Joe Biden attends Mass every week and regularly speaks about his Catholic faith. But earlier this month the Catholic Bishops of North America voted by 3 to 1 to begin work on statutes that could ban him from receiving communion, because of his views on abortion. The Catholic Church considers abortion to be a grave sin. But Biden has a liberal stance that abortion, in some cases, is necessary.
For an openly Catholic President to openly oppose Catholic teaching is unprecedented, so the story has attracted a lot of press.
Important as it is, abortion is hardly the only issue that separates Christians. The list of divisive issues includes gay marriage, capital punishment, climate change and the old one that doesn’t go away… women in leadership. All these topics are huge and need their own space for discussion, but the thing they have in common is they are also political, high on the political agenda of society. This raises an important question:
Should the church involve itself in political issues of the day?
As a follower of Jesus, I have to answer a clear ‘yes’ to that question. Jesus often debated with governing authorities and attracted crowds at public events. He stood up against injustice and regularly gave speeches pointing to a new order. He would almost certainly have become involved in issues of this nature (although we don’t know what he would have said on legalised abortion).
The gospel is deeply connected to matters of social justice, and that makes the gospel “political”. Of course, that is different to being “party political”. We cannot claim Jesus for our Lib-Dem or Tory or Republican party (although some do!)
How do Christians maintain unity on issues that divide us?
We often get confused between “unity” and “agreement”.
We think that unity means we agree on everything, but it doesn’t. In an enduring marriage, we don’t pretend that we must agree on everything. We agree on some things (hopefully our wedding vows), but then we recognise that the relationship, our unity, matters more than any specific debate. We learn to “disagree well”.
Christian unity means we sign up to core gospel-centric beliefs. I suggest that these are only the beliefs and issues specially called out in the ancient creeds of the church. On every other matter, even life and death issues, we must disagree well, respectfully disagree, continuing to work together in love and in fellowship.
Everyone thinks ‘disagreeing well’ is a great idea, until its their favourite topic we have to disagree on
But, the problem with the phrase “disagree well” is everyone thinks it’s a great idea until it’s their specific issue in question …. “Yes we must disagree well but on THIS «insert topic» you must agree with me”. I have seen Christians attempting to join the dots up to make their personal issue a gospel-centric issue. They will say, for example: “if you don’t believe God created the earth in 6 literal days as in Genesis 1, then you can’t believe in X. If you don’t believe X then you don’t believe Y, and if you don’t believe Y you don’t believe in Jesus”! That’s just wrong. Everything then becomes a gospel-centric issue.
Keep the main thing the main thing – the core doctrines of faith called out in the creeds. Other matters may be supremely important, but they are not matters to split churches or refuse Communion to members.
Learning from our history
Through history, churches have cast-out individuals on all kinds of matters. Equally, churches have split and whole denominations birthed on topics which, looking back, sometimes don’t appear to be that important. The Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Church split in 1054 AD (ultimately their split was over over single word). The Protestant Church has divided and split countless times since the Reformation. In fact there are now over 40,000 Protestant denominations (yes, you read that number correctly).
We need to take seriously the command of Jesus for Christians to actively love one another. This is not an invitation, this is a command. We don’t have to agree with other Christians, or even like them, but God’s expectation is that we love them. His expectation is that we join with them in extending the love of God, and bringing the kingdom of God.
We don’t have to agree with other Christians, or even like them, but we do have to love them
And let’s take the trouble to understand the issue from the other side. Sometimes we react in ignorance because we only know what “Christians like me” think. This often includes common mistakes, for example: “Catholics worship saints” (no they don’t), or, “there’s no scriptural evidence for infant baptism”(yes there is).We need to take the trouble to understand why Christians have a different view to us, especially on emotive topics matters of political and social conscience such as abortion
So, will Biden be the first US President to be denied Communion by his Church?
Clearly the Catholic church are now considering if Biden’s liberal view on abortion puts him so far outside of Catholic orthodoxy, that he should be denied Communion. It’s also complicated by the idea that the Pope can declare an issue to be critical or not.
If they did proceed with this idea, it would be a mistake for two reasons. Not only is this not a gospel-centric matter, but Biden isn’t simply the President of Catholics. He’s the President of 330 million Americans. He has a wider remit than the church, and he has the responsibility to represent a spectrum of views of the American public, not just outspoken clerics.