If you’re a pastor during this election season, the easy path is to say nothing about politics. You won’t step on anybody’s toes. Nobody will walk out in the middle of your sermon. You won’t lose disgruntled members (and donors!). A few people might ask you to say more about politics, and they will grumble, but they won’t leave the church. You’re safe.
But does God want you to stay silent at this time?
I can’t answer that for you. It’s between you and God whether you preach about any political issues at all, and, if you do, which issues you decide to preach about. But I can make some observations that I think will give you a sense of permission (not from me, but from the Bible) to preach about at least some key political issues.
Whether you are a Trump supporter or a Biden supporter or somewhere in between, I intend my first seven points to apply to you, because I believe a democracy is healthy when differing views are expressed thoughtfully and carefully. My last three points will be based on my own preferences in this election.
1. Your listeners need to see that the Bible speaks to all of life, including politics.
“Whether you eat or drink,” says Paul, “or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). But can we do politics to the glory of God? Of course, because politics must be included in the phrase “whatever you do.”
Paul also says that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for . . . training in righteousness,” so that we may be “complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Surely voting in an election is part of “every good work” that God wants us to do, and that gives a reason why we should expect Scripture to be “profitable for . . . training” in what kinds of candidates and policies we should support.
But if a pastor goes through an entire election season and gives no teaching about the Bible’s application to political questions, he will be acting as if the Bible is irrelevant to political questions. Then how will his listeners ever think that the Bible is relevant for all of life?
In addition, many modern political issues were moral issues that the Bible talked about long before they became political issues in modern society – such as freedom of religion, abortion, sexuality, care for the poor, and racial discrimination. Should pastors not preach about such moral issues when they have implications for politics?
2. God cares about secular governments and their leaders
I decided to search out whether the Bible ever recorded some examples in which God’s people (those who were genuine believers) had a good influence, not just on the nation of Israel, but on secular governments outside of Israel. Does God care about secular governments and their leaders? I found much more than I expected.
For example, Joseph was the highest official after Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and had great influence in the decisions of Pharaoh (see Gen. 41:37–45; 42:6; 45:8–9, 26). Daniel was a high official in King Nebuchadnezzar’s court. He was “ruler over the whole province of Babylon” and “chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan. 2:48). He was regularly “at the king’s court” (v. 49). And he gave moral instruction to the king:
“Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Dan. 4:27).
I found more examples than these. Nehemiah was “cupbearer to the king” (Neh. 1:11), a position of high responsibility before King Artaxerxes of Persia. Mordecai “was second in rank to King Ahasuerus” of Persia (Esth. 10:3; see also 9:4). Queen Esther also had significant influence on the decisions of Ahasuerus, risking her very life in order to save the Jewish people from destruction (see Esth. 5:1–8; 7:1–6; 8:3–13; 9:12–15, 29–32).
The Bible doesn’t merely say that these things happened, but the narrative texts view these events in a positive light, for they regularly record this influence on secular governments as a result of God’s favor toward his people and as a measure of blessing to those governments. This reminds us of God’s promise to Abraham that “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18).
I realize that these examples are not exactly the same as a pastor preaching about politics today, but there are similarities. In the ancient world, giving advice and guidance to the king was the way to bring about beneficial political policies. In modern democracies, voting, and giving guidance to others who vote, is the way to bring about beneficial political policies.
The New Testament provides two additional examples: John the Baptist rebuked the Roman ruler Herod “for all the evil things that Herod had done” (Luke 3:19), which certainly must have included not only privately known sins but also publicly known governing decisions.
Another possible example is the apostle Paul. While Paul was in prison in Caesarea, he stood trial before the Roman governor Felix:
[Felix] sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you” (Acts 24:24–25).
The fact that Felix was “alarmed” and that Paul reasoned with him about “righteousness” and “the coming judgment” indicates that Paul was telling Felix that he would be accountable for his actions at “the coming judgment.” When the book of Acts tells us that Paul “reasoned” with Felix, the word (present participle of Greek dialegomai) indicates a back-and-forth conversation or discussion. We cannot be sure what they discussed, but it is very possible that Felix asked Paul, “What about this decision that I made? What about this policy? What about this ruling?” I cannot be sure about this, but at least we can say that Paul was discussing substantive issues with Felix, which may have included governmental decisions, and in that way Paul would have been “preaching about politics” to a Roman governor.
3. Preaching “the whole counsel of God” will include preaching about civil government
Paul’s ministry also provides a good pattern for pastors to follow today: not merely preaching on our favorite passages of Scripture, but faithfully preaching about everything that the Bible teaches. Paul told the church leaders at Ephesus that he had been faithful in teaching them “the whole counsel of God”:
Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:26-27)
I hope I will be able to say that to the thousands of students I have taught in 43 years as a professor of theology: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). But surely that must include some teaching about politics.
The New Testament has two passages that specifically address the responsibilities of civil governments (Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14) and several other verses with implications for government (such as Matthew 22:21 and 1 Timothy 2:1-3). The Old Testament contains many details about the actions of good and evil kings. The words “king” and “kings” occur 112 times in Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes alone, and “ruler/rulers” is found another 20 times.
Therefore, if a pastor feels a responsibility for declaring “the whole counsel of God” to his people, he will have to do some teaching on biblical principles regarding civil government. And what better time to do that than in the middle of an election season when questions about good and bad governmental policies are on everybody’s mind?
4. Pastors throughout history have preached about politics
Historian Alvin Schmidt, in his book, How Christianity Changed the World, points out that the spread of Christian influence on government was primarily responsible for outlawing infanticide, child abandonment, and abortion in the Roman Empire (in AD 374); granting of property rights and other protections to women throughout history; prohibiting the burning alive of widows along with their dead husbands in India (in 1829); and outlawing the painful and crippling practice of binding young women’s feet in China (in 1912). These reforms all required changes in a country’s laws, which is a political process that could not have happened unless numerous pastors had been teaching government officials and those who influenced them about the evils of these practices (that is, preaching about politics).
In the years leading up to the American War of Independence, many pastors were preaching that resistance to tyranny (that is, resistance to the reign of King George III of England) was a morally good action, while a minority of pastors disagreed, urging continued submission to the British. But the point is that both sides were preaching about the possibility of independence from Britain, which was both a moral issue and the most crucial political issue of the day. In 1750, Boston pastor Jonathan Mayhew delivered one of the most influential sermons in American history, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission,” in which he defended the moral goodness of seeking freedom from British tyranny. His sermon was reprinted and widely distributed throughout the American colonies.
Later, pastors played a major role in the struggle against slavery. In fact, two-thirds of the leading American abolitionists in the mid–1830s were Christian clergymen who were preaching “politics” from the pulpit, saying that slavery should be abolished.
And in the 1960s, the American civil rights movement that resulted in the outlawing of racial segregation and discrimination was led by Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist pastor who dared to preach about such “political” issues (which were, in actuality, also deeply moral issues).
5. It’s not against the law to preach about political issues
It is a widespread myth that churches will lose their tax-exempt status if the pastor begins to speak about political issues. That is not true.
In 1954, the IRS code was amended to prohibit pastors or churches from explicitly saying they support or oppose any individual political candidate by name. (This amendment was introduced by then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, so this is often called the Johnson Amendment.) However, in the 66 years since this amendment was adopted, no church has ever lost its tax-exempt status on the basis of anything a pastor said in the pulpit .
Clarification: In 1992, the IRS did revoke the tax-exempt determination letter they had sent to the Church at Pierce Creek in New York State, not because of anything the pastor had said in the pulpit, but because the church had taken out full-page ads opposing Bill Clinton in USA Today and The Washington Times. The IRS action was more symbolic than harmful to the church because church’s tax-exempt status was not affected, and no donations lost their tax-exempt status. This is because, unlike other nonprofit organizations, churches are automatically tax-exempt organizations whether or not they have an IRS determination letter affirming that status.
And the law in any case has never prohibited pastors or churches from taking positions on any moral or political issues that are part of an election campaign.
In addition, many legal experts believe the IRS would lose if this issue ever came into a court of law, because restricting what any pastor can say is a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, both of which are part of the First Amendment to the Constitution. These experts believe the IRS regulation is unconstitutional, and I think they are correct.
Because of the particular status of tax law in the United States, such a law cannot be challenged in court until the IRS brings an action accusing someone of violating it. During the 2010s, a Christian legal advocacy group, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), coordinated the efforts of hundreds of pastors who intentionally wrote sermons violating the Johnson Amendment by endorsing a candidate by name (such as Mitt Romney for president). The ADF then collected these sermons and sent them to the IRS, hoping that the IRS would charge some of these pastors with violating the Johnson Amendment so that they could finally have the amendment declared unconstitutional in a court of law.
But the IRS did nothing about these sermons. Why? My personal opinion (and it is only that) is that the legal experts in the IRS decided there was too great a possibility that the courts would find that the Johnson Amendment, in telling pastors what they could and could not say, was unconstitutional because it was violating both freedom of religion and freedom of speech, which are First Amendment rights and have higher authority than any law passed by Congress.
The Johnson amendment has never been repealed by Congress, but on May 4, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order directing the Department of the Treasury (which includes the IRS) not to target the tax-exempt status of the churches who favor or oppose specific political candidates.
Separation of church and state? A related objection is that if a pastor preaches about political issues, this will violate the separation of church and state.
In response, the phrase “separation of church and state” is found nowhere in our Constitution, though it is found in some later Supreme Court decisions. In any case, the phrase just means that the church and the civil government are two distinct organizations, with different people in authority over them. If understood in a positive way, it means that the government should not rule the church, nor should the church rule the government.
It does not mean that the church is prohibited from influencing the state. After all, pastors are also citizens of the nation, and, like all other citizens, they are free to speak their views and seek to persuade others. There is no law against the church influencing the state.
Two kingdoms? Others object that there are two kingdoms in operation – the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man – and that the church should teach about and build the kingdom of God and not get involved in the kingdom of man. Didn’t Jesus say, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36)?
But surely these two kingdoms influence each other, for good or ill. And surely Christians are still called to do good for those who are not yet members of Jesus’ kingdom:
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10)
If we are to obey Jesus’ command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), that certainly includes seeking good government, not destructive and harmful government, for our neighbors as well as ourselves.
Read Part 2 here.