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What does ecclesiology have to do with the election?

The old maxim "all politics is local" hasn't held true in the 2008 election season. Despite the potential for Democratic landslide victories in the Senate and House of Representatives, you hear little except the latest back-and-forth between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama. Republicans have tried desperately to localize each Congressional race and deflect attention from their unpopular President. But polls showing their incumbents in trouble suggest they have not succeeded.

Today's media climate works against politicians who want to focus on local issues. All-day cable news networks have cut into the demand for local news broadcasts. Struggling newspapers add commentary on national and world affairs, not more local reporting. Candidates for local races can't afford major media advertisements, and they labor to attract attention from the dwindling number of small-scale newspapers and radio stations. And yet local politicians are the ones who set sales-tax rates, allocate funds for road construction, run our schools, and oversee various other programs that shape our everyday lives.

Evangelicals have struggled to develop a coherent, comprehensive political philosophy. That problem manifests itself in local elections, where social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion do not play a large role. Even left-leaning evangelicals' focal issues, including poverty relief and health coverage, typically play out on the national level. As a result, few voter guides circulated among evangelicals even bother to include local initiatives and candidates.

While evangelicals have grasped for theological principles to guide their political behavior, they have likewise searched for biblical clues to guide their ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. Though the link between politics and ecclesiology may not be obvious, it is no coincidence that evangelicals stumble in both realms. In each case, evangelicals have neglected to properly care for what's right in front of them.

Evangelical neglect of the local church is a function both of history and theology. Historically, efforts to reform American Protestantism circumvented churches that had succumbed to theological error and evangelistic complacency. So after World War II, parachurch organizations proliferated. To this day, the ad-hoc movement is led not by its churches but by its seminaries, publishing houses, and campus ministries. Even in this megachurch era, many pastors cut their teeth in parachurch ministry and lead their churches like an evangelistic mission or social-service agency. By targeting specific demographic groups, they do not speak to their local communities as a whole.

But most evangelical churches are congregational, which suggests that conservative Protestants have a high view of the local church. After all, their forebears rebelled first against the Roman Catholic Church, and many later abandoned Protestant state churches. Lack of a denomination is no hindrance to them. The largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, grants autonomy to local churches.

Yet the way evangelicals embody their theology today sometimes precludes a local focus. Evangelicals inherited from the Protestant Reformers a distinction between the visible (gathered) church and the invisible (universal) church. The Bible speaks of the church in both ways. Jesus Christ is the head of the body — that is, the church universal (Col. 1:18, 24). Through the church universal, the "manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (Eph. 3:10). But Paul also greeted the local church that met in the house of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom. 16:3-5), and addressed local churches in Rome, Laodicea, and Colossae.

Over time, this balance has been lost. The proliferation of evangelical churches with varying degrees of differences encouraged a focus on the universal for the sake of movement unity. Now, when evangelicals talk about the church, they usually have the universal church in mind. Something crucial is lost in this imbalance.

"Evangelicals have often excused a deep neglect of the order of the church by emphasizing its invisibility," late Presbyterian pastor and Westminster Theological Seminary professor Ed Clowney wrote in The Church. "If only the church invisible matters, there need be little concern about the unity, holiness, catholicity, or even apostolicity of the church."

We might add that there need be little concern for the local church's shared life, either. Overemphasize the church's invisibility, and you may sidestep church discipline. You may neglect practical ways to care for your neighbors. You may become judgmental toward others, especially your leaders. You may not even be able to identify the strangers in your midst. In a highly mobile society, you may drift from church to church, unaware of your soul's need for consistency and deep relationships. Worse, you may conclude that you get plenty of nourishment from books, sermon downloads, and Christian radio. Only too late will you realize that famous authors and musicians don't visit you in the hospital, help you find a job, or babysit your children. Nor can they come alongside and spur you on to practice the faith you profess. A church that is only invisible can hold no one accountable.

No one naturally seeks accountability. But Christians cannot grow without it. The local church is God's gift to help believers flourish in ways they can't on their own. Here they hear the Word preached, partake in the sacraments together, and lift their voices in song to worship the triune God. Here the Holy Spirit sanctifies them as they learn to live peacefully together and serve one another. Here they know and are known by one another. Accountability defeats anonymity, the scourge of urban America. As anyone who commutes or reads the Internet knows, anonymity is sin's best friend. Yet anonymity is what we have sold to spiritual seekers as a benefit of visiting evangelical churches.

"Market analysis has also shown that many people prefer to visit a church anonymously, so seeker-driven churches will often avoid identifying newcomers. Jesus may be among us in the form of a stranger, but we would never know it unless he filled out a response card," Leadership managing editor Skye Jethani writes.

"In our changing cultural setting, is anonymity still the right value for hospitality? Does sensitivity to non-Christians mean having to ignore biblical rites, language, and church traditions? What does it mean in our day to honor strangers as Christ among us? Some younger church leaders, myself included, believe that we need to abandon the seeker/believer dichotomy in the church and practice a 'radical hospitality' instead."

Hospitality and accountability are exceedingly difficult to practice in megachurches and big cities. But they are still possible for many local churches and urban neighborhoods. Indeed, this is why we might prefer all politics to be local, unrealistic though this may be. At this scale, politicians still understand the needs of their communities because they live there. If they nevertheless serve their own interests, residents can look up their phone numbers or even knock on their doors. Embarrassment discourages poor behavior. They can't hide and don't want to move away.

Local isn't sexy. But any hope for change starts there. Local churches where members show grace to one another by holding each other accountable become hospitable refuges for the broken, poor, and shunned. They are the bedrock of local communities whose leaders are accountable to biblical virtues and protect the most vulnerable among them.

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site.

For more politics coverage, see Christianity Today's campaign 2008 section and the politics blog.

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