Politics and the pastor: How to walk in wisdom

In the last two weeks, our nation experienced much turmoil as people lost their lives through violence and a deep-seeded darkness that pervades much of our nation. Violence is just one aspect of the world we now live and work in, though. As elections approach, tensions seem to rise each day between various parties, our families, and friends. Between national travesties and political echoes everywhere we turn, our nation and its people need clarity and peace. At Made to Flourish we work to help pastors better understand how the everyday lives of their congregants are affected by their jobs, politics, the economy, and more.

When circumstances occur like we’ve seen the last few weeks, the fear of being political often keeps many pastors from addressing critical issues. Pastors are rightly concerned about ideology and partisanship eclipsing gospel focus. At the same time, addressing vital moral and social issues is an essential part of effective discipleship and mission. The Bible offers us helpful boundaries and insights as we navigate these rapids and minister to those in our churches.

How do pastors unite compassion, conviction, and wisdom when discipling women and men for participation in public life? Here are three initial thoughts that we hope will help displace fear with courage and reactions with wisdom.

Three aspects of walking in wisdom when discussing politics

Respect clear boundaries of biblical truth and civil law

The Bible clearly leads Christians toward good citizenship, prayerful concern for authority, and reasonable adherence to the laws in place (Rom 13; 1 Tim 2). At the same time, obeying divine mandates above the civil ones and understanding that kingdom citizenship takes priority over current power structures is vital (Matt 5; Acts 5; Heb 11).

According to current American law (The 1954 Johnson Amendment to the IRS tax code), churches and other nonprofit organizations that are exempt from taxation, “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” So there are only two restrictions on political discourse that threaten the religious, non-profit status of a local church: endorsement of a specific political candidate and endorsement of one political party over another.

Pastors must choose their issues wisely and frame their arguments biblically

The issue for most is not the letter of IRS regulation, but the fear of alienating members and seekers. This leads us to the second insight: The late theologian Donald Bloesch once said that “Ideology is the enemy of theology.” Pastors must help congregants discover biblical conviction and discernment on particular policies, not just a particular party’s talking points. In many cases, biblical and wise framing of issues will help believers with new ways of seeing (and even solving) contentious issues.

For example, being biblically pro-life is more than opposing abortion. Concern for all people — from conception to burial — especially the broken, poor, and vulnerable, is foundational for biblical obedience. Respect for those in the military must be joined with a passion for peacemaking, a hallmark of wise Christian leadership. Libertarian and socialist answers for poverty alleviation fall short compared to a Christian vision for human flourishing that includes spiritual, relational, social and economic help, and private/public integration of resources.

Courage is the virtue that avoids the extremes of fear and foolishness

Pastors must integrate boundaries and wise discernment with courage. In Joshua 1, the Lord tells the new leader of Israel four times to be “strong and courageous.” In Ephesians 6, Paul asks his readers to pray for boldness in proclamation of the gospel, even under persecution. Some issues are morally clear, and it is the pastor’s task to unveil the rich biblical insights underneath stated convictions. Some issues require more discernment, which requires humility and courage as pastors strive to provide clarity and guidance to their congregations.

For pastors and other ministry leaders, speaking courageously is necessary for the flourishing of our communities and churches. When undergirded by deep prayer and tears for our beautiful and broken world, such speech will hopefully not be confused with the agitation propaganda and polarizing insults that permeate our public discourse.

History and hope can frame our communication. It took courage for pastors to speak against slavery and it takes courage to foster racial reconciliation. It took courage for pastors and missionaries to oppose rapacious colonialism and it takes courage to promote justice for all. It took courage for pastors to help bring justice to the workplace, reducing child labor, and encouraging fair conditions and wages. It takes courage for pastors to take on entrenched powers in cities and states keeping many from thriving. And it takes courage for pastors to avoid ideological captivity and empower their congregants for leadership in all spheres of society.

Wise boundaries, biblical foundations for discernment, and courage will help pastors shepherd with wisdom and grace for the good of those we lead.

Topics: Culture, Current Events, Discernment

About the Author

Charlie Self serves as director of learning communities at Made to Flourish. Charlie is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God. He has served as an associate and senior pastor in several congregations in California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., and has served as an interim pastor six times. He currently also serves as professor of church history at The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where he teaches courses in apologetics, church history, mission history, leadership development, and discipleship. He is also co-developer of discipleship dynamics, a new research-based tool for churches and individuals to assess the effectiveness of their discipleship programs. Charlie is the author of three books: The Divine Dance, The Power of Faithful Focus (with co-author Les Hewitt) and his most recent work with The Acton Institute, Flourishing Churches and Communities: A Pentecostal Primer on Faith, Work and Economics for Spirit-Empowered Discipleship. He has an M.A. in history on the church and social change in Latin America (1992) and Ph.D. in modern european history, with foci on Belgian Protestantism and studies in virtue ethics and the holocaust (1995), from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He also has an M.A. in philosophical and systematic theology from The Graduate Theological Union and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. Charlie is married to Kathleen, a professional artist, and they have been married and on mission for 36 years. They have three adult children.