Welcome, Young Believer!
This particular topic is always a controversial one. When the pastor says something political that you agree with, it seems like a great idea that he's "setting everyone straight" in the congregation. However, I'd venture to guess that we all feel like politics shouldn't be in the pulpit at all when the pastor is saying something we don't agree with. In our increasingly divided world, we as a Church are called to love, unity, and respect, especially amongst one another. That doesn't mean we're going to agree on everything, but it does mean that our church leaders have to be able to address these topics in a biblical and compassionate way.
If you're American thinking, "what about the separation of church and state?" That ideology from our Constitution only takes away the right of the government to tell people how to worship, who to worship, or what to believe. It does not take away the right of people with any specific faith from having a prominent role in our government or from presenting ideas and policies that originate from their faith background which is also their moral foundation. It would be naive to think that anyone much less our leaders are capable of fully disassociating from their moral beliefs when making decisions in our representative government. That's why it takes different people with different ideas and backgrounds to make up a fairly represented republic.
With that in mind, let's take a look at what God's Word has to say about "politics."
Authority is Established By God
A while ago I was having a conversation with a few of my loved ones who were not saved yet, the topic turned to politics and they were shocked at my attitude toward the person who was president at the time. Even though it was not the person I would have chosen, I told them I wasn't worried about it because God is the one who establishes authority and He is more than capable of taking it away.
My understanding of this comes from the prophet Daniel when the Israelites were living in exile in Babylon. The King of Babylon was an evil man well known for his debauchery, his claims of being a god, and the consequences that he would mete out on those who would not worship him as such. Yet God for a time had given him authority not only over his own empire but also to take captive and be in authority over God's own people.
All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of twelve months he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, and the king answered and said, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” Daniel 4:28-30
The King makes a claim here... "which I have built by my mighty power... and for the glory of my majesty." He looks out upon his kingdom and gives glory to himself rather than to God. What is fascinating is that this is a gentile king, not one of the Israelite kings descended from David. Why would anyone expect him to honor God? The simplest answer is because that is what we were all created to do, that is our purpose. God has swift consequences for the proud king:
While the words were still in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” Daniel 4:31-32 (emphasis my own)
God makes clear in no uncertain terms here who establishes ALL authority on earth. God is the King of Kings and He gives authority to whomever He wills. Everything took place just as God told King Nebuchadnezzar and after his time of discipline had passed he was restored to his kingdom with a totally new attitude.
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble. Daniel 4:34-37 (emphais my own)
Understanding this basic principle that God establishes all authority on the earth helps to point us in the direction of how we are to treat those in authority. Paul goes into this very thing in his letter to the church in Rome.
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
This opening statement of this part of Paul's letter, I can only imagine had mixed reactions from its original audience. Infamously, Christians under the Roman government were driven from their homes and families and were often executed in horrifically creative ways. Therefore, I think it is important that we don't miss what Paul explains next; the purpose of God's established authority on the earth.
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Romans 13:2-4 (emphais my own)
Paul gives two reasons for God's established authority on the earth through the institutions of humankind.
To affirm those who do good.
To carry out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
This is the summary definition of one who justly exercises the authority that has been given to them. Again, Peter also writes to the believers...
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1 Peter 2:13-17 (emphasis my own)
Notice that Peter gave the same qualification for submission to authority as Paul did, the authority must punish those who do evil and affirm those who do good.
If we're applying this to what "politics" pastors should be able to address from the pulpit we should be able to affirm when they hold our leaders accountable to their purpose; calling them out when they pervert justice.
Submission to Just Authority
We've seen from the above verses that God requires us to submit to authority. In fact, submission to authority starts early with the requirement to submit to our parents.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Ephesians 6:1-3
When we are saved we are also required to submit to our church leaders.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17
Then to our nation's leaders.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Romans 13:5-7
And if you're a woman also to our husbands.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Ephesians 5:22-23
I think it's important to understand what submission biblically looks like in each of these cases. What about in cases of unjust authority or abuses of power? We wouldn't ask children to remain in a home that abuses or neglects them, we wouldn't ask a woman to stay with a husband who abuses her. Pastors are removed from authority when they abuse their position bringing harm to their congregation. We are not called to submit to unjust laws, but we may be called to submit to unjust rulers. The apostles continued to preach Christ even though their leaders ordered them not to, had them beaten, imprisoned, threatened, and many eventually killed. However, in every other way that was just, the Apostles submitted to the laws of the land in which they lived. Our pastors today as they address politics from the pulpit should be encouraging us to continue living this way so that we may be a witness of God's sovereignty and His mercy to those in authority over us.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 1 Peter 2:18-20
Give to Caesar That Which is Caesar's
Paying taxes is a duty that absolutely no one enjoys. If a government is perceived to be failing in its purpose and promises, it is even more disheartening to give them money for doing a terrible job. But if we think that taxes are unpopular in our countries today, we're only scraping the surface of how much the Jews hated giving taxes to Rome in Jesus' day. This made it an easy target for the religious leaders to try and trip Jesus up by asking whether it was lawful for them to pay the taxes or not. They believed that if Jesus answered that it was lawful, then the people would revolt against him, but if He answered that it wasn't lawful they sent along the local authorities who would have arrested Him for treason immediately.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Matthew 22:15-17
Jesus of course perceives their plot and answers instead...
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Matthew 22:18-21
His answer stuns them. We often get hung up on the fact that Jesus commands us to pay our taxes, but Jesus also commands us to give to God that which is God's... how often are we falling short of this command? The law forces us to pay our taxes and there would be consequences for attempting to refuse this duty. How much more seriously should we be treating our contributions to the building up of the Kingdom of God? This too should be addressed from our pulpits on Sunday mornings, as unpopular as that stance might seem.
Pray for Those in Authority
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-4
We need to pray for the salvation of our leaders, we also need to pray for the salvation of their families. We need to pray for their wisdom and that God would give us favor in their eyes so that we may live peaceably in the land.
We may not always agree with our leaders and we may pray that God would see their unjust actions and work to replace them with more godly leadership, however, we should not be wishing/praying any kind of harm upon them or their loved ones or their followers. Remember that we are called by Jesus to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that includes those who are in authority over us no matter how vile we think them to be.
Our Leaders Need The Gospel Too
Through our actions and our words, we should be aware of the fact that our leaders need to hear the Gospel too. Whether a just ruler or an unjust ruler, God may work through our circumstances to give us the opportunity to share the Gospel with people in authority. We should be prepared to do so with love and respect whether the authority we're given the opportunity to share with is one we agree with or not.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
Calling Out Sin and Its Consequences
Remember all of the prophets of the Old Testament and John the Baptist? Much of their function was to hold the leaders of the people accountable for their sins. They didn't sugar coat anything and they were loud about God's consequences for sin in both the lives of the leaders themselves and in the life of the nation. While I would never claim that any specific pastor today is speaking with the voice of God as the prophets did to call out sin... I would say that pastors do still have a duty to look at God's Word and teach God's Word as it is written. There are going to be messages that call out the sins of our leaders (no matter how they're affiliated) and the sins of our nation. Our pastors should be the first not the last to be warning us of the consequences of unrepentant sin.
If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. Ezekiel 33:8
Political Parties, Patriotism, and Stump Speeches
Now we get to perhaps the most controversial part of the answer to this question. Should pastors endorse political parties, candidates, and/or policies? The endorsement may look like speaking highly of them and mentioning that the pastor plans to vote for this party or person; it could look like having the candidate speak on a Sunday morning; it might even look like giving money to a cause or campaign. I am willing to say that the answer to this question probably rests heavily on context.
I don't see anywhere in God's Word where we should be wholesale endorsing one political group over another. Holding them accountable for just leadership, submitting to them when they are in authority, and praying for them... absolutely we should do all those things. We should also support just laws, defend the innocent and voiceless, and vote against candidates and policies that would lead our nation in a direction of defiance to God's moral laws.
The second question I would ask if you're thinking about inviting a candidate to speak or are attending a church that actively campaigns for certain candidates is, "what is the purpose of the gathering?" The purpose of the Church is to build God's Kingdom and spread the Gospel, coming together we are to fellowship, confess to one another, pray for one another, and worship God together. Is any of that accomplished by allowing this candidate to speak or is the focus on building up an earthly "kingdom"? However we answer this question, I think we should proceed with caution.
Speaking of our being of a heavenly kingdom, what does that say about patriotism or having a deep love of country?
- First, I find that the Bible is very clear about national sovereignty, identity, and responsibility throughout the Old and New Testaments. You can see this in the way He sets up the borders of Israel, the borders of the tribes of Israel, and how He holds nations accountable for sin.
- Second, God has made clear that we are only sojourners here or strangers in a foreign land waiting to go to our true Heavenly Country.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10
As God's people, His nation that He has claimed for His own, we are expected therefore to behave as citizens of His Kingdom here on earth.
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:11-12
Therefore, we should obey the laws of our land that do not require us to deny or dishonor God. We should love our neighbors as ourselves and be thankful for the life God has provided us in our present circumstances. In this way, we should love the nation in which we have been born and act as good citizens ought to. That does not mean that we take this love to a level in which we ascribe more human value and dignity to the citizens of our own nation and consider those of other nations to be less than. We should love all people as Christ loves them and bring the Gospel to them. At the same time, this does not give license to us as Christians to approve the citizens of one nation breaking the laws of another. Breaking a just law is still a sin no matter who is breaking that law.
I hope this has offered you some things to contemplate and ways to reassess how you have been viewing politics inside your church and as a Christian. I know that this study has helped me tremendously as I've worked through these ideas in preparation for you over the last couple of months.
If you have any other questions about to what extent politics are being presented from the pulpit, please feel free to leave them in the comments below. I highly encourage you to find a mentor in the faith who can help personally walk you through many of these issues as you grow into a mature believer. This is one journey you were never meant to take alone!