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Do preaching and politics ever mix?

September 25, 2020

The Role of Pulpits in Forming Personal Convictions and Public Policies

Tim A. Dearborn

From Discerning Ethics: Diverse Christian Responses to Divisive Moral Issues, Hak Joon Lee and Tim Dearborn, editors (InterVarsity Press, 2020) pp. 317-321.

As we enter into the final days of the 2020 political campaign, I am reposting an excerpt from a chapter I wrote in Discerning Ethics. What is the role of the church–and of preachers–in helping people think through the pressing issues of our day?

 Is the church becoming “political” when it engages in issues of public ethics?

Some believe that the church should be a “big tent” that welcomes everyone and from which no one feels excluded because of political positions or ethical convictions. Pastors should not get “political” from the pulpit. To preach about issues of racism, immigration, poverty, climate change, income inequality, mass incarceration, etc. is, according to some people, to stray away from the Bible and the “spiritual” calling of the church. Others seek for churches to be highly engaged in a few select issues they choose, and to be silent or indifferent about others. Consequentially, social ethics are emerging as more decisive factors than worship style or doctrine in people’s choice of church attendance…

We believe there is an urgent necessity for our churches to offer graciously reasoned, theologically shaped, courageous conversations about all the tough issues we face in our society today. Otherwise, Christians will be more likely to derive their convictions from their social location and their favorite media sources, and allow these to shape their reading of Scripture and positions about the ethical issues of our day. When this occurs, churches are likely to be driven by the winds of culture rather than the Spirit. As a result, churches are often viewed by society as irrelevant, divisive, or compliant in regard to critical issues of injustice.

The Christian faith is unavoidably political

However, there’s another, specifically theological reason. I believe that the Christian faith is unavoidably political. Because as followers of Christ we believe in a God who is sovereign over human life and reigns in justice, mercy, and love—our faith has political implications.

Consider the relationship of politics, power, and justice. Politics is about power—the use of power to attain particular objectives. Justice is about making life right by using power to restore relationships so that all people flourish. Justice uses politics to rectify imbalanced and ruptured relationships when some people misuse power in ways that hurt other people and creation. Politics in a representative democracy depends on people making principled compromises with other people with whom they disagree. Even when this may feel like compromises to their principles, the use their power to work together to attain mutually acceptable (even though partial) steps toward the common good.

The early church was well aware of the use and misuse of power as it grew and suffered under the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Christians didn’t have the privilege of citizenship in a representative democracy. Rather, they lived under the oppression of an occupying dictator. Nonetheless, we can discern a dynamic way they engaged with the political realities of their day. Clues are found in the clandestinely confrontational adoption by the church of 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 expressed their theological convictions about the relationship of Christ’s Kingdom to the political rulers of the world. By claiming these political terms for the Christian movement, and especially for the Lord Jesus, the early church quietly rejected the authority of Caesar to determine the will of God for the issues of their lives.[1] Consider for example:

Basilea (kingdom): the term used to describe the Empire by Rome—or rather—the reign of God on earth by the church.

Evangelion (gospel): a pronouncement by the Roman Empire that a battle had been won or an heir to Caesar had been born—or rather—the news announced by the church 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—or rather— the gathering of Christians to conduct the affairs of God’s Kingdom.

Koinonia (fellowship): a homogenous gathering of like-minded citizens segmented by gender and socio-economic status—or rather—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—or rather—the visible signs of God’s commitment to us and our commitment to God expressed in the church’s central ceremonies such as baptism and Holy Communion.

Proskynesis (worship): bowing in submission before the ruler or emperor—or rather—worshiping the triune God, Father, Son, and Spirit.

Parousia (presence, or coming): the coming of Caesar to a town, and especially his return to Rome—or rather—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—or rather—the role of Jesus as the liberator, redeemer, and healer of the world.

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

The biblical faith deals constantly with the concerns of “politicians.” Because 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—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 requires that they insist that in their personal lives and Christian community they care for the marginalized, the oppressed, the aliens, and strangers.

The subversive strategy of appropriating highly political language to describe the Gospel sent an unavoidably clear message to politicians.

A professor at a Christian university recently asked students 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 identify the words with some revolutionary in history. They were dumbfounded when the professor put 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—and the clear social implications of his birth.

 

Common approaches to preaching and politics

In spite of the unavoidable, political implications of Christian faith, many churches are confused about how to address public policy and political issues from the pulpit. There are four prevailing approaches that are clearly evident and that significantly divide congregations. These are seldom discussed openly so that a community can discern which approach it thinks is best. Rather, people tend to vote “with their feet” and leave a church that has deviated from their preferred form of political engagement.

In order to make the best use of the insights that have been gained by working through the diverse positions outlined in this book, it may be helpful for congregations to debate and determine what they believe is the best relationship between the pulpit, personal convictions, and public policies.

Silent Pulpit: Some insist that preachers must avoid mentioning anything that might seem political because it is outside the purpose of preaching and/or the church.

Pros:

Little risk of criticism

Little dispute and controversy among members

Little risk of imposing ideology or the preacher’s own view on members

Cons:

Preachers fail to offer biblical/theological insights on pressing issues

Preachers risk reinforcing sacred/secular, spiritual/world dichotomies

Preachers miss the opportunity to help members work for justice in society

Silence can actually reinforce social injustice and political evil

 

Civic Pulpit: Some leaders encourage members to engage in politics and voting as individuals, but do not offer any corporate reflection or discussion about the issues of the day.

Pros:

This promotes Christian engagement in public policy issues and elections.

It affirm that the biblical faith includes public engagement in the common good

Cons:

Again, preachers can fail to offer biblical/theological insights on pressing issues

There is the risk of the preacher implicitly endorsing a candidate or public policy position through nuance and the preacher’s personal position.

There is the missed opportunity to reflect biblically and theologically about current issues.

 

Partisan Pulpit: Some churches want their preachers to advocate for specific public policy issues and even candidates they believe uphold biblical values and commitments.

Pros:

This provides clear guidance to congregants about how to vote.

This can enable a corporate impact on public policies and elections.

Cons:

Historically, it has been illegal in the United States.

This risks the imposition by the preacher or influential members on the congregation of their own convictions

It risks furthering division within a congregation and between churches.

Congregations can become more strongly identified with political positions than with the gospel of Jesus Christ

 

Principled Pulpit: In this approach, the preacher proclaims his or her own understanding of biblical principles that should undergird voting on candidates and public policy issues without necessarily explicitly endorsing a particular person or position.

Pros:

This concentrates on biblical teaching regarding justice, racism, corruption, poverty, marriage, medical ethics, economics, etc.

It encourages members to think “biblically” about issues.

Preachers don’t endorse particular legislation or candidates.

This avoids deepening partisan divides in their congregations.

Cons:

Preachers risk speaking from their own personal biases and convictions.

Preachers risk promoting uninformed positions that don’t grasp the complexity of issues.

Preachers risk presumptuously using the pulpit and the name of God to advocate for particular perspectives.

There is still the risk of provoking disputes and controversies within the congregation.

Thus there is the risk of people leaving because they disagree with the preacher becoming “political”.

 

Our conviction is that these “cons” of the principled pulpit can be surmounted if the congregation hears the voices of people from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds so that one social location doesn’t dominate. They can also be ameliorated by the preacher being humble in the voicing of her or his own convictions—“I wonder if…”, and by opportunities being provided for congregational discussion and courageous conversations that honor diverse points of view.

The urgent issues of our day demand a clear and compelling response from the church. May congregations become places of deep dialogue and prayerful reflection about the call of God as we participate in the Messiah’s work of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. May congregations embody koinonia shaped by God’s grace so that all people, whether rich or poor, high social class or not, well educated or with little formal education, regardless of skin color or ethnicity are drawn by the Spirit into the life of Christ.

Just as with the early church, God is calling us to be empowered, wise followers of Christ who live and lead at the convergence of proskynesis (worship) of the One Kyrios (Lord), preaching the evangelion (gospel) of the one Christos (messiah), affirming through the sacramentum  (sacraments) that there is no higher loyalty or authority in our life than Jesus, and participating in the justice, mercy, and love 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 (Augsburg 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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