Midterm elections are around the corner. For many pastors, this time of year brings up fear and dismay. A pastor recently told me a congregant came to him to say he couldn’t stay at the church because he had different political views. I heard another story of an elder team that was divided over how to address cultural issues. I heard still another story of a pastor who left his church because the political division was overwhelming.
Most of you know similar stories. The politics pandemic has hit the church in a unique way over the last six years. A recent Lifeway survey indicated 63 percent of pastors are frequently overwhelmed by stress, and one of the most consistent stressors is political division. How do we address it? Here are four encouragements.
1. Remind Christians of their first loyalty.
The most important thing church leaders can do is remind people of their first loyalty to Jesus and his church. We must remind Christians that our faith is political at its core, so we can be neither private nor partisan.
In our day, it’s become a truism to say Jesus didn’t come with a political message. The common trope goes like this: Though Israel expected a warrior-king to come riding on a white horse to overthrow Rome, he instead came with a spiritual message about their hearts. Jesus simply wants a relationship with you. The problem is this is a half truth.
We must remind Christians that our faith is political at its core, so we can be neither private nor partisan.
When Jesus came, he made a political announcement and was crucified for it (Mark 1:15; 15:2, 26). Jesus came as King, so we have one ruler to whom we owe our loyalty. Many think “Jesus is King” merely means “he is Lord of my life.” We forget Jesus is more; he is the King of kings—king over all this world’s political divisions.
No other loyalty comes first for Christians. We’re part of the city and kingdom of followers from around the world that he’s forming. So the most politically active thing church leaders can do each week is remind people Jesus is King.
2. Disciple them in the political realm.
But our people also need teaching related to politics. This might come as a shock. Aren’t we supposed to de-elevate politics in our congregations? Some might say, “This is precisely the problem. We need to focus more on the gospel! We need to teach more on the unity God has called us to.”
But I wonder if people are divided over politics because we’ve neglected to teach them how to have political discussions. I asked a few pastors who’ve had problems with politics in their churches what they wished they would have done differently. A few said the same thing: they wished they’d have been quicker to disciple people in personal conversations. They mentioned how they’d let certain comments slide to keep the peace. They didn’t want to address hard issues.
We tend to forget people are already being discipled, whether we like it or not. If we don’t address politics, others will. Cable news outlets and the larger culture train people in politics of rage. Pastors need to be ready to shift the direction of a negative conversation, question sources, and even challenge people’s misconceptions. The Scriptures say pastors are to instruct their people in reasonableness, sober-mindedness, and sound speech (Phil. 4:5; Titus 2:2, 8). This applies to more than our political lives, but not to less. If we don’t address politics in the moment, it’ll often come up later in a more divisive way.
3. Be a nonanxious presence.
We can lead congregants to be a nonanxious presence in a turbulent sea of indignation. The culture of a church usually follows the lead of its pastors. One of the more important things a pastor can do is to be a Christ-centered, unworried, peaceful, calm, and steady presence amid political chaos. Be a cheerful and encouraging person amid darkness and fiery darts. Choose your words carefully and if you make a mistake, be quick to apologize.
Often our people need an example to show them what it looks like to navigate the issues of our day with a level head. We should address public issues from the pulpit to help people know how to think through them. When Jesus was asked whether he should pay taxes to Caesar, a politically loaded question, he didn’t avoid it. He didn’t fly off the handle. He didn’t even start critiquing the Herodians or Pharisees. He simply answered their question, affirming God is the sovereign and Caesar’s sovereignty fits under God’s (Matt. 22:15–22).
4. Be clear where the Bible is clear.
Finally, church leaders need to be clear where the Bible is clear and silent where it’s not. Political interpretation of the Bible is fraught with complications. Christians disagree with each other about politics because the Bible seems to give diverging impulses.
The Bible is a story, not an answer book for political policies. We don’t have systematic answers to many of our questions: How do Christians approach governmental systems? What should the budget look like? How should a nation deal with immigration? Some stories seem to imply one answer, and some commands seem to imply another.
I wonder if people are divided over politics because we’ve neglected to teach them how to have political discussions.
Many pitfalls confront interpreters, and it’s easy to read our own prejudices into the text—to be anachronistic and move from an ancient political system to a modern one in a haphazard way. It’s not easy to respect the difference between Old Testament political life and New Testament political life. It is easy to take one of the Bible’s political impulses that suits our fancy and crush all others that don’t.
A pastor told me a story about how a congressman once asked Washington, DC, pastor Mark Dever how he should vote on a budgetary issue. Dever told the pastor he had strong opinions on the issue, but the Bible wasn’t clear on the topic, so he simply said, “I will pray for you!” He wanted to reserve his pastoral authority for matters where the Scriptures are clear.
Church leaders are the first line of defense in political discipleship. The culture will attempt to train our people, but the church is meant to be an alternative society that presents a new way of life. If we walk in faithfulness, this too will be part of our public witness. The unity we display might even make the world say, “See what love they have for one another” (see John 13:35).