Politics and the Pulpit (Part 2): Pastors and Political Candidates

November 5, 2014

Editor’s Note: During this week where Americans go to the polls for midterm elections, Canon and Culture is running a counterpoint series about the church and political activity. Today is the second in a three-part series.


Should pastors support or oppose political candidates or leaders from the pulpit? Jeffery Ventrella says yes in the conjoining article based on three premises: the Bible offers warrant for addressing political leaders; the argument against it is a recent partisan innovation; and doing so contributes to the common good.

Yet here’s my question for Ventrella or any preacher who thinks likewise: are you, preacher, so confident in your political calculations concerning the complex of issues represented by your preferred candidate, leader, or (I’d add) party that you are prepared to teach that your calculations are the path of Christian obedience, to divide the church from the world over them, and to fasten them to the gospel and the name of Jesus Christ himself? “Everybody who has repented of their sins and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Resurrected Savior and King of Kings should vote for Bob.”

Those are the stakes. That’s what a preacher does when he preaches. The Holy Spirit has made him an overseer to give life to the dead by proclaiming the gospel, and then to help both the living congregation and the not-yet-living outsider know where the Bible draws a line between life and death, between the church and the world. A pastor’s work includes answering the question, what beliefs and behaviors should differentiate disciples of Jesus Christ as a property of the gospel or an implication of the gospel? A preacher lays out the path of obedience. Walking contrary to that path is disobedience and, in some cases, disciplinable. His is a conscience-binding occupation. And he should only bind the conscience of his hearers with the Word of God. A pastor without a Bible is a man with no authority and no message. But a pastor with a Bible stands in God’s place—so long as he speaks from it. It is not his political opinions, calculations, or best guesses that calls into existence the things that are not, and then gives order to this glorious new creation. (See Ezek. 37; Rom. 4:17; 10:17; 2 Cor. 4:1-6; 1 Thes. 1:5; James 1:18, 21; 1 Peter 1:23; etc.)

Other than in extraordinary circumstances, therefore, no, I do not think pastors have the authority to reveal the mind of God, to divide the church from the world, or to fasten the gospel and the name of Jesus to particular candidates, leaders, or parties.

A Political Issue vs. a Package of Issues

It is one thing for a pastor to address an issue based on biblical grounds; it’s another thing to address a package of issues, which is what addressing a candidate, leader, or party involves. If a pastor is able to trace a direct line from a biblical principle to a political application, he should. Here he has biblical warrant.

Addressing a package of issues, on the other hand, is something different. It involves assessing the ethical weight of dozens of issues, comparing those weights against one another, and then gauging the likelihood of their implementation in light of current events, the present field of political actors, and all the whirlwind dynamics of real-life law-making. Whenever you support or oppose a candidate, leader, or party, you are making such calculations.

So let me be clear: I am not saying that pastors should refrain from supporting or opposing candidates, leaders, or parties because I think the church is “spiritual” and not “political.” I actually believe that, while the political and the spiritual can be conceptually distinguished, they cannot be separated. Everything a church believes and does is political, and everything that occurs in the public square is spiritual. Indeed, everything every human believes and does is in obedience (political) to some god (spiritual), no matter what office we hold or building we’re standing in.

And Christians should feel free to speak into the public square—within the constraints of wisdom—on behalf of the true God every bit as much as the secularist can speak on behalf of his or her false gods. Borrowing from Ventrella, there is biblical warrant for that much; only recent partisan decisions would deny it; and such activity contributes to the common good. More precisely, love and justice require it. For that reason I teach a 13-week adult Sunday School on Christians in government in my church for the sake of all the Hill staffers, lobbyists, and lawyers who populate our Capitol Hill congregation. It shows no love of neighbor to withdraw from the public square other than on grounds of higher stewardship priorities, i.e. prior obligations of love.

But to support or oppose a candidate, leader, or party is to make a complex political calculation concerning multiple issues and current events. And the question at stake in this conversation is, does the pastor possess biblical authority to do that?

A Case Study: Abortion and the Pro-Choice Candidate

Let’s think about the difference between an issue and a package of issues through the lens of a major point of political division today: abortion. When a pastor preaches, “You must not practice abortion,” he is implicitly, by virtue of his pastoral office, dividing the church from the world over the issue of abortion. He is saying abortion is wrong for everyone, yes, but gospel-believing Christians in particular must not practice abortion because they wear the Jesus’ nametag through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He is using his God-established and church-recognized office to bind the conscience over abortion.

And I believe this is biblically and pastorally legitimate because there is a direct path from biblical principle to political application (to borrow language from Robert Benne) with abortion. Abortion is murder, and the Bible commands governments to protect its citizens from murder. The path is basically that simple. As an isolated issue, abortion is different than, say, education or health care policy. Christians might have principled convictions about these latter issues, too, but most would admit that the path from biblical principal to political application is more jagged, dim, and certainly debatable. It is my personal and pastoral conviction, therefore, that abortion, unlike education or health care policy, is an issue over which pastors can lean into the consciences of their hearers and divide the church from the world. I would even say that a church should discipline from membership abortion doctors, women who refuse to stop having abortions, or politicians who devote their careers to supporting abortion.

But would I be prepared to say that voting for a pro-choice candidate is inherently sinful? And that such a vote should never occur among God’s people—indeed, that a church might even consider formally disciplining someone who does vote for such a candidate?

In fact, a very godly member of my church voted for a vocally pro-choice candidate because, by my friend’s political calculations, the office for which this candidate was running would have little impact on abortion law. And the candidate stood for a number of other justice issues that were important to my friend, issues where the candidate arguably could have an impact. His conclusion was that putting this candidate into office would be a net gain for godly justice.

Now let me be slightly more forthright than I typically would in my church by putting my cards on the table about my friend’s reasoning: I disagree with it vehemently. I think he miscalculated. Part of me wanted to shake him by the shoulders and say, “C’mon!” What’s more, I’m personally convinced by John Piper’s observation that one issue is not enough to make a good candidate good, but one issue is enough to make a bad candidate bad, as with a candidate who believed all the right things but also supported embezzlement. Those are the convictions that guide my own voting. But I say that somewhat nervously here because I wouldn’t ordinarily say that much in a church setting where my pastoral office was in play. Or if I did, I would be careful to qualify it as a “What I do” and not a “What you must do.” Is it hypothetically possible that my friend’s political calculations concerning his vote were strategic—wise like a serpent? I think it’s at least possible for such a vote to be without sin. For example, in the case of two pro-choice presidential candidates, one might choose to abstain or one might vote for the best candidate (or least-bad candidate). Remember, Joseph worked for Pharaoh. And Daniel greeted the tyrannical Nebuchadnezzar and Darius with words like, “Oh, King, live forever.”

I admit I feel some tension here. Abortion is a tough topic to use as a case study because the stakes are so high—life and death and murder. But lower the stakes and hopefully the principles I’m articulating become clearer. What’s more, if you don’t feel the tension, I’m not sure you’re thinking pastorally, which is all about balancing competing principles and not saying everything you might want to say, especially if it’s outside of God’s Word. In short, I want to be careful not to presume that I can, with gospel clarity, tell the members of my congregation whom they should vote for in elections. Honestly, I just don’t have enough biblical confidence in my political calculations to identify the gospel with those calculations, to identify the church of Jesus Christ with them, or to push toward church discipline over them. I am, by contrast, confident in my understanding of the gospel, or God’s Triune nature, or the truth of Genesis, or the commandment against murder and (by implication) abortion, or the fact that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. I will bind the consciences of church members and divide the church from the world over those things. And at that point I believe I can leave it to the Holy Spirit and church members’ consciences to figure out which candidates, leaders, or parties to support.

Political Strategy and Pastoral Jurisdiction

Let me try to make the unique nature of pastoral authority even clearer by discussing political strategy for a second, an area in which I have never been accused of possessing wisdom. If the Alliance Defending Freedom for whom Ventrella works, the Ethics and Religious and Liberty Commission on whose site this article is located, and a host of other such organizations tried to convince every Christian in America to never, ever vote for a pro-choice politician, they would have my support. Let the press releases fly. Start the campaign today. Imagine if every Christian Republican or Democrat in the country together decided to never support a pro-choice candidate or leader. My guess is that there would be a major realignment of the political playing field. Maybe we would even move to a three-party system, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

That said, I am unwilling, based on Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s affirmation of me as possessing a God-sanctioned authority over their souls to interpret the Bible and apply it to all areas of their lives, to say to any members of my church who happen to be reading this article that they must absolutely never, as a matter of conscience and faithfulness to the gospel, vote for a pro-choice candidate, lest they call into question their profession of faith and their congregationally-affirmed membership in our church. Such claims are outside of my pastoral jurisdiction. My favored candidate is neither the gospel nor an implication of the gospel.

Pastoral Authority

As one of the lay elders or non-staff pastors, I have the authority to interpret, teach, and—I’d even say—apply the Bible. But some applications go too far. Some cross the boundaries of Christian freedom. Never eat meat sacrificed to idols. Clergy must never marry. Don’t play music with a beat or dance. Vote Republican. Statements like these are outside a pastor’s jurisdiction.

Can we find examples of God’s people addressing political leaders in the Bible? Of course. Ventrella points to several. But consider his list. Either God’s man has a specific word from God (e.g. Moses or Micaiah); he’s addressing a specific sin or set of sins (e.g. Nathan or Elijah); or he’s generally telling a leader not to oppose God or pursue injustice (e.g. Ps. 2; the prophets). And a pastor might decide to do all these things. I’ll do it now: “President Obama, pursue justice, and don’t oppose Jesus or his Word, whether we’re talking about abortion, the definition of marriage, religious tolerance, welfare, health care, national defense, or any other subject. Our church prays either for you or another leader like you every Sunday on such matters. And please, oh please, start working against the institutionalized slaughter of countless baby boys and girls in the womb!”

Apart from unique moments of direct revelation in redemptive history (as with Moses and Pharaoh), and apart from the unique structures of theocracy in ancient Israel (as with Samuel and Saul), what you don’t see in Scripture is either an implicit precedent or an explicit license for pastors to use their office to advocate for one man or another, one administration or another, one regime or another. You certainly don’t see a list of preferred candidates. To preach a candidate’s name almost mimics the logic behind the divine right of kings, which sought to justify not just the office, but the individual: “God ordained me to rule you.”

There are operatives in both political parties who would love nothing more than to conflate the gospel with loyalty to their platform and their candidates. To heed them is to subvert Christianity.

Just This Last Sunday…

Just this last Sunday at church, John (not real name) asked me for counsel on how he should vote in the upcoming Washington DC mayoral elections. He was deliberately approaching me in my capacity as an elder.

Now, were John a close personal friend, say, from another church, and we were having dinner together, and I knew my pastoral office wouldn’t weigh on his conscience, I might offer my opinion about what he might do. I certainly wouldn’t tell him what he must do.

As it was, standing at the back of the church with a member I barely knew, I knew that my answer would leverage my office to bind his conscience, even if only slightly. By that I don’t mean he wouldn’t be free to go against my counsel, or that other, heavier factors might not weigh into his decision. But the fact that it would be “a pastor” speaking, by God’s delegated design, would impose on his conscience the subtle suggestion that my opinion on the best candidate for DC mayor represents the church, and in representing the church represents the gospel, and in representing the gospel represents Jesus Christ.

So I told John, “You’re free in Christ to vote for any of the three main candidates. I think that one is probably better than others. In fact, I can offer a couple of principles to keep in mind. But more important than my own opinion on the best candidate, which I will not share, you want to be careful with this stewardship. On the Last Day, you and Jesus will re-examine whether you acted by faith for the sake of love and justice, relying utterly on the wisdom he gives. Can I pray with you for this wisdom?” No doubt, my policy with John in a setting like this also translates into how I would speak from the pulpit or a newspaper op-ed page.

Aside from trying not to overstep my bounds, I hope my restraint had the additional affect of reminding him that salvation will ultimately be found in Christ, not in the next elected official.

Last Few Cards on the Table

A last couple of cards on the table: Lately I have begun to wonder if a political party could ever reach a point that it became so blatantly opposed to God, the justice of God, and the people of God that a church should treat membership in that party as grounds for church discipline. Presumably, my church would discipline a faithful member of Hitler’s Nazi Party. But should churches in China likewise excommunicate members of the Communist Party? Or could one or both of the parties in America ever reach that point? What criteria would we use to say when it has?

I’m unsure of the answer to these last few questions, but I don’t believe America is there yet. And until such an extraordinary moment in history comes, which, who knows, might be soon, we want our American churches to be filled with men and women, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, Blacks and Whites, Republicans and Democrats. Shouldn’t gospel power and gospel unity reach that far?

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan Leeman (PhD, University of Wales) is the editorial director for 9Marks and an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC. He has written for a number of publications and is the author or editor of a number books. He is also an occasional lecturer at Southeastern Baptist Theological … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24