Like a whirlwind, he and his entourage blow in 45 minutes late for service. After the pastor hands him the mic, he makes his political pitch—peppered with religious clichés and out-of-context verses. Of course, he’s far too modest to ask for your vote directly; he only asks for your prayers. And just as quickly as he arrived, he’s gone (there are still other churches to “hit up”), leaving a trail of brochures and campaign slogans in his wake.
Here are five common reasons churches choose to hear political candidates from the “sacred desk,” and why I believe each fails the sniff test.
Reason #1: The Social Activism Agenda
In order to promote and align themselves with certain social and political causes, some churches invite politicians to address them from their pulpits.
What’s wrong: It tends to wrongly identify politicians and their political ideas with the authority of God’s Word. The “sacred desk” of the pulpit is sacred only because it is the physical space where God’s Word is normally declared to God’s people. Only God’s Word (applied by the Spirit) actually carries the divine authority and power to bring genuinely new life, light, and holiness to sinners.
In many churches, though, the physical podium often connotes a real mental and symbolic association with the authority of God’s Word. If you don’t believe me, try getting your average lay member to casually stand in the pulpit and start talking.
Mental associations are stronger than we often realize. For example, attractive models and beer have little connection with one another. Yet beer companies know if they put images of beautiful women alongside their brand, consumers will make the mental association for themselves. Likewise, politicians need not explicitly say, “The Lord commands that you vote for me or support this policy.” The image of them speaking from the pulpit is enough. Congregants may easily assume that because this person is announcing a political platform from the pulpit, it must have divine approval.
Reason #2: The ‘Are You Down’ Test
In order to prove a political figure shares their commitments, values, and interests, some churches invite them to participate in their worship services. This often includes special recognition, seating, and even an invitation to address the congregation from the pulpit. They assume that if this politician can sincerely worship with us, he or she must be “down for us.”
What’s wrong: It cheapens the Lord’s sacred worship into a means to vet politicians. At weekly worship, the community of believers gathers to honor, adore, and praise our King. We come to hear the gospel announced through the Word (expository preaching) and dramatized through the sacraments (the Lord’s Supper and baptism). We seek our heavenly Father for continued grace to live for the glory of his name. Therefore, our focus should be on Christ, not a political candidate. We have no business cheapening corporate worship by turning it into a political proving ground.
Reason #3: The Public Service Announcement
Some churches view their pulpits as a convenient platform to help congregants better understand relevant socio-political issues and their voting options. Usually they intend to better equip church members to properly exercise their rights as citizens.
What’s wrong: Despite good intentions, this also confuses the purpose of our worship gathering. It is right to encourage the saints to practice good citizenship as an implication of the gospel (Rom. 12:17–18; 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). But we shouldn’t turn corporate worship into a political showcase to do so. We should “keep first things first,” remaining singularly focused on Christ and his gospel (Eph. 4:13). On Sunday the saints don’t gather to learn about political candidates; they gather to learn about Jesus Christ. If we allow our worship service to become a “rock the vote” rally, we send the message that our unity rests more in our common U.S. citizenship than our common Lord and common faith (Eph. 4:5–6, 13).
Even the way a church emphasizes certain moral issues at the expense of others can be a tacit endorsement, clearly signaling whether it’s a politically “conservative” or “progressive” congregation. In your church, does “sanctity of life” always and only address abortion on demand? Or does “sanctity of life” always and only address police brutality and mass incarceration? Be wary when your church’s moral message always lines up in lock step with a political party’s moral platform and never challenges it with the earth-shaking claims of the gospel.
Be wary when your church’s moral message always lines up in lock step with a political party’s moral platform and never challenges it with the earth-shaking claims of the gospel.
Not only does this mistake threaten the unity for which Christ prayed in John 17, but it positions the church to be manipulated as a political pawn. If you’re a die-hard conservative Republican, would you feel comfortable joining a church you knew publically endorsed the Obama/Biden ticket in 2012? Conversely, if you’re a Democrat or progressive independent, would you feel comfortable joining a church that publically endorsed the Romney/Ryan ticket in 2012? In most cases, you probably wouldn’t.
One of the glorious things about the gospel is that it breaks down social, political, and economic dividing walls, gathering people who otherwise never would (Eph. 2:14–16). When a church or its pastor—acting in their capacity as an authority of the church—endorses a political party or candidate, it can run against that unifying purpose of the gospel.
Reason #4: The Quid Pro Quo
Some pastors even offer their church’s pulpit to politicians as a personal or political favor. It hurts to admit this actually happens, but it does. All too often, private conversations between pastors and local politicians can sound something like this: “Congressman, you can speak to the congregation and hand out some flyers if you’ll help us get that piece of land or contract once you’re elected.”
What’s wrong: There’s no real need to elaborate on this one. Most of us have enough sense to know that “pimping” the pulpit off to the highest bidder is a disgusting abuse of pastoral and church authority.
Reason #5: The Pastor/Politician Identity Crisis
Some pastors’ sermons sound so much like political action speeches that congregations don’t know where the role of social activist ends and pastor begins. These churches see no problem with having a politician in the pulpit since they already have one in a clergy-robe preaching to them every Sunday.
What’s wrong: It confuses pastoral authority and gospel authority. This pastor/politician identity crisis is a major trend today.
There are clear boundaries between the role of a pastor and the role of a politician, social activist, and community organizer. Some blur these lines, however, considering the pastorate to be the best springboard for a career in politics, social activism, or community organization. They simply use the influential position of the pastorate to push a social, political, or economic agenda couched in religious language and symbolism. Frankly, some people should prayerfully reconsider seminary education and pursue a degree in political science, law, or sociology instead. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these callings! They’re legitimate and necessary. But the pastor’s is distinctly different.
The pastor is called to feed, guard, lead, and care for God’s blood-bought flock through faithful and focused gospel ministry. Pastors must not “entangle” themselves with matters not directly addressed in Scripture or related to the gospel (2 Tim. 2:4).
Pastors aren’t called to be experts in economics, political theory, psychology, or sociology. They’re called to be experts in expositing and applying the Word to their congregations. Since Christ claims all of us, the gospel has implications for all of life, including our socio-political lives. Even so, pastors must be modest in their pronouncements about how the clear moral principles of Scripture ought to be legislated in a 21st-century Western democracy. Although it’s often clear which moral principle God likes best, it’s almost never obvious which legislation (or political candidate/party) he prefers.
First Thing First
We must also make a clear distinction between the gospel on the one hand, and its social and political implications on the other. Although salvation from the penalty, power, and presence of sin has real and vital social implications, the gospel is not its social consequences. Nevertheless, this glorious good news fundamentally reshapes every area of our lives, including our politics.
I for one thank God for the gospel-informed social activism of believers throughout America’s history, especially during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But we must be careful about our order of priorities. If we remove the gospel itself from the top shelf in pulpit proclamation and replace it with gospel-informed politics or social activism, we risk losing everything. After all, it’s the gospel—not the ballot box—that is “the power of God for salvation” to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16).