The two topics to avoid in polite company are religion and politics, and pastors shouldn't speak about the latter. At least that's what we're told. But is it possible for pastors and churches to take seriously the Great Commission of discipling the nations without teaching about man's relationship to government, politics and public policy? This brief addresses common objections to the Church engaging the political realm.
Isn't There a Separation Between Church and State?
Church and civil government are two distinct institutions with different roles. However, Christianity teaches that God rules over Church and State. The phrase "separation of church and state" unfortunately is often used to keep Christians out of public policy discussion and influence. This is a misinterpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, the plain language makes clear that this is a restriction on Congress, not churches. The Founding Fathers feared the federal government establishing a national church and entangling itself in religious affairs, so they restrained Congress. Pastors and churches are free to influence government and politics while the federal government is restricted and restrained from muzzling pastors and churches.
The Constitution Prohibits Churches from Speaking to Political Issues
The First Amendment protects pastors and churches to speak to political issues. However, a law passed in 1954 dubbed the Johnson Amendment prohibited pastors, churches and any other 501(c)3 organization to endorse political candidates. Section 501(c)3 bars “religious, charitable, scientific,… or literary [organizations] from participating in, or intervening in "(including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas) sponsored the bill to muzzle his political opponents. The measure wasn't meant to bar churches or nonprofit advocacy organizations from commenting on candidates or speaking to social or political issues.
This has been challenged by Alliance Defending Freedom in an initiative called Pulpit Freedom Sunday where pastors preach political messages, endorse candidates and then send the video of the message to the IRS as a direct challenge to the law. Since the initiative was launched in 2005, thousands of taped political sermons have been sent to the IRS but to date there have been no prosecutions.
Will the Church Become Politicized?
Some churches have unfortunately hitched their cart so to speak to political horses. This is unwise, imprudent and may threaten the credibility and authority of gospel ministry. In order to speak without compromising ultimate allegiance to Christ, spiritual shepherds shouldn't get mired in the fray of political power-grabs. The pulpit should be carefully guarded against politicians or political parties who would commandeer it for political gain. Politics aren't ultimate. Jesus Christ and His kingship is. However, there is a difference between permitting the church to be used for political gain and the church's duty to speak to government, morality and their intersection in the public square. Pastors are charged with training their congregants to think and act Biblically (Matt. 28:18-20). Pastors should never fear speaking the full counsel of God into all areas of life (II Tim. 1:7, II Tim. 3:16). And all nations must be reminded that there is a greater authority above them (Rom. 13).
What About “Legislating Morality?"
All legislation is based on somebody’s morality. It's simply a question of whose morality will it be based upon. Also, the law is a restraint on evil. In fact, it’s about stopping someone from imposing their immorality on somebody else. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.”
Christians Should Just Do Evangelism and Focus on the Gospel
Part of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord of all—not just Sunday worship or Bible study. Jesus is Lord over all areas of life including politics and government. Pope John Paul II said “a faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived." The test of what somebody truly believes is revealed by how well they live out their convictions. There are many who would like to restrict belief to the personal and private. However, Christianity has always had public manifestation: caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27); feeding the poor, clothing
the naked, visiting the prisoner, welcoming the itinerant (Matt. 25:35-36). Generally, Christians should work for justice (Micah 6:8) and righteousness (Prov. 14:34) and this implies public witness and influence.
Jesus Never Talked About Politics
There were a lot of things Jesus never talked about. He didn't tell us how much we should tip a waitress. But he did say to "love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus didn't speak about political strategy or putting our hope in politicians, but he spoke clearly about the authority of God over politics when he stood before Pilot who asked him where he was from. When Jesus didn't answer, an angry Pilot boasted in his authority to either crucify or release him. Jesus responded “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above." (John 19:10) This is the intersection of theological truth with temporal politics.
Scripture tells us that all governmental authority is derived from God (Rom. 13). Christians are also told to "pray for kings and all those in authority" (I Tim 2:1-2). The implication is that if a believer is asked to pray for something, they are expected to act on the prayer if given an opportunity. So as we pray for good government that pursues justice, preserves religious freedom and righteousness, we should act on the prayer when it comes to voting or voicing our concerns to elected officials. Finally and ultimately, Jesus is a king. Not just any king, but the King of kings and Lord of lords. And one day every knee will bow before him and every tongue confess his Lordship (Phil 2:10-11).
Pastors Should Focus on Personal Morality
If pastors provide moral training to their congregations, it follows they should speak to public morality and public policy formation. Government doesn't have a monopoly speaking on moral issues. It's unreasonable to expect ministers to piece together lives of shattered individuals who've made poor moral choices and expect those same ministers to be silent in the public arena about the dangers of making such poor choices in the first place. Churches are depositories of moral capital and pastors are counselors to the hurting when one has overdrawn their integrity account. The homeless, drug-addicted, and despondent are refugees from a broken world and bad decisions that make it even tougher to live in. It behooves church leaders to restore moral guidance to individuals and delineate moral boundaries in society that prevent people from catapulting themselves into the abyss of dissolution. This extends to all facets of an issue including policies and politics.
Government Involvement Corrupts People
Government is a divine institution (Rom. 13). It may be corrupt or righteous depending on the individuals who occupy it. In either case, God's people have a long history of interacting and serving within government. Moses, David, Esther, Daniel and Joseph were political leaders. John the Baptist warned Herod about his immoral relationship with his sister-in-law. (Mark 6:18). Paul invoked his Roman citizenship and appealed to Caesar when he was unjustly accused of wrongdoing by the Jews (Acts 25:11).
In modern times, Christians worked against injustice and changed history. Williams Wilberforce dedicated his life to the reformation of manners and abolition of slavery in England. William Carey stood against the caste system and widow immolation in India. Martin Luther King Jr. work against unjust and immoral laws based on race. The prophet Amos spoke of "justice roll[ing] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Followers of Jesus realize that true justice and righteousness must be rooted in something fixed and eternal—in other words, derived from the Creator God.
Culture Does Alright Without Churches
Maybe we're dealing with such contentious social issues and brokenness evident in lives of so many because the pulpits have been silent too long. Intimidation and fear, some of it self-induced, has gotten us to this point. If ever there's been a time for pastors to speak with clarity and boldness to moral boundaries, it's now. If we've ever needed more voices speaking to the need for moral reformation, it's now. After all, the metaphor Jesus uses for his disciples is "salt" a preserving agent (Matt. 5:13); "light" which shows the way (Matt 5:14) and a "city on a hill." The metaphors imply effectiveness, activity and something that can be seen by all.
The Church Doesn't Have a Role in the Public Arena
When citizens adhere to a moral code prescribed by our Creator, the nation's democratic institutions are more secure, society is more stable, and people have a chance to flourish. Believers are called to "let their light shine before others, so that [the world] may see their good deeds and glorify God." (Matt 5:16). This implies a public witness where believers are doing kingdom work. In order to remain free to do kingdom work, Christians must engage the institution that upholds and protects that freedom.
George Washington, the Father of our nation reminded us in his Farewell Address that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." This means that if our political institutions are to remain strong, we must be a moral and religious people (specifically a Christian people).