When Pastors Should–and Should Not–Be Political

When Pastors Should–and Should Not–Be Political September 8, 2022

In general, the church should stay out of politics.  But sometimes politics is foisted upon the church.

That’s the gist of an article in First Things by Ben C. Dunson, visiting professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, entitled Should Pastors Be Political? 

True, as Jesus confessed before Pilate, His Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).  I would add that making Jesus an earthly king was one of the temptations of Satan (Luke 4:5-8).  The church and its pastors are preoccupied with God’s eternal kingdom, even as its members–and its pastors–must live also in God’s temporal kingdom.

Prof. Dunson gives two senses in which pastors do need to be involved in politics, and one sense in which they should not.  First, the Bible does address temporal matters, including politics.  Romans 13 explains how earthly authorities are instituted by God and that Christians need to be subject to them.  It also explains the purpose and scope of earthly governments.  The state, says Prof. Dunson, “exists to enforce justice, reward good, and provide for the common good of a nation (Rom. 13:2–7).”  He concludes:

Pastors, just by teaching and preaching what the Bible says, will necessarily teach their people about the purposes and scope of the state, an important institution ordained by God. In other words, they will teach about politics, its (potential) goodness, and how it should be pursued.

His second sense in which pastors and their churches will be political is especially helpful.  Of course pastors are to teach what the Bible says about moral issues.  But some of those issues have been politicized–not by the church, but by the state.

Abortion, transgenderism, justice, marriage, the education of children, and so on, are all matters of fundamental Christian concern. They are also unavoidably political and partisan issues in our world, whether we want them to be or not. Laws are made in each of these areas that will significantly affect Christians and our non-Christian neighbors. They are not concerns that faithful pastors can ignore.

The church didn’t make abortion or same-sex marriage into political issues.  The state did when it overturned centuries of moral teachings about such things and enshrined those changes in the law.  So preaching about sexual morality and our obligation to protect human life will inevitably have a bearing on politics.

As for the sense in which pastors should not be political, has to do with the doctrine of vocation:

Those called by God to serve him as pastors must devote themselves to that vocation. In fact, from the standpoint of the Bible, for pastors to focus their labors on political activism (seeking political office themselves, extensive campaigning for candidates, and so on) would be a denial of their vocation as pastors, which is to preach the Scriptures and shepherd the people of God. . . .Most Christians aren’t called to be pastors. But some are called by God to serve in politics, just as others serve in education, trades, finance, the military, and so on. Pastors, while attending to the specific duties of their own vocations, should help their congregations serve in these ways.

I would just add that, according to Luther, all Christians, pastors included, do have a vocation of citizenship, in which we love and serve our neighbors by carrying out our civic duties that are common to all citizens, which, for us, would include voting, being informed, and working for the good of our country.

Though Prof. Bunson is Reformed, he is articulating what is, in effect, the Lutheran doctrines of the Two Kingdoms and Vocation!  And he does so in a clarifying and insightful way.

 

Photo by Adam Schultz,  President Joe Biden speaking in church, First African Methodist Episcopal Church – North Las Vegas, NV – February 16, 2020 via Flickr, Creative Commons License  

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