The Political Church

Should pastors and congregations seek to transcend politics or is that an impossible or even illegitimate goal?

Lee Hull Moses is pastor of First Christian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina answers the question.

“In the past two years, our congregation has lost at least one regular attendee because we’re too political. At least one other left because we’re not political enough. Some folks wish we were out in force, wearing our church T-shirts, at every protest. Others wish I would tone it down from the pulpit and just preach about how to be a good person. I take some solace in the adage that if you’re making people mad, you must be doing something right.”

Politics in the church is certainly a divisive topic.  It makes preaching more difficult.  It makes leadership more difficult.

Politics, whether as words of kindness or words of contemporary issues can lead  people to disagree.  Even the basic tenets of our faith—grace and mercy, radical hospitality, love of neighbor—go beyond politics but have political implications.

Is it possible for the church to call themselves followers of the Prince of Peace and not condemn violence born of bigotry and hate? How can the church tell the story of Jesus welcoming the children and not have something to say about the migrant children separated from their parents at our southern border?

What is the role of the church in politics?  The church needs to recognize that it does have a role.  Scripture and the history of the church clearly support the church’s place in politics.

It provides numerous examples when people of God not only served, but excelled in political jobs:

Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, is a classic example (Gen 37:1-50:26).

Because of his relationship with God, he was able to interpret Pharaohs’ dreams and save Egypt from the impending famine.

As a reward, Pharaoh promoted him to second in command of Egypt. Under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt prepared for and prospered during the drought, and most of the surrounding area’s wealth was funneled into Egypt.

The Book of Daniel tells of the Jewish prophet Daniel, who became the favored adviser to King Nebuchadnezzar while in captivity in Babylon. It was Daniel’s faithfulness to God that ultimately resulted in his ascension to an influential position in the kingdom. When Babylon was overrun by the Persians, Daniel continued to prosper under their rule as well (Daniel 6:28).

During the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, he encountered many people who held political positions as tax collectors. Most tax collectors were dishonest people and were classified as extortionists, cheats, and adulterers by the Jewish religious leaders and citizens of that time (Luke 18:9-14).

Zacchaeus was a wealthy chief tax collector, and yet in Luke 19:8 Jesus was his house guest. Zacchaeus tells Jesus that, “Half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have wrongfully exacted something from anyone, I restore it fourfold.” Although tax collectors were looked down upon as sinful people, Zacchaeus used his position to help the poor and maintained honesty with others. Jesus commended him by saying in verses 9 and 10, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”

A political job or position offers a great opportunity for a Christian to make a positive impact on the lives of many. Politics may seem corrupt and even like a lost cause, but that field is no more corrupt today than it was in the time of Christ. There will always be a need in the political spectrum for godly men and women to serve in an honest way, like Zacchaeus did.

In these trying times, it’s tempting to remain neutral on such topics.  But how can we not discuss gun control when there are children being killed in our schools.  How can we not discuss homelessness when there are people sleeping under bridges in our communities?  How can we not talk about minority issues when there are people being discriminated against in housing and employment?  Many people who advocate for universal health care don’t want the government to take over our lives, they just want everybody to get the medicine they need.

Good preaching in divisive times needs to remind people of the importance of living their faith that claims to mean something about how they live in the world, that “being a good person” is directly connected to our political systems and structures. Most congregations would like to stay somewhere in the middle. No matter your political view, the importance is to stay true to the Gospel.

The key role the church plays in politics is taking a role on issues of humanity in the name of God and Christ. The church needs to continue to engage with government on issues of justice, corruption, leadership, economic debt, housing, education, health care, safety and security, and whatever else is morally important.

The church also needs to be clear in supporting or opposing issues.  The question is always who is really benefitting, the people or the officials.

Public leaders are elected to work for the betterment of their communities.  A church’s involvement should always be based on ethics.  Ethics is responding to God’s desire for the best of his creation.  It reflects the image of God in all of humanity. We are all made in the image of God consequently we should seek what is the best for each other.

Through mission efforts the church provides a great deal of assistance to our communities and beyond that change many people’s lives, often through financial support.  Many times, the government is also involved.  Whether politically left or right, each side has opinions about what services should be provided to those most in need. 

Political parties have their own vision of what programs should be funded.  Programs such as homeless shelters, food pantries, and medical clinics, are in part funded by government funds. Funds are also allocated to what are called “entitlement programs”, which include public housing, food stamps, and Medicaid.

Although in a perfect world, all decisions would be made on a bipartisan basis.  Of course, with opposing political parties this is not the case.  There needs to be an awareness of these issues because without one it is difficult to make an educated decision at the voting booth.

However, no law, codes, constitutions, or even the Bible can guarantee change without the will to act.  For people to want change, they must be motivated to act, to create an atmosphere of hope.

Often, Separation of Church and State is used by the faith community as a reason not to respond to the needs of society. In fact, it is found nowhere in the Constitution or any other founding legislation.  Our forefathers would never tolerate the restrictions on religion expressed today.

The concept was initially coined by the faith community to keep government away from regulating religious freedom.  Our forefathers never sought to evict the church from society. Even non-Christian founders thought religion was essential.

Separation of church and state does not mean a separation of moral reasoning from public policy. Everyone, whether religious or secular, should have the freedom to make the case publicly or privately for laws which they believe should be passed.

Separation of church and state is a principle which secures the rights and privileges of all citizens under a government and ensures that both government and church function according to their God-given roles.

As people of faith, we need to be advocates for those in need and do so in accordance with God’s Word, being mindful of the boundaries which God has established between church and state.

The church should not and cannot be silent to issues that limit the church’s influence in society. To do nothing is to accept the status quo.  We cannot become a silent majority.

The church’s role in politics is to be visible in the context of political policy formulation. The church must be prophetic, speaking for God. The church must be ethical showing values that enrich a nation. The church must be bold, constructive and innovative. The church must be “salt and light” in what is so often a corrupt environment, to bring light and health.

Maintaining a godly society requires that Christians become involved to some degree in politics. Whether it’s by praying for our leaders, exercising our privilege to vote, or holding a political office, Christians should be concerned about how their government is run and their society ruled.