The Church Blog: Nigerian pastors want to be influential in politics – but there is something they have to do first

Since we had this piece up, it has attracted a bit of attention.

And so we thought it would be helpful to bring forward something we wanted to explore later – institutional church engagement in the world’s influence centers, especially government – and just do it today.

Nigerian church leaders have made it abundantly clear, at least from its Pentecostal wing, that taking leadership in crucial sectors of the country is now an important strategic goal.

That’s all right really. There is enough scripture to back this up.

Proverbs 14:34 for instance: “Righteousness exalts a nation.

Then there is Ephesians 1:20-23 (The Message translation): “All this energy issues from Christ: God raised him from death and set him on a throne in deep heaven, in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and no power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the center of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.

Leke Alder, one of the key influencers of this movement, has said this: “Our sphere of operation is the world, not the church. We are the salt of the earth, not the salt of the church. (Matthew 5:13) We are called to make disciples of all NATIONS. (Matthew 28:19) The world is our theatre of operation”.

And Jesus, we must always remember, was a politically consequential leader, as intent on the Resurrection as he was focused on the inequalities of his time.

It is therefore in order for any generation’s Christian leaders (indeed of any group in any given society) to seek political influence and power to push the ideas and worldviews that they believe will better the world.

There is the issue of intent: Jesus was influential not for His own sake, simply the aggregation of power, but because it was central to His larger mission – making life better for the vast majority of His children. Is that why our pastors want power?

But then there is the most important issue – the quality of the people who want to lead.

To become a thought leader, and then a power centre it isn’t important to put in the work. One does not happen upon such influence without the power that comes from putting in the work: either based on experience, or on the power of ideas.

Martin Luther King wasn’t just a minister of the gospel who happened to lead a generational movement that endures. He was an intellectual heavyweight who had carefully thought about the world through the prisms of history, sociology, economics and even criminal justice. He had deeply read, engaged and deepened his concept of the world and carefully shaped his vision of how he would engage that world and then change it.

Take this excerpt for instance, from an academic interrogation of his formative influences:

As Martin moved on to the seminary, he began to pass countless hours studying social philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke. Next came Hegel and his contention that “truth is the whole.” This fascinated King and convinced him that growth comes through struggle, an idea that would later prove very important in his life. While King deplored the substituting of materialism for religious values, he applauded Marx for exposing the injustices of capitalism, promoting class consciousness among the workers, and challenging the complacency of the Christian churches. It was in part due to his reading of Marx that King became convinced that capitalism had failed the needs of the masses and that it had outlived its usefulness. When it comes to identifying his greatest influence, however, I think King might place Walter Rauschenbush ahead of all of these philosophers, for his book: Christianity and the Social Crisis. It was this work which made King realize that a person’s day-to-day socioeconomic environment was important to Christianity.

In King’s later career, he came to be associated to certain thinkers by the content of his speeches and writings. For example, he used the concept “agape” (Christian brotherly love) in ways that showed the unmistakable influence of Paul Ramsey. Ramsey has coined the phrase “enemy-neighbor” (the neighbor includes the enemy) and referred to regarding him with love as the ultimate in agape, for in such cases nothing can be expected in return. King’s own words closely echo this statement when he professes that, “the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.

The intersection of religion and social justice came from years of scholarly research and careful engagement.

Mother Theresa is looked at these days only as this kindly old woman who went around preaching poverty and compassion, but she wasn’t just a woman of religion.

She was a ruthless political strategist who spent time on her own reading and dissection through her writing on the ideas and philosophies that drew her work. That perspicacity gained her huge credibility within the church and then with the political leaders she arm-twisted to support her mission and vision of the world.

The same can be said of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the origins of his global influence.

This wasn’t credibility and authority brought upon simply by cursory incursions into Bible School for one of two years, writing a string of books strung together by bible verses about riches or burying heads in the administration and growth of churches. This was the realm of ideas.

If Nigeria’s pastors truly want to be influential outside the walls of a church for something other than knowledge of the bible; if they re-engineer this society in fundamental ways – via politics and the culture especially – a fundamental change in approach will be needed. Social engineering is not beans.

That’s the difference between being another pastor who can be easily dismissed for being weird as is the case with many influential American pastors who cannot influence the mainstream and being a consequential leader as respected for grasp of the gospel as for a grasp of society’s workings.

Pastors cannot look like they are just winging it. They can’t interrogate ideas about governance, governing philosophies, economic theory, psychology, sociology, reform, the foundation of traditional family structures and others without fully understanding the concepts and ideas they are talking about.

Pastors can’t just wing it. And the bible is not the only book that even bible scholars must read.

We want to believe this is why many of Nigeria’s old school pastors – perhaps including those who lead the pack now like Bishop David Oyedepo – leave those terrains alone. It is an acknowledgement perhaps of primary credibility. The bible is what they know, the bible is what they want to drill down on and become authorities in. Anything else they don’t know about – e.g. public sector reform or social movements – they do not dabble in.

A new generation of pastors have a different vision, and that’s fine. But it requires a different set of tools. Intellectual rigour for one. Knowledge acquisition outside the bible and finding the nexus with Bible-driven faith.

This isn’t a put down; of course, it’s instead a demand for reality.

If we could pray nations into change, God’s Generals over the past few decades and centuries would have so done.

The rules of that space require a complex interplay of knowledge and forces that go beyond the realm in which we typically play.

We must go above and beyond the typical to create the kind of influence that changes the typical.

We cannot afford to dabble. We must put in the work. And that’s just the beginning.

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