Rochester elder takes on political division in his church
There is so much more that unites Christians than divides them, Chris Roberts says. He will tackle those issues with a series of Sunday school classes called "Civility in Uncivil Times."
ROCHESTER, Minn. — We have become a quarrelsome people.
Politics is eating away at our civil society. It causes people to evict from their Facebook pages those they disagree with politically. It divides friends and families and creates rifts in church congregations.
Chris Roberts, an elder at Salem Road Covenant Church in Southwest Rochester, Minn., worries about political division creeping into his church. So he is tackling the issue head-on with a series of Sunday school classes called "Civility in Uncivil Times."
The goal: To discuss how Christians can talk politics in a way that doesn't cause estrangement and division within the church, community or even families.
Everybody from the small, 150-member Salem church tells Roberts it's a great idea. They're just glad they're not leading it.
"I think everybody's feeling this," Roberts said. "It's apparent to anyone with their eyes open. The country is divided, and everybody is afraid of losing friends and walking on eggshells around people that they should be embracing."
The challenge can be thorny for Christian churches, because the issues dividing church members are deeply moral.
Evangelicals can't understand why every Christian doesn't support President Donald Trump and his anti-abortion agenda. Joe Biden supporters can't understand why anyone would vote for an amoral man who supported separating children from their immigrant parents crossing the border.
That division is tearing at families even headed by nationally renown Christian leaders. Two weeks ago, on the same day that Billy Graham's granddaughter, Jerushah Duford, published an op-ed in USA Today critical of Trump, another granddaughter, Cissie Graham Lynch, spoke in favor of the president at the Republican National Convention. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, is a Trump supporter.
Church leaders are often loath to wade into political debates for fear of alienating and losing members of the church, which relies on membership and donations to survive.
Yet Roberts believes that an open discussion about how Christians can talk about politics is critical. Avoiding it, he fears, risks letting tension and division fester in the church. Another danger: By taking one's identity from politics, Christians risk subordinating and losing their "more powerful identity as children of God."
There is "so much more" that unites Christians than "all that stuff that divides," he said. "Even if we can't agree on a particular topic, the idea of grace and forgiveness has to supersede any enmity" felt in the Christian community.
"The real fear for me is that I love my church family, and I don't want the division that we see in the world to creep in the congregation," Roberts said.
Roberts, 46, hasn't been immune from social media trends in these rancor-fueled times. He is certain he has lost Facebook friends because of his political views. He knows there are family members who disagree with him.
A conservative, Roberts is a Trump supporter who admits to having "mixed feelings" about the president's character but none of his policies. He considers Trump one of the most "pro-life" presidents in his lifetime and applauds his efforts at brokering peace in the Middle East.
Yet even in these politically fraught times, Roberts doesn't believe it's practical or desirable to shy away from politics.
"We've been told forever: Don't talk about religion. Don't talk about politics," he said. "But those two things are central to our lives, and we have to talk about them if we're going to be honest about who we are."
An IBM employee, Roberts describes himself as a person who relishes a good debate. Roberts speaks in a calm, dispassionate voice. It likely served him well when he won an Iowa state debate competition in high school. He said he irritates his kids because he will argue both sides of an argument.
"For me, I don't like it when people shy away from controversy. I think we do a lot better when we face it and work through it," he said.
Roberts said he envisions the series of four Sunday school classes to be conducted like a Socratic dialogue. Anybody outside the church is welcome to come. The series begins at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 20, at Salem Road Covenant Church, 3401 Salem Road SW, Rochester.
Roberts said the Bible is replete with material about how to bring calm to discord and disagreements. He expects those verses to drive the discussion.
"Like everybody else, this election cycle is not getting any less divisive the closer we get to the election," Roberts said. "As elders in the church, we felt there was a need to help reassure our congregation that we could have brothers and sisters that did not agree with their political opinions."