How to Hold Your Tongue About Politics And Thereby Not Split Your Church Over Things the Bible Doesn’t Talk About: AN ADDENDUM
Okay, so maybe there’s a little more to say about this topic than just a cheeky emoji. Especially in this annus horribilis which is 2020, the entire world and everything in it seems to be swallowed up in the gaping maw of political fighting. I was talking with a friend the other day, and we both lamented that neither of us could remember the last time we had a conversation that wasn’t about pandemics, protests, or people pining to be president—all of which, of course, is patently political. To make matters worse, the pressure on pastors to publicly give their opinion on every event that explodes into the Twitterverse is enormous. To some, silence is violence, and a failure to speak tells us everything we need to know. To make matters even worse, let’s be honest—most of us, even as pastors, do in fact have opinions about most of these things, sometimes strong ones. And given that it’s our job, week in and week out, to speak, to teach, to persuade, it sometimes feels entirely natural and right and good—even necessary—for us to wade into every controversial conversation with the goal of setting folks straight.
All that said, I’m actually not here to say that pastors should never speak about “the political.” Sometimes our very charge to communicate the teachings of the Bible will require us to speak about issues that larger society has decided to appropriate into the political conversation. After all, abortion is a political issue. The definition of marriage is a political issue. Justice is a political issue. And those are all things, at one level or another, that the Bible also speaks to. Because of that, it wouldn’t be “prudent” to say, “Well, I don’t talk about political things.” It would in fact be a dereliction of duty to deliberately avoid them; to do that would be to refuse to speak what the King has spoken.
So here’s the question I want to address here: “What are some guardrails that can help a pastor navigate ‘political issues,’ especially in a year like this?” I can think of four that I’ve found helpful.
1. Stay off social media. Just stay off.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, All of Them—are cesspools of bad-faith, angry, unedifying screaming when it comes to political exchanges. The fact is, you will never convince someone of the rightness of your political opinion in a thread of 280-character tweets, nor even in a Facebook post. So just stay off of it; don’t get in social media arguments; stay out of the fray. Think of it like this: If you’re a pastor, then the Lord has given you a platform and an authority that the vast majority of people on Facebook simply do not have. So use that platform! When you speak to these issues, let it be from your pulpit, with the full authority and (hopefully) carefulness that commands.
If staying off social media pretty much entirely isn’t an option for you, let me at least offer one more piece of advice. This is a point I’ve made not only to pastors, but also to my own congregation: Part of the problem with social media is that we all think our tweets are on the edge of going viral, and therefore we all think our opinions are a hair’s breadth away from moving the needle on the national political scene. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize pretty quickly that very few of us have that kind of influence; our tweets and posts aren’t going to move the national needle. But you know what they could do? They could cause a detonation in the community closest to us; they could blow up your church. So whether you’re a pastor or a member of a church, consider above all what your tweet or post might do in and to the life of your church. Those are the people most likely to read it, to be offended by it, to shoot back at you for it—or to start sniping at each other over what you said. And consider: Is your tweet more likely to do measurable good for your political cause, or to do measurable bad in the life of your church? And isn’t the unity and peace of the church more important than your eyeball-scratching need to share your 🔥🔥 opinion on the latest Twitterfight du jour? Almost always, the answer to that question will be a resounding YES.
2. Preach the Bible, not the headlines.
In other words, remember your charge as a pastor and preacher of God’s Word. Your authority to speak extends to—and only to—that which is spoken by God in his Word, the Bible. To be sure, the Bible speaks about a lot of things; in fact, it speaks to the most important questions of human existence, and those are always the kinds of questions that tend to get politically hottest. We’ll talk about that more in a bit. The point I want to make here, though, is that it’s critical for you to remember where your authority lies. It lies in the Bible, and therefore you should make every effort to limit your public pronouncements to what the Bible says and to straightforward applications of those truths.
Just by the way, all this is but one more argument for preaching expositional sermons through entire books of the Bible. Instead of your sermon topics being driven by whatever is in the headlines, you’ll simply preach what’s next in the text. Sometimes you’ll find that that “next text” is crazy relevant to the headlines. Other times, you’ll find that the Lord wants to direct your church’s attention elsewhere. But the point is that the Word sets the agenda, not the world.
Here’s my point: if you commit to being a pastor who remembers his charge, who steps into the pulpit each week and says what the Bible says, you’ll be something unique and powerful—a herald of the King of heaven. But if you involve yourself in every fight, using the pulpit to address every question that explodes into the headlines, you’ll become something else entirely—just one more braying, politically-opinionated donkey in our current national shout-fest. So I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: Preach the Word.
3. Discern the difference between biblical principles and political policies.
Now, obviously, preaching and applying the Bible like that requires wisdom. One kind of unwise pastor will be so fearful that he won’t even say what the Bible says because he’s afraid it will be heard as “getting into politics.” Another unwise pastor will extrapolate from the Bible to whatever he really wants to say—you know, how the laws of warfare in Deuteronomy actually mean that it’s ungodly to prohibit citizens from owning nukes, or how the Year of Jubilee actually means God wants all property to snap back to government ownership every 49 years, or whatever. As a wise pastor, though, you should try to avoid that kind of tenuous extrapolation: Say what the Bible says, and then apply it straightforwardly in first-order applications. That’s the way of pastoral wisdom.
Ultimately, this kind of wisdom consists in being able to discern the difference between biblical principles and political policies. So it’s one thing to say, “Every human being is made in the image of God,” but it’s quite another to say, “and therefore this proposal by Congressman Whoever should become law.” The fact is, the Bible lays down a ton of clear, non-negotiable principles for which it’s not clear at all what specific policy would be the exact best way to pursue to uphold those principles.
So, for example, the Bible speaks clearly to the truth that unborn babies are made in God’s image. But what’s the best specific policy prescription to save unborn lives? Is it appointing justices to the Supreme Court, or changing laws, or creating certain economic incentives and safety nets? Or is it all that? Similarly, the Bible speaks clearly to the truths that God created and values ethnic and cultural diversity. It speaks clearly to the fact that he hates oppression. But what’s the best specific policy prescription to address racial tensions in America? Is it justice system reform, or the payment of reparations, or something else entirely?
A wise pastor will realize that his authority certainly extends to insisting on the principles laid down by God’s Word, but seldom to insisting on any one particular policy prescription.
4. Hold the center.
A few weeks ago, a nationally known Christian writer published an article lamenting the fact that few if any of our national political leaders seem to have any interest in “holding the center.” What he meant by that was not just holding a compromise position on every issue, trying to get the porridge just right. What he meant, rather, was that most everyone in the country right now, even its political leaders, seem to be fleeing to the extremes of political ideology and rhetoric, and mostly just flinging slogans at one another and forcing every development in the news into the service of their political aims. So what the nation lacks right now—and what it desperately needs, this author said—are leaders who, instead of fleeing to the edges, will seek to “hold the center”—that is, who will say what is true regardless of whether it helps or hurts a particular political cause.
That author is exactly right, and part of the charge God gives to pastors is to “hold the center” in just that way. Again, that doesn’t mean always being silent, it doesn’t entail a hard-core “spirituality of the church” position, and it doesn’t mean simply picking the middle-of-the-road, milquetoast compromise position on every question. What it means is fighting the temptation to the run to the extremes, and learning to speak truth according to the Word wherever you see it and in every direction. Say what’s true on this side of the conversation, say what’s true on that side, and say what’s true that neither side is saying.
Further, learn to say those truths without slogans. In fact, avoid political slogans at all costs, and say what’s true in your own words. Ultimately, the goal ought to be to speak in such a way that every Christian has to say, “Yeah, that’s hard to disagree with, and he has every right to say it because it’s biblical truth.”
Part of your charge as a pastor is to avoid the temptation to run to one extreme and lob rhetorical grenades at the other side. Rather, commit to standing in the center of the chaos—planting your feet on the Word of God—and speak truth wherever you see it.
This is a hard year to be a pastor. There’s the pandemic. There’s the frustration, for many of us, of not being able to gather with the church as normal. There’s the vaguely ridiculous prospect of preaching to a congregation whose faces you can’t see because they’re all wearing masks. There’s the livestream you launched literally two weeks after you publicly called down God’s own curses on yourself if you ever consented to a “video venue.” There’s the civil unrest boiling in many of our nation’s cities. There’s the fraying patience of our church members, and our own deep sense of decision-fatigue. There’s the demand by frankly everyone to “Do something!” and “Say something!” And irritating and aggravating all of this like an Old Testament hairshirt, there’s the presidential election. This is a hard year to be a pastor, and frankly, it doesn’t much look like it’s going to get easier anytime soon.
So what’s a pastor to do? Here’s the best I’ve got: Remember the office you hold. Remember where your authority lies. Remember your charge. The fact is, you’re not a politician, you’re not a pundit, you’re not a get-out-the-vote lackey for a political party, you’re not a social media “influencer,” whatever that is. You’re a herald of the King of Heaven, and as such, you hold a special authority and charge to speak for him. So say what he says, no more and no less, and remind your people that this world is not all there is—no matter how much this world may want to make them forget that.