Our politics are not separate from our religion. It’s one aspect of our obedience. The guys who say, “Don’t preach politics, preach the gospel,” are half right. They’re right to say you shouldn’t preach a party, a strategy, or a legislative agenda, as I said a moment ago. Yet you should preach repentance and obedience. And when a people’s politics involve injustice, they must repent as a part of their gospel obedience. To be sure, it takes great wisdom to know when this is the case, including the distinction between straight- and jagged-line issues… Yet make no mistake: justified people love justice. In a virtuous cycle, our justification creates a desire for justice, which in turn displays and demonstrates our justification; just like our faith creates good deeds, which in turn display and demonstrate our faith.
How can pastors lead through a tough political season?
Depending where you are, you face different challenges. Here are some real examples I’ve heard lately. A pastor in China is trying to figure out how to gather his church again after police broke it up and incarcerated him for two weeks.
A pastor in the Middle East wants to know what to do with members whose anti-Israel sentiments make them sympathetic to violent action against Israel.
A pastor in Northern Ireland has members who despise the British government and others who love it.
A pastor in the United States has one member calling President Trump the anti-Christ on social media, and another naming him the lion of the tribe of Judah.
We feel the political heat for different reasons, but we all feel it. How do we endure? Here are thirteen principles for pastoring through political turmoil.
1. Know what you’re up against politically: idolatry and false worship inside and outside the church.
Americans tend to think we can keep our politics and our religion separate. But we can’t. It’s impossible. As I’ve written at length, our politics serve our worship. Our governments serve our gods. Political heat flows out of religious heat. Just ask Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The nations will burn us when we refuse to worship their gods, whether their gods are named Bel or Marduk, money or sex, science or technology, safety or skin color, this party or that party.
Yes, God in his matchless wisdom uses those governments to restrain evil and provide peace and order (Gen. 9:5–6; 1 Tim. 2:1–4). Yes, some governments are better than others, even dramatically so (compare Pharaohs at the times of Joseph and Moses). Yet make no mistake: the nations and kings and voters of the earth rage against the Lord and against his Messiah (Ps. 2; Rev. 13:7–8). Our politics either serve Jesus Christ or our idols (see also Deut. 32:8; Ps. 82:1–2). There’s no neutrality, said Augustine.
Which means, pastor, that the pressures and encroachments you feel from the so-called political sphere worsen as a nation’s idols become stronger and louder. They might even be hiding inside your members’ favorite ideologies (e.g. conservatism, liberalism, socialism, nationalism). When this happens, Christians will begin to tear into each other like the world.
So know what you’re up against. The political battles surrounding and invading your church are profoundly spiritual. The principalities and powers aren’t interested in merely getting your members to vote a certain way. They want your church’s worship. So keep a level head and a sharp eye, step circumspectly, and pray hard.
2. Be more vigilant than ever about co-optation by fighting for the church more than any political outcome.
I said the principalities and powers want the church’s worship. The most common way for them to do this is by co-opting us. They convince us that that the temporary kingdoms of this world are most important, their battles most crucial, their threats most to be feared, their promises most to be sought. They distract us and subvert us with good things that are not ultimate things.
From God’s people in the wilderness longing to return to Egypt, to Judah’s kings relying on the horses and chariots of surrounding nations, to the people of Jerusalem laying down palm branches for Jesus hoping for their rescue from Rome, to Peter picking up a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, co-optation has always been one of the greatest threats for God’s people. The world and its eyes of flesh will always want us to give its battles an outsized importance, and both sides of any battle will always clamor for our support. I assume, pastor, you’ve felt this from both the right and the left.
It’s like two of my daughters in a squabble. Both girls want to enlist me, so that I vindicate one and denounce the other. In any given tiff, of course, I might decide one is more right than the other. Yet I serve them best by never being co-opted by either, but always being the dad, whose eye remains focused on the bigger picture for both of them. Their third and fourth sister might jump in and play favorites. I cannot do that. I have to listen to each, but the need is to be in, not of. If I do take sides, at most it will be temporary.
So with you, pastor. Forces outside your church will constantly try to co-opt your church to its cause. Yet often it will be your members, and you can assume they have the best of goals when they do. Their goal will be justice and righteousness, or at least justice and righteousness by their political lights. In other words, the temptation is not necessarily to something that, in and of itself, is untrue or unjust, though that happens, too. The primary temptation is to wrong priorities and the loss of an eternal, kingdom focus, which only eyes of faith can see.
When co-optation happens, without fully realizing it, you begin to prioritize nation, party, movement, election, nomination, or some other political cause over the kingdom of Christ. When co-optation happens, the volume, tone, intensity, and frequency with which you discuss political things increases. You begin to map out the world in black hats and white hats with your church wearing the white hats—as if you’ve forgotten what Jesus said about the plank and the speck, or what Peter said about judgment beginning with God’s household. You even characterize other believers as wearing the black hats. They become the enemy. And in all of this, you tell the world that Christians are just a branch of this or that party, this or that political cause. You allow your witness to be undermined.
To be sure, politicians, parties, and the media will co-opt you even when you actively resist. A candidate might suggest the possibility of speaking at your church. A journalist will ascribe your church’s action to the fact that your church is “White” or “progressive,” dismissing the possibility that your church did what it did as a matter of obedience to Jesus. These things will happen, no matter how careful you are, because the world loves to recruit us for its battles. Don’t help them. Don’t let them enlist you. Instead, help the church to store up its treasure in heaven, not on earth.
For a moment, I want to speak specifically to Americans: we need to realize that we have a long history of co-optation. It has shown up every time American exceptionalism (and there are better and worse forms) has tempted us to confuse American history with salvation history. As goes the United States, so goes the kingdom of God. Few pastors explicitly think, “American history is salvation history.” But whether we tend in a premillennial or postmillennial direction, we bear a sense of descending or ascending toward the fulfillment of all things, and of America’s special place in that drama. So we place an eschatological weight on the next election, the next Court nomination, the outcome of the latest round of protests and riots. We step into the pulpit and feel burdened, not merely to fight for justice in the short-term for our neighbors, but for something a little weightier, something historical and redemptive, similar to how our post-Christian friends reveal their millennial Christian roots by talking about being on “the right side of history.” As a result, our political convictions take on a holy purpose, fervor, and certitude. Preaching our historical and political judgments becomes preaching Scripture.
No doubt, pastors should sometimes make such historical and political judgments and call their churches to do the same. My point is not to say we must separate our politics from our religion, as the nineteenth-century doctrine of the spirituality of the church tried to do. That’s the wrong solution. Politics is not separate from our biblical obedience, but one aspect of it. The point is to realize that what seems normal to pastors in the United States, whether on the left or right, may not seem normal to Christians elsewhere. Millenarianism roots deep in our national DNA, which yields a kind of utopianism, which in turn causes us to wrongly elevate both the significance and the accuracy of our historical judgments, as if the kingdom of God depended upon them. It doesn’t. Not in the slightest. No man knows the day or hour Christ will come (Matt. 24:36). Two hundred years from now the United States might look no more significant to salvation history than the kingdom of Prussia looks to us today.
Furthermore, realize how dark co-optation is. When we give more attention to the kingdoms of this world than the kingdom of Christ, we give the evil one our worship:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matt. 4:8–9)
We must give thanks for our nations, each of us, but remind and remind and remind your congregation of their exilic status and their citizenship in heaven. Prioritize love of church—in all its colorful parts—over love of nation. Prioritize the Bible’s teaching over your preferred political philosophy or partisan leanings, even when you’re convinced those leanings are correct. Satan loves to sidetrack Christian pastors with their political certitudes. Continue to love and embrace a church member whose political opinions frustrate you, assuming those opinions or activities do not put him or her under the discipline of the church.
3. Trust the point of whatever Bible book you’re preaching through right now.
You and your church will be able to follow principles 1 and 2 only as Scripture shapes you (see Rom. 12:2). The concerns of your Twitter feed shouldn’t dictate what they’re learning. The Bible should.
So keep preaching consecutively through books of the Bible. Are you preaching Mark 1 this week? Then the point of Mark 1 is what your people most need. Mark 2? Then they most need the point of Mark 2. Mark 3? You see where I’m going.
Pastors love that quote about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Fine, but I hope you’re a whole lot more confident in your judgments and exposition of Scripture than you are in your exposition of the significance of events in your newspaper. Don’t treat your two hands symmetrically.
I’m not saying you don’t ever offer topical sermons on pertinent questions. I am saying the long-term, culture-shaping project of helping your church to endure tough political seasons depends on your long-term commitment to expositional preaching. The Holy Spirit revealed Mark 1, 2 and 3 for a reason. There’s something in them your church needs.
Oliver O’Donovan helps us to transition from the last two principles to this one when he says,
Not every wave of political enthusiasm deserves the attention of the church in its liturgy. Judging when political questions merit prophetic commentary requires a cool head and a theological sense of priorities. The worship that the principalities and powers seek to extract from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times—and surely a major election is one of them—when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.
And that something else, most critically, is the Bible.
More inspired than O’Donovan is the apostle Paul. Paul points us to the Bible as the weapons we use to demolish the strongholds that are set up against the knowledge of God.
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Cor. 10:4–5)
The louder the idols become and the more political heat we feel, the more crucial it is for you to preach the Bible expositionally, letting God set the agenda, not the gods.
4. Be a drama dampener, not an accelerator.
People love drama, political and otherwise, and one of your jobs, pastor, is to tamp it down when it divides the saints or distracts them from matters of first importance. Model peacemaking (Matt. 5:9) because not every disagreement needs to turn into a heresy trial. Remind your members that they’re family; they’ve agreed to unite around repentance from sin and your statement of faith, not their political judgments.
Also, check your own heart: do you love drama? So does Satan. He rejoices when he provokes the saints to gasp and whisper about one another, “I can’t believe he…?!” or “If that law passes the world will end!” Therefore, the best pastors (and parents!) I know are drama dampeners, not accelerators. They teach members how to give one another the benefit of the doubt amidst the tiffs and kerfuffles.
Being a drama dampener is tough if you love to brawl. Confess and repent if you do. Also, the so-called discernment bloggers and YouTubers thrive on drama and division. Avoid them, and tell your members to do the same. Certainly be careful about your own presence on social media (here are five observations and four tips for pastors engaging on social media).
I admit I’ve never lived in a war-torn nation, under the threat of persecution by a secular dictator or Muslim radicals, or as an oppressed minority. I trust my perspective would shift some in each. Yet even in all of these circumstances, there are those who love drama and those who dampen it, because they trust in God. Your goal and mine should be to model peacemaking and mature conversation. Related to that . . .
5. Become an expert in fear and hope.
The purpose of politics is to pursue justice, which is good. But politics in this world is driven by fear, which is at best mixed. Fear of destruction and harm. Fear of the bad guys winning and my side losing. Fear of injustice. Fear is the common currency.
In politically tumultuous times, fear runs rampant, and people act like cornered dogs who growl and snarl. They also flee to the populist voices that speak with certainty and confidence, assuring their listeners that they wear the white hats while everyone else wears a black hat.
Your job, pastor, is to respond by playing part shepherd, part prophet, and part ambassador for the king who knows no fear but offers hope.
The shepherd in you must acknowledge that some of these enemies—the existential threats that comprise the political landscape—are real. A shepherd doesn’t say, “There are no wolves and enemies.” Rather, he prepares a table for his congregation in the presence of their enemies (Ps. 23:5). He points them to the quiet waters of Christ’s love and the green pastures of his Word, even as very real enemies surround us (see also Ps. 3:6).
The prophet in you, however, reminds your church that there is something we should fear more than the existential threats posed by this world, and that’s the eternal threat of the one who holds the kings of the earth in derision and will smite them with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:4, 9). Fear God, not man. God told Isaiah to do this even as the Assyrian army loomed menacingly over Judah:
Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. (Is. 8:12–13)
Christian writers often emphasize the church’s “prophetic” role in calling out the sins of a nation. Yet notice: for every chapter the biblical prophets devote to indicting the nations, they devote several to indicting God’s own people. Which is to say, the primary role of prophesy among God’s people is self-indictment, not others-indictment. Judgment begins with the household of God (see Matt. 7:3–5; 1 Pet. 4:17).
So, pastor, do you spend more time calling out the evils of political forces “out there,” or more time helping your church to discern their own misplaced fears? One of the main lessons of the whole Old Testament was that Israel’s greatest enemy was never Egypt, the Philistines, Assyria, or Babylon. It was always their own hearts. Maybe we should spend less time being culture warriors and more time being gospel proclaimers?
The ambassador in you, then, reminds your church that they’re citizens of another city whose architect and builder is God (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:10). The fear and panic they feel too often roots in the fact that they think this world really is their home and they’re expecting something more (see point 2 above). We shouldn’t be surprised when pedophilia goes mainstream on Netflix or when police officers in my county throw a man to the ground during a traffic stop and leave him partially paralyzed. This sounds a lot like the Roman Empire of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, doesn’t it? The point isn’t to speak against such evil less, but to remind them of eternity more.
Yet the most crucial step in all of this, pastor is for you not to live submerged in fear. One drowning man isn’t much help to another.
The solution to fear is hope. Do your sermons usually end in hope?
6. Give the benefit of the doubt to fellow believers, lest you become dishonest.
Something that’s common amidst political turmoil is to view those who disagree with us darkly and cynically. When we view people in the worst possible light, we tend to misrepresent them. And to misrepresent someone is to be dishonest. We may not mean to deceive, but the combination of our cynicism and carelessness begets this dishonesty, for which we are culpable.
We become so convinced of the justice of our cause that we begin to believe our assumptions about the other side as much as what the other side actually said. So we exaggerate. We impugn motives. We insist people believe things they explicitly deny. We attack them and not just what they’re saying. We call our family unity into question, saying things like, “I can’t believe how much you’ve moved from where you used to be!” Such a charge might be appropriate a couple times a decade, but not once a week.
Remember who Psalm 15:3 says can live on the Lord’s holy mountain: the one who does not “discredit his neighbor” (CSB).