The Best Reason for the Church to Stay Out of Politics

These days, something new is in the ecclesiastical air: pastors are insisting that “I have the right to be political from my pulpit.” It’s a freedom of speech thing, they say.

The IRS responds that you certainly do have that freedom, so long as you dont mind giving up this little thing called Tax Exemption.

Methinks some pastors are about to find the cost for exercising this freedom is more than they want to pay.

My father has been in Heaven for almost a year now, but he had a perspective on this issue that some of our pastors could benefit from.

One Sunday, Dad drove 50 miles and attended the church my brother Ron pastored in Graysville, Alabama, just north of Birmingham. This was some 10 or 12 years ago, during the Clinton presidency. Ron had a well-known guest evangelist in that day and Dad wanted to hear him.

Later he told me what happened.

“The preacher got in the pulpit and spent half his time slamming the liberal Democrats and cracking jokes about President Clinton.”

Now, my dad was a lifelong coal miner–he worked in the deep pits of Alabama and West Virginia until forced to retire at the age of 49–and a confirmed union member. That almost automatically made him a Democrat, too, at that time. But anyone who thought Carl McKeever was a liberal needs to find some new definitions for his political lexicon! Dad was anything but liberal, and had a low tolerance for fools, whether in politics or any other part of life.

After letting his report on the visiting evangelist’s folly sink in, Dad said to me, “What if there were unsaved people sitting in that church that morning and they happened to be Democrats? How would they have reacted to what that preacher said? They won’t listen to a thing he said about Jesus because they were so upset at what he said about their politics.”

He added, “That’s why a preacher has no business bringing politics into the pulpit.

My dad had only a 7th grade education, but he had more common sense in his coal-stained pinkie than most of us carry about in our enlarged seminary-educated craniums.

There’s an old triusm that goes: “The church that marries the culture today will be a widow tomorrow.” That surely applies also to the matter of pastors endorsng political candidates and their churches identifying exclusively with one party or the other.

So, why do pastors do this?

I can find only two answers:

1) There are some important issues. No one is disputing that. The matter of abortion looms largest on my own political horizon. Furthermore, the economy of this country and what this nation should be doing in the Middle East are crucial matters. There are moral aspects to these issues which pastors can address and should be helping their people with.

Only, they don’t need to be endorsing candidates.

2) As critical as those issues are, none are as important as the church’s primary task of bringing the gospel to the community and the world. Plainly, some pastors have lost their way and some churches have forgotten their task. When they are willing to risk the salvation of lost people who wander into their services in order to get certain candidates elected, one has to wonder if these men of God have forgotten their assignment from Matthew 28:18-20.

In my own city, we have an eight-term congressman running for re-election this year at the same time he is facing a federal trial in a few days for racketeering and taking bribes. Almost every day, the New Orleans Times-Picayune carries another sordid revelation about the doings of William Jefferson and his extended family. It appears they had their hands out for payoffs at every turn and that the congressman’s siblings and numerous children all were feathering their nests at the public trough.

In a field of eight candidates, Mr. Jefferson won 25 percent of the vote in the primary and in the runoff faces the single white canddiate, a former television newswoman Helena Morena, who garnered 20 percent of the vote. And yet, a group of clergymen met this week to issue a ringing endorsement of Mr. Jefferson and urge everyone to vote for him.

And we wonder why people no longer respect the ministry for its integrity and courage.

I am not suggesting that Christians ought to stay out of politics. Far from it. But only that politics should stop at the front door of the church.

We have far bigger fish to fry.

When Israel was in Babylon, God sent a message to His people through the prophet Jeremiah. “Work for the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray on its behalf. For as it prospers, you will prosper. (Jer. 29:7)

Work for it, pray for it, yes. Encourage your people to be politically active, surely. Just don’t bring the campaigns into the church building.

The worship center isn’t called a sanctuary for nothing. There ought to be at least one place where we are protected from such.

14 thoughts on “The Best Reason for the Church to Stay Out of Politics

  1. Your father’s comments remind me of the words of Dr. C.C. Randall, evangelism professor at NOBTS in the 1980’s. Dr. Randall arrived in January, 1983 from FBC Tuscaloosa, where he’d been pastor for 20+ years. I took one of his first classes that semester. That very sweet man gave continuous examples of the ministries of FBC Tuscaloosa. Bear Bryant had died that month – so one day after class I said to Dr. Randall that I was sure that he could share some interesting stories about Bear Bryant (I suppose that I meant in class). I’m an Alabama native, so you have to overlook me regarding this subject. He said, “You know, Regina, that’s an idea.” (Notice he didn’t say that it was a good idea.) I later found out that he had been affected by the importance placed on athletics in a college town.

    While he was a very calm person, one day in class Dr. Randall became extremely fired up about much University of Alabama athletic events affected the church family. He said that if Alabama lost a football game, church attendance would be down the next day and it was like a black shawl hung over the city. Likewise, if Alabama won, attendance would be up. (He went into much detail in giving other examples and was pounding the podium I believe). I realized that day that I’d never hear a Bear Bryant story – and I didn’t.

    Dr. Randall shared in that class that he never mentioned the outcome of an University of Alabama sporting event from behind the pulpit (win or loss) – as there could be supporters of other schools present that might be alienated from the ministry of the church.

    Obviously, I vividly remember that lecture – and think of Dr. Randall every time that I hear a team or sports event mentioned during a worship service. There is so much wisdom in the insights of your dad and Dr. Randall. Thanks for putting these thoughts together!

  2. Amen, Joe! In fact, I won’t even have a sticker on my car or wear a t-shirt supporting a candidated. Some years ago, however, things were different, and we had stickers on our cars supporting a certain candidate. My wife was working with a children’s ministry and overheard a couple of kids saying about that particular candidate the he “hates black people.” Well, I didn’t believe that to be true, but I thought, “What if my support for that candidate keeps me from winning someone to Jesus?” We took the stickers off our cars, and to this day, I won’t even tell people privately who I’m voting for. I happen to know very godly Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and independents who all earnestly try to vote according to biblical convictions. In fact, I find the shift that is currently taking place to be very interesting. I know that at one time, good Southern Baptists were Democrats (at least in the South). Now it seems they lean Republican. But the younger generation of evangelicals is leaning Democrat again. Perhaps . . . and maybe this is a stretch . . . but might it be possible . . . that Jesus is neither a Republican or a Democrat?

  3. Amen My Dear Brother in Christ.

    Ater all we are citizens of a heavenly land, and are strangers and pilgrims here.

    If the Church faithfully teaches God’s Word, we won’t have to worry about the politics of our members.

  4. Before we go into the voting booth, which it is not only our God given right to do, but our responsibilty, having been fought for in many wars with much blood shed and many lives lost to defend that right, all of us have an obligation to pray, not that our candidate wins, but God’s Candidate wins, regardless of the outcome.

  5. When I interviewed for pastor of my current church, I was asked the question “Do you preach politics from the pulpit?” My answer was “No, I preach the Word. Now the Bible does speak out on homosexuality and abortion and when I preach from those passages, I will address those issues. But I will not endorse a candidate from the pulpit.” Now we live in a sparsely populated area of southern Illinois and most people know that I ran an unsuccessful campaign for county commissioner in an adjacent county as a Republican.

    The real issue, I believe is that God is in control and regardless of the outcome, whether it is for discipline or blessing, we must be faithful to Him. We are in this world and we are to be an influence, not to influence people to a certain political ideology but to influence people of this world to believe and trust in Jesus Christ.

    Dr J

  6. I’d like to leave you with one of our Founding Brother’s Warnings, that of Alexander Hamilton in the “Federalist Papers”, “Of men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying obsequious court to the people, commencing as demagogues and ending tyrants.”

  7. Joe,

    You are so very right, and I can say that yet again, RIGHT. Where I come from (Kenya) we witnessed first hand during our last year’s general elections what politics in our churches (read partisan politics) can do to, and for, a nation: BLOODSHED.

    Politics does not belong in the pulpit, dear ministers of God’s word. When this does happen, then church leaders lose the moral authority to guide people in the ONE AND ONLY TRUE WAY – THE WAY OF THE CROSS. I sincerely do hope that this message (your message) reaches far and wide. As one Mr. Mike said above, Jesus was…….. well, Jesus. No party, No label, just…..JESUS.

  8. Joe,

    You are so very right, and I can say that yet again, RIGHT. Where I come from (Kenya) we witnessed first hand during our last year’s general elections what politics in our churches (read partisan politics) can do to, and for, a nation: BLOODSHED.

    Politics does not belong in the pulpit, dear ministers of God’s word. When this does happen, then church leaders lose the moral authority to guide people in the ONE AND ONLY TRUE WAY – THE WAY OF THE CROSS. I sincerely do hope that this message (your message) reaches far and wide. As one Mr. Mike said above, Jesus was…….. well, Jesus. No party, No label, just…..JESUS.

  9. It’s so hard, because part of the Church’s prophetic role is to “speak truth to power.” We cannot “just preach the gospel and avoid political issues” without eviscerating the Gospel (see: Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, King, etc.) And yet, there is every difference in the world between preaching Christ’s Good News to the Poor (the Church’s job) and validating particular strategies over others (most definitely not the Church’s job). Intelligent people of good will anc Christian charity can and do advocate varieties of approaches to dealing with such issues. Those differences in strategy are important questions, but they are questions of sociology and economics, not morality and most certainly not religion.

    John Stott says that the Church’s role is to advocate for “principles but not policies.” I think that pretty much nails it … 95% of the time.

    But sometimes there are no two Christian ways of thinking about the issue at hand (see: Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, King, etc.). Sometimes, not often but sometimes, any advocacy of principles must necessarily lead to advocacy of certain policies and anything less is cowardice.

    But man oh man that line is hard to discern! If anyone has it figured out, please let me know!

  10. I was born to an elected official. My father served in elected for many years. I, too, have served in an elected position. When we entered the ministry fourteen years ago I debated about being vocal and decided not to. People of our congregation came to us and asked us to do a message on “Who Should I Vote For?” We agreed to do so.

    In a nutshell I stated that I do not care about the party. In Indiana, one is as corrupt as the other. However, I do care about the individual and his or her opinions and planks in the platforms.

    As a Christian, we should not even consider voting for a candidate who favors abortion of any kind. The point I stress is that there is never a point where life BEGINS. It only ends. The contributions from the mother and the father were both alive even before conception. They each came from a live person who came from a live person – all the way back to Adam and Eve.

    As a Christian we should never knowingly vote for a person who advocates homosexual unions or marriage. Apart from homosexuality being an abomination to God it is scentifically an abomination. If homosexuality were a scientifically “correct” lifestyle, then it, too, would produce off spring – it does not because it is abnormal. We should not advocate abnormal activity.

    We carried out message one step further and said that as Christians we should NEVER vote for a candidate that is obviously outside the will of God. i.e. Knowingly having an affair outside of marriage. Knowingly stealing from the constituency. Knowingly discriminating against others.

    Our goal is to bring people to Christ and doing what we can to place people with Christian values in office.

    From these four items we ask our flock to then go forth and actively select candidates that meet their Christian criteria. We have never conducted a poll and wouldn’t want too if I could, but I would guess that we are in pretty close agreement on election day.

  11. i applaud the comments made concerning my predecessor at FBC Tuscaloosa. H was the gold standard as a christian gentleman and as a pastor to his people. Dr. Randall was very enthusiastic about being in the city where national champions were a fairly common reality but he kept the main thing the main the, as the trite but true expression goes. i admired for a host of reasons, not the least of which was his laser-like focus on preaching the gospel and pastoring his people. in his latter years, he returned to Tuscaloosa and was a vital part of our church and community. To follow him as a pastor at FBC, was a high and holy privilege for me. His legacy still lives in the lives of those he touched with his servant spirit and his compassion for people.

  12. I think the thing that is hardest is for us to distinguis between the role of the church and the role of the individual. And yes, I do think they are at times different. For example, it is appropriate for an individual Christian to fight in wars; it is not appropriate for the church to take up arms. Similarly, it is appropriate for a Christian to serve as a politician; it is not appropriate for the church to engage in politics.

    In 1980, only about a year before his death, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was interviewed by Carl Henry. He said the following:

    “It amazes me that evangelicals have suddenly taken such an interest in politics.” He called such interest “sheer folly…. You can’t reform the world. That’s why I disagree entirely with the ‘social and cultural mandate’ teaching and its appeal to Genesis 1:28. It seems to me to forget completely the Fall. You can’t Christianize the world. The end time is going to be like the time of the Flood. The condition of the modern world proves that what we must preach more than ever is ‘Escape from the wrath to come!’ The situation is critical. I believe the Christian people–but not the church–should get involved in politics and social affairs. The kingdom task of the church is to save men from the wrath to come by bringing them to Christ. This is what I believe and emphasize. The main function of politics, culture, and all these things is to restrain evil. They can never do an ultimately positive work. Surely the history of the world demonstrates that. You can never Christianize the world” (Christianity Today, February 8, 1980, pp. 33-34).

    Indeed, our priority is the preaching of the Gospel and the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Surely we don’t expect politicians or political parties to do either. Let’s stay true to our calling (Matthew 28:18-20).

    “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” Psalm 146:3

  13. Note from Joe–

    One of the fun things about having a blog is these comments. After Regina Wright’s “comment-of-the-year” (really!) concerning Dr. Cecil Randall, I phoned my longtime friend Dr. Rick Lance, who followed Dr. Randall in Tuscaloosa and is now the executive-director of the Alabama Baptist Convention, suggesting that he read her note and leave his own comments. I appreciate his doing so. I honestly wish every sports-fanatic pastor would emulate Dr. Randall and adopt Rick’s wisdom regarding this.

    Likewise, I wish every pastor-who-wants-to-turn-his-pulpit-into-a-political-platform would read Mike Miller’s good note concerning Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the great Bible expository preachers of the last generation.


  14. Joe, I always enjoy reading your comments on current events. You are one insightful leader. This particular feature is a timely one indeed. I am praying fervently for our next president. He will need the prayers of all of God’s people as he seeks to lead our nation. In a matter of days, the intensity of debate will subside, unless there is a repeat of 2000. Then perhaps, we can take a deep breath and move forward. I have my personal opinions politically, and yes they are conservatives ones, but I hope I maintain the perspective that the Kingdom of God is our business, not the kingdoms of this earth. Thanks for your artful and helpful writing ministry. I will see you soon, myu friend.

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