After a very surreal week where I learned a new appreciation of the bravery of and God’s grace to Christians, especially pastor’s wives, in places where the church is persecuted I can think of no better post to share than one I wrote the day before the last presidential election, that was published the day after the last presidential election. And I would add, if you are not praying in accordance with 1 Timothy 2:1-2, now is the time to start.
Voting is over. The polls are closed, most of the votes counted, and Lord willing the president elect clearly identified, and our path forward as a nation made clear. I think just about everyone, whether the candidate they backed won or lost, will be relieved this election is over — even if they felt both major party candidates were so flawed they couldn’t in good conscience vote for either; or if they thought the system has reached a tipping point and they chose not to participate at all.
After most presidential elections the whole country feels like it needs a nice long shower. It seems to me that the whole nation needs a fire hose and bristle brush delousing, like new incoming prison inmates in the movies after this one. This election, for the first time in my living memory, included violence. It wasn’t widespread, but it was regular. Supporters assaulted opponents of both major candidates. Someone firebombed a political party office in North Carolina. An arsonist burned a church in Mississippi after it was defaced with political graffiti.
Worse than that, to me, has been how many Christians, including Christian leaders have acted. Many have made voting or not voting for one of the candidates a de facto shibboleth of orthodoxy. Even worse, I read or heard more than a few pastors who I respect say something along the lines of “after much prayer I urge you as believers to cast a Christ honoring vote for __________.” I’ve also heard pastors I know and respect say something along the line of “No Christian can/should vote for __________.” To me these are heart breaking.
The man I still think of as “my pastor” once said off handedly the single wisest thing on politics and the pulpit I have ever heard, he said “if you teach people the bible and to live in light of it in every area of their life, you don’t have to worry about what they do in the voting booth.”
I think pastor Ron is right. If a pastor is faithful at his primary task of teaching God’s people what His Word says and how to apply the truth in all areas of life, then no special pleading needs to be made concerning electoral politics and political candidates. But I think there is more to it, pastors must for the sake of the church and the reputation of Christ be apolitical. So let me give you a few reasons why I am apolitical, and why I think your pastor should be too.
Now, important caveat; why wait until after the election to write this? Because the political atmosphere has been so charged, that any call for pastors to be apolitical would have been inevitably perceived as a political statement. I’ve been sitting on this post for months. Have I been perfect in this regard, no. For that I ask forgiveness from any I may have offended. I have gone out of my way to never endorse or condemn any candidate, but I have taken to task some pastors (I actually know) who have. Because they all advocated for the same political candidate, it could seem that I was engaging in political debate. That was not my intent. Nor is it my intent now to condemn them, rather it is my hope that moving forward we will all think biblically about political advocacy, especially from pastors.
The Pastor’s Calling
The calling of a vocational pastor is unique, and it is a high and hard calling. It is hard, gritty work and often very lonely, especially for small church pastors. I think this is why, in His enormous grace, God gave the church three inspired letters in the New Testament about how to be a good and faithful pastor: 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. As Paul was in the dark and damp Mamertine Prison in Rome awaiting execution, he penned his final letter to his ministry protégé and true son in the faith Timothy. In that letter he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, penned this stirring charge:
You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. – 2 Timothy 2:1-7
Political advocacy is nothing more than needless entanglements in civilian pursuits. I read one lengthy facebook posting from a pastor advocating for a vote in a certain direction calling it “Christ honoring.” But what was truly disheartening was how he prefaced it. He said he had been “praying over” that post for two weeks. Could that prayer time have not been better used praying for the well-being and spiritual growth of church members? Or the advance of the gospel? Or the salvation of the children of the families of the church? Or any other Kingdom purpose?
Now I am not saying this man failed to pray for those things in that time, I suspect he did. But two weeks praying about a Facebook post? Really? If that is not the definition of being entangled in a civilian affair to the point of robbing the church of service, I don’t know what is?
The pastoral epistles are not the only place the New Testament speaks about the work of a pastor or elder. The most succinct description of the duty and task of on elder is found in 1 Peter 5, and there is not a single word about politics, issue advocacy, societal ills or anything else outside of the body.
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. – 1 Peter 5:1-4
Not only is there nothing about political advocacy here, I would argue that for a pastor or elder to say voting one way or the other is God or Christ honoring, or morally good, is domineering, because the implication of course is that to do otherwise is dishonoring to God and that is binding people’s consciences which can lead to sin (Rom 14:22-23).
The Pastor’s Witness
The church (the people who make up the body of Christ) needs to be a witness. In a way the pastor is the chief witness, not that his witness is to be stronger or louder, or that the people of the church can outsource their witness to the paid professional, the pastor, but in that he is the most visible spokesperson of the church. Beyond our church’s statement of faith, if someone is investigating what our church is all about they are going to listen to my sermons, check out my social media and read my blog posts.
And in those things, I don’t want to say anything that will alienate half (or in some cases more than half) of the mission field. It is important to remember what we are to be witnesses to, the person and work of Jesus Christ.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, the was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:6-11
We are to be witnesses to Him, because He is coming back and when He does His winnowing fork will be in His hand (Matt 3:12). When Christ returns and the church is taken out of the world (1 Thess 4:17) our opportunity to call the lost to repentance will end. Of course, I don’t know when Christ will return but I need to live and lead in light of the imminence of His return, and I just don’t think it is a wise thing to squander my ability to witness to half of those around me by advocating for any candidate.
I think Paul who said to imitate Him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor 4:16; 1 Cor 11:1) sets a great pattern for all who are in ministry to follow.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became mas one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. – 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Paul is saying that he will do whatever it takes to limit the offense to unbeliever to the Gospel. He of course is not saying that he won’t call them to repentance or not talk about their pet sin, rather he is saying he will not do anything that will give such an offence that it will hamper his efforts to win some to Christ. Like it or not, and fair or not political advocacy gives offense, it hinders our witness.
The Pastor’s Master
To be blunt, pastors are to be first and foremost servants of Christ, and Jesus plainly said “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world (John 18:36)” before Pilot. When pastors engage in political advocacy for a candidate they stand not with Christ, but with Peter swinging his sword at Malchus (John 18:10).
We live on earth, for most of those reading this post, in the United States, so it is understandable that we would be drawn to fight in the political battles that swirl around us. But we need to remember that while we are here on earth we are exiles (1 Peter 1:1), sojourners (1 Peter 2:11), and our true citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). Moreover God enlists pastors in His heavenly army (2 Tim 2:3-4). We are, in effect, part of God’s expeditionary force on earth.
As pastors, if we forget who our master is, or functionally deny it by being drawn into earthly electoral conflicts, what example are we setting for the precious souls that God has entrusted to us? How double minded is it to say to the church “remember that God is sovereign and your citizenship is in heaven, but vote for __________.”
The Pastor’s Authority
Of course, the only authority any pastor has is the Word of God, and the Word of God is absolutely silent on matters of politics and elections. God chose to reveal His word in times and places where there were pharaohs, kings, and emperors not presidents, congressmen, and elected dog catchers. If God has given us all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3) and yet said nothing at all about how to choose government leaders, or even what the qualifications for those positions are, those things are not of great concern to Him. Not only do pastors have no authority to speak on these things, it doesn’t seem that important that we do.
What we do have authority to speak on is how Christians are to relate to their governmental leaders. They are to submit to them (Rom 13:1-7), honor them (1 Peter 2:17) and pray for them (1 Tim 2:1-2). When we as pastors say “God wants you to vote for ________” we make it much harder for people to submit to those actual commands of Scripture, after all if God’s candidate did not win should you really submit to, honor, and pray for the other guy/gal? (It is helpful to remember who the emperor was when all of those passages were written. Nero, one of the most cruel, debauched, vile rulers to ever walk the earth.)
While Scripture is silent on how we should choose political leaders, it is not silent on how they are chosen.
He changes times and seasons; He removes kings and sets up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. – Daniel 2:21
The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom He will and sets over it the lowliest of men. – Daniel 4:17
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. – Romans 13:1
We, as pastors, can say with certainty that God’s candidate always wins; there is absolutely no danger of God’s choice being thwarted. We can say that with absolute authority because that is what Scripture says. But when we use the pulpit and our position to say, “A vote for _________ is a vote for God’s man/woman.” How then can we speak authoritative words of comfort to our people if the person we told them was God’s candidate loses?
I challenge all of you to think through this issue more fully in the light of Scripture now that things have (Lord willing) calmed down a bit. The church in general and many pastors in particular have not done well in this election cycle, let’s all prayerfully purpose to do better next time. Let’s never forget the admonition of Psalm 146:3 “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.”
You can find a message I preached the Sunday before the 2016 election, 11/6/2016, on the christian’s relationship to the government here.