professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School.

“Following Jesus Christ, we as Christians don’t do politics the way the world does politics,” Willimon said. “Politics for Christians is a struggle to respond to the world as God has responded to the world in Jesus Christ. To respond to threats to our well-being the way God responded. To take as our neighbor not those who have a certain passport, but those who Jesus Christ has loved. A struggle to keep our borders as large, expansive, as permeable, as the kingdom of God.”

Uncomfortable position

Christians occupy an uncomfortable position at the political table, he added, noting they should not “too easily” and “too closely” align themselves with politics on the right or on the left.

“I think our faith is more demanding that that,” he said.

Citing Jesus’ arrival as a challenge to existing power structures, Willimon argued Christians should address the problems of their neighbors as a means of political activism. But “it’s often difficult to follow Jesus into the corridors of power,” he said. “These places that can be so delusional about their own power and influence and their own goodness.”

Challenging perspective

When America was founded, freedom of religion was an underlying principle, he said. Religion in America is free as long as it remains personal and private and does not interfere with the sovereignty of the nation, he added, noting Christians become convinced they have something at stake in American politics, but it is a challenging perspective.

“Maybe we are among the first Americans to realize the price that we pay for what we call religious freedom,” he observed.

A politician recently made controversial comments about immigration and thought his pastor would address it at church, Willimon reported. Instead the preacher introduced an immigrant family to be baptized. The family said their church was the only place they felt welcomed and embraced in their new country.

“This is the most radical political statement that could be made,” Willimon said. “This is what we call politics. This is our response to the questions of immigration.”

God’s great big plan

The world may call such solutions ineffective and insignificant, but those words also were used by critics of Jesus, he said. “Your church and mine is God’s answer to what’s wrong with the world. This is God’s great big plan.”

Jesus did not speak often of politics, and when he did, he took it lightly because he had a different concept of power, Willimon said.

Jesus refused Satan’s temptation to rule all the kingdoms of the world, he reminded the audience. So, part of the task of being Christian is not taking politics, secular society and government too seriously.

“It’s tough for us to talk politics, because primarily politics has become the functional equivalent of God,” he said, explaining people sometimes look to politicians instead of preachers for guidance.

The modern democratic state also is proving to be its own kind of challenge, he added.

He recalled a TV reporter interviewing a missionary in Lebanon during the 1980s, when the country was under attack. The missionary refused to leave, saying it was her calling to be there, even though the United States no longer could guarantee her safety.

“This woman apparently had two passports in her possession,” Willimon said. “She was a citizen of the United States, but she had also, apparently from her comments, held citizenship in another realm—the kingdom of God.”

Willimon was dean of the Duke Chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke University 20 years. He returned to Duke Divinity after serving as bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church 2004-2012.

He has written 60 books, as well as numerous articles. He is pastor at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C. He was named one of the “12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World” by Baylor University.

The annual T.B. Maston Lectures in Christian Ethics are presented by Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary and Logsdon School of Theology. The lectures seek to honor the legacy of T.B. Maston, longtime professor of Christian ethics and pioneering Baptist ethicist, known for his writing and teaching in the areas of biblical ethics, race relations, family life, the Christian and vocation, church and state, and character formation.

Young Maston Scholars

During the lectures, Logsdon Seminary Dean Don Williford announced the 2016 Young Maston Scholars, undergraduate students at Texas Baptist Universities recognized for their interest in, engagement with and integration of Christian ethics.

The 2016 scholars—15 students from eight schools—are T.A. Alvarado and Debbie Gonzalez, Baptist University of the Americas; Xavier Adams and Madelyn Yarbrough, Baylor University; J. Porter Brewer and Austin Odom, East Texas Baptist University; Davidson Sutherland and Corbin Garner, Hardin-Simmons University; Michael Detana and Trent Richardson, Houston Baptist University; Kelsan Wolverton and Robert Martinez, Howard Payne University; Emma French and Jake Raabe, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor; and Jon Emmanuel Silva, Wayland Baptist University.

Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Leadership (rev. Ed.), excerpt 1

This month Abingdon has published the revision of my book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Leadership. Pastor has been used in dozens of seminaries and has helped thousands of new pastors on their way into ministry. It has also been used as a resource for sustaining the ministry of many. For the past couple of years I’ve been working on this revision, guided by my classes in Introduction to Ordained Leadership at Duke Divinity School and informed by a decade of interesting research in pastoral ministry. Here is an excerpt from the revised edition of Pastor:

New Creation by Water and the Word
In the living room of my grandmother’s rambling house, after a large Sunday dinner, family and friends gathered. Lifting a silver bowl filled with water, the preacher said words, made promises, and then baptized me—made me Christian. There is much about this originating faith event that I would have done differently. (Baptism properly belongs in a church, not in a living room.) Yet God manages to work wonders despite the ineptitude of the church. Becoming a Christian is something done to us, for us, before it is anything done by us. What we might have done differently, had it been our action alone, is not as important as what Christ and his church do for us in baptism. As an infant, I was the passive recipient of this work in my behalf. Someone had to hold me, had to administer the water of baptism, had to tell me the story of Jesus and what he had done, had to speak the promises of what he would do, had to live the faith before me so that I might assume the faith for myself. In other words, by water and the word, that I am Christian is all gift, grace.

Thus I began as a Christian by water and the word. Thus the world began (Gen 1). Brooding over the primordial waters, God speaks, and a new world springs forth. My world as a Christian began in baptism, that strange, deep, formative, and indicative rite of the Christ and his church. It is up to God, in each generation, to make the church, to call by water and the word a new people into being, or there is no church.

Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan by John was the beginning of his ministry. When Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened and there was a voice, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22b). It is a scene reminiscent of the Spirit of God brooding over the primal waters of creation, creating a new world, then pronouncing it all “very good” (Gen 1:31). Luke follows this dramatic baptismal descent of the Spirit with an unexciting genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38), taking Jesus’s paternity all the way back to Adam. I suppose this is Luke’s way of reiterating the gifted quality of the Beloved. True, Christ is a gift from heaven, fruit of the descent of the Holy Spirit, yet he is also the bequest of the ages, of a gaggle of ordinary folk like Peleg, Eber, Shelah, Noah, and Adam. He is here as gift of God from above and also of Israel from below.

In my baptism, I was product of a human family, a people who had clung to the promised land of upcountry South Carolina for five generations, scratching out a living in cotton and cows until my nativity into a new generation who would rather live off schools, churches, and hospitals than work the land. It was a human family, with the goodness and badness of most any family.

Yet I was, as signified that day in my baptism, also a gift of God. Heaven was mixed up in who I was and was yet to be. In my beginning was also some divine condescension enmeshed in my humanity, some incarnation. From that day on, in ways that I am still discovering, you could not explain me without reference to my baptism, to the water, the promises, the story, the hands laid upon my head. Criticize what you will about the mode of my baptism—whether or not it should have occurred so early or if there should have been instruction or a different location or more informed intention—you must admit that it worked. Here I am telling the story of the story that was told to me, the story that I did not tell myself, the story that I am still learning to tell—a story named discipleship.
As soon as Luke is done with Jesus’s genealogy, the story of Jesus’s ministry begins. “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1). Now his work commences. Ministry is a gift of baptism. This gift of water and the word, this act of a descending Holy Spirit, is also an assignment. First the baptismal gifts. Then the baptismal vocation. “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and . . . He began to teach in their synagogues” (Luke 4:14-15).

Yet if you know the story, you know that between his baptism and his ministry in Galilee there is temptation (Luke 4:1-13). In the wilderness, during his forty-day sojourn, the devil offers Jesus some tempting, even noble, alternatives—stones to bread, political power, miracles—all good in themselves. Jesus says no. Even these good works do not fit the ministry to which Jesus has been called. Right at the start, Luke reminds us that ministry is, from the beginning, a choice between God’s work and our own. Vocation and temptation seem to go together. If we lack clarity about our proper work, the devil is quite willing to tell us what to do.

Therefore, this book’s exploration of ordained leadership assumes the originating baptismal call, then moves to the peculiar nature of the clerical vocation in order to gain clarity about that vocation and its duties. Ministry is both gift and assignment. This reflection upon the ordained life is carried out upon the background of Luke 4:1-12; among pastors it is always possible to get things wrong, temptations abound, and the devil is ever eager to substitute his work for God’s.

Will Willimon



Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Revised book coverEdition) is a revision of the popular text – used in seminaries and by pastors – published by William H. Willimon in 2002, along with Pastor: A Reader for Ordained Ministry, which still stands as a companion to the revised version.

Willimon has observed how the book functions as a text at Duke Divinity School and noted shortcomings he addresses in the revision – such as focusing more on the pastor as a leader of mission. He also asked students and fellow seminary professors for revision suggestions. Since writing the original book, Dr. Willimon also served as a United Methodist Bishop, and in that role of overseeing the work of 600 clergy gained a unique perspective on the pastoral vocation. He also observes the explosion of literature in ministry, especially in the areas of leadership, mission and church planting and takes new insights into account.

“Christian Leadership’s amazing ability to reinvent itself in response to new demands and opportunities induced by the Holy Spirit requires that we continually revise our practice of pastoral ministry while being faithful to the historic theological rationale for the church’s pastors.” (from the Preface to the Revised Edition)

To order print or electronic copies