13 Principles for Pastoring Through Political Turmoil

Article
09.29.2020

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).

How many times have I been tempted to discredit a fellow believer who is making different political judgments than my own? It’s easy to do, whether in a text message to a friend or publicly on Twitter. Yet the solution is simple: leave judgment to the Lord and give fellow believers the benefit of the doubt.

And model this for your church. When a member whispers to you, “Can you believe he…?!” offer a more charitable, “Well, is it possible he actually…?”

7. Declare the standards by which the nations will be judged.

The last several points must be coupled with this point because, amidst charity, we must draw lines, too. I borrow the language here from a 1967 article by Carl F. H. Henry. He said the church’s job is “to declare the criteria by which nations will ultimately be judged, and the divine standards to which man and society must conform if civilization is to endure.”

Part of fearing God is knowing that God will judge all nations—“the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free” (Rev. 6:15). Your job, pastor, is to help both your members and any visitors know what the biblical criteria of judgment will be. You do this to warn and instruct your church for the purposes of their political engagement. You also do it to lovingly warn the outsider.

To do this well you need a good biblical theology and a good biblical theology of government. You should be able to answer questions like:

  • What has God authorized the governments of all nations to do? What is their jurisdiction?
  • Peter says the task of government is “to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14). Is he referring to every conceivable evil and good, or a subset of them? In other words, do we criminalize all sin or certain sins?
  • What is justice in the Bible?
  • Do we regard the civil commands and episodes in the life of Old Covenant Israel as directly binding on the church or as illustrative?
  • Is religious liberty biblical? What is it?
  • Which kinds of political judgments bind the whole church, and which can be left in the category of Christian freedom?
  • What’s the relationship between church and state?

Indeed, I’ve been on my own 15-year-long quest to carve out a more biblical political theology in order to answer such questions. But you need to study the Scriptures for yourself. Then declare what the Bible says justice is and the criteria by which the nations and their governments will be judged. God’s judgment later means he rules the earth now, whether people acknowledge him or not: “Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns! . . . he will judge the peoples with equity” (Ps. 96:10).

8. Beware a burgeoning fundamentalism and authoritarianism.

Political science 101 will teach you that authoritarian leaders and philosophies become increasingly viable in seasons of political opposition or turmoil. When our values, freedoms, and lives feel threatened, the authoritarian philosophy and leader looks reassuring. He offers security. One economist has observed that authoritarianism isn’t synonymous with any one ideological framework, but “is a functional disposition concerned with maximizing ‘oneness’ and ‘sameness’ especially in conditions where the things that make us one and the same—common authority, and shared values—appear to be under threat.”

Furthermore, authoritarian leaders cultivate or are accompanied by fundamentalistic cultures, in the pejorative sense of that term. When the political and cultural stakes feel too high, we give up on the “right to be wrong” in the public square (see Jonah Goldberg’s article on this topic here) as well as Christian liberty in the church.

In a fundamentalistic culture, members and leaders both give themselves to policing language. They become preoccupied with doctrinal purity tests and treat everything as of first importance. They fashion new rules. They insist on subscription to their own initiatives as a test of solidarity and faithfulness. They countenance little self-critique among tribe members. And they quickly denounce the slightest infractions for party infidelity.

The popular imagination often identifies these tendencies with the political and theological right. For instance, it’s easy to recount the surge toward fundamentalism among some conservative Christian churches in the first half of the twentieth-century in response to the growing acceptance of Darwinian scientific naturalism in Western culture. Yet the “functional disposition” of a fundamentalism and authoritarianism settles into leftward trajectories as easily as rightward ones.

Sure enough, resurgent iterations of old and discarded authoritarian theories of government have regained currency of late on both the political right and left. Christians on the right cast hungry glances both at Roman Catholic integralism and Old Covenant theonomy. Christians on the left meanwhile tilt at least one ear toward the neo-Marxist strains of critical theory. Both sides go tit for tat, fighting fire with fire, each accusing the other of authoritarianism while cultivating its own, when what’s really needed from the church is the water of the gospel. The gospel, after all, necessitates more space for Christian freedom (see next point).

Another possible blind-spot of my own side—the right—is our taste over the last 60 or 70 years for conference-stage apologists, evangelists, and pastors who don’t just declare the Bible boldly, but who adopt a tone of certainty no matter what they were talking about, who dismiss secular opponents with a clever quip, who do what today’s called “owning the libs,” and who default to tropes instead of discussion and judgments instead of reconciliation. The more tumultuous our political environment becomes, the more that posture will seem attractive. Think of how popular Donald Trump’s bravado is among his supporters.

No doubt, strong leadership is often necessary in the face of opposition and turmoil. When the civic order shakes, everyone wants stability. When confusion reigns, we need someone to say, “Walk this way.” Yet good and bad guys alike emerge in such seasons, and our job as pastors is to keep our eyes peeled for a resurgence of fundamentalism and authoritarianism in the church, including in ourselves. Several decades of Christian books, radio programs, and social media feeds endlessly recounting stories of cultural declension have helped lay a fertile seedbed for such a resurgence. After each radio program, we wonder, is the sky falling?

So be careful. Don’t get distracted. Remain as fixed and confident of the Bible as ever, holding firmly to the trustworthy message as its been taught (Titus 1:9). People’s itching ears will insist you say more. But you must preach the Word with great patience (2 Tim. 4:2–3).

Maintain a good sense of theological triage. Ask your wife and fellow elders if you tend to live in a defensive, protective posture, not a risk-taking, hope-giving, evangelistic one. And don’t confuse strength with displays of strength. True strength is “humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at [God’s] word” (Isa. 66:2). It constantly listens for correction, even when you’re the top dog, because you know the task is always to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). True strength remains obedient to the exhortation, “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 4:7).

9. Be the biggest advocate of Christian freedom in your church.

Another crucial way to work against a legalistic fundamentalism and authoritarianism in your preaching and leadership—if that’s a risk for you—is to work at being the biggest advocate of Christian freedom in your church.

To be sure, it’s a challenge to find that line between discipling people to think biblically in their politics and wrongly binding their consciences. Yet we don’t want to mimic the Pharisees who added to God’s law, heaping up burdens all in the name of playing it safe. Your job is to teach the congregation how to “welcome one another” in disputable matters, and not to “pass judgment” on each other in matters of conscience (Rom. 14:1, 3, 4, 10).

Part of being an advocate for Christian freedom is helping your church to recognize the distinction between straight-line judgments and jagged-line judgments. Straight-line judgments offer a “straight line” between a theological or ethical principle found in the Bible and a political conviction. For instance, the Bible says everyone is made in God’s image, even from the womb, and we might say there’s a relatively straight line in moving from those biblical texts to a prohibition against abortion. Therefore, pastor, you can speak in a conscience-binding way.

Meanwhile, jagged-line judgments might begin with biblical principles, but one has to take a jagged path to arrive at policy solutions. Suppose a Christian wants to argue for universal health care as a human right. He might start with an ethical claim about human rights as a biblical idea, but from there the argument has to move back and forth down a jagged path, satisfactorily answering multiple questions on which Christians might reasonably disagree: What services would be covered? At what cost to the taxpayers? What would the economic trade-offs be, and are those just? What if standards of care dramatically drop, such that more people cannot receive life-saving treatment?

As we’re trying to divide straight-line and jagged-line judgments, we need to recognize that there’s an ethical asymmetry between “musts” and “must nots.” It’s easier to apply the authority of the Bible in saying something like, “You must not marry Joe because he’s a non-Christian,” than to say, “You must marry Jim, who is a Christian.” By the same token, there’s a lower ethical bar to proscribing particular political paths (“Christians must not support abortion”) than there is to prescribing particular paths (“Christians must protest this Saturday at the march”). We more quickly step beyond our authority as pastors when we tell them precisely how to fulfill certain biblical duties—when we tell them which strategies or tactics to adopt.

In general, we should teach our congregation how to have healthy, mature discussions in jagged-line matters, even to work to persuade each other. Yet in such matters we’re to help them make sure they don’t make their position the standard of Christian righteousness and faithfulness.

Modeling and teaching your church Christian liberty amidst political tumult is crucial for at least three reasons.

First, it preserves the church and its unity by lowering the temperature in our political conversations. Mind you, the call to unity doesn’t mean Christians can never disagree with one another, even publicly. We don’t want a false and shallow unity. Nonetheless, the call to unity does mean that, when we disagree, we try to do so charitably, giving one another the benefit of the doubt, and affirming our ongoing gospel partnership, assuming this is possible.

Second, advocating for Christian freedom affirms the unique authority of the Bible and builds our unity on the Bible. We protect the unique authority of Scripture by insisting on the distinction between straight-line and jagged-line judgments.

Third, advocating for Christian freedom protects the gospel. A consistent and unchecked disregard for the Christian freedom of other saints and churches will create a culture of legalism. And legalism effectively undermines the gospel, even if it’s unintentional. Therefore, to fight for Christian freedom is to fight for the gospel, because doing so is one way we draw a line between the gospel and everything else.

Your members might want to make a case for or against racial reparations, or an immigration policy, or the timing of civil disobedience, or a hundred other things. Fine. Just make sure they continue welcoming each other to the Lord’s Table amidst those different jagged-line judgments.

10. Recognize the limits of Christian freedom.

Any full-throated affirmation of Christian freedom should acknowledge its dangers. For starters, such talk can feel like a wet blanket in a politically tumultuous season. It will dampen political rallies and campaign speeches. It tempers and moderates, which makes it difficult to lead a political charge, even when they’re necessary.

More crucially, the risk of championing a Romans 14 freedom is an undiscerning compromise. It’s letting gospel-compromisers into the castle, calling them “friends” when they aren’t actually friends. And it risks failing to take a prophetic stand for truth or justice when we should.

It’s possible that we will call something a matter of freedom that is not, even as we warn others not to make something a test of faithfulness that is actually a matter of freedom. In other words, you don’t want to be the pastor who tried to rally the saints in the name of “Christian freedom” in 1859 America or 1939 Germany.

Knowing when to bind the consciences of members in political matters takes profound wisdom. Is that black and white or is that gray? Folks further to the left or the right on the political bell curve will be quicker to call matters black or white, while folks in the middle will be quicker to see gray. It’s good to know yourself and your temperamental tendencies. We all have them.

But you don’t want to call the grays black and white or the black and whites gray. There are times to say “Freedom” and there are times to say, “Church, we must walk this way!” Pray the Lord would give you wisdom and courage for both kinds of occasion.

11. Equip the saints for works of justice; in other words, disciple them politically.

Your job, pastor, is not to be a politician or pundit. It’s not to prescribe political tactics or strategies. Ordinarily, it’s not to tell your members how to vote (though you might give them principles for voting. See here and here). The mission of the church as an institutional, corporate actor is not to lobby, to campaign, or to pursue legislative programs. It’s to make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20)

That said . . .

Your job as a pastor is also to teach your church everything Christ commanded (v. 19), which includes loving neighbor and seeking justice (Prov. 29:4; Is. 1:17; Matt. 22:39; 2 Cor. 7:11).

Christians will disagree over what justice is and what it requires. Fine. Your job is still to study the Scriptures and equip the church to seek justice—whatever your biblical studies lead you to believe it is.

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 described in principle 9 above.

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.

Insofar as politics belongs under the umbrella of obedience, it’s part of your job to disciple a congregation in how to live and think politically. Go back to the bullet points listed in principle 7 above. You want to equip your congregation with answers to those kinds of questions. For instance, they’ll better know how to vote when they understand what God has established governments to do, and what justice requires.

The mission of the church as a corporate actor is to make disciples, but the mission of the church as its individual members is to be disciples. Your job, then, is to teach them how to be disciples who love their neighbors and seek justice. In addition to many good books on these topics, see the small group study guide here as well as a Sunday School class here.

12. Give honor to whom honor is due.

I once heard a preacher take 15 seconds to say, “Of course, we embrace Romans 13,” followed by five minutes of mocking the government. Apparently he missed the last verse in the paragraph: “Pay to all what is owed to them . . . respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7). Peter, too: “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). And it’s worth recalling what kinds of emperors the apostles were talking about—not Christian-loving ones.

Or we might go back to Daniel emerging from the lions’ den, standing before King Darius, and saying, “Oh, King, live forever.” How could he show that pagan king such honor? Had he sold out? Daniel knew, first, that God has established Darius in his throne, so that honoring Darius was honoring God. And second, he knew that God laughs at any king who seeks to compete with him (see Ps. 2:4). God’s eternal threat was far greater than Darius’ existential threat, and so Daniel felt free to honor him.

The world may oppose us more than ever, but we know the end of history, which is the only thing which puts us on the right side of history. We know that Jesus wins. Therefore, alarmism, panic, and brawling do not become us. Gentleness, love, happy confidence, strength, and courage do.

13. Expect politically frustrated members to find other churches, and bless them when they go.

It’s comparatively easy to build an all-politically-conservative church or an all-progressive church. You know what red-meat words you can throw either to Baby Boomer conservatives or to Millennial progressives which communicate, “You’re safe here. I see the world like you see the world.” By the same token, you know what words will “trigger” and turn them off.  In tough seasons, the temptation to play to one side or the other only grows. Don’t. Work to build a church that’s united on the truth of Scripture.

Doing this will turn some off. Members on the right and left will criticize you for both what you say and what you don’t say. When they approach you in the hallway afterward, explain why you did what you did, but don’t argue with them. Affirm them where you can. Whether or not you’re a one-issue voter when you step into the ballot box, you should be a multi-issue sympathizer. Why? Because God cares about multiple issues, even if some are more significant than others.

If a member’s finely-tuned convictions continue to be a stumbling block for them in your church, don’t panic. Tell them you understand, express your love for them, and ask if they’ve thought about which other churches might be better suited to their perspectives. If it’s a gospel-preaching church, encourage them and bless them as they go, reminding them they’re always welcome back. Maybe they’ll prosper better under the teaching of God’s Word in that other church without the constant provocation of your own judgments. Unless there’s clear sin involved, don’t let their political differences and even possible departure become a big stink. Love and forbear, even if they’re conducting themselves immaturely.

Finally, make sure you’re preparing your fellow elders for the possibility of such departures. It helps them not to panic when they come, and protects them from bending and making compromises they shouldn’t.

Here’s one last thing to say about pastoring in a politically tumultuous season: you need to assume you’ll make the wrong judgments sometimes. If there’s a time to build up and a time to tear down (Eccl. 3), you and I lack the wisdom to always figure out what time it is. The good news is, God never misreads the time. He knows exactly what he’s doing at every moment, and we can trust in him, even when we get it wrong.

* * * * *

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Quoted in John D. Wilsey, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea, 56.

[2] Jacob Cushing, “Divine Judgments Upon Tyrants,” in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era: 1730-1805, edited by Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), 622.

[3] There are good lessons to learn from Israel’s history, no doubt. Yet we must always bear in mind that ancient Israel, whether slave or free, finds its fulfillment not in America or any subset of America, but in Christ and—by virtue of our union with him—the church. Moses is neither George Washington nor Martin Luther King, Jr.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.