Politics? Oh, We Don’t Go There!

I suspect we need to give some more thought to this oft-stated contemporary wisdom: “We should just focus on the Gospel and not get political.”

We live in a society that seems to be increasingly divided and polarized by political discussion and media misrepresentation of opposing views on a variety of topics.  It is understandable that many will automatically agree that in the church, and in preaching, we should simply focus on the Gospel and not get dragged into the political tensions of our time. 

Here are seven preliminary points for us to ponder:

1. Politics is no substitute for the Saviour.  It is easy for some people, preachers included, to get swept up into current affairs and to put their hope in politicians or political parties.  We live in a sinful world and the world of politics tends to highlight human sin and the futility of godless solutions.  Anyone who puts their hope in a political solution to our greatest needs will be deeply disappointed.  Our church and our world need us to preach Christ and him crucified, not a party manifesto.

2. Silence can be highly political.  While we can easily see the problem if our pulpit shifts into a soapbox for a particular political agenda, merely exorcising any hint of a political opinion from our preaching is not the solution.  Sometimes saying nothing about something is really saying something.  In fact, there are times when silence is actually saying something quite strongly.  Saying nothing about gender, sexuality, morality, etc., can serve to reinforce the cultural narrative – especially as the younger generation grow into adulthood.  A lifetime of one message from the media, from social media, from educators and from peers may be affirmed rather than countered by a silent pulpit.

I recently read Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  It is well worth reading!  He wrote, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”

3. We must define what we mean by “political.”  I hear people referring to “political” as if such a label automatically confirms that the subject must not be touched.  What do we mean by the term?  A dictionary definition is “relating to the government or public affairs of a country.”  So, does this mean the church should have no voice on slavery, racism, human rights, poverty, crime, corruption, etc.?  I think we tend to all celebrate the political stand and achievements of past believers like William Wilberforce, George Muller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc.  But we also forget how many churches remained silent on the slave trade, on child poverty, or on Nazi tyranny.

4. Why do we retreat – does the Bible have nothing to say?  So, does the Bible have nothing to say on matters that could be labelled political?  Of course, it does.  The prophets were not typically the “popular preachers” in their era.  They spoke out for God about real issues in their society, whatever the cost.  Today, God cares passionately about the poor, the unborn, the marginalized, the vulnerable.  God hates the damage done by racism, or abuse, or trafficking, or crime, or unjust laws, or human rights violations, etc.  None of these issues is greater than the need for the Gospel to be preached, but let’s not claim to proclaim the whole counsel of God while refusing to address injustice or any other issue that might be labeled “political.”

5. Why do we retreat – are we living in fear?  Today we live in strange times.  We don’t have to go back to the era of the prophets to sense the change.  It was not that long ago that people would disagree and then have a conversation about it.  They might even take onboard the perspective of another and do some genuine personal research in order to understand that position better.  We were all bettered by that approach.  Today we live in a culture that increasingly models “triggered grievance and cancellation.”  If someone does not say the right things and openly affirm the sacred cows of our time, there are plenty of people ready to declare deep grievance and instigate a public take-down and cancellation of the offending party.  This can feel crippling to the Christian in the workplace, to the Christian on the campus, and to the preacher in the pulpit.  I hope we are all learning to speak wisely and avoid unnecessary problems, but we cannot afford to retreat into a silent fear where our salt loses any saltiness, and our light is extinguished by darkness.

One more quote from MLK’s letter: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

6. The church should be diverse.  The church is not supposed to be a group of people that are identical to each other.  The church is strengthened by its diversity.  This is true ethnically, as well as educationally, or materially, or demographically.  A church is blessed to have senior citizens fellowshipping with teenagers, or the surgeon praying alongside the cleaner.  And the same is true politically.  There is a blessing that comes from being able to not just tolerate people with different views, but to really know and love one another – no matter how they might vote when the next election arrives. 

7. There is a difference between addressing political issues and being “party political.”  I think this is the distinction that we would do well to introduce into our discussions about whether or not something is political and therefore not to be mentioned among believers.  There are countless issues that are political in nature that we should be talking about.  But, generally speaking, we should think very carefully before equating one particular political party with “the Christian position.”  On specific issues, some parties do hold abhorrent views.  However, maybe we would avoid some unnecessary angst if, as a general rule, we avoided promoting our preferred political party.  After all, our hope is not in a particular party, which brings us full circle back to point 1.

I recognize that different countries and cultures have differing dynamics on this issue.  I also recognize that it takes real wisdom to handle controversial issues carefully and to lead a diverse congregation humbly.  I am not suggesting we become bombastic or blunder carelessly around complex issues.  What I am suggesting is that we don’t just settle for a simplistic “rule” that will silence us when we should be speaking.  It is easy to say we should never discuss politics or religion in polite conversation.  Actually, I hope we see that we may sometimes need to do precisely that.  May God give us humility and wisdom, as well as clarity and boldness, when we do!

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(Westminster Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash)

Preaching and Politics

Politics2Should the preacher be influential when it comes to politics?  The USA is coming to the end of the presidential primaries and moving towards the most controversial presidential election ever.  The UK is fast approaching a long-awaited referendum on EU membership.  Other countries are facing equally significant decisions.  Should the preacher be influential in these things?  I believe the answer is yes, we should.  But how?

How we are influential is a very important question. And it is a complicated question.  Here are 4 of the ways that preachers handle politics and the pulpit . . .

1. No mention of politics.  Some preachers will avoid reference to politics in their preaching and keep the focus on the good news of Jesus. This does not, and should not mean that they have no political influence. It does mean that the influence will be more subtle and indirect.

2. Standing on ethical/moral issues without being party political.  Some preachers will overtly take stands on certain issues, but without becoming party promoters. They might sound like they affiliate with one party for an issue like the sanctity of life, and then sound like they affiliate with another party on an issue like social justice and care for refugees.

3. Jump on the bandwagon and preach to the choir. Some preachers will go with the majority party in their audience. Some churches will want preachers to sound very conservative, while other subcultures lean much more to the left. How easy it is to be fashionable in these things. So some preachers will effectively jump on the bandwagon and end up preaching to the choir, fearful of displeasing the perceived majority. One danger, of course, is that the few dissenters who listen may struggle to hear what really matters and feel unnecessarily alienated.

4. Use position of influence to push an overt political agenda.  Some preachers seem to think that their political influence is a primary calling. They won’t just tow the expected party line, as in #3 above, but will seek to push and change the opinion of others. God has given them influence, and they feel their calling is to shape opinion for the good of society.

In a year like this one, I believe we should prayerfully think through several issues regarding politics and our preaching:

A. We are to influence society, but the greatest influence will not be the outcome of the next vote. Yes Christians matter in society, yes we should be voting, yes we should be informed, and yes, these decisions matter.  But our calling has eternal ramifications, not just four-year cyclical implications. Don’t confuse political decisions with the far greater influence that knowing Christ will bring to our society one person at a time. Our hope is not in any party, but in Christ.

B. People need hope, not bitterness, if things turn out differently than expected. Whether we have nailed our colours to the mast or not, we will need to pastorally point people to Christ once results are in. Don’t be so politically invested that you then become a beacon of bitterness for your hurting political subculture (or triumphalist if things go as you hoped!)

C. Could we be placing trip hazards on the path to Jesus? This is huge. In our church we say we don’t want anything to get in the way of people meeting Jesus. How about in yours? If they hear the rhetoric they are getting all week in the media when they step into church, could that not be a huge trip hazard that keeps people from Christ? Do we want to see all coming to Christ, or just those that agree with us politically?

D. Is there a difference between preaching and social media?  Just to finish, here’s a caveat.  I have chosen to generally avoid being political in my use of social media, but I fully respect the rights of others to use social media differently. Our preaching and our social media proclamations don’t have to match. Maybe you choose to avoid overt party politics in the pulpit, but choose to tweet and share articles that you think will be helpful in forthcoming elections and referenda.  Obviously it is worth prayerfully pondering the points above, but by all means seek to influence in the way that you feel is appropriate.

May God give every one of us wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. May we be known in heaven for influencing eternity on our knees, and shaping culture for good, but never for simply soapboxing with temporal blinders on. May we have real wisdom in how we vote, and how we care for the souls of voters too.

The Long Term Half Quit

There are ups and downs in ministry, often from week to week and even day to day.  But there is another danger too.  It is the long term half quit over the years or decades.

Ministry is not automatically rejuvenating.  Over the years we can find our motivation and attitudes wearing down.  What can cause this?  Here are some factors to get us started, a list of seven:

1. Church Battle Scars – Church ministry can be a real battle ground, sometimes out in the open, often under the surface.  For some reason people seem to choose the church as their venue for political significance and they can really go after those who have any up-front ministry.  Gossip, slander, attack, critique, and so much more.  It shouldn’t be, but it too often is.

2. Spiritual Warfare Fatigue – There is a spiritual warfare dimension in ministry.  The enemy loves to attack those with any prominence.  We should not be unaware of his attacks, and over time we may well feel worn by the experience.  There are times when stepping out of the ministry feels genuinely tempting.  The half-quit is the more acceptable option that too many fall into.

3. Emotional Drain – Someone said that preaching is the closest thing men come to giving birth.  I’ve been at a few births and I wouldn’t want to push the analogy, but there is something to it.  We give of ourselves in preaching, and then again, and then again.  It can be emotionally draining to pray so intently, hope so absurdly, preach so intensely and then go at it again.  Over time the drain can leave us functioning in second gear through the whole process.

I will finish the list tomorrow…

Process and Forgive First

At times we get angry.  Perhaps justly so.  But remember the advice you give to others.  I would tell others to prayerfully process their feelings and even forgive someone who had offended them before confronting them.  The same applies in preaching.  You read something or hear something.  It makes you hot with anger or even rage.  It is tempting to unload in the pulpit.  People do respond to a fiery preacher with his heart on his sleeve.  But be careful.

I just read something that really made me angry.  No details here, but it relates to the planned actions of someone vying for a leadership position.  I would be tempted to make reference to this in a forthcoming sermon.  But if I did so, without first processing it before God, I would be making comments with an edge.   I’d be lashing out without preparing my own heart.

It may be appropriate to speak the truth.  It may fit with the message and be highly relevant.  It may even be my role to represent a biblical perspective on contemporary culture.  But it is also my role to represent a biblical perspective in a godly manner.  I must spend time prayerfully processing, and even forgiving, before risking a misrepresentation of my righteous, but gracious God.