Every year in January pulpits across America come alive with political preaching. Some churches emphasize the importance (as they see it) of social justice in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Other churches decry the injustice (as they see it) of legalized abortion. At opposite ends of the political spectrum, both sorts of churches seem to agree that they have a right—and perhaps a duty—to address certain kinds of political issues.
Political involvement on the part of churches is not the same thing as political involvement on the part of individual Christians. Granted, Christians have their primary citizenship in the Kingdom of God, and that citizenship relativizes all earthly loyalties. Nevertheless, Christians also remain citizens of the nations that they inhabit. They may, and sometimes should, choose to become involved in the political process. They may campaign, vote, and even hold office without necessarily violating their commitment to Christ and His Kingdom. As they have opportunity to participate in shaping the politics of their nations, they may help to advance a relative and proximate degree of righteousness.
Churches, however, find themselves in a different situation. A church that is rightly ordered will rely upon the explicit teachings of the New Testament in order to define its mission and ministry. While this insistence upon the New Testament may sound suspiciously Dispensationalist to some, it is not. Covenant Theologians find the church in the Old Testament, but they also recognize that the present form and order of the church commences with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
A search of the New Testament yields no indication at all that churches ought to be involved in the political process. On the contrary, the New Testament sees churches as spiritual entities whose ministries focus upon spiritual concerns. Consequently, political preaching and campaigning constitute a distraction from the most important affairs of the church, a renunciation of the church’s commission, and a betrayal of its privileged position in Christ Jesus. Political preaching per se has no place at all in the church of Jesus Christ.
As private individuals, ministers certainly have the right to express political opinions. When they talk politics, however, they ought to do so only as individual citizens, and not in any way as ministers. If they are unable to separate these two roles, then they should remain silent in political debates. Under no circumstances should ministers attempt to rely upon the prestige or authority of church office as a mechanism of political persuasion. If they do, they subvert the office and abuse its authority.
Churches have no authority to attempt to influence political opinion. If ministers seek to influence political opinion, they must do so only as private individuals and never as church officers. These are the consequences of recognizing the spirituality of the church.
Part of the church’s spirituality, however, is a genuine concern for the right application of divine law and grace. In other words, churches and ministers must be deeply interested in moral questions. Part of the ministry of the church involves instructing individual Christians in the ways of righteousness so that they are able to make careful and discerning moral choices. A church that neglects this duty fails to accomplish its full mission.
Sometimes, questions that churches address as matters of morality will also be debated as matters of policy in the public square. Politics and morality are not entirely discrete spheres, but overlapping areas of concern. If a church intends to answer questions about right and wrong, it will inevitably end up addressing some political issues.
Churches, however, do not speak to these issues because they are political, but because they are moral. The church’s interest in the issue goes only as far as the morality of the question. Its right to address the issue ends where the question ceases to be moral in nature.
Many spheres of activity fall outside the purview of the church. It is not the business of the church to equip philosophers, artists, brokers, farmers, or politicians for their callings. What is the business of the church is to prepare its members so that they act as Christians in any calling, including that of participation in the political process. When political issues involve moral questions, the church must bring the authority of Christ to bear upon the issues at hand. In a very real sense, a faithful church must tell its members how to vote.
Churches that claim to be Christian often disagree about which issues are moral in nature. Even when they address the same issues, they often disagree in the moral principles that they bring to bear. Who, then, ought to decide which issues are purely political (and should be left alone by churches), and which issues are also moral (and ought to be addressed by churches)?
The proper answer to this question is that only the individual church has the right, under Christ, to determine how moral principles need to be applied to the political issues of the day. This decision cannot be left to any outside authority, least of all to a governmental authority. The liberty of churches to speak to matters of conscience is tied directly to freedom of worship. To surrender the one is to surrender the other.
One often hears the statement that churches should not be involved in politics. This perspective is correct as far as it goes. The purely political is of no interest to the church of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes, however, the moral is also political. At such times, churches must not shy away from their duty to proclaim the law of Christ and to apply it to the issues at hand. Biblical reasoning may not seem persuasive to the world, but it ought to persuade God’s people. Providing such biblical reasoning is a ministry that a faithful church must perform.
O Thou Eternal Victim, Slain
Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
O thou Eternal Victim, slain
A sacrifice for guilty man,
By the eternal Spirit made
An offering in the sinner’s stead;
Our everlasting Priest art thou,
And plead’st thy death for sinners now.
Thy offering still continues new;
Thy vesture keeps its bloody hue;
Thou stand’st the ever-slaughtered Lamb;
Thy priesthood still remains the same;
Thy years, O God, can never fail;
Thy goodness is unchangeable.
O that our faith may never move,
But stand unshaken as thy love!
Sure evidence of things unseen,
Now let it pass the years between,
And view thee bleeding on the tree,
My God, who dies for me, for me!