The Preacher and Politics: Seven Thoughts

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This post is addressed to preachers and is about preachers. While many of the reflections may be useful for all Christians, I’m writing specifically with my fellow pastors in mind.

We live in a day where politics are everywhere, and everything is about politics. On one level this has always been true. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. That’s a political statement. Every sermon touches on the polis, on the city of man, on our earthly citizenship. But that’s not what I have in mind, at least not entirely. What I mean by “politics” are the elections, the elected officials, the political parties, and the endless stream of policy debates and legislative, economic, and judicial controversies that so much of our daily news and social media feed comment on constantly.

What is a pastor supposed to do with these controversies and debates? That’s my question.

When preachers are quickly criticized for saying too much (you’re not gospel-centered!) or saying too little (you’re not woke!), it behooves us to think carefully about the relationship between pastoral ministry and politics.

Here are seven thoughts.

1. Let the Bible set the agenda for your weekly pulpit ministry. I love preaching through the Bible verse by verse. I’m not smart enough to decide what the congregation really needs to hear this week. So they’re going to get John 5:1-18 this Sunday. Why? Because last week they got John 4:43-54. And in the evening they’re going to get Exodus 24, because last Sunday was Exodus 23. That means I’ve talked in the last two months about abortion, social justice, and slavery, because that’s what’s been in Exodus. I want my people to expect, that as a general rule, the Bible sets the agenda not my interests or what I think is relevant.

2. The gospel is the main thing, but not the only thing. To be sure, we must never wander far from the cross in our preaching. But if we are to give the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27), we must show how a thousand other theological, philosophical, and ethical issues are connected to Christ and him crucified. Thabiti is right: “A ‘gospel-centered’ evangelicalism that becomes a ‘gospel-only’ evangelicalism ceases to be properly evangelical.” The Bible is a big book. It doesn’t say everything about everything, and it doesn’t say anything about some things, but it does say a lot about more than just a few things.

3. Distinguish between the corporate church and the individual Christian. We need believers in all levels of government and engaged in every kind of public policy debate. But there is a difference between the Bible-informed, Christian citizen and the formal declarations from church pronouncements and church pulpits. In the early part of the 20th century, most evangelicals strongly supported the Eighteenth Amendment, the Volstead Act, and Prohibition in general. When J. Gresham Machen made the unpopular decision to vote against his church voicing support for the amendment, he did so, in part, because such a vote would have failed to recognize “the church in its corporate capacity as distinguished from the activities of its members, on record with regard to such political questions” (Selected Shorter Writings, 394).

4. Think about the nature of your office and the ministry of your church. I studied political science in college, and I’ve read fairly widely (for a layman) in economics, sociology, and political philosophy. I have plenty of opinions and convictions. But that’s not what I want my ministry to be about. That’s not to say I don’t comment on abortion or gay marriage or racism or other issues about the which the Bible speaks clearly. And yet, I’m always mindful that I can’t separate Blogger Kevin or Twitter Kevin or Professor Kevin from Pastor Kevin. As such, my comments reflect on my church, whether I intend them to or not.

That means I keep more political convictions to myself than I otherwise would. I don’t want people concluding from my online presence that Christ Covenant is really only a church for people who view economics like I do or the Supreme Court like I do or foreign affairs like I do. Does this mean I never enter the fray on hot button issues? Hardly. But it means I try not to do so unless I have explicit and direct biblical warrant for the critique I’m leveling or the position I’m advocating. It also means that I try to remember that even if I think my tweets and posts are just a small fraction of what I do or who I am, for some people they are almost everything they see and know about me. I cannot afford to have a public persona that does not reflect my private priorities.

5. Consider that the church, as the church, is neither capable nor called to address every important issue in the public square. This is not a cop-out. This is common sense. I’ve seen denominational committees call the church to specific positions regarding the farm bill, Sudanese refugees, the Iraq War, socially screened retirement funds, immigration policy, minimum-wage increases, America’s embargo of Cuba, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, global economics, greenhouse gas emissions, social welfare, and taxation policies. While the church may rightly make broad statements about caring for the poor and the oppressed, and may even denounce specific cultural sins, the church should not be in the business of specifying which types of rifles Christians may and may not use (a real example) or which type of judicial philosophy Christians should want in a Supreme Court justice (another real example).

Again, Machen’s approach is instructive. He insisted that no one “has a greater horror of the evils of drunkenness than I” and that it was “clearly the duty of the church to combat this evil.” And yet, as to the “exact form” of legislation (if any), he allowed for difference of opinion. Some men, he maintained, believed that the Volstead Act was not a wise method of dealing with the problem of drunkenness, and that enforced Prohibition would cause more harm than good. Without stating his own opinion, Machen argued that “those who hold the view that I have just mentioned have a perfect right to their opinion, so far as the law of our church is concerned, and should not be coerced in any way by ecclesiastical authority. The church has a right to exercise discipline where authority for condemnation of an act can be found in Scripture, but it has no such right in other cases” (394-95).

6. Consider if you have been consistent. Obviously, there is a lot of talk at present about social justice and a host of issues often associated with the left. This makes people on the right a bit nervous, and understandably so. The gospel mission of the church has been buried before in an avalanche of humanitarian causes and social movements. At the same time, the concerns of the right ring a little hollow when pastors pass out partisan voter guides, tweet about the Second Amendment, sing the Star Spangled Banner in church, and then when anything about race or justice comes up, start harrumphing about politics in the church. I’m sure the same thing happens in both directions: we are fine being political until someone on the other side gets political too.

7. Be prepared to fire when necessary, but keep your powder dry. There are times when the national crisis is so all-consuming or the political issue so obviously wicked (or righteous) that the minister will feel compelled to say something. Think 9/11. Or riots in your city. Or the declaration of war. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Our news media, not to mention social media, make us feel like every day is a global meltdown and every hour is a moment of existential crisis. Don’t believe the hype. There is no exact formula for when you interrupt your sermon series, when you drop a blogging bomb, or when you add current events into your pastoral prayer. These things call for wisdom, not one-size-fits-all solutions. But let me suggest that when it comes to politics and public policy, parenting is a good analogy: yelling works only when it is done sparingly.

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