The Church at Election Time

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I have always been interested in politics. I studied religion and political science in college. I continue to read consistently in economics, sociology, politics, and current events. As a pastor, I hope the members of my church are well-informed and engaged in the political process. As Christians, we should take seriously our responsibility to be salt and light in a world that is often rotten and dark.

And yet, I believe pastors must be careful how they lead their churches in our politically polarized culture. I know there are good brothers and sisters who may disagree with these principles and their practical implications. But at the very least, pastors must disciple their leaders and their congregations in thinking through these matters wisely and theologically.

Let me mention two things I do as a pastor and three things I do not do.

As a pastor, I pray publicly for leaders and for controversial issues. We are commanded to pray for the governing authorities, whether we agree with them, like them, or trust them (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Likewise, I think it’s appropriate to include some current events in the weekly pastoral prayer. Over the past few years, I’ve included items related to Ferguson, Charlottesville, the police shootings in Dallas, the presidential election, gay marriage, Roe v. Wade, the anniversary of MLK’s assassination, and dozens of events that could be construed as “political.” I trust, however, that the prayers were not political in the worst sense of that word. I take pains to be sure that everything I pray for has scriptural warrant. During an election season, pastors should pray that God would work through the political process to give us godly leaders who are marked by ability, prudence, honesty, courage, humility, and compassion.

As a pastor, I speak to controversial issues as they arise from the text of Scripture. In preaching on Exodus 21, I talked about the history of slavery and the evils of it in our country. Later in the chapter I talked about the evil of abortion. In chapter 22, I talked about the biblical definition of justice. I also talked about the biblical understanding of the sojourner and how Christians are to love the stranger and the alien (and how this does not automatically translate into a given immigration policy). All of these touched on political topics. I didn’t mention a candidate, a political party, or advocate for any specific policy or legislation. I simply spoke to issues that were manifestly in the text. We cannot teach the whole counsel of God without venturing once in a while into difficult territory that may be unpopular in our cultural context.

As a pastor, I do not provide voter guides for the congregation. I know there are other pastors who advocate the practice, but in my experience even non-partisan voter guides are never completely non-partisan. In 2016 I saw a non-partisan voter guide from the Family Research Council and another one from Sojourners. Both guides were designed to inform Christians about the important issues facing us in the election and how to think about those issues from a Christian perspective. Not surprisingly, the two guides talked about very different issues and presented the Christian view in very different ways. Only a die-hard Republican could think the FRC guide was non-partisan. Only a die-hard Democrat could think the Sojourners guide was non-partisan.

Granted, other guides are less didactic and more informational. Many non-partisan guides ask the candidates a series of questions and then record where they stand on the key issues. But even here, the guides I’ve seen over the years all have a definite angle. If you have only 12 questions to ask the candidates, what you ask says a lot about what issues you think are important, and the wording of each question usually reflects certain priorities. In short, I don’t believe non-partisan voter guides are actually non-partisan.

There’s also the practical issue of how visitors and “outsiders” tend to view these guides. For millennials and minorities, “values” voter guides usually signal “this is a church for Republicans.” We can say that’s not the intent, and I believe most Christians passionate about these guides are motivated by a sincere desire to inform people about the issues. But the fact is most white evangelical churches are already overwhelmingly Republican. Let’s not give visitors any more reasons to think this is a church mainly for GOP conservatives (or vice-versa if you are known as a progressive church).

Does this mean some candidates and some positions aren’t better than others? Of course not. Elections matter. Does all this mean I don’t care about abortion or marriage or religious freedom (or immigration reform or criminal justice reform)? No. I’ve written about all those things. I pray about them from the pulpit as appropriate, and I talk about them from the pulpit as they come up in the Bible. I want my church’s members to be informed about politics, just like I hope they are informed about many other things. But I don’t believe it’s the calling of the church as the church to provide candidate profiles, especially when the normal channels for providing this information are never entirely objective.

As a pastor, I do not encourage voter registration drives in the lobby after church. I believe voting is a good thing. When I moved from Michigan to Iowa for my first church, I made sure to vote in the August primary early in the morning before driving 12 hours to my new home. I believe Christians would do well to get informed and vote. And yet, I am hard pressed to find scriptural warrant for thinking Christians must vote as a matter of obedience to Christ. By conducting voter registration in the church we are communicating, “This is what Christians should do.” Voting is generally a good thing, but I have no biblical authority to say a Christian must vote (would we exercise church discipline on someone who didn’t?), nor do I think that voting is such a necessary expression of the fruit of the Spirit that it is the church’s responsibility to get people registered.

The Puritans were wise in establishing the Regulative Principle for worship: the church has no authority to bind the conscience or issue commands except by explicit scriptural warrant, or when deduced by good and necessary consequence. Much of the political polarization in the church could be greatly helped if the Regulative Principle were applied to cultural matters as well as to worship. The point of the Regulative Principle is not to get everyone buttoned up theologically (though that can be good too). The point is to protect Christian freedom and preserve Christian unity, both of which are ultimately about maintaining a faithful gospel witness in our world.

One final related thought: as much as I hope biblically minded Christians vote, we must be careful that we don’t equate “salt and light” with political victories. Political engagement is only one way of loving our neighbor and trying to be a faithful presence in the culture. Likewise, we must not assume that all good causes must make their way into the church budget, into the church bulletin, or into the church lobby. There are thousands of ways individual Christians will live our their vocations, use their gifts, and exercise their passions—and the vast majority of these ways will not involve announcements from the pulpit or church-sponsored activities.

As a pastor, I do not give a public platform to candidates in our church (or candidates visiting our church), especially during an election season. Even with the best of intentions, introducing a candidate injects a note of politics into the service. Of course, we welcome all political candidates to worship with us or simply to check out our church, but to ask for (or to invite) an introduction or recognition in the worship service misappropriates the purpose of the Lord’s Day gathering. I don’t want there to be any confusion about whether the church is endorsing a candidate by noting his presence. Nor do I want to give the candidate the opportunity to be seen and recognized in public worship. He (or she) should be in worship to worship, not to be seen as someone who worships. And if the goal is simply to meet constituents, that purpose can better be served in another venue at another time.

I understand these three “do nots” are common practices in churches of many different traditions. Republican-voting, Trump-supporting churches do these things. Democrat-voting, Trump-loathing churches do these things. But however common these things may be, I do not believe they are wise. They presume for the church an authority that she does not have, and they present an obstacle to fellowship that need not be present.

The reality is, these practices are common in many churches, because many churches are politically uniform. The voter guides go out because almost everyone already agrees with them. The candidate gets recognized because almost everyone already votes for that party. Voter registration happens because we assume people in our church are going to vote for the people we vote for. My fear is that, put together, these measures are more effective at limiting the number of people who feel comfortable at our church than they are at increasing the number of people who vote “the right way.”

To be sure, Christians may seek to educate and mobilize their fellow American citizens. But the unique aim, purpose, and warrant of the church is to educate and mobilize our fellow citizens of heaven. We must not confuse one mission with the other.

For more on this topic, see my previous blog posts on the nature of church power, social justice, and the preacher and politics.

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