One of my favorite pastors, who lives in a uniquely politically charged city, likes to argue that when a man becomes a pastor, he gives up his right to talk about politics and things like it, at least publicly. He argues that he is to only offend by the gospel, nothing else, and that to insist on talking about politics is to unnecessarily limit yourself in ministry. According to my friend, to insist on talking about politics as a pastor is to love being right more than loving people, because politics divide, and division means that some people will not listen to you on the matters of greater importance, the matters of eternal life or death.
Again, affirming my deep affection for this brother, I think he is fundamentally wrong.
Before explaining my disagreement, let me say that I agree with him on this point: the further a pastor moves away from clarity, the more care must necessarily be taken to say what is true. If a pastor claims a preference or untruth to be truth, he directly erodes his ethos as a herald, which does make him less fit to lead from the pulpit. Also, as is always the case, he must take particular care to never confuse the gospel with a political idea, for to do so is to lose the gospel.
But my friend’s case, though having the appearance of Christian virtue—”Just preach Christ, brother!”—doesn’t actually hold up under scrutiny. Let me explain.
If I can only preach the gospel, and only offend sinners with the gospel, then I can’t even preach the whole Bible. Much of the Bible is not the gospel—that is, the explicit message that must be believed in order to be saved. The pastor’s job from the pulpit itself requires him to preach and offend on more than simply the gospel, for he must preach the whole counsel of God.
Now, if someone says that the gospel is a message about God, Man, Christ, Response, and therefore the whole Bible is about at least one of those categories, then I’m in agreement. There is much in the Bible about holy and wise living, the right, lifelong response of faith to the grace of God. But, again, for the sake of clarity, there is more in the Bible than just the explicit message that must be heard and believed for salvation, the message that is the power of God for salvation. For example, there will be functional egalitarians in heaven, though those men and women are astonishingly wrong. There will be Baptists and Presbyterians and Anglicans in heaven. There is much more in the Bible than just the gospel of salvation, and that much more should be taught and talked about. Pastors should not be “gospel only” men, for the apostles weren’t gospel only men.
So, maybe I’ve convinced you of that straightforward point, that a pastor should teach and even cause sinners to be offended by more than just the gospel. But, maybe you’re thinking, “Ecclesiology is in the Bible, but America isn’t; and America’s political parties sure aren’t. Teach what is in the Bible explicitly, but, pastor, you shouldn’t go further than that.”
Let’s examine that position, looking at politics specifically. For politics to be out of bounds to the commentary of pastors, you’d have to be able to establish that politics are atheological, or atheistic, in nature. For politics to be out of bounds to the pastor, they’d have to be disconnected from truth, goodness, and beauty. The problem is that politics are done by men under God, inescapably under God; and both God’s general and special revelation speak to what is right and wrong, true and false, beautiful and ugly in the political sphere. That means politics can be done righteously or unrighteously. In America, where every adult is involved in the political sphere to one degree or another, each Christian must ask how to be involved righteously. And the pastor should be there to provide teaching on righteousness.
Therefore the pastor can indeed speak to politics. But he shouldn’t be wrong, because that will result in people living unwisely or unrighteously, and/or make him less credible as an ambassador of heaven (see the recent writing of Thabiti Anyabwile). He should only speak on an issue when accurately informed. He should focus on principles derived from Scripture, principles that can’t be derailed by “unforeseen” political scandal. He should be vigilant to maintain consistency between truths directly revealed in Scripture and those truths’ implications in politics. And when he is expressing opinion or preference, he should make it crystal clear that what he is saying does not bind the conscience of a Christian, in contrast to the binding force of Hebrews 10:25.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re a pastor in Virginia, and a member of your church asks you if Nick Freitas is a good candidate for Senate. And, for the sake of juiciness, let’s say he asks in you in the Q and A time at the end of a Sunday School class on Christian Ethics; so it is asked publicly, not just in private conversation. Assuming that neither you nor the questioner actually know the man, you can still help that Sunday School class think through how to approach the question well.
Goodness is being questioned; and goodness is at stake. So, what does the Bible say the God-given role of government is; and does Freitas profess to believe that? What is his platform; and does it please God according to Scripture, or displease God according to Scripture? Is America’s Constitution consistent with the Bible’s teaching about man and government? If it is, are the goals put forward by Freitas consistent or inconsistent with the Constitution? By helping the member think through these questions, the pastor is helping him think Biblically, think Christianly, think carefully, think well. There are Bible answers to the question of whether or not Nick Freitas is a good candidate.
At this point, you may be objecting that to talk so openly about a political candidate, when American politics are so divided, is to ostracize members who don’t like that candidate. This is certainly a question over which brothers can disagree and maintain membership with one another in the same church. There can be those who think through the matter weakly and strongly; and it is the job of the strong to bear with the weak. But Romans 14, where such issues in the life of the church are discussed, doesn’t recommend silence. A pastor should teach through all the types of issues named in that chapter. “This is what the Bible says. Therefore…” But such teaching doesn’t overbearingly bind anyone’s conscience, as disagreement over Romans 14 matters is allowed in the body.
It is my contention that the Nick Freitas question falls within the Romans 14 paradigm, as something that can be talked about but that shouldn’t divide a body. It can be talked about publicly by a pastor because the Bible speaks to the matter. A pastor shouldn’t sound just like any secular thinker, for his anchor and starting point should always be Scripture. His focus should be teaching the Biblical truths that serve as his foundation. He should make it obvious that his allegiance is to the Bible, not to a particular candidate or party. He should make it clear that he never expects government to be a savior. He should take care to explain his process of getting from those Bible passages to the matter at hand. And he should affirm that, while there are ways to disagree over the question that are not good, the church is a family in which men and women can disagree over the question.
Pastors shouldn’t limit themselves to only offend by the gospel. They can talk about politics, because God’s revelation speaks to politics; and politics are done for or against truth, goodness, and beauty. Politics will defend or attack true human rights to life and property. Laws will always be within wisdom and morality or not. Politics will be practiced consistent with Biblical teaching or not. And pastors should feel more than free to help the flock think on these things well.
In the context of disciplined, systematic expository preaching from the pulpit, the church with a politically aware and vocal pastor will be guarded from becoming something other than an embassy of heaven.