Editor’s Note: During this week where Americans go to the polls for midterm elections, Canon and Culture is running a counterpoint series about the church and political activity. Today is the second in a three-part series.
Should pastors support or oppose political candidates or leaders from the pulpit? Jeffery Ventrella says yes in the conjoining article based on three premises: the Bible offers warrant for addressing political leaders; the argument against it is a recent partisan innovation; and doing so contributes to the common good.
Yet here’s my question for Ventrella or any preacher who thinks likewise: are you, preacher, so confident in your political calculations concerning the complex of issues represented by your preferred candidate, leader, or (I’d add) party that you are prepared to teach that your calculations are the path of Christian obedience, to divide the church from the world over them, and to fasten them to the gospel and the name of Jesus Christ himself? “Everybody who has repented of their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Resurrected Savior and King of Kings should vote for Bob.”
Those are the stakes. That’s what a preacher does when he preaches. The Holy Spirit has made him an overseer to give life to the dead by proclaiming the gospel, and then to help both the living congregation and the not-yet-living outsider know where the Bible draws a line between life and death, between the church and the world. A pastor’s work includes answering the question, what beliefs and behaviors should differentiate disciples of Jesus Christ as a property of the gospel or an implication of the gospel? A preacher lays out the path of obedience. Walking contrary to that path is disobedience and, in some cases, disciplinable. His is a conscience-binding occupation. And he should only bind the conscience of his hearers with the Word of God. A pastor without a Bible is a man with no authority and no message. But a pastor with a Bible stands in God’s place—so long as he speaks from it. It is not his political opinions, calculations, or best guesses that calls into existence the things that are not, and then gives order to this glorious new creation. (See Ezek. 37; Rom. 4:17; 10:17; 2 Cor. 4:1-6; 1 Thes. 1:5; James 1:18, 21; 1 Peter 1:23; etc.)
Other than in extraordinary circumstances, therefore, no, I do not think pastors have the authority to reveal the mind of God, to divide the church from the world, or to fasten the gospel and the name of Jesus to particular candidates, leaders, or parties.
A Political Issue vs. a Package of Issues
It is one thing for a pastor to address an issue based on biblical grounds; it’s another thing to address a package of issues, which is what addressing a candidate, leader, or party involves. If a pastor is able to trace a direct line from a biblical principle to a political application, he should. Here he has biblical warrant.
Addressing a package of issues, on the other hand, is something different. It involves assessing the ethical weight of dozens of issues, comparing those weights against one another, and then gauging the likelihood of their implementation in light of current events, the present field of political actors, and all the whirlwind dynamics of real-life law-making. Whenever you support or oppose a candidate, leader, or party, you are making such calculations.
So let me be clear: I am not saying that pastors should refrain from supporting or opposing candidates, leaders, or parties because I think the church is “spiritual” and not “political.” I actually believe that, while the political and the spiritual can be conceptually distinguished, they cannot be separated. Everything a church believes and does is political, and everything that occurs in the public square is spiritual. Indeed, everything every human believes and does is in obedience (political) to some god (spiritual), no matter what office we hold or building we’re standing in.
And Christians should feel free to speak into the public square—within the constraints of wisdom—on behalf of the true God every bit as much as the secularist can speak on behalf of his or her false gods. Borrowing from Ventrella, there is biblical warrant for that much; only recent partisan decisions would deny it; and such activity contributes to the common good. More precisely, love and justice require it. For that reason I teach a 13-week adult Sunday School on Christians in government in my church for the sake of all the Hill staffers, lobbyists, and lawyers who populate our Capitol Hill congregation. It shows no love of neighbor to withdraw from the public square other than on grounds of higher stewardship priorities, i.e. prior obligations of love.
But to support or oppose a candidate, leader, or party is to make a complex political calculation concerning multiple issues and current events. And the question at stake in this conversation is, does the pastor possess biblical authority to do that?
A Case Study: Abortion and the Pro-Choice Candidate
Let’s think about the difference between an issue and a package of issues through the lens of a major point of political division today: abortion. When a pastor preaches, “You must not practice abortion,” he is implicitly, by virtue of his pastoral office, dividing the church from the world over the issue of abortion. He is saying abortion is wrong for everyone, yes, but gospel-believing Christians in particular must not practice abortion because they wear the Jesus’ nametag through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He is using his God-established and church-recognized office to bind the conscience over abortion.
And I believe this is biblically and pastorally legitimate because there is a direct path from biblical principle to political application (to borrow language from Robert Benne) with abortion. Abortion is murder, and the Bible commands governments to protect its citizens from murder. The path is basically that simple. As an isolated issue, abortion is different than, say, education or health care policy. Christians might have principled convictions about these latter issues, too, but most would admit that the path from biblical principal to political application is more jagged, dim, and certainly debatable. It is my personal and pastoral conviction, therefore, that abortion, unlike education or health care policy, is an issue over which pastors can lean into the consciences of their hearers and divide the church from the world. I would even say that a church should discipline from membership abortion doctors, women who refuse to stop having abortions, or politicians who devote their careers to supporting abortion.
But would I be prepared to say that voting for a pro-choice candidate is inherently sinful? And that such a vote should never occur among God’s people—indeed, that a church might even consider formally disciplining someone who does vote for such a candidate?
In fact, a very godly member of my church voted for a vocally pro-choice candidate because, by my friend’s political calculations, the office for which this candidate was running would have little impact on abortion law. And the candidate stood for a number of other justice issues that were important to my friend, issues where the candidate arguably could have an impact. His conclusion was that putting this candidate into office would be a net gain for godly justice.
Now let me be slightly more forthright than I typically would in my church by putting my cards on the table about my friend’s reasoning: I disagree with it vehemently. I think he miscalculated. Part of me wanted to shake him by the shoulders and say, “C’mon!” What’s more, I’m personally convinced by John Piper’s observation that one issue is not enough to make a good candidate good, but one issue is enough to make a bad candidate bad, as with a candidate who believed all the right things but also supported embezzlement. Those are the convictions that guide my own voting. But I say that somewhat nervously here because I wouldn’t ordinarily say that much in a church setting where my pastoral office was in play. Or if I did, I would be careful to qualify it as a “What I do” and not a “What you must do.” Is it hypothetically possible that my friend’s political calculations concerning his vote were strategic—wise like a serpent? I think it’s at least possible for such a vote to be without sin. For example, in the case of two pro-choice presidential candidates, one might choose to abstain or one might vote for the best candidate (or least-bad candidate). Remember, Joseph worked for Pharaoh. And Daniel greeted the tyrannical Nebuchadnezzar and Darius with words like, “Oh, King, live forever.”
I admit I feel some tension here. Abortion is a tough topic to use as a case study because the stakes are so high—life and death and murder. But lower the stakes and hopefully the principles I’m articulating become clearer. What’s more, if you don’t feel the tension, I’m not sure you’re thinking pastorally, which is all about balancing competing principles and not saying everything you might want to say, especially if it’s outside of God’s Word. In short, I want to be careful not to presume that I can, with gospel clarity, tell the members of my congregation whom they should vote for in elections. Honestly, I just don’t have enough biblical confidence in my political calculations to identify the gospel with those calculations, to identify the church of Jesus Christ with them, or to push toward church discipline over them. I am, by contrast, confident in my understanding of the gospel, or God’s Triune nature, or the truth of Genesis, or the commandment against murder and (by implication) abortion, or the fact that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. I will bind the consciences of church members and divide the church from the world over those things. And at that point I believe I can leave it to the Holy Spirit and church members’ consciences to figure out which candidates, leaders, or parties to support.
Political Strategy and Pastoral Jurisdiction
Let me try to make the unique nature of pastoral authority even clearer by discussing political strategy for a second, an area in which I have never been accused of possessing wisdom. If the Alliance Defending Freedom for whom Ventrella works, the Ethics and Religious and Liberty Commission on whose site this article is located, and a host of other such organizations tried to convince every Christian in America to never, ever vote for a pro-choice politician, they would have my support. Let the press releases fly. Start the campaign today. Imagine if every Christian Republican or Democrat in the country together decided to never support a pro-choice candidate or leader. My guess is that there would be a major realignment of the political playing field. Maybe we would even move to a three-party system, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
That said, I am unwilling, based on Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s affirmation of me as possessing a God-sanctioned authority over their souls to interpret the Bible and apply it to all areas of their lives, to say to any members of my church who happen to be reading this article that they must absolutely never, as a matter of conscience and faithfulness to the gospel, vote for a pro-choice candidate, lest they call into question their profession of faith and their congregationally-affirmed membership in our church. Such claims are outside of my pastoral jurisdiction. My favored candidate is neither the gospel nor an implication of the gospel.
As one of the lay elders or non-staff pastors, I have the authority to interpret, teach, and—I’d even say—apply the Bible. But some applications go too far. Some cross the boundaries of Christian freedom. Never eat meat sacrificed to idols. Clergy must never marry. Don’t play music with a beat or dance. Vote Republican. Statements like these are outside a pastor’s jurisdiction.
Can we find examples of God’s people addressing political leaders in the Bible? Of course. Ventrella points to several. But consider his list. Either God’s man has a specific word from God (e.g. Moses or Micaiah); he’s addressing a specific sin or set of sins (e.g. Nathan or Elijah); or he’s generally telling a leader not to oppose God or pursue injustice (e.g. Ps. 2; the prophets). And a pastor might decide to do all these things. I’ll do it now: “President Obama, pursue justice, and don’t oppose Jesus or his Word, whether we’re talking about abortion, the definition of marriage, religious tolerance, welfare, health care, national defense, or any other subject. Our church prays either for you or another leader like you every Sunday on such matters. And please, oh please, start working against the institutionalized slaughter of countless baby boys and girls in the womb!”
Apart from unique moments of direct revelation in redemptive history (as with Moses and Pharaoh), and apart from the unique structures of theocracy in ancient Israel (as with Samuel and Saul), what you don’t see in Scripture is either an implicit precedent or an explicit license for pastors to use their office to advocate for one man or another, one administration or another, one regime or another. You certainly don’t see a list of preferred candidates. To preach a candidate’s name almost mimics the logic behind the divine right of kings, which sought to justify not just the office, but the individual: “God ordained me to rule you.”
There are operatives in both political parties who would love nothing more than to conflate the gospel with loyalty to their platform and their candidates. To heed them is to subvert Christianity.
Just This Last Sunday…
Just this last Sunday at church, John (not real name) asked me for counsel on how he should vote in the upcoming Washington DC mayoral elections. He was deliberately approaching me in my capacity as an elder.
Now, were John a close personal friend, say, from another church, and we were having dinner together, and I knew my pastoral office wouldn’t weigh on his conscience, I might offer my opinion about what he might do. I certainly wouldn’t tell him what he must do.
As it was, standing at the back of the church with a member I barely knew, I knew that my answer would leverage my office to bind his conscience, even if only slightly. By that I don’t mean he wouldn’t be free to go against my counsel, or that other, heavier factors might not weigh into his decision. But the fact that it would be “a pastor” speaking, by God’s delegated design, would impose on his conscience the subtle suggestion that my opinion on the best candidate for DC mayor represents the church, and in representing the church represents the gospel, and in representing the gospel represents Jesus Christ.
So I told John, “You’re free in Christ to vote for any of the three main candidates. I think that one is probably better than others. In fact, I can offer a couple of principles to keep in mind. But more important than my own opinion on the best candidate, which I will not share, you want to be careful with this stewardship. On the Last Day, you and Jesus will re-examine whether you acted by faith for the sake of love and justice, relying utterly on the wisdom he gives. Can I pray with you for this wisdom?” No doubt, my policy with John in a setting like this also translates into how I would speak from the pulpit or a newspaper op-ed page.
Aside from trying not to overstep my bounds, I hope my restraint had the additional affect of reminding him that salvation will ultimately be found in Christ, not in the next elected official.
Last Few Cards on the Table
A last couple of cards on the table: Lately I have begun to wonder if a political party could ever reach a point that it became so blatantly opposed to God, the justice of God, and the people of God that a church should treat membership in that party as grounds for church discipline. Presumably, my church would discipline a faithful member of Hitler’s Nazi Party. But should churches in China likewise excommunicate members of the Communist Party? Or could one or both of the parties in America ever reach that point? What criteria would we use to say when it has?
I’m unsure of the answer to these last few questions, but I don’t believe America is there yet. And until such an extraordinary moment in history comes, which, who knows, might be soon, we want our American churches to be filled with men and women, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, Blacks and Whites, Republicans and Democrats. Shouldn’t gospel power and gospel unity reach that far?
The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.