Politics and the Pulpit (Part 3): The Pulpit: God’s or Caesar’s?

November 7, 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 third and final part in a three-part series. The first post is available here; and the second here.

With refreshing zest, Jonathan Leeman’s contribution abounds with pastoral care and concern – something needed but frequently omitted in many of today’s “cultural discussions.” Yet, his contribution never really interacts with the central issue actually framed by this exchange: Is it the State or the Church via its ordained servants who decides the content of what is preached from the pulpit? Instead, despite its many good cautions, we see a stream of fallacious and/or incoherent cul-de-sacs that cloud the analytic waters. Each of his prime assertions will be assessed. Their surface plausibility is wholly illusory.

At the outset, Leeman claims that what’s at stake when preaching is “dividing the church from the world.” He uses this premise to assert that because a pastor could be mistaken or less than certain regarding a political issue or a candidate, a pastor should rarely, if ever, address these areas. Even overlooking his dubious and reductionistic description of preaching, this assertion lacks merit.

EVERY time a preacher says anything, whether “political” or not, he could be mistaken; more problematic: how confident or certain must a pastor be before he passes Leeman’s “certainty test”? And, how would he (or anyone else) know? If Leeman’s assessment were correct, no prudent pastor would say anything. While wisdom is always “at issue,” it should sound in warning, not as a trump card gagging all political commentary.

The point here is not that every pastor should unwisely spout inane political or partisan slogans, but rather that a pastor possesses the liberty – liberty that should not be constrained by the State – to wisely address these matters and that in wisely addressing such matters, he edifies and equips the sheep and glorifies the Lord.

Leeman instead implies that addressing politics and candidates may be (somehow?) deviating from proclaiming the gospel by exceeding the preacher’s authority. But, that is not Paul’s understanding. In Paul’s calculus, ethics, including ethics in the public square applied to persons (“law”), aligns with the faithful application of the gospel: 1 Tim. 1:8-10

Now, Scripture equips people for “righteousness” and “every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Does the public square need righteousness? Is politics a good work? (Rm. 13). Yes and yes. These matters (good works and righteousness) form the very core of being salt and light and should be the directional beam of our conduct; and that conduct, that is, those good works, are ethical in nature (Mt. 5:13-20, and 6:33). This means they also have political implications. Ethics/law written on the heart and then applied to all of life – that is, drawing and applying distinctions between the moral and the immoral – forms the very essence of the New Covenant, effectuated by the means of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension (Jer. 31:33). Failing to address such matters withholds God’s full word from the flock.

If a pastor refuses do this from the pulpit, he is not faithfully executing his calling. A moral or ethical matter labeled “political” does not cease being a moral matter that would benefit from the light of God’s word.

Note how Leeman frames the issue: “Should pastors support or oppose political candidates or leaders from the pulpit?” [emphasis added]. But, this formula prejudices the question. The real issue is whether a pastor’s liberty to address moral matters should be cabined by the State. Moral matters necessarily include both issues and people – issues don’t repent; people by grace do.

Leeman next creates a false and frankly palsied dichotomy contending that addressing issues somehow differs from addressing particular candidates, which he finds particularly problematic and even pernicious. This is erroneous:

HOW do institutions, including political institutions, operate and address matters? They do so via agents who are persons. Issues are effectuated by persons. One cannot coherently divorce the agent from the issue because the agent IS the actor who effectuates the issue.

Leeman asserts nevertheless that with candidates the issues are complex and this somehow precludes addressing persons. This too is mistaken:

In the first place this contention fallaciously assumes a moral equivalency among issues, which is plainly false. A candidate who wishes to close pregnancy resource centers is different from one who wants to raise the tax increment finance ratios. The issues may be complex, but they are not morally equivalent. And some issues, such as those predicated on or derived from the Decalogue, define the “weightier matters of the law.” After all, Jesus tells us that the greatest in the Kingdom follow and teach others to follow God’s law. (Matt. 5:19). As the context makes plain, this includes the public application of the commandments, beyond the congregation.

EVERY matter may be complex in some sense; a leader’s very job however is to discern (Heb. 5), not avoid, the complexities occurring in God’s fallen, but redeemed, world . . . and then, address them using the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:27)

Leeman’s examples dealing with pro-abortion candidates show only that he is willing to implicitly, but (somehow?) not explicitly endorse or oppose a candidate. How does this distinction make a moral difference? He claims that a “direct application” from scriptural principle to the issue provides the decisive standard. This lacks merit.

A “direct” application of a scriptural principle may very well directly mean not supporting the person who holds certain unchristian positions. Paul and John do this as indicated below and the underlying principle they use is nowhere limited to dogmatics or heresiarchs.

The sheep draw inferences from sermons – at least that should be the goal; it’s called applying scripture. To say that preaching scripture does not apply to persons effectuating issues, but only to the issues themselves, is to truncate scripture’s witness and intent. The pastor is not somehow “safe” or faithful if he only draws the scriptural line to a key issue but omits “naming names”.

From a less abstract perspective: If a congregant sins in the way he is addressing a public issue, including voting, how can he learn to repent absent spiritual guidance from the pulpit? Is our public and political life to remain unsanctified by Scripture? Is our political life, including voting, a zone of supposed neutrality? What if these matters are addressed in a Sunday School class? Can the pastor “name names” there, but not during his sermon? On what principled basis?

And, what if a political candidate or office holder is a member of the congregation and he sins publicly and gravely?   Presumably, Leeman would at some point in the discipline process deem identifying the unrepentant candidate as a proper step of church discipline. But somehow, this application of scripture to a public person magically becomes improper if the person is not a member of the preacher’s congregation, or if he or she is a member of a different congregation or no congregation at all? This distinction is arbitrary and thus unreliable.

Positively put, Scripture often “calls out” actors by name, warning the faithful to avoid them and thus NOT support them: see, e.g., Alexander, Hymenaeus, and Diotrephes, (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 4:14 and 3 John 9).

“Naming names” enjoys biblical warrant as to individuals. The initial essay illustrates this as to political actors as well. Leeman either ignores this scriptural evidence or dismisses it with special pleading.

As to political parties, which Leeman injects into the conversation, he fails to note that Jesus “names party names” as well. (E.g., Rev. 2 and 3 – Jesus identifies several parties with whom church members are affiliated and then commands them to repent and disassociate). And, of course the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman officials are all collectively addressed as parties as well.

Leeman apparently confines his analysis to the positions a candidate holds (but only as to issues held, detached from the person advocating the issues). This limitation artificially truncates crucial biblical considerations: Scripture is concerned not only with “issues,” but also with the person, the leader, himself – irrespective of the issues. Leeman ignores these crucial criteria:

What about a candidate’s competence? Is this biblically off-limits? Certainly, if a pastor knows about a gaping defect in a candidate’s competence for the position, he ought to seek the “welfare of the city” (Jer. 29) by alerting the congregation to that deficit. We should not elect deaf and blind folks to serve as health inspectors.

Similarly, Leeman’s proposal overlooks a candidate’s character. A pastor who remains silent withholds good from the City if he knows that a particular candidate lacks the character to hold a position of responsibility and leadership.   See e.g., 16:19 (bribe takers); 17:14ff. and 2 Chron.26 (King Uzziah’s pride)

Thus, aside from specific policy matters, a candidate – as a person – may lack the competence or character suitable for holding office or exercising leadership. Limiting preaching to issues and not addressing persons qua persons is necessarily incomplete.

Leeman lastly contends “division” may result from a pastor “naming names”.

This assertion is fallacious as it commits the “false cause” fallacy (post hoc ergo propter hoc) as well as committing the hasty generalization error.

Moreover, this point cuts both ways: what about division “caused” by a pastor who refuses to address a prominent cultural issue that impacts the congregation’s ability to discharge its calling? A pastor’s silence can just as easily precipitate division as well as threaten the congregation’s ability to do what it is called to do.

And, according to Paul, division is not necessarily bad; division can be the means by which the faithful are made evident. (1 Cor. 11:9).

Accordingly, invoking the “unity” card – without more – therefore provides no guidance to the question at hand. Why? Because every assertion from the pulpit potentially could precipitate disunity at some level. If three people depart from a 6000 member congregation, is that inappropriate division? What if two depart? One? The entire analytic thread unwinds because it manifestly lacks a sound principled basis. Thus, this point comprises a classic red herring fallacy as well.

Solomon says it well: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law strive against them.” (Pr. 28:4). By refusing to “name names” and instead by counseling silence, Leeman is by default (not design) orienting pastors (and their flocks) to ultimately praise the wicked. And, this should not be. Exposing evil, including those who do evil, is part of what Christians are called to do (Eph. 5:11). Query further whether voting for an ungodly candidate constitutes participating in “unfruitful works of darkness” which Paul forbids.

While Leeman’s well-intended and wise pastoral concern does at points resonate, his overall proposal is unfortunately out of tune with the canonical organ and therefore, should be rejected. Jesus is King of Kings and Lords of Lords; that’s about as political as one could be. His faithful followers must take every thought captive – including political thoughts – to this King; preaching is not exempt from this command. In fact, preaching should be emblematic of it.

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

Jeffery J. Ventrella

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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