A phrase I’ve heard throughout my life, “putting the cart before the horse,” comes to mind for me when I survey the Christian response to politics in our day. Or at least the response that many Christians are making with respect to the current political scene. The phrase means “reversing the proper order of things,” and I see that more and more. Christians should always put the Gospel and the Kingdom of God before anything else, and we can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that’s what we’re doing when we have subtly shifted to an emphasis upon the cart (the cause we endorse) instead of the horse (that which empowers us to carry out the cause).
Since I’m a historian, let me begin my more detailed explanation by looking back at a particular moment in American history and a cause that many Christians endorsed, a cause that certainly was worthwhile, but that shows how the cart can become more important than the horse.
The movement to abolish slavery in America is something, in itself, that is in line with the Gospel. Despite the attempt to rationalize it by some Christians prior to the Civil War, my understanding of Scripture tells me that no “race” of men should ever be considered inferior or be treated in the manner in which American slavery was carried out. When the apostle Paul wrote his short book of Philemon, it was for the purpose of exhorting Philemon to receive back his slave, Onesimus, who became a Christian under Paul’s ministry, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a beloved brother. He is especially beloved to me, but even more so to you, both in person and in the Lord.” That’s called respect, regardless of one’s situation in this life. Christians aren’t to look down on those who find themselves in such a bad position as slavery. And when he wrote to the Galatians, he was quite clear:
Therefore, one can legitimately say it was a godly endeavor to do what one could do to eliminate slavery from the nation. Many did so because their Christian faith was the “horse,” so to speak, that drove the “cart” of the cause. But there were others who, while they may have begun in that spirit, eventually put that cart before the horse. They lived for abolition more than for the Gospel. When that happens, we can forget why we are pursuing our cause, and we may even set aside the importance of integrity in our pursuit. Character takes a back seat to whatever works to achieve the goal.
That’s the historical moment I chose to highlight. What about today?
I must begin with a confession. My entire adult life has been a balancing act between putting the Gospel first and trying to move the needle politically. There have been times, as I review my past attitudes and actions, that I know I’ve crossed a line and put the political cart before the Gospel horse.
I’ve written many blogs over the past fourteen years that I would not write today—at least not in the same tone. The Lord has led me on a path of reexamination, particularly since the 2016 presidential election. Those of you who have followed my anguished reaction to that election and the extreme disappointment I’ve experienced over my fellow evangelicals supporting a man whose entire life is an affront to Christian faith, know what I believe about this and how strongly I believe it even today.
Yet the Lord has continued to teach me that I have to make sure I don’t prioritize politics. I will always promote Christian participation in the political realm because I sincerely want the government to follow a more Christian ethic. There’s nothing wrong in seeking that. Abolition of slavery was a righteous cause. Abolition of abortion is a righteous cause. Calling out politicians who operate as narcissists, hypocrites, and/or mere political animals who sacrifice principle for short-term gain is also righteous. We must speak truth to the culture. However, I must not do so in a way that stains the Gospel message.
It’s not easy at a time when our politics has become so divisive to be a voice of Christian reason, yet that is my goal. I haven’t fully achieved it. I have to stop myself from responding to everything that irritates me (and I don’t always succeed). Even when I don’t respond, there is this struggle within; the Lord has to continually remind me that anger and bitterness are not going to achieve His righteousness. I have to be patient with my fellow believers who seem to me to be caught up in a political fever that tends to undermine our Christian witness.
A scripture that keeps cropping up in my mind and heart over the past few years is this one:
Pursue peace with everyone, as well as holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God, and that no root of bitterness springs up to cause trouble and defile many.Hebrews 12:14-15
I recommend these verses to my fellow believers. Make them a daily reminder of how we ought to act in this sinful world. Allowing the Lord to minister to us through verses such as these will help us keep the horse ahead of the cart.