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Do Preaching and Politics Ever Mix?

February 12, 2016

As we are immersed in the tensions and trials of another Presidential campaign season, with evangelicals identified in the media as supporting particular candidates, I wonder about the relationship of preaching and politics.

The Unavoidable Reality that Christian Faith is Political

We are participants in a faith with strong, unavoidable political implications. The early church was well aware of this as they grew and suffered under the tyranny of the Roman Empire. What are the implications for us today of the ways in which the (pre-Constantine) early church addressed political realities? We can get some clues in the clandestinely confrontational ways the church co-opted Greco-Roman political terms to describe their own movement. They took common, ordinary political terms and filled them with a radical, new meaning. Their use of these terms to describe life in Christ’s Kingdom was a direct challenge to identifying biblical faith with a particular candidate and particular government.[1] Consider for example:

Basilea (kingdom): the term used to describe the Roman Empire—andthe reign of God on earth

Evangelion (gospel): a pronouncement by the Roman Empire that a battle had been won or an heir to Caesar had been born—and—the news that Christ has triumphed over sin and evil

Ekklesia (church): the public assembly of all the citizens of the Empire in a region to discuss local political concerns—and the gathering of Christians to conduct the affairs of God’s Kingdom.

Koinonia (fellowship): a homogenous gathering of like-minded people of the same gender and socio-economic status around common interests—and—the heterogeneous gathering of Christian men and women of all ethnicities, social classes, and economic backgrounds

Sacramentum (sacrament): the oath of loyalty taken by a soldier upon enlisting in the Roman military, declaring there was no higher authority in his life than Caesar, and no greater loyalty than to the empire—and—the visible signs of God’s commitment to us and our commitment to God

Proskynesis (worship): bowing in submission before the ruler or emperor—and—worshiping the triune God of truth, grace, and love

Parousia (presence, or coming): the coming of Caesar to a town, and especially his return to Rome—and—the return of Lord Jesus to usher in the Kingdom in all its fullness.

Soter (savior): the title of Caesar Augustus whose rule ended chaos in Rome—and—the role of Jesus as the liberator, redeemer, and healer of the world

Kyrios (lord): ruler or supreme leader—and—Jesus as the one who reigns over heaven and earth.

Since in the biblical faith we are dealing directly with issues of power, community, justice, authority, allegiance, identity, and citizenship—we are unavoidably interacting with concerns of politicians. Add to this that the biblical faith compels concern for people who are without power, excluded from community, victims of injustice, abused by those in authority, and identified as unworthy or undesirable—and the tensions between the life of the people of God and their life as citizens of the state are inescapable. Loyalty to Jesus as Lord and Savior required insisting that society care for the marginalized, the oppressed, the aliens and strangers–welcoming them into the fellowship of the kingdom of God.

A professor at a Christian University recently asked students in a  class who they thought had said the following words: “He has scattered the proud…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The students debated back and forth for a few minutes, trying to place the words with some revolutionary in history. They were dumbfounded when the professor put up on the screen the rest of the passage from Luke 1:46-55—Mary’s Magnificat, as she praised God for the birth of her Son.

Common Approaches to Preaching and Politics

In spite of the unavoidable, political implications of Christian faith, most of us are confused about how to address public policy and political issues from the pulpit. There seem to be four prevailing approaches:

One: Silent Pulpit: Avoid mentioning anything that might seem political

Pros:

Little risk of criticism

Avoid dispute and controversy among members

Avoid imposing ideology or preacher’s own view on members

Cons:

Fail to offer biblical/theological insights on pressing issues

Risk reinforces sacred/secular, spiritual/world dichotomy

Miss opportunity to help members work for justice in society

Two: Civic Pulpit: Encourage members to engage in politics, voting

Pros:

Promote Christian engagement in public policy issues, elections

Affirm that biblical faith includes public engagement in the common good

Cons:

Risk of preacher implicitly expressing endorsement of a candidate or public policy position through nuance and the preacher’s personal position

Miss opportunity to reflect biblically and theologically about current issues

Three: Principled Pulpit: Proclaim preacher’s understanding of biblical principles that should undergird voting on candidates and public policy issues

Pros:

Concentrate on clear biblical teaching regarding justice, racism, corruption, poverty, marriage, medical ethics, economics

Encourage members to think “biblically” about issues

Not endorse particular legislation, candidates

Cons:

Risk of preacher speaking from own social location and personal convictions

Risk of preacher being uninformed, or perceived as a speaking for God

Risk of provoking disputes, controversies within the congregation

Risk people leave because disagree with the preacher becoming “political”

Four: Partisan Pulpit: Advocate for specific public policy issues and even candidates the preacher believes are consistent with biblical values and commitments

Pros:

Clear guidance to congregants about how to vote

Cons:

Illegal in the United States

Imposition by preacher on congregation of his/her own convictions

Risk of furthering division within a congregation

May God guide us in our longing to be empowered, wise preachers who live and lead at the convergence of proskynesis (worship) of the One Kyrios (Lord), preaching the evangelion (gospel) of the one Christos (messiah), and participating in the justice of God’s basilea (kingdom).

 

[1] For more on this see: John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1994); N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Augsburg Fortress, 2003); Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire (Augburg Fortress, 2002); Ekkehard Stegman and Wolfgang Stegman, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of its First Century (Augsburg Fortress, 1999); and more recently, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haaw, Jesus for President (Zondervan, 2008).

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