Politics and the Pulpit

Politics and the Pulpit June 25, 2011

It is commonly asserted that we should keep politics out of the pulpit, but what most people mean by that is that we shouldn’t endorse a specific candidate — and who’s kidding whom on that one? Or that we shouldn’t endorse a party from the pulpit — and who’s kidding whom on that one?

But “politics” is precisely what the pulpit does, and here’s why:

1. The Bible, which is the Book of the pulpit, is a profoundly political book. The entire Old Testament is about a nation and its politics – how that nation is to live as a political body.

2. The New Testament is profoundly political — it is how the “political body” of Christ is to live in this world, and it is often at odds with the politics of Israel’s/Judah’s leaders and Rome’s leaders and Greece’s leaders.

3. The very gathering of the Body of Christ is called a “church” (ekklesia), which was a political term in the first century. Our gatherings are political gatherings because we form a kingdom body that is designed to witness to Christ and engage the world in a politics of love and grace and holiness and justice and peace.

4. We confess Jesus is Lord, and that means we are confessing no one else is Lord — Caesar or anyone else. Our confession is the most profoundly political action we can possibly do.

5. We strive to live an entirely different ethic, an ethic shaped by the Jesus Creed, and that is in essence a political move: we seek to be a different kind of living over against a world shaped by power and violence.

So, let me put it this way, when others tell us not to participate in politics, they are expressing a fear of what kind of politic the church could be; when they say we should construct a wall of separation, they are expressing a fear of what would happen if the church took its politic seriously.

The single-most powerful political action Christians “do” is baptism and Eucharist, for in those actions we enter into an alien politics.

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  • Pat Pope

    The pulpit is very political in the sense that the pastor preaches or not what either will or will not offend their largest benefactors. So, there’s the internal church politics that many people don’t like to talk about or acknowledge its existence, but that’s how things get done in the church, particularly large decisions.

  • Gregorio

    I agree with everything above but the “church reality” I see in the USA with an election year approaching is a Body divided between the once powerful Republican “Palin evangelicals” and the new emergent holier-than-thou left who believe Obama is their prophet and liberal social issues like gay marriage (“marriage equality”) is their gospel. As one who lives outside the USA it’s getting harder and harder to take the American church seriously anymore …

  • Larry Barber

    Gregorio, be careful of taking your impressions of the American church from the media, most journalists are profoundly ignorant about the church and religion in general. I attend a fairly liberal, “emergent” congregation and I don’t know anyone there who regards Obama as a prophet. Even those who voted for him are disappointed in what he has done once in office. Most are pretty disgusted with the state of American politics and the requirement that you have to have a pretty strong stomach to even contemplate voting for the kind of people both major parties put up.

  • Scot, this is excellent. The church not only has a politics, but is a politics, to paraphrase Hauerwas, and is called to live a way of life together that witnesses to Jesus Christ as Lord. We live in a way that points to The Way. Often, when I hear people say that we should keep politics out of church, I laugh, thinking to myself that the notion, on its face, is absurd. But then I remember I am called to teach the alternative–that being political isn’t only a question of endorsing this or that candidate or assuming this or that party line. It is that, but it is more. The church has its own way of being political. Being political is necessary for our constitution as the people of God, living, loving, proclaiming, and pointing to the Jesus way.

  • I appreciated your post, Scot, and largely agree with what you are saying. I do think that the challenge is not whether Christianity or the church is political or not, but _in what way_ Christianity or the church is political.

    Clearly, as you mentioned, we do use political language (ekklesia) and make a political statement (Jesus is Lord) as followers of Christ. But how do we engage with the realm of politics around us in our culture? Do we engage in the same manner of the politics avails us of or not? How do we preach kingdom politics while not sliding into party politics, even unintentionally?

    You referenced the politics of love, and the aims of peace and justice. This seems to put us at odds with all political parties and ways of operating politically.

    At a very practical level, I hope that it is possible to be a community of the Cross that makes space for democrats and republicans (Green party? Libertarians?) by proclaiming the politics of the kingdom but not the politics of this realm. As a pastor at an urban church that strives to do this, it is very challenging.

  • Matt #5: “I do think that the challenge is not whether Christianity or the church is political or not, but _in what way_ Christianity or the church is political.”


    When Christians hear the word “politics” the first word that comes to mind should be “church” not “state.”

  • The Gospel is highly political, but it also highly non-partisan. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preach in ways that cross political lines, but rather that those lines don’t exist to begin with when it comes to God’s Truth.

    As an example, people have been offended when the “pulpit” preaches to be good stewards of the earth, fearing we’ve become “one of those Al Gore types.” Likewise, people have been offended when the “pulpit” has challenged them to pray for a President they didn’t vote for.

    So what?

    Politics are in the Bible for a reason – they teach us how to wrestle with the authority we may not agree with. Hmm… while we tend to pull that off in broken ways, it sure sounds like an unbroken concept that can help us follow God better.

  • I think you bring up some great points about the nature of Christianity being inherently political, but I’m not convinced that the American church of the 21st century should make political action and rallying votes a focal point of ministry. That is not to say that a follower of Jesus should be detached from politics. I think quite the opposite, actually, especially on very clear-cut issues like human rights.

    It just seems that whenever a body of believers takes a political side they in effect ostracize from the church any who would disagree with them, sometimes further solidifying in their mind that the Church is not a place for them. Take the hot button issue of gay marriage for example. As congregations come together to protest its legalization, what picture of Jesus are we painting for homosexuals? And I’m not saying it should or should not be legal – just that maybe there’s a better way for the church to relate to political issues in this present age.

  • Jake Ulasich

    Many confuse “party politics” or “state politics” (ie. running for office, making promises, enacting laws, governing the city/state/country) with simple “politics” (ie. a way of being and doing in the world). The two are, of course, intertwined, and the former should flow out of the latter, but I think people often forget the latter part of politics and jump right into who we should vote into office, sorting out the why’s and how’s afterward and living in a kind of muddle of ideas. The American political system is screwed up in the way that it lumps issues together. No one in their right mind can believe that fiscal management policy and gay rights have anything to do with one another ideologically, but we treat them like they do, which is absurd.

    A politics based on the teachings of Jesus and the story of God throughout the world/history may tell us very little about who to vote for, but it should tell us a lot about how to live, what to do about issues both major and minor, and how we put systems into practice to live in God’s way. Unfortunately, even those questions of core value seem to be in question among different strains of christianity.

  • Scott,

    I believe you know my brother-n-law and nephew, Bill and Art Boulet. Good words here!

    If we embrace a holistic ministry (as I think the Bible mandates), we’ll engage in three dimensions of ministry:

    1. Relief: because we are physical beings with bodily needs
    2. Development: because we are social beings with community needs
    3. Evangelism: because we are spiritual beings in need of salvation

    This model raises at least three important questions:

    1. How much should we look to government to meet the needs of relief and development?
    2. What relief and development needs can we (as a Church) meet locally, nationally, and internationally?
    3. How does evangelism meet relief and development needs? What are the beneficial horizontal effects of the gospel

    Holistic ministry (of the biblical kind) recognizes that God has ordained three God-ordained institutions —for the good of humanity:

    1. Family—for nurturing and molding the character of our children (Eph. 6:1; Colo. 3:18-21)
    2. Human government—for punishing evildoers and praising those who do right (Gen. 9:6; Rom. 13:1-6:I Pe. 2:13-14)
    3. Church–as salt and light to the World (Matt. 5:13-16; Colo. 4:5-6)

    The Jesus Creed should teach us to reject three errors from history:

    1. Imposition: coercing people by legislation to accept the Christian way. (Yet Christians should offer influence on the formation of law)
    2. Inquisition: violence used in the name of Christ to force Christianity on others.
    3. Indifference: a principled belief in the necessity of non-interference; leaving people alone in their non-Christian ways

    Politics, culture and the role of things like law and punishments are horizontal agents of change. But these are naturalistic answers to “renewal” based on external mechanisms. They offer solutions to our problems and promotions of human flourishing in the here and now apart from salvation. On this version, Act/Consequence are the primary focus for change.

    As Christians, we recognize a place for these concerns but prioritize the need for ontological change (regeneration) with a teleological focus.

    This expands an Act/Consequence model (which is bound to horizontal concerns) to Being/Behavior/Consequence (which includes the vertical dimension). The teleological dimension is God’s provision of purpose and hope—(things that honest people must acknowledge).

    Laws, customs, culture and politics will not address the depth of the human problem. From a Christian view, these external pressures are necessary (even divinely ordained) but not adequate. So we insist that making external adjustments like putting the “right” party in political office will not address our deepest needs.

    Christians recognize a need for ontological transformation (regeneration).

    Three quotes:

    “A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square—respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies. We cannot simultaneously serve the poor and accept the legal killing of unborn children.” Charles J. Chaput

    “There is no way of purging from human beings an understanding of right and wrong, of purging from common life a discourse about right and wrong. Once we think we are in the presence of real wrongs, we think (for example) that it’s wrong for people to torture their infants, our next response is not, ‘Ah, therefore, let’s give them tax incentives to induce them to stop.’ No, we respond with a law that forbids them.”

    “Once you understand that this is the nature of the enterprise of ruling and governing, it becomes a matter of whether you will address the questions of right and wrong or whether you simply try to divert the questions and talk about something else.” (Hadley Arkes, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose)

    “Christian culture making will deliberately recognize the meanings and order embedded within creation. Worldly culture making knows no transcendently ordered boundaries, no limits to what can be willed or crafted.” Ken Myers

  • I agree with a couple of caveats.

    1) Keep in mind that Peter, Paul and other N.T. authors were careful to put the Gospel ahead of political agenda. In other words, we need to be careful that the political issues aren’t pushing the Gospel-spreading emphasis of the church off of center-stage.

    2) Especially in the USA, neither party is a very good representative of Christianity, so we need to be REALLY careful about sticking to the issue and warning against trying to associate with a party, even if not directly. This probably means if we’re going to cover an issue or two, we need to broaden to more issues which would show either party is going to be a trade-off of issues Christians hold dear.

  • DRL

    “Brethren, our preaching will bear its legitimate fruits. If immorality prevails in the land, the fault is ours in a great degree. If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the public press lacks moral discrimination, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the Church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in religion, the pulpit is responsible for it. If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it. Let us not ignore this fact, my dear brethren; but let us lay it to heart, and be thoroughly awake to our responsibility in respect to the morals of this nation.”

    Charles G. Finney, Power From On High, Chapter 11 (c. 1871-1874)

  • The pulpit should be teaching and encouraging one thing: to know God (Hebrews 8:10-11). When we focus on each individual having the father/son relationship with God, then everything else will flow (Matthew 6:33). Our challenge is to cleave to God, for He is our life (Deuteronomy 30:20).

  • Grupetti

    Gregorio, you seem to have fallen prey to the “Both Sides Do It” centrism meme. Palin is a Tea Party Republican, and Obama is a Rockefeller Republican – or at least he’s govenring that way. I think down inside he’s actually a Keynesian Anti-Colonialist. Too bad he’s not governing with the mandate he had.

  • David Johnson

    I think a whole bunch of people completely missed the boat on this. The mere mention of the word “politics” has put elections, campaigns, taxes and all sorts of other things into people’s heads that are only tangentially related to the way in which the Gospel is “political.” When a church worships, it is a political activity. It says nothing about who should be in the political offices of the state or nation, and it doesn’t necessarily say much about how much a population should be taxed or where that money should go—but it says a whole lot about who is King and about what those people think is the proper use of their untaxed money.

    And so we really need to make it plain that when we speak of the Gospel being political, we’re manifestly not talking about the powerbrokers in the government which temporally rules our particular territory. The Gospel certainly touches them and IS for them and on many matters stands in prophetic critique of them—but that’s not the basis of its political-ness. It is political because it calls into being a community—the “city on a hill.”

  • DanS

    David 16. By using the word “political”, it is inevitable that people will assume the church should be active in politics in the sense of “government”. Maybe Scot needs a different word for what he seems to be trying to convey.

    As divided as evangelicalism is, I don’t know if there can be much of a coherent evangelical voice on the issues of the day. In my church, pastors don’t endorse candidates, but they do speak about moral issues.

    Separation of church and state means the machinery of one shouldn’t get entangled with the other – no Government coercion, no official church of the USA. But influence is permitted and inevitable.

  • Patrick

    I don’t think our modern use of the term politics has much to do with Christ or His Church beyond recognizing Christ is ruling, not the pretenders. They rule only to the extent He allows and when He decides otherwise, so long.

    He can affect their rule by “stirring their hearts”.

    We’re to pray for wisdom for them from God and not malign them.

    Peter seems to have urged us not to get in trouble in societal/political activism in I Peter 3:15.

    The isagogics of the word “meddler” might be taken from a Roman law enacted to prevent Christians from trying to force their morality or beliefs on Roman pagans.

    Isn’t much evidence Jesus , Peter, John or Paul were interested in political activism as we understand the term.

  • I think this is mostly a game of semantics. There is a legitimate concern being voiced when people talk about keeping “politics” out of the pulpit and it’s actually relevant to defending the polis ecclesia of Christianity. To be “political” in a worldly sense precludes being “political” in a Christian sense. We should have no Lord except Christ. Period. To self-identify primarily in partisan political terms and deploy “church” as a means of advancing partisan political interests is to be a tumor in the body of Christ. The body of Christ in Reaganist America is about as stage-four cancer as you can get.

    It’s the ultimate blasphemy of Christian orthodoxy when “Biblical” is reduced to being the code-word for anti-homosexual/anti-abortion (independent of what Christians should believe about these two issues). I’m not saying that the relatively recent “social justice” evangelicalism is right either in its reactionary response to Reaganist Christianity (or perhaps the proper moniker is Christ-exploiting Reaganism).

    But I think it’s a valiant goal to fight to transcend partisan political memes and actively purge their influence from your thoughts in order to be loyal to Christ alone as Lord. Certainly there’s going to be overlap, but our primary concern is to bring all humanity into the perfect form of community called the body of Christ. In that interest, we should avoid any unnecessary stumbling blocks that close the Kingdom’s gates to small-town rednecks on the one hand and postmodern urban metrosexuals on the other.

    What I love about my church is that we have hard-core Tea Partiers and gay people and military folks and hippies all in the same body together. There’s plenty you can say from the pulpit to challenge people to Christian discipleship without allowing the partisan memes to demarcate how you talk about “the issues.”

  • Mike

    I think DanS has said it most succintly. The “politics” of the Bible — of Christianity — is not the politics of Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, Tea Party, etc. It is the politics of justice, love, compassion, etc. Mixing the two as if they are one is a kind of equivocation. I beleive that we do need a different word for the politics of God.

  • Joshua Wooden

    This post touches on a topic that’s very important to me, and I don’t think there is anything as complex as the relationship between Kingdom politics and worldly politics.

    However, this post adds little clarity for me, even though I liked what I read. I’ll be frank: what is the point this post is trying to communicate, because I did’t catch it?

    Another question: How do Christians engage worldly power when they are ALLOWED to, as is the case with American democracy. What then? It’s one thing to proclaims Jesus as Lord, and denounce Caesar as Lord, but the current designation of “President” is quite different from the ancient political designation of “Caesar.” Our caesar is popularly elected, and there are things that Christians can say, or refrain from saying, that will affect the outcome.

    Question: Should we?

  • Dan K

    I think of “politics” as, essentially, affairs of the state — “ta politika” to Aristotle, or “the kingdom of men”, in the parlance of our Lord. You have a point with the Old Testament being “profoundly political”, but to my mind the gospel of Jesus is profoundly anti-political, in that it reveals “politics” to be nothing but the evil machinations whereby one man exerts power over another.

  • Susanne Johnson

    Some of the comments above are naïve, and their implications frightening. Had some of you lived in Germany during the days of the Third Reich, based on the logic of what you’ve said above, your congregations would have been complicit in the silence of the church as Jews and other persecuted groups were carried off to the gas ovens. Those congregations did exactly as you recommend. They held congregational worship, they prayed, they baptized, they celebrated the Eucharist, they read their scripture. But they turned a blind eye to inserting themselves into the affairs of government; they didn’t want to get their hands dirty with such so-called “secular” stuff.
    To be sure, “government” and “politics” are not the same thing, yet they are inextricably intertwined. Neither one is inherently a dirty word—though our society has managed to morph them into such. If we pastors and leaders do as some of you recommend, and keep finding euphemisms for words that have been hijacked, sooner or later we won’t have any vocabulary left. My students even want to abandon the (biblical) word “justice” because of the extent to which it’s been tainted by the likes of Glenn Beck and his ilk.
    In his monumental Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed these issues head-on. This book was his last writing (penned between 1940 and 1943), and most theologically and ethically mature. To my mind, it should be required reading for every single leader in the church today. As you’re aware, Bonhoeffer’s Christian convictions led him in 1940 to join the German resistance movement, and to what ultimately was a failed assassination plot on Hitler’s life, for which he was imprisoned (in 1943) and subsequently executed. Before his death, he had to make biblical, theological, and ethical sense of the church’s relationship to politics and to government. His biblical thesis of the four “mandates” puts Christians into a direct relationship with, and involvement in, government (and politics), as well as economics.
    Bonhoeffer shows that the relation of Jesus Christ to the world assumes concrete form in not just one form (the church), but rather in four definitive “mandates,” what we call societal “institutions.” These are: the church, the family, labor/economics, and government/politics. The Christian call is to hold these mandates in their proper, God-given interrelationship as standing “with,” “for” and “against” one another, that is, as mutually interdependent and mutually accountable to the larger common good and to the flourishing of the created order.

    Further, he insisted that there “can be only be the practice, the learning, of the Christian life under these four mandates of God. And it will not do to regard the first three mandates as ‘secular,’ in contradistinction to the fourth. For even in the midst of the world these are divine mandates, no matter whether their topic be labor, marriage, government or the Church.” Were we to take Bonhoeffer with utmost seriousness, the church would undergo a radical paradigm shift in how it goes about the task of Christian formation. I vote we commit ourselves to such, before our planet perishes while we’re sitting in our church basements singing Kum Bah Yah.