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

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.

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