With another political season upon us, pastors again stand on the edge of a knife. If we say nothing, some will insist, we fail to offer pastoral leadership. If we speak out, we will face criticism, even harsh accusations, whatever we say. People may even leave our churches. Yet politics almost inevitably reaches the pulpit, if only because the Bible says so much about rulers and citizens.
Faithful pastors can hardly avoid social and political issues if they expound the full teaching of Scripture. But how can we do so in ways that are constructive and helpful?
Scripture and Politics
First, let’s consider how the Bible addresses politics. It doesn’t legislate any political or economic system, nor does it specifically tackle most burning issues of the day. Rather, it describes the basics: God’s standards for leaders, especially kings and elders, and the disposition believers should have toward them.
For example, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles record the ways of faithless rulers, which, Paul says, should instruct us (1 Cor. 10:6–11). The Gospels do the same with the Herod clan and Pilate—while offering the contrasting positive example of King Jesus.
To mention just two particular teachings, Deuteronomy 17:14–20 says kings should act like brothers to their people, submitting to God’s laws and not merely accumulating wealth. And Proverbs 31:4 holds kings, like elders, to a higher standard: “It is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed.”
Scripture also says believers ordinarily offer respect, prayer, payment of taxes, and obedience to human laws (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17; 1 Tim. 2:2). Of course, if rulers command believers to violate God’s law, then “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 4:18–20; 5:27–29).
The Bible has abundant information on these matters, and a preacher dedicated to proclaiming the whole counsel of God can hardly avoid them (Acts 20:26–28).
But in politically charged days, how can pastors speak without endangering church unity? Here are three guidelines.
1. Embed teaching on politics within a philosophy of preaching.
Wise pastors make clear that they follow the text wherever it leads and they give instruction on every (biblically addressed) issue, as the prophets and apostles did. Therefore, they preach on hard topics: predestination, sex ethics, blood atonement, and social injustice.
Mindful of the dangers of identifying with any political leader or party, one approach to preaching holds that pastors exercise the greatest influence when they avoid explicit political or social statements. This has the advantage of preserving the preacher’s first task: to proclaim the gospel and expound God’s Word. Explicitly partisan comments in the political season may have minimal effect anyway, because people are prepared to disagree with challenges to their views. Similarly, a life-affirming pastor might speak to life-related issues whenever they arise, instead of just making remarks on a designated pro-life Sunday.
2. Make noncontroversial points that touch law and politics.
A tentative pastor might begin with a social issue that has no partisan bent, an issue where all parties see an injustice. For example, the Bible often calls for judges to act justly, neither acquitting the guilty nor condemning the righteous (Lev. 19:15; Isa. 5:22–23; Prov. 17:15). But there is widespread agreement that America’s system of bail and plea bargaining leads to injustice. The current system grew incrementally, with no grand design, but it has come to favor the wealthy who can afford bail and capable lawyers. Meanwhile, the poor languish in jail before trial because they can’t make bail. They also plead guilty when innocent because the system, according to one noted law professor, “creates incentives that induce rational innocent people to plead guilty.” Since this topic is nonpartisan, it’s a safe place to apply Scripture to a legal matter.
It’s risky to speak plainly on debated issues because emotions flare. Perhaps because they find too much of their identity in politics, some will jump on any perceived deviation from their position on guns, schools, or sex ethics. Here the practice of preaching through the Bible has side benefits. First, it keeps us from riding a favored topic. Second, if someone asks, “Why did you speak on this today?” we have an honest answer: “We are working through Corinthians, and this was the next passage.” Still, pastors must remember that the Lord charges his messengers to proclaim his Word, whether sweet or bitter (Isa. 6; 21; Jer. 20; Ezek. 33; Rev. 10:8–10). As pastors gently but plainly preach whatever Scripture says, their flock will grow accustomed to that.
3. Follow the principles for pastoral leadership.
Pastors who anticipate speaking on politics or a hot ethical topic should follow known principles for pastoral leadership. Explain your philosophy of preaching and share its biblical basis. Seek your fellow elders’ blessing and support when approaching controversial topics, whether theological, ethical, or social. Consult with wise leaders, male and female, and talk to experts, whenever possible, to ensure your comments are accurate. (When I was a pastor, I recruited trusted professionals in medicine, law, engineering, finance, business, and politics for that reason.) Above all, pray that your people will hunger for, and internalize, biblical teaching.
Wise pastors also make certain basic points: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. No political leader is the 13th apostle. All political parties need the gospel’s correction. For example, conservatives tend to believe the self-directed individual can improve, even rescue, himself. Meanwhile, many liberals think society can bring the transformation that individuals cannot. Of course, all parties boast that their principles are superior, yet no party consistently follows its own principles. So everyone needs to humble himself, repent, and believe the gospel. Every person is fallen, and every movement is flawed. Jesus is the only One who will never disappoint us.
In addition, wise pastors pray regularly for all governors and leaders, according to Scripture. They will urge everyone to vote. They may also remind Christians that while there are real differences between the major parties, they are partial.
No Party Spirit Necessary
Today, the Republican party pays more attention to evangelicals, and Democrats are more likely be irreligious. But positions and alliances shift over time. The first major-party presidential candidate to endorse a right to abortion was Barry Goldwater, a Republican. His reasoning was libertarian: the government has no role in reproduction.
Even today, perhaps one-third of Republicans support abortion rights, and one-third of Democrats oppose them—which is logical, given their concern for the weak and defenseless. The point here is not to scrutinize politicians for inconsistencies, but to remember Psalm 146. We put no confidence in “princes . . . in whom there is no salvation” (v. 3). Rather, “Blessed is he . . . whose hope is in the LORD his God” (v. 5).