A pastor writes:
Members of my congregation are increasingly hostile and mistrusting of one another after the election, especially online. What is my responsibility as a pastor, and how can the gospel show a better way for our polarized culture if we can’t honor one another in our own churches?
That’s a great question. I trust most pastors and Christians believe the gospel is big enough to reconcile and to unify. It’s easy to say, “We’re Republicans and Democrats together for the gospel!” But living together amid our partisan differences is like eating a spoonful of pudding with gravel hiding inside. It looks sweet at first glance, but put it in your mouth and you’ll break your teeth.
I’m not going to Pollyanna you. Maintaining gospel unity amid political disagreement is hard.
It’s hard because politics, by its nature, deals with questions of justice, and the gospel requires us to care about justice. So if one member’s conscience tells him that a certain party, candidate, protest event, or slogan represents an injustice, while another’s conscience says the party/candidate/slogan represents justice, it will be difficult for either to back down.
It’s hard because political engagement nearly always involves making alliances with groups of people who don’t agree on everything. So any given party, candidate, protest event, or even slogan probably represents a conglomeration of issues, three of which might be biblically good and three of which might be biblically reprehensible. Can a Christian get behind the cause for the sake of the good things, especially if no other candidate, party, protest event, or slogan represents those good things?
And maintaining unity amid political disagreement may get harder. The more our culture looks to government to solve our problems and be our savior, the higher the culture-war stakes will become on both sides.
Certainly, our church on Capitol Hill has felt its share of political tensions. Here are 16 things the pastors or elders try to do to help maintain unity.
1. Preach expositionally.
If you’ve trained your congregation on topical sermons, I dare say they’re going to be more accustomed to your personal and ideological formulations. As such, throwing in a politicized sermon or two won’t startle them. It will sound like what they usually get—a topical sermon.
If, however, you’ve trained them on weekly biblical exposition, forays into partisan politics will alarm them. And that discomfort is good.
2. Continually clarify the distinction between law issues and wisdom issues.
If the Bible is explicit about something, or if it can be deduced by good and necessary consequence (to borrow language from the Westminster Confession), it’s a law issue. But when dealing with which candidate to vote for, which policy to support, or which strategy to adopt, we’re dealing with wisdom issues.
Teach your church it’s fine to have opinions, even strong opinions, on wisdom issues; but teach them also to recognize that wisdom is wisdom, not law. Instead of binding others’ consciences by calling something sin, they should leave room for disagreement. That Christians should pay their taxes is biblical law issue. Whether you think a progressive or flat tax is better is a wisdom issue. Having these two categories, and teaching people to recognize them for what they are, helps to lower the emotional temperature.
3. Work to preserve Christian liberty.
Failing to stand up for a justice issue can hurt our gospel witness, but so can undermining Christian liberty. When something is a wisdom issue, we must leave it in the realm of liberty. Again, if Scripture isn’t clear about something, or if it can’t be deduced by good and necessary consequence, we do well to leave it there.
I’m fine if you have a strong opinion on carbon monoxide emission regulations. But can we agree opinions on that belong in the realm of Christian liberty?
4. Remind people to make room for the differently calibrated consciences of others.
One brother says, “We must support this candidate/party/protest.” A sister replies, “That’s taking part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11). Well, we’re at an impasse. What now?
Is he calling for the support of a single issue, like abortion? If so, I will probably side with her. But is it a conglomeration of issues—some good, some bad? That, too, calls for a case-by-case response, but I might ask each to make room for the differently calibrated conscience of the other. As Paul wrote:
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. (Rom. 14:2–3; see also 1 Cor. 8:7–13; 10:21–29)
I’m not saying we should never challenge people with different viewpoints, particularly when we believe matters of justice are at stake. I’m just saying that, as you do, (i) remember that you don’t have the wisdom of God and (ii) recognize that some consciences are more tender or weaker than others. There is a time and place for pastoral reserve, a skill that’s sometimes overlooked in our social media age. There’s no glory in rubbing people into the ground.
5. Remind them they don’t need to ‘go public’ with all their political opinions, especially if church unity is at stake.
Putting things online or talking about them publicly can present a stumbling block. To the brother in the last scenario, I might tell him he’s free to support said candidate/party/protest, but he needs to make sure it’s not a stumbling block to others or harms church unity. Again, Paul writes:
Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? (1 Cor. 8:9–10)
Now, if a person’s job is in journalism or politics, as is often the case in my church, this can be a little more challenging. Still.
6. Point to your church’s statement of faith.
Churches unite around the truths enunciated in their statements of faith, not around party membership, political opinions, or any number of things.
7. Speak more to what Scripture says and less to how to accomplish it.
This brings us back to the law versus wisdom issue. Preach that sex outside of marriage is wrong. That’s a what. But there’s no need for a pastor to devise public policy on how to lower teen pregnancy rates. That requires a competence and authority he does not possess by virtue of being a pastor. Speaking of . . .
8. Remember where your authority and competence as a pastor lies, and stay with Scripture.
I promise, you will maintain your congregation’s trust if you’re known for staying close to Scripture, and not always making the logical deductions you could. Your job as a pastor is to bind the conscience by preaching the Bible and pointing people to the way of righteousness. Are you ready to declare your political calculations the way of righteousness?
9. Practice church discipline.
I say this for two reasons.
First, when a member says that supporting a certain party, candidate, or cause is a sin, help them to realize they are making their opinion a condition of church membership. By being a church that practices church discipline, ironically, you help them to recognize the stakes of calling something sin. “So are you really suggesting we excommunicate Jack for supporting this cause/candidate/party? I mean, if it’s unrepentant sin and all.” “Well, no, I don’t mean that.”
Second, we should be willing to speak to a brother or sister if their form of political engagement hurts the body.
10. Teach the congregation to empathize with those from different backgrounds—that is, teach body-of-Christ empathy.
Here’s an excellent example of Mark Dever doing this in his sermon introduction the week after November’s election: “Neither a Republican Nor a Democratic Church.”
The point is, each one of us in a local church should work at putting ourselves in the shoes of others. What’s more, Paul implies that those in positions of power should work extra hard at empathizing and honoring those in positions of weakness (see 1 Cor. 12:23–24).
11. Don’t overestimate the breadth of the problem.
Just because five people are making noise on social media doesn’t mean all 100 or 300 in your church are divided.
12. Model graciousness toward those who disagree.
As a pastor or elder, you above all people must model graciousness with those who disagree. See point 4 above, make room for the fact their conscience might be calibrated differently than yours, and give them grace.
13. Recognize your present trouble as a health checkup on your church.
If your church is presently divided, maybe it’s not as healthy or gospel-centered as you think it is.
14. Keep a cool head and sometimes say nothing.
I’ll leave it to ethicist Oliver O’Donovan to make this point better than I can:
Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to extract from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times—and surely a major election is one of them—when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.
15. Preach the final judgment and sing about heaven often.
We don’t do this to cultivate complacency or indifference toward injustice. We do this to help our congregation rightly calibrate their political perspective. We want them to always measure the now according to the eternal then. Continually remind them that our hope isn’t in a platform or party or kingdom here and now. We hope in the day the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Christ (Rev. 11:15).
16. Preach the gospel every week.
If you’re not doing this, of course they’re fighting.