Why Pastors Don’t Often “Speak Up”
A few years go I had the opportunity to volunteer for a dear friend of mine who was running for Congress in the district in which I live. I was heavily involved–my job was to rally evangelical leaders to support the candidate, whose views lined up with evangelicals, especially on the social issues like abortion, marriage, etc. Among the things I did was to set up special prayer breakfasts, individual meetings with pastors, and to have my candidate visit churches on Sundays, arranging to have my candidate introduced publicly. We found that a candidate’s mere visit to a church, low-key with no endorsement, sent a message to the church members that he cared about them and stood with them.
I found this very difficult, because I got great resistance from pastors. They didn’t want to be seen as endorsing one candidate or another. At the time, I didn’t understand this. The election was important, I thought, why wouldn’t they lend their favor to my guy, whom they knew and would likely vote for?
Well, fast forward a few years and now it’s me in that role as Senior Pastor. Now, granted, we don’t have a very large church and my influence is minimal at best. But surprisingly, I’m finding myself in the position of those other pastors. I’m hesitant to publicly endorse a candidate.
That’s because I understand now why my fellows evangelical clergy are often so hesitant to endorse or be seen as endorsing a political candidate. It isn’t because they feared losing their tax exempt status. It was because they feared that it would hurt the mission of the church. I believe this more strongly now than I have ever believed it before. Politics, even movements that support worthy causes, can creep into the mission of a church and get us off of our main goal, which is to represent Christ in the community.
I’m writing this now, because a new movement has sprung up: Speak Up Movement. It’s sponsored by a worthy organization, the Alliance Defense Fund and is endorsed as a movement by leading pastors I admire like David Jeremiah, Henry Blackaby, Wayne Grudem and others. The idea is that pastors are too often muzzled from speaking on political issues for fear of losing their tax exempt status. This is why, in their view, churches are often softer on leading cultural issues than they need to be. They actually advocate strengthening the law so that a pastor’s sermon is free from scrutiny which would lead to a losing of tax exempt status.
Now, on the whole, I think this is a good cause in that a) we should encourage pastors to preach the Word, despite the cultural/financial/political ramifications and b) we should strengthen the legal rights of pastors and all Christians to freely speak their mind.
But it’s the premise of the movement that bothers me a bit. They assume that pastors are not “speaking out” on political issues for fear of losing their tax exempt status. Now, to be sure there are some who have that fear and a clarification of our rights is important. But in my limited experience in politics and now my experience as a pastor, I have not found this to be the reason pastors don’t speak out on political issues. In fact, I’ve rarely had a pastor express this to me.
The reason we don’t get all political every Sunday is because we have pledged our lives to being faithful to the text of Scripture in front of us. Pastors like me who preach systematically through a book of the Bible don’t have the luxury to cherry pick hot cultural issues and hammer them home. Some pastors do this and are known for their political advocacy. This may win them points in the cultural wars, but I think it’s a poor way to shepherd your people.
Look, the Bible touches on a variety of these issues, but we should only speak where the Scripture speaks. On the issue of abortion, the Bible is loud and clear and for this reason, our church sets aside a Sunday every year to discuss the pro-life cause in a biblically faithful way. But on the whole, we should only raise our voices against issues when they arise in the flow of our text. In those moments, we shouldn’t silent against what might be politically unpopular.
Our job, as pastors, is to feed the Word to our people, not advance a political movement. If we’re in submission to the Word of God, then we will find it often cuts against all parties. Sometimes it cuts against the conservative movement. Other times it cuts against the liberal movement. And many issues are matters of preference and process, not clearly spelled out in Scripture. As a pastor, I must be faithful to the Word of God, not to a party or even a political movement, even if I am in agreement with many of their positions.
The pulpit is a unique place. From this space we must deliver and preach the undiluted Word of God. People coming into our doors don’t need a sanitized version of Fox News or MSNBC, they don’t need regurgitated talking points from Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olberman. They are coming to hear the Word, preached with power, humility, and confidence. Where that word touches politics, I pray we possess the courage to speak out. But to insist that pastors get more political in their messages, that they rearrange their sermons to help one party or another, this I believe, is unfaithful.
Our job is to preach the Word in such a way that we equip Christians to live in this world of evil, to make a difference at every level, from politics to Hollywood to the marketplace. Pastors can, at times, shape public debate and opinion and perhaps special times in history, we should dive into the Bible and speak forcefully against a cultural evil. Men of history like Jonathan Edwards and Dietrich Bonheoffer come to mind. But even in that, the flow of the text should guide us, not cherry-picked Bible verses compiled by a movement with an agenda. And there are other forums where pastors can more specifically articulate an opinion, such as in a blog post or a non-preaching time. They may even endorse, in a personal way, a candidate of their choice.
But the next time you hear someone rail on pastors and say, “Why don’t they speak out about this issue?” You might answer, politely, “Maybe the text they are on doesn’t speak to that.” That may not please your favorite candidate or party.
But this is the approach, I believe, pleases God.