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Pastor Roundtable: What Is a Pastor’s Role in Politics?

Helping your church apply faith to the public square

Pastor's Role in Politics

The pressure during an election year is high for everyone, especially pastors.

The last few years have seen the politicization of almost every area of life, which has affected our pulpits and pews. When every issue is coded as partisan and our churches experience internal division, ministry leaders may struggle with how best to teach and apply the full counsel of God’s Word. So, how should a pastor engage in politics? What is his role in shepherding his people while facing politics head on? Jon C. Nelson, Eric Costanzo, and Daniel Darling have all had to wrestle with these questions and put their conclusions into practice. Our prayer is that their answers will serve you as you seek to minister well—keeping Jesus and his Kingdom front and center and equipping those under your care to be a source of hope to your community.

Lindsay Nicolet: What is a pastor’s role in politics? 

Jon C. Nelson: We, as the Church, are primarily focused on the eternal Kingdom of God, yet we also coexist within the temporal realm governed by God. The Bible does not shy away from addressing temporal concerns, including governance (Rom. 13). By simply imparting the teachings of the Bible, pastors inevitably educate their members about the role and significance of the state. We will unavoidably delve into political matters, discussing its potential virtues and the righteous means of pursuing it.  

Eric Costanzo: Pastors are citizens of a nation and residents in a community. We have both a right and obligation to engage in political and civic issues. At the same time, our primary calling within the Church is to be a shepherd. Just as we help lead and guide our congregations to navigate life, family, and moral issues, so we also should shepherd churches in political matters by seeking the wisdom that comes from above (James 1:5).

Daniel Darling: It is not incidental that God has called American Christians to live in this time and country. Pastors can help people steward their citizenship in a way that is redemptive. This looks different depending on our callings. Some are called to run for office, work in policy organizations, or write and speak in public ways. Others are called to do more quiet and local actions.

All of us, however, are given the stewardship of living in this country and helping shape the policies and people who rule over us. So, a pastor must engage at the level of preaching, teaching, and equipping his people to live faithfully. 

Daniel Darling

LN: How would you advise a pastor to preach about political matters in an election season and beyond?  

DD: We first must recognize that the gospel itself is inherently political. When the first-century Church gathered weekly to declare that Christ, not Caesar, is Lord, they were making a political statement. By the way we are called to live, there is no way to avoid politics in this sense. 

Pastors should prioritize preaching the Bible in a systematic, faithful way every week. It’s also helpful at times to have special series, whether from the pulpit or in classes, that address specific cultural issues. However, people should be able to tell the difference between “thus saith the Lord” and “thus saith the pastor.” 

Pastors might also address the election season itself, speaking about the privilege and stewardship of citizenship, the scriptural position on the role of the church and the state, and the way Christ calls us to conduct ourselves. Scripture is not merely concerned with the content of our engagement, but with the character of our engagement. Pastors should urge people to be intentional about spiritual unity, “making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

EC: Pastors should wade carefully into political matters—whether in preaching, writing, posting, or conversations. People in our churches are not only sensitive to these issues—many are afraid and are daily being fed information that only increases their anxiety. Therefore, we must not give in to the temptation to be like Chicken Little, running around and screaming, “The sky is falling!” We are called to believe, think, speak, and act as people of hope through Jesus Christ.

In terms of leading through preaching and teaching, I believe we must be patient. This kind of shepherding often takes longer than we might like. 

JN: Throughout my years in pastoral ministry, I’ve encountered church members cautioning me against introducing politics into the pulpit, and often, their tone suggests a belief that the pulpit should remain uncontroversial. Paul exhorted Timothy to “preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). Thus, every pastor is tasked with delivering, teaching, and proclaiming the entirety of God’s Word to the faithful, irrespective of the subject matter. 

For pastors committed to preaching the Bible comprehensively, discussions on issues in political discourse—such as abortion (Jer. 1:5), same-sex attraction (1 Cor. 6:9-11), racism (Gal. 3:26-28)—are inevitable. Yet, the Word of God must serve as our ultimate standard and foundation for truth, not a political party. 

As pastors, our duty is to faithfully deliver his Word to his people, empowering the Church to stand firm in faith and confront societal challenges boldly, regardless of the political ramifications. Our congregants need the guidance of God’s Word more than the opinions expressed on social media. 

LN: What mistakes do you see pastors making when they address politics?  

JN: Since 2016, we have seen a divide grow in each of our churches that is causing some of us to stumble and make mistakes that are harming the sheep we’re called to shepherd. 

  • First, pastors should not intentionally or unintentionally align with either political party. Though many of us are conservative in our politics, neither of the two major political parties aligns fully with the Kingdom of God. Actually, each political party finds itself trying to build its own kingdom. A biblically informed policy platform will be in conflict with both major parties. 
  • Second, we have to continue to recognize a separation between church and state. Our faith and our politics cannot be separated, but our church and the state can be, and for the sake of both, must be, which is the traditional Baptist opinion.
  • Finally, since our inception, Christianity has been a deeply political religion.

Just as the early Church declared Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord, we have to continue saying “Jesus is Lord,” not our president or political party.

Jon C. Nelson

Our faith is also political from the standpoint that it creates a moral framework that is relevant to most significant issues in our society. But our focus must remain on declaring Jesus is Lord and none other.  

DD: I think pastors make two mistakes. The first mistake is to avoid it and pretend election season isn’t happening. This is a well-meaning desire to not divide the church, but what this does is communicate to members that politics is one area over which Christ is not Lord. Pretending it doesn’t matter doesn’t make it go away. What’s more, if people aren’t equipped on how to apply their faith to the public square at church, they’ll learn somewhere else. 

The other mistake pastors can make is the opposite one: becoming too partisan. The gospel is inescapably political, but we don’t need pastors who serve as pundits. God’s people don’t need from the pulpit more of what they are getting every day on social media, cable news, or talk radio. They need to hear a word from the Lord. 

EC: There are some pastors and churches whose approach to political, moral, and social ills in our country is engaging in “culture war.” Culture war tactics often involve partisan punchlines and incendiary language toward one’s opponents while turning a blind eye toward the wrongdoings of those on one’s team. These are the approaches of mainstream media pundits and algorithms set to produce profits through stirring up anger. They are not New Testament Christian approaches. Moreover, they are unbiblical and antithetical to the gospel message. 

The Bible calls us to honor everyone, including our opponents, for the praise of the Father (Rom. 15:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:11-20), to follow the example of Jesus in our relationships with all (Phil. 2:1-11; 1 Pet. 2:21-25), and to always demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:18-22). We can address the political without being partisan. Partisanship by nature divides—us vs. them—whereas the Bible calls us as Christians to seek unity within the Church and to practice hospitality toward all (Rom. 12:9-21).  

LN: What practical advice would you give for how to address political issues?  

JN: Before we address political issues, we must encourage our members to pray for any of those involved in the political process. These individuals face hardship and need guidance from the Holy Spirit in order to make God-honoring decisions. 

Additionally, we have to be careful not to preach the headlines. Between social media and network news, it is easy for us to regurgitate the arguments that we have been fed. We have to remember our charge to preach God’s Word, regardless of our political affiliation, in order to win the hearts and the minds of those around us for Christ Jesus and not a political party. 

Furthermore, we must be willing to critique all sides. It seems the majority of the country right now is fleeing to the extremes of political ideology and rhetoric. To have a nuanced conversation without flinging ad hominem arguments at someone seems unthinkable in today’s discourse. When we are addressing political issues, we have to choose to speak the truth according to God’s Word wherever we happen to see it and point people in that direction alone. 

DD: A pastor should model the kind of Christian citizenship he preaches. First Peter 2:17 tells us how to order our priorities: Honor all men; love brotherly fellowship; fear God; honor the king. Some practical advice includes:

  • 1. Find application in your sermons that fits the text. 
  • 2. Address the election, and give people wisdom on how to conduct themselves as God’s people. 
  • 3. Be clear where Scripture is clear, and be openhanded where good and faithful Christians might disagree on matters of prudence. 
  • 4. Be political but not partisan, and endorse policies not candidates.
  • 5. Model this wise behavior in your own public witness, both online and in the community.
  • 6. And be intentional about equipping on important cultural issues. 

EC: When we address those important issues that have political implications, we should engage them biblically, honestly, consistently, and charitably. From a practical standpoint, there are three things I’ve tried to make a part of the regular rhythms of our church life during the last several election years:  

  • 1. I remind our congregation frequently of our biblical responsibilities toward Christian citizenship and displaying Christlike attitudes. 
  • 2. I plan some special events during the year where we have more of an topic-based conversation that might involve question-and-answer, guest teaching, or a panel. We have talked about a biblical approach to pro-life issues, immigration issues, racial reconciliation, and other cultural and social topics.
  • 3. Our church provides practical resources that people can utilize alongside their study of Scripture and their prayerful engagement of challenging political issues. 

LN: What pushback can pastors expect if they choose to address or avoid politics?  

JN: During the pandemic, I had a mentor tell me while I was lamenting the division within my church, “If you are hearing feedback in stereo, you are probably addressing the issue in the correct manner.” To actually stand with what the Bible says creates a juxtaposition to both political parties and will cause you to stand not just on the Bible but each political parties’ toes. 

On the other hand, if we choose to avoid politics all together, we can expect a church that will question whether or not you’re willing to wade into everything that God’s Word speaks to. Members of our churches want to know how God speaks to the age we find ourselves in. We do our people a disservice when we avoid that. 

EC: Dealing with political matters can quickly become divisive. I’ve found that much of the conflict comes from people’s expectations. If those assumptions are challenged, conflict can often arise. This is not always a bad thing, however. 

For example, several years ago, our church began actively serving our immigrant and refugee neighbors, which has become one of the most important commitments of our church. In the early days we faced conflicts related to cultural and political messaging about immigration that did not actually represent our experiences. We created spaces for dialogue and involvement in these ministries so that people could get a clear picture of the reality regarding who the immigrants and refugees are in our community, while also seeing the true gospel opportunities God was providing. Some people were unwilling to engage and left the church. Others were willing to be led by God through the conflict and came through on the other side with both a new understanding and an excitement about how God is truly at work in this ministry. 

DD: Pastors will likely discover that they will get pushback for both. If you are gracious in your approach, careful in your exegesis, and relational with your leadership, you can often endure even when folks don’t agree exactly with your approach. 

LN: What encouragement would you offer the pastor who feels ill-equipped to address political matters? 

JN: None of us are experts when it comes to politics. Don’t feel pressured to speak about politics, but do inform yourself. Many times we’re not fully aware of how devastating our silence can be to the people that we lead. But becoming aware while being biblically grounded can be one of the best things we can do for our churches. Find trusted sources that center the Kingdom of God over and above everything else. When we do, we’ll find that topics that need to be clearly addressed can be done under God’s Word. 

DD: A pastor doesn’t have to be a subject-matter expert in every public policy issue. There are certain issues that are clear from the text of Scripture. And there are other issues about which faithful Christians might disagree. A pastor should stay in his lane and not try to be a pundit. Some of our people may be better subject-matter experts in areas about which we know less. We should encourage them in their unique callings. God has equipped you, as a pastor, for your own calling in this moment to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. 

LN: What should a pastor remember about our ultimate political hope? 

JN: Dr. Tony Evans once said that a Kingdom-minded Christian should engage in the political process because “it is the opportunity and responsibility of committed Christians to partner with God by expanding his rule in society through civil government.” This is not theonomy, but the opportunity to interject God’s ideals within a culture that does not center on him. Our hope is not found in Republican or Democrat. The God of the Bible is independent of all of those. The problem occurs when we believe either political party or ideology votes God’s way all the time. 

DD: Pastors should point people to the hope of the gospel. People in this moment are rightly concerned about the country, their communities, and their families. This is not wrong. And yet pastors should continually remind their members that we can “be of good cheer” for Christ has “overcome the world” (John 16:33). God has made us for this moment. He is not in heaven wringing his hands about the things that keep us up at night. God is gathering history to himself. He is not surprised by this election. 

EC: To be fully transparent, I have a lingering anxiety about our church navigating this election year that probably won’t go away until we’re well past November. To this point, we’ve done great. But I fear the ugliest days of the election are yet to come. 

For the most part, I’m not worried about the brothers and sisters at our church because I believe they are committed to following Christ closely through this year as they would any other. My anxiety comes from the strong grip of the “spirit of the times” in which we’re living here in the U.S., especially as it comes to political partisanship, polarization, and toxicity. Sometimes it’s almost too hard to resist. 

Thankfully, no matter what tomorrow brings, the source of my faith and hope has not changed. If we are indeed entering troubled waters, there is One who is trustworthy and in whom we can anchor our lives no matter what comes: Jesus Christ—our Living Hope (1 Pet. 1:3). My faith and hope are not in our culture, our nation, or in people. My faith and hope are in the One who has promised us that, though we will certainly have trouble in this world, we can take heart, because he has overcome the world (John 16:33).

Pastor's Role in Politics

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