“What commands does God impose on which people, and how and when? He means to impose some things on all people now through governments; that’s why he established governments. Other things he imposes right now on children through parents, and still other things he imposes right now only on members of churches. In short, God assigns different jurisdictions to different institutions and gives them different authorities.” — Jonathan Leeman
Date: April 2, 2019
Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
- Doing Political Theology, Waiting for King Jesus
- 5 Books You Should Read on Christianity and Politics
- Race, Political Partisanship, and the Unity of the Church
Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Jonathan Leeman: How many of you were here with me last night? So just a few of you. Okay. I discovered on Friday that last night’s talk and this talk had the exact same title and I thought, “Oh, okay. I give the same talk twice. How do I deal with that?” And I decided I’m gonna do one talk in two parts. Last night was the first part. It was the conceptual part, the theoretical part. It was Jonathan, the political philosopher, political theorist talking last night. Hopefully, today you’ll get Jonathan, the pastor, talking and more of a practical consideration of these things. But if you’re curious to know what I said last night, I assume that’s at the TGC Indianapolis website, and you can hear the recording of that.
The high points of the first half of the talk, the big idea was that you cannot divide faith and politics. They’re just impossible to divide. When you step into the public square, you cannot leave your God or gods behind. It is impossible to do so. The public square, I said, is nothing more or less than a battleground of gods.
Nonetheless, we do want to maintain the separation of church and state. The Lord, the Scriptures give different authorities, different jobs to do for the church and the state. A Christian’s political life, I said yesterday, begins in the church where we learn to walk in and abide in a true righteousness and justice and we commend the King of Kings to the nations as these embassies of his rule, as citizens of his kingdom so that the world, the nation sees what a true righteousness and a true justice looks like. That confronts them, condemns them, calls them to a right righteousness and justice. So then when we turn out to the public square, I said, we go as ambassadors for the kingdom and we go as principled pragmatists. We have our principles, but we make whatever arguments work within those principles that wins the argument. We use wisdom. That was yesterday’s talk, right? That’s me, in a sense, trying to draw the landscape. That’s the map of religion and politics and what these things look like at sort of the highest level as best I could do.
As I said, what I wanna do in this talk is more pastoral specifically by talking about the Bible and politics because the Bible is where our politics begin. The first and most crucial political statement that a Christian makes is, Jesus is King, right? Well, what does that King require? We know that King Jesus rules over every square inch, as it’s famously said. Okay, that’s good. But does he rule over every square inch in the same way? Well, no. How does he rule? Well, he rules one way through the prince, one way through the pastor, one way through the parent.
How do we, again, know how Jesus rules over every square inch if we want to assert that? Well, the only conscience-binding way we know with any certainty what King Jesus wants is through the word of God, through his word, right? Through the Bible. But that brings up a number of difficult questions. Does the Bible, the Christian book, apply to unbelievers? Okay. Can we impose it on them in the public square? Second, how do we within the church maintain unity across very divisive, difficult political issues? One person reads it this way, another person reads it that way.
Relatedly, third, how do we just simply interpret the Bible for political matters? And fourth and finally, what role do pastors play in addressing such issues from Scripture?
Let me begin by trying to illustrate this dilemma of how to read the Bible politically and whether we can impose it and what if we disagree, with a personal story. My friend Zach, not his real name, worked as an elected public official, political official, during the years leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling on same-sex marriage. So this was before that ruling. And Zach is a friend and was, at the time, a fellow church member. And a couple of months into Zach’s first term, he encountered a same-sex marriage bill in his own state. And, suddenly, this brand new elected official found himself swarmed by media and interest groups and powerful political figures all pushing him to vote yes on same-sex marriage.
And I remember sitting outside the church building one day on a metal park bench talking this over with Zach, and it was clear to both of us what the Bible teaches about marriage and that marriage belongs to a man and a woman. Yeah, Zach, from his law school days, had just, you know, kind of made this little contract in his head where, okay, well, the Bible is a Christian book and it doesn’t apply to everybody. And marriage is kind of the civic thing. The state sponsors it. And I can’t impose my views on a pluralistic nation with people from many different backgrounds. And so in his mind, he was voting yes for marriage as God created in the church, but yes for same sex-marriage in the state because he didn’t understand he had the right to impose his understanding of Scripture on people who didn’t affirm Scripture.
And so that’s what Zach and I were trying to think through together. How should Zach vote? It’s one thing to agree on marriage, which the Bible speaks to. It’s another thing to think about marriage public policy, which the Bible doesn’t clearly speak to. And, again, Christians are gonna disagree on what it does say on a number of political issues such as this one. So how was Zach to vote? How was I as his pastor, or one of his pastors, to lean in? Encourage him? Bind his conscience? What?
Well, interestingly, almost 40, 50 years ago, 50, 60 years ago, a previous pastor of this same church named K. Owen White once sat in front of the Roman Catholic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy with a number of other Protestant ministers and asked candidate Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, if he would “take orders from the Pope.” Would the Roman Catholic Church shape his presidency? And many Protestants, 1960, were very worried about a Roman Catholic president, that he would again be taking orders from the Pope. And Senator candidate Kennedy answered, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate should tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act. And no Protestant ministers should tell his parishioners for whom to vote.”
Well, people were pacified by that answer. They liked that answer. But now here I was many decades later, an elder or pastor of the same church as K. Owen White being asked to advise a politician. And would White have sounded the same horn of separation of church and state when it comes to same-sex marriage? Something tells me he wouldn’t. Something tells me he would’ve had a different posture. Well, is that just inconsistency? What’s going on there?
Well, in the end, with my friend Zach, the legislators pushing the bill tabled it because they didn’t have enough votes. But you see the dilemma at play here. Does the Bible speak to government authority over marriage, over same-sex marriage? Does a Christian have the right to impose the Bible on any non-Christians? What if Christians disagree with each other? And then what authority does a pastor have stepping into these kinds of questions? Now, I personally think, and I put it like that because brothers in Christ disagree with me, I personally think the same-sex marriage issue is a comparatively easy one, but I trust you guys still see the challenges at stake. How many times have you observed a zealous young Christian wonderfully try to think biblically about some political issue, say immigration policy?
So he digs back into the Old Testament and discovers God’s words to Israel about showing compassion to foreigners by reminding them they were once exiles and foreigners. And this young Christian says, “Ah, okay. The Bible supports what I want to say about immigration policy.” Or suppose a Christian congresswoman reads Proverbs 22:7 in her quiet time, “The borrower is a slave to the lender. The borrower is a slave to the lender,” and becomes convicted to advocate for laws that abolish all lending. Would that be a good use of Scripture?
Okay, so what do we do with the Bible as regards outsiders, as regards interpreting it, as regards pastoral authority, as regards maintaining unity in the body of Christ and its complex political questions that often invite disagreement? That is what’s at stake in this conversation about, okay, what do we do with the Bible and this area of life we call politics.
I want to make seven statements. Here is the first. Number one, recognize what the Bible is. A constitution, not case law. Recognize what the Bible is. It’s more like a constitution than it is like a case law. A constitution, many of you who took civics in high school or political science classes, you know, does not provide a country with the rules of daily life. It provides for the rules for making the rules, right?
The U.S. Constitution, for instance, offers nothing about speed limits or housing construction codes or tax rates. Instead, you find laws about who makes those kinds of decisions. It says there’s gonna be three branches of government and a bicameral legislature and popular elections and judicial review and more. It establishes the rules about the rules or who makes the rules as a nation goes on in its life. When it comes to civil governments, or rather when we come to the work of civil governments, we might think of the Bible more like a constitution in that regard than like case law saying what we do in any and every situation.
Here’s what my own church’s statement of faith affirms about the Bible. This is what my church’s statement of faith says the Bible is. We say, “We believe the Holy Bible is written by men who are divinely inspired. It is a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction. God is its author. Salvation is its purpose. And truth, without any mixture of error, is its content. It reveals the principles by which God will judge us. Therefore, the Holy Bible is now and will, to the end of the world, be the true center of Christian union and the supreme standard for evaluating all human conduct, creeds and opinions.” I wish I had a copy of that for you to be looking at, but I want to draw two lessons from it. Lesson number one, just from that little statement which I trust many of you would affirm, the Bible is the book by which all our political activity will be judged.
The statement says, ”The Bible is the supreme standard for all human conduct, creeds and opinions. It reveals the principles by which God will judge us.” In other words, the Bible does not tell us what to do on trade policy or carbon dioxide emissions or public education. But it does tell us that whatever we do in each of those domains will be judged by God according to his standards of justice and righteousness as explicitly or by good and necessary consequence revealed in Scripture.
So back to that park bench with my friend Zach, it was this promised judicial review of God at the end of history that I highlighted in our conversation. And so I opened up my Bible with him and I turned it to Revelation 6:15 to 17 and I said, “Zach, listen to this. ‘Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals, the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne and from the wrath of the lamb for the great day of the wrath has come. And who can stand?'”
Why will all the kings and generals, why will every political class, slave and free, fear the coming of Christ’s wrath? Well, because they did not use their political opportunities, whether high or low, to live and rule according to God’s own standards of righteousness and justice. It doesn’t matter if a majority of the American public or the Justices of the Supreme Court or the U.S. Congress do not acknowledge God or his rule or his book because he will judge them by his standards, not by their standards. We understand that. We understand God will judge all things including what we do in the jury box, in the judge’s box, in the voter’s booth and so forth. God is judge of all people, the kings, the generals, the rich, the poor, the slave, the free, right?
So if you deny God’s judgment, okay, well, then that’s a different conversation. But if you affirm it, that’s where a Christian’s understanding of the application of Scripture to all people begins. God will judge these things. Does that mean that the Christian should impose the whole of Scripture, both on fellow Christians and non-Christians alike? Well, we don’t have the right to impose anything on anyone. God does, but I think the better command or the better question is what commands does God impose on which people and how and when? Yes, he means to impose some things on all people now through governments, that’s why he established governments. Other things he imposes right now on children through parents, and still other things he imposes right now only on members of churches. In short, God assigns different jurisdictions to different institutions and gives them different authorities.
Our task then as Bible readers is to pay attention, close attention to what jurisdictions he’s established for governments, for parents, for churches, for pastors, and only recommend those commands and authorizations that he has authorized each with. And he will judge everyone ultimately, accordingly. For instance, has God authorized government to prosecute, to criminalize all forms of sexual sin, say like fornication? It’s not clear to me from Scripture that he has. He has authorized churches, however, to speak out against such sin and particularly to correct it among its members.
Okay, what about marriage laws? Well, marriage laws are different from laws that criminalize something. Marriage laws support, subsidize, sponsor certain kinds of activities. So the question for Zach, to go back to that example, was this. Has God authorized governments to support, sponsor, subsidize homosexual activity? I think, as I said, that’s an easy one for me, I think the answer is no. He is not authorized governments to do that. And Zach’s refusal to support same-sex marriage would not be about Zach imposing a Christian sexual ethic on others. It was about not letting the world impose its sexual ethic on him and what he puts his hand to in supporting and subsidizing. It was about refusing to put his hand on anything that will provoke the judgment of God at the end of history. And that’s what I said to him. I said, one day I think God will judge the U.S. government for these decisions. Do you wanna be a part of receiving that judgment?
Now, let’s return to my church’s statement of faith and consider a second point. First, I said, the Scripture is the supreme standard of all confessions, conduct, creeds. Here’s a second point. It says the Bible has salvation for its end and is the center of Christian union. It doesn’t say anything about the Bible as a strategy book, a legislative manual or a book of case law. Instead, it says its purpose is to point people to redemption and what the redeemed life looks like, which is our Christian union. Most of the Bible’s emphasis, in other words, is on the people of God, not on principles for good government. In fact, what the Bible says about principles of good government is fairly mere. It is not a long constitution in that sense. It is a very short constitution. It establishes the principles of justice and righteousness by which we will be assessed at the end of history. It establishes the authority of government and the authority of church and that is about all. That was point one, consider what the Bible is. It is a constitution, not case law.
Number two, maintain the distinction between law and wisdom. Number two, maintain the distinction between law and wisdom. This is absolutely critical for knowing how to read the Bible politically. Law is absolute and unchanging. I don’t care what nation or century you live in, you shall not murder. You shall not steal. All people are made in God’s image and are worthy of dignity and respect. And the government should reward the good and punish the bad. Think of these kinds of biblical laws as your constitutional basics.
Christians will disagree, however, even over that. Fine, but still let’s at least have the category of law. The domain of wisdom, however, does not refer to matters of complete moral indifference such as Wheaties or Cheerios for breakfast. Rather, what is wisdom in the Scriptures? Well, wisdom is two things. One, it’s the posture of fearing the Lord. And two, it’s the skill of living in God’s created but fallen world in a way that yields justice, peace, and flourishing. And in any given situation, wisdom beholds the flood of conflicting signals and competing voices and it arbitrates. It says, “This way, not that way,” here and now amidst all the different things that would take us, one way or the other.
The relationship between law and wisdom in the Bible you could say can be likened to the relationship between the rules of a game, the rules of football, and the strategy that you would employ in any given day, on this day, in this weather, against that team. You need wisdom. Do I go this way? Is it a throwing game? Is it the running game I need? The rules are the same, but wisdom is gonna dictate the day. Think of Solomon and the two prostitutes, both claiming the baby was hers. Does the Bible tell Solomon what to do? Well, certainly not. He needed wisdom. I know. Bring me a sword. Real mama says she can have it. And how does the narrator summarize what happens? It says, “The people of Israel stood in awe of the king because they had perceived the wisdom of God in him…the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.” The wisdom of God was in him to do justice.
You want the political philosophy of the entire Bible in a single verse? There it is. Forget Plato. Forget Aristotle. Forget Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and all these fancy names. You want the political philosophy of the Bible in a single verse? We need the wisdom of God to do justice, right? That’s what we are looking for. Better a king who seeks justice with God’s wisdom than a democracy that despises him and pursues folly and injustice. God can use anything. He doesn’t say this form of government over that form of government. He says, “I want a government that whatever form lives according to my justice and righteousness, and its leaders use my wisdom to get the land there.”
Listen to the glorious figure of wisdom in Proverbs 8, “Does not wisdom call out? I raise my voice to all mankind,” she says. She was interested in Christians and non-Christians, Muslims and atheists, those who read the Bible and those who don’t. And what does wisdom say? She says, “By me, kings reign and rulers decree what is just. By me, princes rule and nobles, all who govern justly.” We need wisdom, God’s wisdom, to do justice. Israel’s kings needed her, the Virginia General Assembly, Moscow’s city government, the Japanese ministry of health, labor, and welfare, all need wisdom. Not human wisdom, God’s wisdom.
Well, how can these be if rulers don’t acknowledge God? Well, because whether or not people acknowledge God, both they and this world belong to him. He created it according to his wisdom. Proverbs 8:22 to 30 says, ”Which means living by God’s wisdom means living according to the warp and woof of this world. And to go against wisdom is to go against creation’s very design patterns.” And see how well that works. Let me offer a couple of examples of how biblical principles should inform our calculations of wisdom. Proverbs 10:4 reads, ”Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.” Okay. A wise ruler, no doubt, will look for ways to maximize industry and not reward laziness. Certainly, this has implications. Therefore, for welfare policies, how easy is it for the nation’s welfare policies to abet, to aid laziness and so exacerbate poverty?
However, Proverbs 29:7 reads, “A righteous man knows the rights of the poor.” And 29:14 says, “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever.” In other words, a good king, like a good shepherd, doesn’t leave some of the sheep behind. He seeks to benefit and bless all. He is going to judge them and their circumstances with fairness. He is going to consider the causes of poverty and ask what might contribute to entrenched cycles of poverty. Wisdom, then, is figuring out how to put these two last points together. That’s not easy to do, right? And that might change from circumstance to circumstance. Some welfare policies might help and some might hurt. We don’t wanna promote policies that incentivize laziness, but we also wanna consider various structural inequalities that create cycles of poverty and ask what might contribute to those entrenched cycles of poverty.
And wisdom, you gotta figure out how to put them together. “Oh, I need wisdom,” said young King Solomon. “Oh, so do we.” We need wisdom to do justice. So number two, make a distinction between law and wisdom.
Number three, recognize the distinction between straight line and jagged line issues. Recognize the distinction between straight line and jagged line issues. I take this from Robert Benne’s book, Good and Bad Ways to think About Politics and Religion. He gives us these two straight line, jagged line issues. What is that? Okay. With straight line issues, you have a straight line from the biblical text to the policy application. You shall not murder. Abortion is murder. Abortion should be criminalized. Straight line, right? Pretty straightforward, I think. The path is simple. But that’s different than, say, from healthcare policy. I would propose that’s more of a jagged line issue.
Christians might bring many convictions to bear in a conversation about healthcare policy. Some say, “Well, we should care for the downtrodden.” Others say, “We should treat all people with dignity and respect, or we should seek to remove and turn cycles of injustice and poverty that follows. Or we should ensure that insurers and medical practitioners are fair and honest and don’t swindle patients.” And others say, “Well, yes, but recognize that governmental involvement in healthcare arguably hurts the quality of care and so forth, the conversation goes. And it’s no easy task to add all these principles together in order to yield a ”Christian position,” biblical position on healthcare.
The line from biblical text, the policy application is zigzag, zigzag, right? And, broadly speaking, we could say that wisdom helps us determine whether something is a straight line or a jagged line issue. But even with straight-ish line issues like abortion, questions of political strategy or tactics and implementation are significant. Just because we agree abortion is wrong doesn’t mean we’re gonna have the same strategies for opposing abortion. We might disagree on some of those things. Yet here’s why I think it’s critical to distinguish straight line and jagged line issues. Churches and pastors should bind consciences on straight line issues while leaving jagged line issues in the domain of Christian freedom.
The more something is straight line, the more a church will institutionally address it. Pastors will talk about it from the pulpit. A church might exercise discipline over it. You cannot be supporting abortion and be a member of my church, for instance. The more something is a jagged line issue, the less pastors should lend their pastoral weight to addressing the matter, and Christians on both sides of an issue should be made to feel, “Welcome. Abortion we address, healthcare policy we don’t.” Now, most political issues are jagged line issues. The ones we fight about in the media, well, those tend to be more straight line issues, but the vast majority of decisions that government makes are going to be jagged line issues. And very often, non-Christians are just as competent, if not even more competent than Christians in thinking about those jagged line issues from the standpoint of God’s common grace.
It’s also important to distinguish straight line issues from jagged line issues for the sake of Christian unity and for the sake of our prophetic witness among outsiders. Christians should unite around straight line issues while leaving room for Christian freedom around jagged line issues. Christians should address the culture on straight line issues for the sake of justice and for the sake of loving our non-Christian friends and warning them of God’s coming judgment. Meanwhile, we might argue, for our position, I might be really convinced of my position on a certain jagged line issue but I should be much slower to unite the name of Christ to it and say, “This is the Christian, this is the biblical position.”
So much political dialogue these days on social media and Twitter and even in churches thoughtlessly and divisively treats every issue as a straight line issue. Whether in private conversation among friends or public conversations, how often Christians talk as if their position on healthcare, tax policy or immigration or foreign policy is the only acceptable Christian position and all other positions are sin. I see a growing conversation right now around the topic of reparations. And on one side, I hear pro reparation is saying, if you care about justice…if you don’t care about reparations, you don’t care about justice, and if you don’t care about justice, then how do I even know you’re justified? And on the anti-reparation side, I hear people saying, do you not believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and the fact that people can be forgiven? And both sides are at risk of raising the stakes to almost the level of a kind of an implicit excommunication.
And I’m like, is that a storyline issue? Whether or not America should pay reparations? I think that’s a great conversation to have. I think principles of justice might be at stake in that conversation. We should have that conversation. But let’s lower the temperature just a little bit please and acknowledge that this is a domain of Christian freedom, and Christians are gonna read their Bibles and come to different conclusions and we don’t need to excommunicate one another over that topic. When we speak beyond where Scripture authorizes to go, we risk dividing the church where the Bible does not. Also, we risk misrepresenting Jesus among non-Christians, and we claim to say that Jesus stands for something and that his name is attached to my thought on this one, his name may not be attached to that. You don’t wanna misrepresent and lie about Jesus. So know what the Bible is, make a distinction between law and wisdom, distinguish straight line and jagged line issues.
Number four, read the Bible… Okay, so how do we read the Bible politically? Can you sum that up in a few principles, Jonathan? Well, let me try. Read the Bible politically, this is number four, by, number one, considering covenantal context. Number two, authorial intent. And three, how God has authorized government. So pay attention to covenantal context, authorial intent and how God has authorized governments.
Very briefly. Number one, sub-point one on four, what covenantal audience does the author have in mind? All the Bible is relevant for the church and all humanity in one sense, but it’s a little more complicated than that. The Bible is structured by covenants, both common and special. He gave common covenants to Adam and Noah, to all people. He gave the special covenants to Abraham, Moses, David [inaudible 00:34:00] to his special covenantal people. And we need to pay attention to what audience the Bible has in mind as we’re thinking about how does this apply to the various institutions of those different covenants.
Family and state is a common covenant institution. Church is a special and its offices are special covenant institution. We need to pay attention. If we’re gonna ask about jurisdictions, what covenantal audience is mine? A whole lot more I could say there, don’t have time.
Number two, ask what the author’s intention is as you’re reading Scripture. So back to, say, Proverbs 22:7, ”The borrower is the slave of the lender.” The borrower is the slave of the lender. Was it the author’s intention to establish government housing policy? No, I don’t think so. I think his goal was to warn against the sense of enslavement someone in debt would feel, suggesting you would wanna avoid debt where you can. But a wise government might decide to get involved in various lending practices in order to protect the very ones who circumstances have them taking out loans. So ask what the author is saying and not saying and to whom he is saying it. Number three, as I said, consider what God has specifically authorized government to do. This means addressing texts like Genesis 9:5 and 6, and Romans 13 which we don’t have time to do, but both of these are the kinds of texts we would want to consider. Remember, the Bible is like a constitution I said, and those are institution establishing texts. Here’s your senate. Here’s your house. Here’s your presidency, okay.
We see, here is government and texts like that, what powers has he given government. Well, clearly, he’s authorized government with the right to render judgment. When lives are at stake, whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. Can we build a case for universal healthcare from that basic principle? Well, some might say yes, some might say no. We don’t need to answer that right now. But that’s where the conversation needs to happen. Based on what the text authorizes governments to do is something, like universal healthcare, legitimate. That’s the first question, in-house question Christians want to have with one another.
And an important part of thinking about the government’s God-given authority and jurisdiction is recognizing the difference between prescribing something and proscribing something, supporting something or criminalizing something. So the Bible may not authorize governments to criminalize, proscribe, every form of sin, but nor does it authorize Christians to support laws that positively prescribe or subsidize sin. So a Christian might decide the government should not criminalize gambling or various forms of sexual immorality believing that God is not authorized to do so, but such a position is qualitatively different from the decision to establish a state lottery or same-sex marriage. State lotteries positively support gambling. Same-sex marriage positively support and encourage sexual sin through tax breaks and so forth. Yet, does God authorize the state to do either? I don’t think so. So, again, we pay attention to what God has authorized the church to do or in governments to do.
Number five, fifth big principle, recognize a pastor’s job is to preach the Bible, not propose policy. Pastor’s job is to preach the Bible, not propose policy. So in the book, I tell the story of a U.S. Senator who once invited my church’s senior pastor to his office for advice on a proposed constitutional amendment against balanced budgets. This was 1995 and Newt Gingrich had just won a majority in the house and he had his contract with America. And one of the planks on the contract with America was a balanced budget amendment and it had passed the three quarters it needed in the House. And it was almost at two-thirds in the Senate save one Republican Senator. He was the 66th or 67th, I’m not sure, vote that was needed. And then it would have passed the Senate. And the media was hounding him and the party whip was hounding him and they’re saying, “You gotta do this. What are you gonna do?” And his constituents were calling. And so he invited my pastor down to his office and he said, “Pastor, you’re my pastor. What should I do?” And my pastor said to me, “I had a strong opinion about what he should do.” “What’d you say?” “I told him I’d pray for him.”
“Why? Why didn’t you tell him what to do?” “Jonathan, I’m certain about the resurrection. I’m not certain about my view on a balanced budget amendment. I’m gonna spend my capital on the first, not on the second.” He knew his job was to preach the Bible, not propose policy. He knew the lane God had given him to drive in. Now, obviously, this isn’t always going to be the case. He also said to me how the Senator been asking about the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, or the 14th Amendment, right of citizenship for all races, or the 15 Amendment, voting rights for all races. He certainly would have spoken up.
The gospel has implications and those who are justified will pursue justice. Faith shows itself in deeds. So, yes, churches can sin and prove faithless by not speaking up in matters of government policy when they should. There’s a time and a season for everything, a time to speak and a time to say silent, which means that once in a great while churches should speak directly to government policy or to particular candidates. But in most instances, trying to directly influence government policy involves more than just putting on good deeds. It involves you, as a pastor, in competencies you don’t possess and it says more about Jesus than you have the authority to say.
What is a pastor? A pastor’s job is to teach what people, the church, what to believe about the Bible. He is to lay out the path of biblical obedience, even binding consciences with it. The Bible says you, church member, must walk this way, not that way, which means a pastor without a Bible has no authority, no message. A Bible doesn’t give him authority to bind congregations’ consciences on the best dental practices, the most effective accounting methods, the advantages of drywall over plaster, or I’d say even on health policy.
He only has the authority to unite the church around God’s word, not around his personal opinion. He says this is the path of gospel obedience. He even says walking contrary to this path is disobedience and in some cases disciplinable. As I said, it is a conscience-binding occupation and he should only bind the consciences of his hearers with the word of God. The Pharisees loved to bind consciences where the word of God didn’t speak. And we love to be Pharisees, especially in politics. Well, how can a pastor decide when to speak and when not to speak? We’ll go back to the previous point. Straight line issues, jagged line issues. Speak over here, try not to speak over there.
One last thought for pastors and Christians generally here, there is a way of engaging that’s right on the substance but wrong on the strategy or tone. We can stand up for good things, but our language can become apocalyptic. We give earthly political outcomes and outsized importance. Too many exclamation points and all caps sentences, tell our non-Christian fellow citizens that our policy agenda is more important than the gospel itself. The election is the most important thing in the world. We communicate to them. No, we’re really just a branch of this party or that party. And we say, “God’s not that big after all. That’s why we have to scream.”
I think of Peter with his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. And something quietly hiding underneath the floorboards of this air is utopianism, the idea that we can bring heaven to earth now. And, friends, we know better than that. One of my fellow church members who works for a congressman said to me over lunch, “I’m just grateful to be a disposable congressional staff worker working for a disposable member of Congress. It’s a brief opportunity,” he said, “to do good, love my neighbor and stave off evil.” And that sounds about right. Love your neighbor. Do justice. Get involved in politics. Don’t think you’re trying to bring heaven to earth. So brother pastors in the room, equip your members to do good and work for the purposes of justice, but remind them that they go as ambassadors of the true king.
Number six and finally, be eager to maintain unity in the bond of peace. Number six, be eager to maintain unity in the bond of peace. Let me sum this up with 6…I’m sorry, 10 quick bullet points, all right? Ten quick bullet points under maintaining unity. Number one, this is for the pastors especially in the room, preach expositionally. The way you cultivate an appetite for the Bible…or, that way, you cultivate an appetite for the Bible, not for your political opinions. Number two, continually clarify the distinction between law and wisdom, firm grip on law, loose grip on wisdom. Number three, work to preserve Christian liberties. Pastors must be the biggest advocates of Christian liberty, Romans 14, liberty in the church.
A friend of mine, pastor friend of mine said to me recently, he said, “When I became a pastor, I thought my main job would be teaching Christians to obey the Bible. But then I discovered that one of my main jobs was to keep Christians from imposing things that are not the Bible on one another.” We’re the homeschooling crowd. We’re the public school crowd, all right. Pastors, you have to be advocates of Christian liberty big time.
Number four, make room for differently calibrated consciences of others. Again, this is kind of saying the same thing as the last one. As Paul wrote, “One person believes he may eat anything while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats for God has welcomed him.” Friends, some consciences are more tender than others and they will feel really upset if you make this particular compromise where your own conscience can make that compromise and partner with them or partner with them. Understand that different consciences will respond differently and don’t pass judgment on one another.
Number five, point to your church’s statement of faith. We unite around this statement of faith, not around my view on this or that political position.
Number six, speak more to what Scripture says and less to how to accomplish it. Preach that sex outside of marriage is wrong, that’s a what, but there’s no need for a pastor to devise public policy on how to lower teen pregnancy rates. That requires a competence and authority he does not possess by virtue of being a pastor.
Number seven, teach the congregation to empathize with those from different backgrounds. That is, teach Body of Christ empathy, 1st Corinthians 12. Teach them especially to empathize with those who lack or are last in this world, knowing that in heaven they will be first. Number eight, model graciousness towards those who disagree.
Number nine, preach the final judgment and sing about heaven often. We do this to help our congregation rightly calibrate our political perspective and to access the future hope that activates present love of neighbor. I’m gonna say that again. We sing about heaven often and preach the final judgment to help our congregation rightly calibrate our political perspective and to access the future hope that activates present love of neighbor.
Number 10, preach the gospel every week. If you’re not doing this, of course, they’re fighting about earthly things. Let me close this in prayer and then if there’s any questions, I’ll take them for about 10 minutes. Father God, thank you for your mercy. Give us wisdom according to your word even as we continue to think about these things as we go away and think about these things. In Christ’s name, amen.
So I’m happy to take some questions. I don’t think there’s a microphone, so you’re welcome to not feel embarrassed if you need to leave. Stand up and speak your question to them so they can hear it.
Man 1: All right, so I’m interested in your politics and mine. I’m Canadian, an observer of this country. You’re way more entertaining. I thought last night’s talk was kind of, how do we do it?
Leeman: Right. When I say principle pragmatism, I’m talking about the posture of Christians, not towards one another, though that may be true as well. I’m talking about the Christians toward non-Christians. So you don’t believe in the Bible, I do believe in the Bible. You don’t believe Jesus is Lord, I do believe that Jesus is Lord. How can I have a conversation with you in the public square? Here we are, a few of us Christians and some Muslims and Hindus and progressivists and spiritual-not religion. Here we are sitting at the table and we have to make decisions together that bind all of us. What kind of arguments do I wanna make there? Well, I’m gonna make arguments about principled pragmatists, meaning my principles inform me, no doubt about it, but I’m gonna make whatever arguments work.
So there’s three types I would say of common ground arguments and then there are sectarian arguments. The three types of common ground argument where I’m looking to find common ground with you are conscience arguments. Like, “Look, we don’t agree on God but neither of us wanna impose on one another’s consciences. Can we agree to respect religious liberty based on the conscience?” That’s a common ground argument based on something we share in common, right? Maybe it works sometimes. Okay. Call that the Luther option.
Then you got the, what I would call the MLK option, a natural law argument. Look, aren’t there certain principles that we can all appeal to? Rights, equality, freedom? That’s another kind of common ground argument, right? Natural law, call it the MLK option. He famously appealed to natural law and justice and so forth. And then you have what I’d call the sociologists option. I’m gonna appeal to statistics, to data, to say this is the way of flourishing. You know, children in homes, of two parents, tend to do better on SATs and grades and, you know, there tends to be less crime. They tend to do better on happiness surveys. Therefore, I’m gonna advocate for policies that support two-parent homes. Okay. I’m trying to make a common ground argument with my non-Christian neighbor friend in the public square.
So those are your common ground arguments. Then you have sectarian arguments where I just say…this is the Polycarp option. I say, “No, I’m not gonna submit to and worship the God that you’re calling me to because Jesus has never treated me poorly and Jesus is your king and my king and you’re threatening me with fire, but one day he will consume us all with fire.” It was a sectarian argument. It appealed to Jesus as Lord. And I think there’s a time and a place for Christians to say, “Yeah, God is my God and he’s your God and I’m not gonna do that accordingly.” Now, that didn’t work out for Polycarp in short term. He was burned at the stake, but he and many others, as they did that, they gained more credibility and it worked out for them in the long term. And I think a Christian needs to know how to use common ground arguments and sectarian arguments in the public square. Yeah, right there.
Man 2: How would [inaudible] no chance of winning, so go for the lesser of two evils. That was the big debate between Christians, how to apply some of what you said thatissue.
Leeman: I think those are fine debates to have. I think those are good conversations for Christians to have. I think it’s fine for Christians to come down in different positions and feel constrained according to differently calibrated consciences, feeling like, “No, I have to support the lesser of two evils. Therefore, I have to go this way.” Another person saying, “No, I can’t, in good conscience, do either,” and I think we need to leave some measure of Christian freedom in those domains. That’s why the pastors in my church I was at the time, we’ve since left and planted, but the time I was at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. And right there in Capitol Hill we felt the pressures, goodness gracious, on both sides. And the elders didn’t come out to say, “Here’s the right candidate to vote for.” And we didn’t come out to say, “This is the candidate you must not vote for.” We didn’t do that. We just kind of left it to the members of the church as we preached Scripture.
Now, having said that, I would say I’m increasingly of the mind that there is a time and a place to say you cannot support said candidate or party. You know, suppose a Nazi candidate got up. “Christian, if you tried to join my church and you’re voting Nazi parties, we will not let you join our church.” Remember the Ku Klux Klan. Nope, sorry. I will bind your conscience on that. Now, when does a nation get to a point where one of the two major parties are church membership level can’t do it? I think Christians are gonna be debating that in these very days, right now. I think Christians are thinking about that.
My thought is there is an extent to which Christians and communist China know they can’t have a position in government because to be a communist, you have to affirm no God. So that Christians, by definition, can’t join the communist party and therefore be a part of government. Christians are in China necessarily disenfranchised. I think Christians in America, increasingly, they’re gonna feel a sense of disenfranchisement. Like, “I can’t vote for that. I can’t vote for that. What do I do?” But you know what? We’re still gonna debate because some Christians say, “No, I have to do this to put off that.”
Man 2: Absolute, to vote against it?
Leeman: Yeah. Something I’m really leery about is kind of, and I don’t mean you’re doing this, kind of big label social justice woke socialism. It’s like, okay, show me biblically, specifically what you’re talking about, what you’re referring to. When we use those big labels, those are just kind of junk drawers and different people mean different things by them. Okay, so talk to me not about socialism, talk to me about 90% tax rates. Okay, let’s have a conversation about that, right? Is 90% tax rates actually an instance of governmental stealing? Is that Sheriff…Robinhood? What’s the Sheriff’s name? Sheriff of Nottingham level stealing, you know. So, yeah, that’s where the conversation needs to happen. Not over these big generic tough to pin down labels. Yeah. Maybe one more right there.
There were several questions there. Yes, some pastors do it poorly. We shouldn’t. To the best that we can, we should seek to be wise sometimes speaking, sometimes not speaking. Lord, give us wisdom. And two pastors might be perfectly, theologically aligned and make different judgements. And, brothers and sisters, you need to allow some of that to happen. Just because somebody on social media feels called to speak to this issue, and I don’t think a Christian should create a little space, show some forbearance. Show some charity please, right? But, no, there’s an extent to which, very often, people out of the extremes are the ones who speak. And I kind of do wanna say to any Christian or pastor who fits right in fully with a party or an ideology, I’m a little suspicious of that. Christian shouldn’t fit comfortably into any party, any ideology. We are in but not of the world. And if that shoe fits perfectly, well, you sure you’re being biblical? Because I think if you’re being biblical, it’s gonna kind of cut across the ideologies, across the party alignments of this world.
Now that’s just…my sense is we’re not gonna quite feel at home anywhere. We do our best with wisdom and maybe we’re gonna align more with, you know, this party at this particular time. But, yeah, I don’t wanna see… I’m skeptical about a full-on allegiance to any one force. We should sound strange. Do we confront church members? Yeah. And last thing I’m gonna say and then we’ll close, I think it is a pastor’s job to disciple church members how to think politically.
So at Capitol Hill Baptist, I taught a 13-week Sunday school class on the things that became the book. I thought, “Okay, at a Sunday school level, what are the things we wanna say about faith and politics?” And that’s what that book is. And so I think there are many good things, how to think biblically about faith and politics that churches should be doing. And if you don’t do it, you’re right, they’re gonna go this way or that way, or any number of worldly ways. So that’s our responsibility. Thank you friends.