I was recently invited to teach a seminar at Christ College, Sydney, on “pastoring in a politicized age.” Preparing for that seminar gave me the opportunity to craft a few bullet points of applied political theory for pastors. In other words: how can pastors best shepherd their people to think rightly about politics? Granting that particular issues may vary broadly from country to country, here are eight principles on pastoring that we should regularly bring before their congregations.
8 Principles for Pastoring in a Political Age
1). Politics are designed by God to be a blessing.
At its most basic (and noble) level, politics are an expression of the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself. In a post-Babel world, there is diversity in languages, ethnicities, and governments. Nations strive against nations, and God has established varying mechanisms in culture for people to collaborate together for the common good. This was government’s design (Gen 9:6). Paul specifically calls government “God’s servant for your good.”
We can often allow our thoughts of politics to be jaded and clouded. But if in our pastoring we allow politics to be jaded too much, we will harm our ability as pastors to train up a new generation of leaders who will advocate for the family and for human life. We won’t have advocates in the public square for justice and those who will protect children, family, and marriage. It is good to be reminded that politics has potential to do massive good in society. However, pastoring should also teach that:
2). Politics are often turned into a curse.
Like all of creation, politics are marred by sin. People, from the mighty to the weak, frequently use their power to exploit (Ecc 4:3). In fact, oppression often takes place at the hands of those who themselves are being oppressed (Ecc 5:8). You might see a law enforcement agent abusing his power and not realize he himself is being abused by those above him, who are acting on ungodly orders by those higher up, and so on. It is so common that Solomon says, “Do not be amazed at the matter.” It’s just how the world works. What God gave for good is often abused for individual power, riches, and unjust gain.
This is true at a societal level but is also true specifically in human hearts:
3). Politics are an idol.
Because politics have the potential for good but are often used for evil, people are prone to idolize it. People treat politics like a religion. They think that government can right the wrongs, change the weather, and give meaning to life. People are prone to viewing government as those in the Ancient Near East viewed their municipal deity: if we sacrifice in the right way, and worship with sufficient passion, our god will hear us and cause prosperity. In today’s world, when something bad happens, people appeal to government for mercy, and promise to do better next time. So much of modern politics can only be explained as religious activity, as people think that unless election goes this way or that way, then their nation is doomed. Or, conversely, if there is any hope for a future generation, it is found a certain political outcome. That, simply put, is idolatry. Because of this idolatry, it is critical that:
4). The church is an embassy.
Picture the cheesy American movies where a good guy is being chased through the streets of some third world country, and right as the bad guys close in, the good guy darts inside an American Embassy. Saved! This is how the church should function. Imagine people in our congregations running through the streets, being pursued by idolatry, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Sunday mornings they are out of breath, and just barely leap into the church doors escaping their pursuers. Of course, they will scatter back into the world in a few hours, returning to face the temptations yet again. But pastors strive to make church an embassy of a different kingdom; a place where politics can’t quite pry the door open. Instead, we are concerned with the business of a different king. Rightly practiced, pastoring and preaching doesn’t minimize the trials of the week, but simply regulates them to a different kingdom. Meanwhile, the church exists primarily to draw people up. But that doesn’t mean we deny the present issues our congregation is facing, because “the church as embassy” has to be paired with: