Should Pastors Endorse a Candidate?

Article
09.29.2020

If you live in the United States like me, you know we live in divided times—not just in our nation, but also, sadly, in the church. Christians publicly spar in the public square, perhaps particularly over the upcoming presidential election. A seemingly unbreachable chasm stands between the “Never Trumpers” camp and the “You aren’t really saved unless you vote for Trump” camp.

This impasse raises a question, Who can you vote for? And that question leads to another question: Should a pastor step into the melee by endorsing a presidential candidate?[1]

Before you endorse a candidate, here are three questions you should consider. And though I’m primarily addressing pastors in the United States, the principles below apply anywhere.

1. Is it within a pastor’s job description to endorse a political candidate?

Well, kinda yes and kinda no. Pastors have a broad range of responsibilities. But they don’t need to be well-versed in American politics in order to faithfully fulfill their calling. Christ charges pastors to shepherd a local church.

More specifically, a pastor should preach the Word so that he equips the saints for the work of the ministry. He must lead the church to stay on mission to save sinners from the world’s fallen kingdoms (Acts 2:38–40; 1 Tim. 4:16), which is a different calling than leading the church to save fallen kingdoms. By equipping the saints, the pastor prepares church members to be salt and light in their communities. He equips believers to labor for what’s just and right in their different vocations, as unto Christ (Matt. 6:10). This is yet another way Christians, as servants of our King, show compassion for the lost and love our neighbors until Jesus returns and makes all things right.

Pastors must disciple their congregation to care about the common good (Jer. 29:4–7). In our representative democracy, Christians can bless their neighbors by voting for what’s good and for leaders who will promote flourishing. Every community has different needs, and how its citizens vote will reflect those different needs. Pastors, therefore, need to know and be able to teach their respective congregations Jesus’ Kingdom politics.

In principle, this includes helping your people understand what kind of leader to vote for and what kind of issues to prioritize. Pastors who do this well are undergirded by the driving conviction that every government is God’s servant (Rom 13:1–7)—that no matter who wins an election, King Jesus is still on the throne (Prov 21:1; Dan 4:34–36). Pastors must resist the temptation to politicize their pulpits with partisan politics as if the outcome of a presidential election will be a death-blow to the church and her mission. No oligarchy, dictatorship, monarchy, aristocracy, republic, compromised democratic government, or bad president can stop Jesus from building his church (Matt. 16:18; John 6:37, 39).

2. How does being a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom influence a pastor’s decision to endorse or not endorse a political candidate?

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight” (John 18:36). Paul agreed, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). The Father transfers all Christians into Christ’s Kingdom (Col. 1:13).

Christians aren’t American citizens first and foremost, or the citizens of any nation. We’re Kingdom citizens first, and our primary mandates come from King Jesus (Acts 17:7). In our American representative government, disciples directly influence our nation by electing leaders who, Lord willing, promote good, punish evil, and lead with integrity. Our Christ-given identity requires this of us. We therefore should use our voting privilege in ways that allow the church to peacefully pursue our King’s mission of making disciples (Matt. 28:16–20; Acts 1:8; 1 Tim. 2:1–2).

Our mission is urgent and of the utmost priority. God has stamped an expiration date on our national work visas. Christ’s Kingdom has already broken in, so too has the countdown to his return and the consummation of his kingdom. However important an election may be, pastors must be careful not to overstate their case. The moment they do, people will be distracted from hearing his gospel. Simply put, pastors aren’t called to rescue earthly kingdoms by mobilizing the saints to be king-makers. We already have a good King, and so pastors proclaim to the nations that this good King’s name is Jesus (Ps. 2:12; John 18:37). He grants dominion on earth to whomever he wishes (Dan. 4:32), and he humbles and removes whatever rulers he wishes (Dan. 5:25–28).

God may use everything from local elections to global pandemics to raise nations high or bring them low. He is the Sovereign, and he leads all nations as he wills. The United States is no exception, and pastors urging their congregants to vote for either culturally religious conservatives or culturally compassionate progressives won’t save our nation. We don’t need nation-wide reform; we need nation-wide repentance brought about by prophetic preaching (Jer. 18:7-11). If this is true—and the Scriptures say that it is!—then it’s immeasurably more important for pastors to preach the Word and call for our nation and its leaders to repent (Jonah 3) than it is for them to convince their congregations that their candidate will save America. The same is true for pastors everywhere.

American pastors who extol America’s greatness but never mention her sins and her need to repent are more like Israel’s failed prophets (Jer. 23:21–22) than the faithful shepherds God calls them to be (Jer. 23:4). Pastors, don’t see this upcoming presidential election—or any election in the future—as an opportunity to take America either back to its alleged “good ol’ days” or forward to a progressive utopian future. Instead, keep your church riveted on the King’s mission: equipping the saints to preach the gospel of the kingdom, calling our nation to repentance, and praying that God may perhaps bring a national revival in which he will use us to save people from every ethnic, cultural, and national background (Rev. 5:9).

3. What’s the cost of endorsing a political candidate? Is it worth it?

To win the battle for African-American Civil Rights, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. placed his liberation political theology at the forefront of the black church and the nation. Through his efforts, America made great social progress—progress that was an unqualified blessing.

But the legacy of King’s politicizing the church with the social gospel has been far from good. For example, at the recent funeral of Civil Rights leader Rep. John Lewis, Rev. Raphael Warnock, the current senior pastor of King’s former church, Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, asserted, “We celebrate John Lewis. He was wounded for America’s transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. So let’s remember him today.” That’s blasphemy. Genuine disciples have Jesus and his penal substitutionary atoning work at the center of their worldview. We cross a bright red line and pay far too steep a price when we make the pulpit the centerpiece for proclaiming partisan politics rather than for proclaiming Jesus as King of the nations. No matter how tempting, the church cannot promote partisan politics to bring about social change at the cost of biblical fidelity.

But allowing political means to justify the end isn’t only a problem in the black church. The rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority of the 1980s married a good portion of the evangelical church to Republican politicians in order to combat America’s decaying culture. James Dobson became one of the most feared men in national politics. A simple appeal from his radio program would flood phone lines in Congress, pressuring officials to vote according to Christian values or else face a backlash in the election booths. On some level, this seems to directly contradict Paul’s admonition that Christians not fight with carnal weapons (2 Cor. 10:3–4).

Even today, conservative evangelical leaders ally with cultural conservatives who are trying to save America. Sadly, this practice often impairs the witness of the church (1 Thess. 4:12a). Pastors pay a price for tethering their good Christian witness to both the good and bad of a presidential candidate.

For example, Sidney Blumenthal, a critic of Republicans, wrote:

Reagan opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (calling it “humiliating to the South”), and ran for governor of California in 1966, promising to wipe the Fair Housing Act off the books. “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house,” he said, “he has a right to do so.”[2]

Reagan’s racist attitude was caught on a hot mic in 1971 when he joked to President Nixon, calling African UN delegates “monkeys.” When white evangelical pastors hail Reagan as our greatest president ever, they often put a stumbling block in front of their black brothers and sisters in Christ.

In our two-party democracy, pastors who endorse a specific candidate must count the cost of such endorsement. A pastor can carelessly divide Christ’s church over public presidential endorsements. By endorsing a candidate, a pastor attempts to do all the thinking and discerning for his people. God’s people don’t need that. Instead, they need pastors to disciple them to think Christianly, pastors who trust that their members will carry out those Christian commitments when they vote.

Of course, there may be times when a pastor must exhort the church to vote for or against a specific presidential candidate. For the sake of argument (and putting aside eschatological debates), what pastor wouldn’t tell his congregation to vote against the Antichrist? Conversely, if another Daniel appears, and he was running against three criminally corrupt administrators (Dan. 6), then wouldn’t it be wise for a pastor to encourage his congregation to vote for him?

There’s also a third option—one that I pray pastors and Christians will more soberly consider. When our two-party voting system only presents two options of varying degrees of evil, at some point we need to say “enough is enough” and recognize that the lesser of the two evils is still too evil. As our nation grows darker, Christians need to make sure that we aren’t compromising our light by voting for what’s dark. Some might say we’re already there. Some might not. Right now, that approach may not be what’s best for America. But in the end, it may be far more beneficial for our witness before the world.

For any pastor troubled by how members of his church may vote in November, instead of using your pulpit to publicly endorse a candidate, perhaps it would be better to patiently disciple your congregation toward Christ-like maturity. Pastors, whatever you do this election season, let’s strive to unite the church around Jesus by preaching that he is our King.

He had no predecessor
and He’ll have no successor
There was nobody before Him
and there’ll be nobody after Him
You can’t impeach Him
and He’s not going to resign
That’s my King!
Do you know Him?
(Because knowing Him changes everything)

—S. M. Lockridge

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] For another helpful resource on this topic, consider checking out Jonathan Leeman’s Politics and the Pulpit (Part 2): Pastors and Political Candidates (erlc.com)

[2] “Reagan’s Race Record,” The Atlantic, cited by Matthew Yglesias. November 9, 2007.

By:
Bobby Scott

Bobby Scott is a co-pastor of Community of Faith Bible Church in South Gate, California.