Following Sunday’s sermon, I’ve had a number of good and interesting conversations about the relationship between preaching and politics. What overlap (if any) should there be between the news headlines and what we hear from the pulpit?
I think we understand this better by considering two different tensions.
On one hand, it would be unhelpful if every week’s sermon felt like it was ripped from the headlines, always addressing the political crisis of the moment. Our lives are not defined by the most recent controversy in Washington D.C.—thanks be to God! Allowing the Bible (and not the newspaper) to set the preaching agenda keeps us from losing the plot of who we are and what God is doing.
And yet, on the other hand, the Bible does speak quite a bit about politics (in its own way). And it’s important for Christ to rule over our political thinking and decisions, especially in a time when it is so prominent. Saying nothing about politics when preaching the Bible simply creates a vacuum, and leads us to be discipled in this area by Fox News or MSNBC, rather than by Christ.
So I believe preaching must, at times (although certainly not always) address political questions. But there is a second tension regarding how to do this, a tension about principles versus policies. The Bible does have a lot to say about political issues when it comes to principles. It prioritizes offering mercy to the poor, justice and protection for the vulnerable (including immigrants and, by implication, the unborn), leading with honesty and humility, and loving our enemies. Consequently, I believe it is important to consider these principles carefully and apply them in preaching to our political decisions.
At the same time, the Bible says very little about policies. We must care for the poor, but how? Do we ensure at a national level that everyone receives healthcare? Or do we shrink the government and leave room for privately-funded non-profit organizations to do good work. We care about the vulnerable, but how? There are people on both sides of immigration debates who care for the immigrant but believe in different pathways to a good and just immigration policy. The Bible does not give us specific answers to these questions. God leaves it to wisdom to pursue these answers. And thus for me to preach on specific policies would be to go beyond what Scripture says.
Given these tensions and the complexities of them, it’s natural to ask whether it’s even worth it to “go there”—wouldn’t it just be safer to allow each person to study the Bible on their own and figure it out themselves? But lessons learned from recent American church history reveal that this isn’t an option. During the civil rights movement, when African Americans in our country were enduring segregation and other unjust and racist policies, the conservative Christian church by and large stayed silent. Not feeling it was appropriate to mix faith and politics, they did not speak from the pulpit of the Biblical importance of justice and care for the vulnerable. We did not stand with our black brothers and sisters. And in our silence, we were thereby standing for the status quo. We were complicit in the terrible racism of the day.
The answer is not to be politically silent, but to be carefully biblical in considering politics. And that involves all of us. I appreciate the conversations I’ve had over these past few days. And if there is ever a time that it seems like I have crossed the line and gone beyond what the Scriptures say, it’s important for me to hear this. Together, let’s pursue faithfulness to Christ in politics as in all of life.