Kings and Presidents: An interview with Tim and Shawna Gaines

One of the great parts of being a pastor in a denomination is the chance to meet and grow alongside fellow clergy who are passionate about the Kingdom of God. While I’ve known the Gaines via social media far longer than I’ve known them “in real life,” Tim and Shawna’s calling and passion for the Kingdom has always been evident in everything they’ve done. It’s this same calling which lead them to write a book many might have steered clear of.

Generously, the Gaines have taken a few moments to talk with me today about their book, Kings and Presidents: Politics and the Kingdom of God. I encourage you to go buy their book.

I promise, you will not be disappointed. 

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First off, well done on this book. It’s a great step toward a healthy and Christ-centered conversation about politics and the church. I always love to hear the story behind the inspiration for a book. For you two, where was the idea for this book born?

The original idea wasn’t about a book at all. Back in 2012 we had the idea to preach a sermon series at our church. We had been studying 2 Kings and kept seeing themes that challenged politics as usual. You could say it was born out of our pastoral concern to cast a distinctly Christian vision of politics for our congregation.  We sensed that a “Christian” approach to politics in the minds of our people mainly meant choosing one party over another (we had both Democrats and Republicans in our church).  We wanted to suggest that the Christian tradition isn’t subsumed under one party platform or another, but contains resources to offer a totally different way of thinking about politics. The series so resonated with our congregation and several people suggested we turn it into a book, and here we are!

As you studied 2 Kings together, and as you wrote these sermons/book, what proved itself to be the biggest personal challenge to the way you have always thought?

Probably the chapter on Elisha’s stew and the “death in the pot.”  We had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of a dear friend and mentor, Pastor Steve Rodeheaver, who lectured on this story. He has a gently painful way of letting scripture speak truth to power.  The idea that our job isn’t to dig out all the elements we consider “bad apples” or even to sift out all the worldliness but rather we engage with the hope of the coming kingdom of God.  Ultimately it is God bringing the Kingdom that will and does change the very substance of this world. That’s hard for pastor types like us.  We always have our spidy-senses out for fowl temperaments, hard hearts and good ole’ fashion heresy.  While we need to be aware of what’s going on in our churches, it’s not our job to purify the pot.  We simply proclaim the Kingdom, and that takes a lot of patience!

You talked a bit in your book about how much of this material came out of, and in response to, a church dealing with what it means to be faithful during an American election year (A struggle for many churches). What was the church body’s response to this series? How have others outside your local congregation responded? 

The church was really receptive overall.  Once it was clear that we weren’t waving red OR blue flags, it cut a lot of the tension. They understood that we weren’t trying to convince them to vote for one candidate or another, but rather calling them to see political life very differently.  We often assume that Christian faith should fit inside of our politics, and what we were trying to do is suggest that political life really must fit inside a life of discipleship that follows a very different pattern.  There were still tears and cheers on election day, and both responses are appropriate, but we definitely heard a change in tone in the way they talked about politicians, victories and defeats.  And tone tells you something about “where your treasure lies.”  So far those outside our congregation who have engaged this book seem to be eager for different language to talk about politics in such a polarized season.  And I hope to that end we have been helpful.

You make an important distinction between the “World of Kings” and the “World of the Kingdom.” How have you seen the church often find itself entangled in the “World of Kings” rather than as agents of the “World of the Kingdom?”

The most troubling example of this doesn’t have to do with elections and politicians.  For us our biggest concern is when the church adopts the same political sensibilities as the World of Kings.  Leaders look to dominate and rule rather to serve and submit.  Individual churches build their own kingdoms, insistent on constantly quantifying victories rather than seeing themselves as part of God’s larger Kingdom within a community and throughout the world.  Christians ugly attitudes about political elections are really just symptomatic of a larger problem: they are living in the World of Kings and claiming to speak for the Kingdom.

In your chapter dealing with the story of Namaan (2 Kings 4:8-37), you explored “decorated irrelevance,” a phrase originally coined by Brueggemann. Decorated irrelevance is this idea of someone dressing or puffing ourselves up in hopes that order to display a power that is utterly worthless. In what ways has the church sought power through kings, and resigned themselves to a life of decorated irrelevance?

Ouch, this one is so much easier to talk about in terms of politicians we will never meet.  But you are so right, the church is often guilty of decorated irrelevance.  Truly anytime the church is putting power on display it is decorated irrelevance.  The only reason to display power is to intimidate and control and these are not the ways of the Kingdom and, therefore, they have already been exposed as worthless in the light of the cross.  There is a difference in celebrating service and even Christlike leadership and displaying power.  Faithful congregations (districts, conferences, and assemblies) must test the spirit of their pomp and productions.  Faithful leaders must test the spirit of their use of authority.

You spoke a bit about contract theory, or this idea that people are unable to function as a society without contract that binds us together. You also talked about how, when this is fleshed out, it can lead to deep seeded mistrust and anger towards “the other.” Talk a bit about how the church might find it’s way away from contractual relationships and more towards covenantal relationships.

I think a lot of it comes down to taking our own story seriously and coming to terms with the fact that Christian discipleship is a very unique and strange way of life.  When we take that strange way seriously, we will likely see that following Jesus doesn’t mean we support this candidate or that candidate, but we primarily follow after Jesus and his utterly different approach to life.  I mean, discipleship to Jesus just doesn’t ‘fit’ in our modern political system.  It doesn’t ‘work’ in the sense that it doesn’t play by the rules of oppositional politics played out through power dynamics.  And that means that everything is different for disciples, including the way that we engage with others.  Because contracts are all about maintaining a certain kind of power over against “the other,” it will mean that we are always, in some sense, opposed to the other.  The way of discipleship, however, is about reconciliation.  Jesus’ own Sermon on the Mount is pretty clear about the call upon the lives of disciples to be reconciled to one another.  Contracts will always keep us at a bit of a distance from one another, but reconciliation will ultimately be fulfilled in fellowship.

In your final chapter, you talk about how the World of the Kingdom uses people who are unexpected, or seen as less-than. In what way does the Church struggle to see the calling of God on the lives of the unexpected? Who might a modern-day “Leper” be for those in the church?

The poor, the alien, the widow and the orphan.  I know I’m stealing from a Biblical script here, which might not sound “modern” but I think we still haven’t gotten it.  Churches and ecclesial power centers are moving away from cities and away from the poor while more and people are moving into the cities.  The way politicians talk about children of God who lack documentation as though they are less than human is certainly translating into a type of paralysis in the local church when it comes to serving this community.  Meanwhile, churches pour their resources into serving the normative family unit – mom, dad, 2.5 kids – while more and more young adults are intentionally living single, more marriages are ending in divorce, and the LGBT community is at a lost as to how to engage the church for those that even have the desire.  If we can heed the commands of scripture – poor, alien, widow, orphan – perhaps we won’t spend many more generations bemoaning our inability to connect with the generation that follows.

Do you guys have any new projects on the horizon? Anything you can tease your readers with?

Shawna has two video-based Bible studies coming out called Breathe: Created and Breathe: Wilderness.  We each have a chapter in a sequel to Dan Boone’s A Charitable Discourse, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that will develop.  We also contributed to a volume about the call of God that Mark Maddix and Stephen Riley are putting together titled God Still Calls.

Finally, and on a slightly lighter note, what is the best book you’ve read over the past year? How did it impact you?

Tim has been doing a lot of re-reading these days as selecting books for classes.  I think the biggest impact on me is a collection of lectures by Karl Barth that go under the title Evangelical Theology.  In it, he reminds us how humble we must be as we go about the task of theology, and how we cannot get away from the strange, particular way of Jesus.  A few others that have been impacting me recently are: The Future of the Word: An Eschatology of Reading by Tiffany Kriner, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ by Sarah Coakley and How (Not) to  be Secular by James K.A. Smith.  Shawna loved Daniel Bell’s Economy of Desire, which has a lot to add to this political discussion. But really she is waiting with baited breathe for the new Cathrynne Valente novel to hit the shelf.

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Tim and Shawna Gaines used their time as co-pastors of Bakersfield First Church of the Nazarene to seek distinctly Christian approaches to pressing contemporary issues, and to apply those responses to faithful and creative ways in the local church setting. Tim now serves as assistant professor of religion at Trevecca Nazarene University. Shawna is a frequent speaker, author, and blogger. Her work can be accessed at shawnasongergaines.com

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