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Vol. 79 - No. 10
October 2008

WORD FROM THE PASTOR:             

The Church and Politics

Every pastor faces the temptation to use the pulpit for his own political agenda. Sometimes the temptation proves overwhelming. Recently, a college chaplain encouraged students to volunteer for one of the presidential candidates (but not the other!) The chaplain was using his office as a messenger of the Word to promote a particular politician. Itís also common for churches to hand out voter guidesĖguides that are officially "non-partisan", but almost always slanted in one direction or another. I attended a service once where a political candidate thanked the congregation for helping to win an election. (Technically, the IRS doesnít allow tax-exempt churches to support political candidatesĖbut it happens all the time!)

You wonít, however, hear politics from me, or from most other Lutheran pastors. Itís not that Iím politically indifferent; on the contrary, I am an avid follower of the political scene, and I have definite opinions. However, I try to keep those opinions far, far away from my ministry and my preaching. I would feel very uncomfortable bringing politics into the pulpit.

Why? Is it the simple politeness that causes one to avoid discussing politics (and religion!) at dinner parties? Is it the fear that taking political positions would alienate large numbers of people? NoĖitís the fact that the pulpit is a place for absolute certainties. In John Steinbeckís The Grapes of Wrath, the former preacher Jim Casy declares that a preacher has to be sure of what he says. And that is exactly right: The pulpit is a place for proclaiming divine truth, divine certainties. If you canít say, "Thus says the Lord", you shouldnít say it in the pulpit (unless itís the kind of passing comment I occasionally make on the merits of chihuahuas or the Chicago Cubs).

A political position never carries the same level of certainty as the divine truth of Scripture. I donít know how God feels about tax policy, or about welfare reformĖthe Bible doesnít tell me so. As I write this, the big issue before Congress is the bailout of failing financial firmsĖthe Bible is pretty silent on that, too. Is global warming manmade or part of the natural cycle? The Bible doesnít speak to that, either.

The Bible does give us some general principles. We are to care for the poor. Thatís a divinely-given command. We are also to care for the environment: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and care for it." (Genesis 2:13 ). The government has the right and the obligation to defend our society and our country: "The one in authority does not bear the sword for nothing." (Romans13:4). But exactly how those mandates are carried out is something that is left to the wisdom of human leaders. The Bible doesnít lay out the particulars of welfare programs or energy policy or defense policy.

When the church does speak to politics, it risks losing its credibility. For instance, lots of Christian leaders in the 1970s made the church look foolish by expressing sympathy for Communism. A Lutheran pastor wrote a book in which he praised Communist China as a place that truly lives out gospel values, while America merely talks about them. Other American Christians who heaped praise on Cubaís Communist system. (A Christian who was imprisoned for his faith in Cuba said that his captors, as a form of psychological torture, often read to him statements by American Christians praising Cuban Communism). A Lutheran theologian whom I always respected broke my heart in the early 1980s by standing up in a public forum and calling himself a "Christian Marxist".

We may think that such political statements by Christians are a relic of the 1970sĖbut actually, as I write this, several Christian groups are hosting a luncheon in honor of Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, leader of Iran (a country where gay people are hanged and adulterous women stoned to death). These are basically the same Christian groups that used to fawn all over communism. Iím sure they are delighted to find a new anti-American dictator to make nice with; but when Christians are so politically gullible and naive, it really costs the church a lot of credibility. If Christians take foolish political positions (whether left-wing or right-wing), why should anyone believe them when they talk about religion?

If I took political positions in the pulpit, and those political positions proved to be wrong, then it would compromise what I said about Jesus. If people rejected my politics, they might also end up rejecting my Saviour. The fact is that you can never tell at the time whether a political position is valid or not. Politics is shifting sand. Iíve cast a few presidential votes that, in retrospect, Iím downright ashamed of. But, as Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel." (Romans 1:16). I can never be ashamed of the Gospel message of Christís death and resurrection for our salvation. And thatís why itís the only message that belongs in the pulpit.

One of the great things about being an American is taking part in the political life of our country. But politics ends at the pulpit. The church is called to preach not the shifting sands of politics, but the solid foundation of Godís love in Jesus Christ.

God loves you and so do I!

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