Mailbag #56: Voting for a Pro-Choice Candidate; What Makes a “True” Church?
I just listened to your recent episode on political disagreement in the church and really appreciated what you had to say. I’d like to get your response to the following.
I recently preached on abortion during Sanctity of Life Sunday, which I do every year. In a passing comment, I said, “You should never vote for a pro-abortion candidate.” In my mind, the caveat is, I’m not telling you who to vote for, though that rule certainly narrows down the options.
I had a couple challenge me afterward. They supported Hillary Clinton because they thought Donald Trump was so atrocious. I agreed largely with their assessment of him. I tried to explain that my comment was not an endorsement of Trump or of any other candidate or party. We had a good talk, including issues of conscience, “eating meat,” the fact that I would say the same thing about a pro-slavery candidate (if there was one), and the whole nine yards.
But . . . I have often reflected on it since and wondered if that was an example of a slightly clumsy approach, or whether it was a bell that needed to be rung for them. I kind of feel both are possible, so have not retracted the way I said it.
Anyway, I agreed with the way you guys talked about such issues, and I just thought I’d ask your take. Thanks for your time!
Such a thoughtful question. Such humility to open yourself up both to the feedback of this couple and to seek counsel. Thank you for your example.
As you intimated, I generally don’t think that pastors should endorse or denounce political candidates. I wrote a lengthy-ish explanation of that position here. In a nutshell, pastors have the authority to preach the Word and to carefully apply it. They don’t have vocational authority or competence to prescribe political strategies or tactics, just as they don’t have authority or competence to give legal or medical advice. Further, and even more crucially, we must not bind the conscience where Scripture doesn’t, undermine Christian liberty, and play Lord.
Please understand. I’m not saying you should never address political issues or issues of justice. Pastors can sin by speaking when they shouldn’t, yes, but they can also sin by not speaking when they should. So, yes, address issues when there’s a straight line from the biblical text.
What’s harder about a political candidate is that they represent a package of issues, some of which you might agree with, some of which you don’t. This is an intrinsic part of democratic governments. Various groups of unlikely bedfellows come together to back a candidate who represents at least some measure of common ground between them, even if the candidate is never fully satisfying to any of them. As such, voting for a candidate in a pluralistic system requires us to make difficult judgments concerning trade-offs between multiple moral goods (compromise and co-belligerence) as well as to speculate concerning the political likelihood of desired outcomes (realpolitik).
What, then, are you doing when you endorse or denounce a certain candidate? You’re effectively prescribing your personal judgments concerning the trade-offs between multiple moral goods, and your speculations concerning the likelihood of desired outcomes, as the God-ordained way of righteousness for all Christians. Wow. That’s quite a claim.
Yet let’s think about abortion. I’ll be honest—I really, really want to say what you said. Abortion is murder. The American abortion industry is guilty of genocide. It’s horrible. There is no doubt or equivocation in my mind about that. Republican and Democrat and Independent Christians should therefore fight against abortion with any and all possible moral means. I’ve written against it, prayed outside an abortion clinic against it, voted against it, preached against it. I hope other Christians do the same, and I hope I have opportunity to do more.
And so it’s possible that someone voting for a pro-choice candidate is sinning by casting that vote. But in light of the political and sociological complexity of voting, I’m not positive, as I stand before the judgment seat of God, that that’s the case. I have pro-life Christian friends, who, according to their set of political calculations, have decided to vote for a pro-choice candidate. (In DC, you have to vote for a pro-choice candidate if you want to vote in the mayoral election because every candidate is typically pro-choice.) I might or might not think such calculations are wise, but I cannot positively say such a vote, in any given situation, is a sin. Therefore, yes, I would refrain from telling a church member they should never vote from voting for a pro-choice candidate.
Here is a tragedy: Satan has managed to divide White and Black Christians by raising up one party which at least gestures toward caring more about abortion and another party which at least gestures toward caring more about minority issues. If you are a majority White church, therefore, you should realize what kind of racial signals you are sending when you talk that way. Here’s a question: how can we as believers do a better job of showing concern for both of those issues without being subverted or subsumed by the present alignments in American party politics?
Brother, I could be wrong in my judgment. I mean that. I pray God gives you wisdom, and that he would correct me if I’m in error.
I have a church member who has read 9Marks books and now judges every church on whether they are a “true church” (a church at all) based on whether they practice church membership and discipline, how they run their elder board, and so forth. This man won’t call other gospel-believing churches “churches” unless they line up with the “nine marks of a healthy church.” In addition, this man makes comments about who should and who shouldn’t be taking communion after passing the elements.
From my understanding, after listening to a podcast by you and Mark Dever, you both believe a church is one which preaches the gospel and observes the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Would you say churches that don’t practice membership or discipline, or that have a different polity than yours, are not true churches? This man would say these gospel churches don’t preach a “true gospel” if they don’t agree with 9Marks’ teaching on the church.
But I don’t hear you stating this. Can you help?
First, don’t make this man an elder.
Third, forgive us for anything we said that led to these conclusions. We work to model a spirit of grace and joy at everyone who partners with us in the gospel, even if they disagree with us in matters of membership, discipline, and polity generally. I trust we could to a better job at that.
Fourth, instruct him to stop commenting on who should and should not receive the Supper. He does not bear within his own person the authority of the whole congregation. Only congregations can ex-communion someone.
Fifth, Protestants historically have referred to one another across denomination lines using the language of true or false as well as the language of regular or irregular. If a church preaches the gospel, it’s a true church. If it doesn’t, it’s a false church.
If a church preaches the gospel, but does not structure itself according to Scripture, you might say it’s true, but irregular, as in, not structured according to the regula or rule of Scripture. So Baptists would refer to Presbyterian churches as true, but irregular. And Presbyterians would refer to Baptist churches in the same way.
I’d say the same about any matter of church structure: practices of membership, discipline, elders, and so forth. Don’t condemn them as false churches. Praise God they have the gospel. And pray and encourage them toward greater health.
Let me conclude with a prooftext. Paul tells Timothy that he left him in Crete to “put what remained into order” in the churches in Crete by appointing elders. So, you had churches in Crete with no elders. They were true churches. But they were dis-order-ly—not according to the biblical order. In other words, they were irregular.
Hope this helps.