Throughout my career as a preaching pastor, I have been accused on more than one occasion of being “too political.” I’m not alone. I’ll bet that most pastors in America have experienced the same basic accusation, and if not, they have heard it from new people about their previous pastor. “He was just too political,” they will say to explain why they left their previous church.
In my own ministry, I am transitioning away from the church my family planted back in 2006, and that means Lafayette Community Church will be hiring a new pastor soon, and I’m hearing people tell me they are worried that the next pastor will be “too political.”
Therefore, I thought I would publish this little guide to help you identify if your pastor is being too political.
Jesus and Politics
First things first, though. I need to remind you that Jesus was political. Consider these statements:
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
Matthew 5:41 NIV
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
Mark 12:17 NIV
In Jesus’ day, the law said a Roman soldier could command a person to carry their load for up to one mile. Jesus was telling Jewish people to obey the Roman law and then do even more.
It’s the same thing regarding the taxes. In Jesus’ day, the Roman government demanded taxes, but the individual tax collectors determined how much to collect. It was an unjust system from the ground up, but Jesus told people to go along with it anyway. He then told them to do even more by dedicating themselves more fully to God.
In both cases, Jesus identified a specific legal statute and gave an opinion on that statute. Depending on your perspective, you might call Jesus “moral” and “wise” or you might write him off as being too “political.”
Definition of Terms
This leads directly to the second thing we need to address: your own definition of terms. I want you to investigate what you mean when you use the word political. In fact, let’s do an exercise. Write for yourself a definition of the three words political, moral, and biblical:
- When I say political, I mean…
- When I say moral, I mean…
- When I say biblical, I mean…
- I can tell these three things apart from each other because …
Then, let me ask you to make a list of some current issues that are important in our world and give them a label:
- I consider Abortion to be a ( biblical / moral / political ) issue because…
- I consider Universal Healthcare to be a …
Finally, let me ask you to answer two more questions for yourself:
- A church / pastor should avoid political issues whenever…
- A church / pastor should address political issues whenever…
Until you know the boundaries for your own definitions and your own expectations, you won’t be able to understand someone else’s perspective or be able to evaluate whether they are being inappropriate or not.
Examples From A Pastor
I’ve been a pastor for over 20 years now, and in that time, I’ve taught a lot of messages on a lot of different passages in the Bible. In those years, I’ve taught on the following topics without ever being accused of being political.
- I taught that every life was sacred and that Christians should oppose the practice of abortion in our country.
- I taught that greed was opposed by God and that Christians should oppose a “greedy” government that would increase taxes.
- I taught that industrious living was valued by God and that Christians should oppose the “enablement” of welfare programs.
- I taught that God put the image of God in all people equally so that Christians should oppose “affirmative action” programs.
- I taught that God created human sexuality to be expressed in specific ways and that Christians should oppose easy divorce and forms of marriage that didn’t conform to heterosexual monogamy.
Every time I taught on these topics, in my context, I heard only affirmative comments from those who heard my message. Although these topics are obviously about political policies, and although they are obviously part of the conservative (Republican) platform, I was never accused of being political when I taught about them. At the time, I believed that was because I was actually being biblical, but now I realize that it was because I was playing the same song as the other people in the room. All who agreed with my opinion saw my opinion as “biblical” because it was also their opinion and they thought of themselves as “biblical”!
My perspective on all this changed gradually over the years. I started seeing social programs more and more through the eyes of the people who relied on them. I started seeing the reality of systemic racism and the hypocrisy of being “pro-life” on abortion while taking no stance on anything else in the world of healthcare. I started seeing the dangers of a government that would prioritize the greed of companies over the need of people. More and more, I started seeing these issues through the eyes of other people. More and more, I began to see my perspective not as “biblical” but as “conservative.” More and more, I began to see either ambiguity in the Bible or clear teaching in contrast to my own presuppositions!
But if I ever hinted at any of these changes in my heart or ever taught a biblical perspective that was not also conservative, I received accusations of being political.
- I spoke against sexual harassment and mentioned the inappropriate partying Brett Kavanaugh did when he was younger and how that led to women accusing him of sexual indiscretions. People left the church because I was “too political.”
- I made a reference in a message that racism was alive and well in our society, but people accused me of being too political.
- I encouraged people to wear masks and get vaccinated to protect themselves and others during the COVID pandemic, but people left the church since I was too political.
- I vigorously spoke against Donald Trump’s rhetoric, his deceptions, and his moral failings, and attendance at my church plummeted.
Yes, I’m still wounded by all that, and to this day, I hate the fact that I was called “political” when my teaching disagreed with conservatism but not when it agreed.
Nevertheless, I hope by publishing this, I might give you some insight when it comes to evaluating your pastor.
The Political Pastor Questionnaire
The Wrong Questions
- Do I agree with what my pastor said or do I disagree?
- Is there a way I can match what my pastor said to a political policy I oppose?
Too often, these are the questions people ask when it comes to the political nature of their pastor or their church. It always starts with something that rubs them the wrong way, and then they start looking for the reasons. If the reason is that the pastor has taught a perspective that lines up with something political, the questions stop and the accusations begin.
On the other hand, it’s both naive and arrogant to think that I will always agree with what my pastor teaches. Until I receive my glorified eternal body, I will still be subject to the thoughts and desires of this flesh, and that means I will still have room to grow in knowledge and faith. Until I reach full maturity, I will still need to be challenged in my behaviors and beliefs. Until I look like Jesus, it’s likely my pastor will say things that rub me the wrong way.
Therefore, we need to address different questions first.
Must Answer First
- Do I know the Bible well enough to know its teaching on the political issues of the day? That is, do I know which passages in their contexts agree with any perspective and which ones don’t? And have I studied them myself?
- Do I know my pastor well enough to understand what he/she meant by what they just taught? Am I giving my pastor the benefit of the doubt, and am I willing to hear my pastor out on the matter?
If you can’t say yes to both of these questions, then you don’t have enough information to determine whether your pastor is being biblical or political. No matter what your personal position is on an issue or what you think of your pastor’s opinion on the issue, if you can’t say “Yes” to both of these questions, you don’t have the right to evaluate your pastor.
I say this to people all the time: What does the Bible actually say? It’s not enough to think you know what the Bible says. Too many people have leveraged their own agendas to tell you what they think the Bible says, and sometimes those people have told you the truth, but you can’t know if they told you the truth until you see it for yourself.
Now, sometimes the Bible will say things that you can’t fully understand without some broader perspective that only a good teacher can give you. In those cases, you really need to get a broad perspective from excellent scholars, but the point remains the same: Do you know what the specific Bible passages in their context say about the issue at hand? If not, work on that first.
- Is my pastor teaching a perspective that honestly reflects the teaching of the Bible? Sometimes you have multiple possible ways to understand a passage, so the question is whether this specific teaching is honestly in line with one of those possible perspectives.
- Is my pastor adequately addressing the parts of the Bible that disagree with or give nuance to that perspective? Because biblical interpretation is difficult, honest teaching needs to place itself in context with contrary perspectives.
- Is my pastor aware of and respectful to other pastors and scholars who disagree with that perspective? Honesty coincides with humility and humility is a fundamental quality of a Christ follower. Anytime there are multiple perspectives on an issue, humility doesn’t require us to remain ambivalent, but it does require us to be respectful. We can and should take positions, but never in ways that denigrate our opponents who like us are honestly trying to understand the teaching of the Bible.
If you’ve been through this process and you have determined that your pastor is being improperly political, then before you take any action, force yourself to get more specific about what you mean.
- Is your pastor displaying arrogance by teaching a controversial perspective without respect for those on the other side?
- Is your pastor promoting heresy by teaching something directly opposed to an honest reading of God’s Word?
- Is your pastor advocating idolatry by encouraging allegiance to an authority other than Christ and the Word?
If your answer to any of these is “Yes” then you have identified a sinful behavior in your pastor. The issue isn’t whether he/she is political, but the issue is whether your pastor is being sinful. If you have identified a sinful pattern in your pastor, it is your Christian duty to address that sin the way Jesus taught you to in Matthew 18:15-17.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Matthew 18:15-17 NIV
Until you have approached your pastor about your perception of sin, until you have brought evidence of that sin, until you have involved the elders of the church in addressing that sin, your job is not over.
At the end of that process, if you really have done the work of the above questions, and if with all that work done, the elders of the church support the pastor rather than the clear teaching of the Bible, that’s probably the time to consider leaving the church.
But if you do, don’t say it’s because the church or the pastor was being too political.