Politics in the Pulpit?

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]M[/dropcap]ore crazy preachers on T.V.

Why does that thought occur more and more frequently in my head?  Maybe the American election season has something to do with it.  And with Election Day looming closer every day, the impulse for preachers to push their people in one direction or another will likely only increase.

I was kind of disheartened—shocked, actually—the other day when I read a Facebook comment by a ministry “personality” I really respected. He’d earned his name as a heavy-weight by talking about miracles and the Kingdom of God in real life—and I like that. Real life stuff.  But out of the blue, he made a comment about fiscal policy in democracy, and how once a people realize they can vote benefits to themselves from the public treasury, the democracy will collapse leading to dictatorship. Granted, this wasn’t directly pointed at either political party. At least not overtly.  But the fact that he was even making a political comment at all …  I just stared at the screen in disbelief.  No. Freakin. Way.

Yes way. In fact, just a few nights ago, Stephen Colbert featured a pastor on his Colbert Report whose expressed goal is to be allowed to make political statements from the pulpit. The group he represents is encouraging pastors across America to deliberately violate the law by endorsing one of the presidential candidates and then send recorded copies of their sermons to the IRS.  They hope the IRS will take them to court so they can challenge the law which now forbids political endorsements from tax-exempt churches.  Their argument is that there should be no government intrusion in the life of the church whatsoever. But obviously, they do not feel the reverse is also true. The church may, perhaps even should, intrude in the affairs of government. They seem to be arguing for the “separation of church and state”—but apparently want it to be a one-way street.

Fine. That may perhaps even be a valid constitutional position.  But the church has a long, and very ugly, history when it’s dabbled in politics and attempted to influence government—Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts, burnings at the stake.  And I find nothing particularly “Christian” about that at all.

As Americans, everyone has the right to voice his or her opinion about social issues and to try to influence legislation. But should any of this come from the pulpit?  I can understand how some pastors may feel the compulsion to protect their flocks by taking action against what they perceive to be immoral forces at work in the world—I understand the pastoral instinct to protect.  I can also understand the compulsion to stir up your people to combat an injustice.  But I do not understand the motivation, the hostility, the provocation in stirring up dissent, and dividing people against one another.  As though people who have different cultural or political views are somehow less American or less godly.

It may be true that religious leaders have often played important roles in the great social movements of history. Faith can be a catalyst for positive change in society. But the fact that in each of these movements men and women of faith and integrity arduously fought on opposite sides of the cause, shedding innocent blood and quoting Scripture and the divine will of God as their defense, ought to make us question the legitimacy of mixing faith and politics. Politics was never described in the Bible as a means for achieving spiritual goals. As the Apostle Paul said, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual forces”. And Jesus himself stated at the very birth of Christianity, before his death, that his Kingdom was not of this world, that if it was, his followers would fight—and indeed the angels themselves could be enjoined to battle for the cause. But this is not who we are. This is not what we are to be about. Especially as pastors and shepherds of God’s flock.

Did Jesus speak out against the decadent Roman culture? Did Peter or James or John or Paul stir up the flock for political action, or call for change in the social order?

“I must be about my Father’s business.”

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish his work.”

“This is my commandment: Love one another.”

“Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil.”

“Go, therefore, into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”

“These signs will be the mark of those who believe: in my name, they will cast out devils, they will speak with new tongues … they will lay hands on the sick for healing.”

THIS is our job, this is our mission.  To make disciples. To love. To heal. To set captives free from the bondage of sin and death. To proclaim the FAVOR of God.  To call for repentance, that all people should return to God, and then announce that holy reconciliation has occurred: Mankind brought back into full fellowship with God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Anything else for a minister is a distraction. A waste of time. A hindrance to the purposes of God. And if I may speak boldly, it is prostitution.  Men and women of God are called to higher purposes: the salvation of humanity, and the maturity of the saints.

As citizens of a great republic, we may well have the right—even the civic duty—to voice our convictions and to vote according to our consciences. But as pastoral leaders, we must never dare to place the divine stamp of approval on a political position or platform. Jesus never authorized us to act for him in this arena.  Not once.  His instructions are clear.  And they are already more than we can handle, already more than enough for us to do.  The pulpit is a sacred space and the pastorate is a holy calling. When we step behind a pulpit, we are now acting as messengers of the Living God, charged with proclaiming life-giving words to His people. Puny human politics have no place there.

Let congregations—even pastors—march on Washington when their consciences compel them. But don’t wave the banner of the Cross in your crusade.  Endorsing one political candidate over another is not a holy fight.  And, as shepherds of His flock, commissioned with a sacred trust, if that’s where our energies and efforts are devoted, then we have lost our first love. We have gone A.W.O.L. from our duty, and abandoned our calling. We walk in two worlds, and we must never confuse the two.

Does Jesus endorse one political party over another? Do politics belong in the pulpit?  Not according to my reading of Scripture—or my understanding of ministry.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. You can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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Jesus Loves You. Have a Condom.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #e10069;”]A[/dropcap] group of us were sitting around talking, waiting for the weekly men’s group to begin. I was new to the church, still getting a feel for the place, but the pastor’s approach to living out the faith intrigued me. It was an odd place, a challenging place, but there was something powerfully different here: all that old “churchiness” I’d become accustomed to was strangely missing – and when talking about the church to friends, I was already beginning to think in terms of “we.”

As a few of us chatted there in the lobby, I noticed sitting on the table in front of me was this plastic bucket filled with condoms. All kinds of condoms. Colored, textured, lubricated, plain. Definitely not your father’s typical church supplies. As part of the church’s outreach (to use a little Christianese), we had opened our building as a site for free HIV testing twice a week. Despite the adamant message of the abstinence-only crowd, everyone knows a condom is the best defense against HIV. But in MY church?!

Yeah, I get bent out of shape easily sometimes. And I threw one of my “you can’t be serious” looks at the pastor as he walked in. But he was dead serious. And since I knew I was on a journey of “radical acceptance” and opening myself up to allow God to use his Church in ways he wants (even if it raises some eyebrows), I was eager for the theological justification. Too bad I didn’t get it. The pastor’s position was simple. While as believers, we maintain a Biblical standard for purity in intimate relations — marriage and fidelity — we still need to love people enough to help them stay safe even if they don’t live up to our standards. Nutshell theology. Good for the soul, but not really satisfying to my analytical mind. So as I picked through the bucket, marveling at the assortment of glow-in-the-dark colors, I started wrestling with the arguments and implications. Another mind-stretching experience.

Would Jesus be handing out condoms at the Oklahoma Gay Rodeo Association? According to my pastor, of course he would. But I could already hear the protests of my conservative evangelical friends and colleagues, rolling in disgust in their pews. Isn’t this tantamount to condoning sin? I don’t know. But what does Jesus think?

Did Jesus ever overlook a moral shortcoming in order to save a life? Images of scenes from ancient Middle East started flooding my mind. Isn’t this the same argument about working on the Sabbath? Isn’t it better to allow people to rub grains of wheat in their hands in order to satisfy their hunger, even though Sabbath laws forbid it? Or, could pulling your ox out of a pit in sheer mercy and compassion justify overriding the Sabbath restriction against it? And David, before he became king, entering the tabernacle and stealing the holy bread there to feed his hungry men — doing what was unlawful. Jesus justified him, applauded him. Here was a man who understood the heart (and priorities) of God (Lk 6:1-5; Lk 14:5).

Didn’t a tablecloth containing all kinds of forbidden meat lower from heaven to Peter in a vision, with a command to eat and call nothing unclean that God has made clean? Grace overriding definitions of sin. Because it’s about people, not rules. (Acts 10:10-15)

That scene of the Samaritan woman at the well also presses itself into my mind. She’d been married five times, and was currently living with a man not her husband. Yet because Jesus spends time talking with her (a scandalous action back then), God’s salvation was brought to her entire village (John 4). And he never once rebuffed her for her disreputable lifestyle. That other woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned by the righteous people of the day … Jesus steps in and saves her life. In this case, he does correct her: “go and sin no more.” But he doesn’t look at her offense. He focuses on saving her life. The correction comes later, when she was in a more receptive position (John 8:3-12).

And that famous parable of the Good Samaritan who takes care of the man, beaten, robbed and left on the side of the road to die by the holy people of his day. Are we, the Church, not the Priest and the Levite who walked by, not wanting to dirty ourselves even to save a life? We’d rather preach to him, tell him God loves him, all the while pointing out his faults in an effort to change him. But we won’t kneel down in the dirt with him to offer him the help he actually needs at that moment. Who ultimately was the good neighbor? Jesus’ words: the one who showed mercy. “Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:30-37).

Condoms, oddly enough, are never mentioned in the Bible. I can’t find any single passage in Scripture that specifically states that doing something which might appear to condone sin is acceptable if done out of love. But there are plenty of examples where Jesus himself does this. Love overrides Law. It is the “Ox on the Sabbath” principle.

Am I completely comfortable with this? Not entirely. It may be a little while longer before you see me at the Rodeo passing out condoms, telling people Jesus loves them. It’s still a little too far from my traditional, conservative upbringing to adjust so quickly. But I am completely convinced that this is the kind of attitude and thinking we need to embrace if we’re going to be a light in the 21st century. It’s what Jesus would do. And if we’re too afraid of being stretched into new patterns of radical love and action, if our traditional ways of practicing the faith never grow beyond our comfort zone, what kind of demonstration of God’s love and power is that?

The world seems to be falling apart, people are dying. They need God, and we the Church have failed to deliver. This is the kind of out-of-the-box action that demonstrates who we really are. This is the message people need to hear. God loves you. We love you. Our greatest desire is for you to have an intimate relationship with God. In the meantime, be safe. Here’s a condom.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. You can find him always skulking on Facebook.
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