When Should the Church Make Political Statements?

When Should the Church Make Political Statements?

As a pastor, I often struggle with knowing when and how to speak about politics. On one hand, the Christian worldview has ramifications for how we see everything in our lives, which certainly includes which approaches to governing people are the most just and helpful. Furthermore, Christian obedience requires that we stand up for truth, justice and compassion, so when we see groups in our society suffering unjustly, we have to speak out.

On the other hand, we know that the church has been given a specific mission, and getting mired in the secondary questions of politics can divert our mission and mute our witness.

I am asked often to make public statements or sign specific petitions regarding political policies. The requests sometimes come from the left, sometimes from the right. And the issues constantly change. We never back away from teaching truth, of course, but when should the church make overtly political statements in response to current events?

Let me suggest two biblical truths we must hold in tension, and then suggest two questions that can serve as a guide for when to speak.

1. There is a time when we must speak.

The Scriptures are full of admonitions for God’s people to rebuke evil, sometimes with stinging specificity. Read through the prophets, and you hear God calling out injustices of all kinds—toward children, toward women, toward the outcast, the poor, the voiceless. The prophets trumpet a call for God’s justice, and justice always carries a political element. Men like William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr. frequently quoted from prophetic books like Amos to inspire our society to turn to justice.

In the New Testament, John the Baptist preached a “baptism of repentance,” complete with specific accusations about the ways that God’s people—and the local rulers—were disobedient to God’s Law. He called out injustices carried out by soldiers and rebuked Herod for sleeping with his wife’s sister. That latter decision eventually led to John’s death. If John were around today, I imagine that a lot of Christians would have told him to keep quiet. Stick to the church stuff, John. Stop commenting on public sexuality. What was Jesus’ assessment of John’s ministry? He called him the greatest prophet that ever lived.

The church has often failed to speak as directly and specifically as we should in the political realm. Dietrich Bonhoeffer learned this in Germany in the 1930s. The church there was content to simply say, “Discrimination is wrong,” a statement that the Nazi Party would allow. But Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church knew that obedience required them to take another step, getting their hands dirty by saying, “We must oppose the Nazis.” Like John the Baptist, he paid for it with his life.

In the 1850s, many Christian churches were reluctant to say anything specifically about slavery, even though they opposed the practice. Again in the 1960s, far too many churches stayed silent when they should have offered their hand—and their voice—to the Civil Rights movement. Both of those instances are embarrassments to the church today.

2. There is a time when speaking diverts us from our mission and dilutes our witness.

There is a ditch on the other side of this path, too. In our attempts to apply Scripture to our political situation, we run the risk of getting mired in areas outside our God-given scope.

The ministry of Jesus provides us with a helpful example. In Luke 12:13-14, when asked a specific social justice question (My brother stole money from me!), Jesus refuses to adjudicate: “Who made me a judge over you?” It’s not because he didn’t care about justice, or because he wouldn’t have been able to offer wise counsel. Rather, he didn’t want his kingdom to be too identified or tangled up in world affairs. So he avoided giving an opinion on this particular case, and instead preached a sermon on greed (Luke 12:15–21). Elsewhere we see Jesus, at the peak of his popularity, retreating when people wanted to make him a political king on the platform of solving world hunger (John 6:1-15).

The same pattern runs through the lives of the apostles. Paul, for instance, spent very little time arbitrating the various social ills plaguing the Roman Empire (of which there were many), focusing instead on spreading the gospel and planting churches.

There is time when we have to connect virtue with policy. But far too often, the temptation for the institutional church is to speak too specifically into areas outside the scope of our mission. Policy choices always seem so clear in the moment, but often the benefit of a little distance makes us wish we had not tied the church’s authority to specific policy prescriptions.

Let me share a personal example. Back in 2003, I was on an SBC committee that wanted to make a public statement about the Iraq war. At the time, the mood in our country was hawkish. Nearly everyone was in favor of our military involvement in the Middle East—Republican and Democrat alike. This committee decided to vote to endorse the war, a decision that, at the time, would have been completely uncontroversial. Though at the time I was personally in support of the war, I argued that the institutional church didn’t have any business weighing in on the strategic value of a particular military engagement (except in extreme circumstances). I suggested we make a general statement about our belief in “just war,” and urging our leaders to use wisdom, compassion and restraint. Another man on the committee argued that if we didn’t connect our virtue with policy, our witness would be anemic.

In the end, I caved. Well, sort of. I didn’t vote in support of the statement, but I was too cowardly to vote against it. It passed 8-0, with one abstention.

I think of that experience often. It is precisely when the groundswell of emotion in our country is loudest that the church is most tempted to cross the line and become a political entity. But where there is not a direct line between a biblical moral judgment and a specific policy prescription, the (institutional) church generally should not make an official statement. Even individual believers should exercise a healthy amount of humility here, recognizing that they are shaped by their own particular cultural milieu, and that other conscientious Christians may parse current issues differently. But let’s definitely be hesitant to tying the church’s name to a particular policy when there is not a clear biblical prescription. We may be wrong about policy, but we aren’t wrong about the gospel, and we don’t want our opinions on the former to prevent people from hearing the latter.

How should we discern when to speak and when not to?

First, we need to understand the distinction between the church as an organization and the church as an organism. As an active organism, we want our members to speak into every facet of life, especially politics. As I noted in the beginning, the Christian worldview should affect how we see everything. We need Christians at all levels of society as salt and light, applying their God-given convictions in every possible societal sphere. We want Christians influencing education, healthcare, welfare and taxation policies, trade, and everything in between. Let me be very clear: I want to see Christians in our church getting involved in the political process. Some people may even be so passionate about political engagement that they pursue it as a calling. I have even prayed a few times that God would raise up a future Supreme Court justice from our congregation. (It’s a long shot, yes, but God told me to dream big for his name’s sake, and so I’m doing that.)

But as an organization, the church must limit its corporate involvement to a narrower scope. We are called to teach the Word of God and make disciples.

How do we balance all of this?

Two Crucial Questions

At the Summit, we use two questions to help us determine when the church—as an organization—should speak out:

A. Are the facts so clear and the moral obligations so obvious that Christians cannot, in good conscience, disagree?

One of the problems I often encounter when asked to sign political statements is that they inevitably recommend specific policies. We need specific policies, of course, and we need many more Christians to help ensure that those policies are wise. But most issues are not so morally clear that the policy decisions can’t be disputed among Christians of good conscience. Only in the rarest circumstances can we identify direct biblical lines between moral judgments and policy prescriptions.

For instance, the church has a moral obligation to care for the poor. That’s clear. Conservatives and liberals, however, differ in the ways that they think our society ought to do this. In our church, we all share the moral obligation, but we don’t recommend a specific strategy. Of course, I have my own opinions about which strategies are more effective than others. But I confuse the issue when I suggest that the only way to care for the poor is the political method I subscribe to.

Each of us thinks that our own political position is right. If we didn’t, we’d change our position. But there’s a huge difference between believing that our position is the right one and being certain that our position is the only biblical one. When we pastors make public statements about certain policies, the people in our church don’t usually hear that as, “I believe this policy is unwise,” but as “This is the Christian position, so if you disagree, I’m not sure you’re actually a Christian.” It’s important for us to realize that we don’t have to literally say this for the people in our church to hear it. When church leaders make political statements, they make the members of their church think that there isn’t any room to disagree.

And, of course, there may not be room to disagree. But we need to be sure that’s the case before we say anything about a specific political policy. If sincere and biblical Christians stand across the aisle from you on a political issue, it’s probably best to shy away from that trigger.

B. Does it rise to the level that our witness requires us, as an organization, to speak?

This one doesn’t have a clear-cut grid we can apply. Sometimes a failure to speak tarnishes our (the institutional church’s) witness; sometimes endorsing policies mires us in an area outside of our calling and our institutional expertise.

These things require wisdom. The writer of 1 Chronicles commended the sons of Issachar, who “had understanding of the times, and knew what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). That means they discerned in the issues at hand broader implications of what was happening in society. Maybe we perceive a looming danger in a societal or governmental trend and we feel compelled to speak—totalitarian or oppressive nation-states are not usually created in a day, after all. Or maybe we realize that in being called upon to speak out we are being used as a tool by one side of the culture war to beat the other, and so we choose not to speak. To both the political left and right, the church is nothing but a handy tool for the accomplishment of their purposes, and we should not be anybody’s tool.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to discernment. This requires prayer, humility and great sensitivity to the Spirit.

A United Church in a Divided World

Just because we, as a church, do not make a statement about a specific political event does not mean that we have no convictions about it. Nor does it imply that we don’t think Christians should have an opinion or be involved. (For more on this, see Kevin DeYoung’s helpful article about “speaking—or not—in a digital world.”)

Sometimes—not often—we make official statements or sign letters. More often than not, our approach is to point our people to the resources we have already produced on the topic, letting our body of work (which is usually clear) speak for itself. But whatever our response, it is always done in an attempt to balance the various biblical admonitions discussed here.

I don’t know everything the government should do on every issue. I have opinions, of course, and I try to make them well-informed ones. But what I do know, beyond any doubt, is that we are called to teach accurately what God’s Word says about various issues, and to make disciples of all people. Where the Bible does not draw a direct line to policy, you won’t find us drawing one that often from the pulpit, either. 

I am praying for Christian leaders who will not abdicate their God-given mission for the allure of politics. I am also praying for a generation of leaders with courage, willing to speak out when and where we must. I am praying for humility for all of us to know that we need the Spirit of God to lead his church in this and every generation.

This article originally appeared here.

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J.D. Greear
J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.

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