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!