A friend is encouraging pastors to run for political office. Like everyone, he’s worried about America’s future, and he’d like to see more experienced Christian leaders in public office. It’s a good ol’ American tradition that goes back to the Founding, and it will bear fruit and frustration, generate success and cynicism, in roughly equal measure.
However effective his campaign is, it’s a strategic error and perhaps reflects a theological mistake. The premise seems to be that pastors must become politicians to influence the nation’s direction, and that in turn suggests that the power of civil institutions is the greater than all others. The plan to push pastors toward politics seems to arise from the secular mentality that my friend so ardently opposes.
As pastors, pastors command unfathomable spiritual resources, the only resources with potential to transform the world. What Samuel Wells has said about the Church applies to pastors in particular: God gives “boundless gifts,” supplies “everything they need.” Love, joy, peace, and hope become flesh “through the practices of the Church: witness, catechesis, baptism, prayer, friendship, hospitality, admonition, penance, confession, praise, reading scripture, preaching, sharing peace, sharing food, washing feet. These are boundless gifts of God.” The pastor’s problem is not scarcity but excess: “God’s inexhaustible creation, limitless grace, relentless mercy, enduring purpose, fathomless love: it is just too much to contemplate, assimilate, understand.”
Pastors look for alternatives when they lose confidence in the tools of their trade. How many pastors believe they are stewards of the mysteries of God? Do we act as if our preaching participates by the Spirit in the creating and re-creating eternal Word? Do we believe that the Word is a weapon of the Spirit, as Hebrews says it is? Are we persuaded that the water we pour does wonders, or that a little ritual meal forms the social body of the incarnate Son of God, the assembly of God among the nations? Do we believe that the God with ears to hear is judge of the nations?
Do we play it safe by limiting the effectiveness of word and sacrament to a “spiritual” realm? How many pastors have forgotten that they already hold public office?
If pastors don’t believe in what they’re doing, we have to look behind them to the institutions that trained them. For a couple of centuries, seminaries have specialized in undermining confidence in the Bible. Filled with what John Milbank arrestingly and accurately calls “false modesty,” otherwise orthodox theologians adjust to the prevailing secular reason. Some seminaries are liturgically anemic, when they teach liturgics at all, and so they produce ministers who can’t even identify half of the tools in their kit.
We don’t need to politicize the seminaries. God knows, we’ve had plenty of that. We need to equip pastors who realize the full weight of pastoral vocation. To that end, a grab-bag of suggestions:
- Get rid of Old Testament and New Testament departments and teach the Bible as one book, centered on Jesus.
- Teach in a way that encourages trust in the Bible.
- Spend a half-hour teaching the text for every minute reviewing the latest biblical scholarship.
- Establish maximally biblical training so pastors can form vibrantly biblical churches.
- Don’t let anyone graduate unless he knows the Psalmsall of them.
- Teach students to pray, and to make their prayers as vast as creation.
- Encourage future pastors to expect God to throw fire from heaven and shake the earth when the church pleads for justice.
- Teach liturgics as theology, and theology as liturgics.
- Don’t politicize the liturgy or sacraments; instead, explain how they’re already political.
- Teach future pastors that they’re engaged in Christian politics every time they call a congregation to confession, pronounce absolution, preach, preside at the Lord’s table, and dismiss with a benediction.
- Aim to produce ministers capable of both binding the broken and confronting the predatorsministers who share Jesus’s compassionate zeal.
- Make sure students are ready to pull the trigger of church discipline.
- Remind them that pastoral ministry is a form of cross-bearing, a form of sacrifice.
- Tell the timid to find another calling.
- Require students to spend ten hours a week at a homeless shelter.
- Encourage graduates to enter business or the military so that they learn to lead before they accept a call to lead the people of God.
For good or ill, pastors will have a major role in determining the future of the church and our country, but not primarily as pastor-Congressmen. The future rests more with pastors who aren’t tempted to run for office, not because they want to keep their cushy curate but because they are convinced that, teaching the word, offering prayer, sprinkling water, and breaking the bread, they are already at the center of the universe.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
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