I’ve written on this issue before, but it’s probably worth revisiting in an election season. And new research has been released by Lifeway that affirms what I’ve always believed: generally Bible-believing pastors shy away from overt political endorsements and preaching politics in the pulpit.
I wrote a piece for Relevant not long ago on this subject in which I said this:
[To preach] is a humble and holy task because the people who attend churches arrive with the assumption that what is said comes from the Bible. To cut and paste partisan talking points or to substitute consistent exegesis with sample “election season” sermons is spiritual malpractice.
I want to expand on this with three important points on why pastors don’t and probably shouldn’t preach politics in the pulpit:
1) Our text must be the Word of God.
This sounds like a cliche, but it bears saying: faithful Bible preachers use the text of the Word of God as their source of preaching. Anything less is simply a speech, which may be inspirational, moral, or even Christian-themed. But if our basis is not the text, we’re not preaching.
Sometimes a given text will make political or moral statements. For instance, if you’re preaching through Psalm 139, you cannot escape the references to the sanctity of life. Or if you are preaching through Proverbs you will encounter many economic truths that shape capitalism. Or if you are preaching through parts of James or Timothy, you will find it inescapable to avoid the harsh condemnations of greed.
But as a rule pastors, especially those who preach in an expository (taking a book at a time, chapter at a time, verse at a time) approach, will be guided by the text. To parachute political talking points into the text is spiritual malpractice.
One caveat is this: perhaps a pastor will do a topical series on key issues of the day and how Christians should think through them biblically. I’ve done this as a Sunday Night series. This can be helpful; however, a pastor must be faithful to let the text speak to the issue and not wedge his or her particular political opinion into the text.
2) The Bible cuts both ways.
I find it fascinating that certain groups on the Right want pastors to “speak up.” What they mean by this, of course, is to more overtly endorse their preferred candidates and/or moral issues. But what they don’t understand is that pastors are speaking up. It’s just that what pastors are speaking up about may not be the talking points of the current season. And the Bible cuts against both parties, against all political persuasions. Yes, there is much in the Scripture affirming the prolife (Psalm 139; Genesis 2-3) and traditional marriage (Mark 19:5) positions. You can also make a good argument that the Bible affirms the idea of limited government (1 Timothy 2:2; Mark 12:17) and some of the root ideas of capitalism. So some would say the Bible is very conservative.
And yet that would be incomplete, because you will also find in Scripture many texts on justice, the plight of the poor, treatment of the immigrant. And who were Jesus’ chief antagonists in the gospels? The Pharisees, the Religious Right of their day.
Should pastors speak in the pulpit about contemporary issues? Yes, but only when the texts of Scripture clearly articulate it. They shouldn’t bow to any party’s talking points. They shouldn’t slant their sermons to fit a political profile. They shouldn’t become wannabe pundits in the pulpit. They should preach the Word and let it do its work in the hearts of the people, who will then influence their communities.
3) We must never dilute the message of the gospel.
The Church should be countercultural and should engage the issues of the day. But this engagement should be an outgrowth of the gospel’s sanctifying work in each believer. In other words, the political issues shouldn’t be the main thing that characterizes a church. The gospel should be the main thing. The Scriptures should be the main thing. Christ should be the main thing. This is why pastors often shy away from endorsements or public pulpit activism. It sends the wrong message that the main purpose for gathering on Sunday is to stir up the troops and get “our guy” elected. But what of the brother or sister of the other party or the soul seeking God who only hears partisan talking points? If this happens, we’ve failed in our mission.
To be clear, pastors are citizens, too. And so in other venues, such as op-eds, blogs, books and other places of influence the pastor may speak his mind. Even so, he must jealously guard that influence and always speak winsomely. Again, as a minister of the gospel, he must not make politics more important than his pastoral duties.
Pastors should also coach their members to winsomely engage the culture. We need gospel preachers at all levels of society and in all spheres, politics included. Pastors should equip, encourage, and support those who enter public service.
Summary: In conversations I’ve had and in my own experience, it is mission that keeps pastors from overtly preaching politics in the pulpit and not the IRS.
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