If I were to conduct a survey of Christians in America and ask them whether pastors should be political, I suspect the overwhelming majority would answer with a resounding “no.” From time to time, we see a clip online of a politician speaking in a Sunday service, or a pastor stumping for a political candidate rather than preaching Scripture, and something just seems wrong.
Case closed, then? Not so fast. There are many confusing claims and counterclaims about whether pastors should be involved in politics. In the end it depends on what we mean by politics. I would like to suggest two important ways in which pastors cannot avoid being political, and one equally important way in which they should not—indeed, must not—be political.
First, the Bible itself addresses politics. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome he writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). In the verses that follow, Paul enumerates the chief responsibilities of the state. It exists to enforce justice, reward good, and provide for the common good of a nation (Rom. 13:2–7). Pastors, just by teaching and preaching what the Bible says, will necessarily teach their people about the purposes and scope of the state, an important institution ordained by God. In other words, they will teach about politics, its (potential) goodness, and how it should be pursued.
Second, much of the Bible’s ethical teaching is a matter of political concern today. Abortion, transgenderism, justice, marriage, the education of children, and so on, are all matters of fundamental Christian concern. They are also unavoidably political and partisan issues in our world, whether we want them to be or not. Laws are made in each of these areas that will significantly affect Christians and our non-Christian neighbors. They are not concerns that faithful pastors can ignore. The goal of pastors should be to form their people in virtuous politics. The only alternatives are political avoidance or amoral Machiavellianism. Both stances will lead to dire social consequences; neither is an expression of the love for our neighbors taught by Jesus Christ.
There is, however, an important sense in which pastors should not be political. As is obvious from even a glance at the New Testament, the Church's institutional mission is not the management of the state (that is, the practice of politics). In reading about the apostle Paul’s ministry, for example, it is clear that the minutiae of the practice of politics was the last thing on his mind. The simple reason for this is that Paul was a pastor, not a politician. It was not his job to get involved in the minute details of politics. His calling was to preach the gospel, to build up the churches, to pray for them, and to encourage them to remain faithful.
Those called by God to serve him as pastors must devote themselves to that vocation. In fact, from the standpoint of the Bible, for pastors to focus their labors on political activism (seeking political office themselves, extensive campaigning for candidates, and so on) would be a denial of their vocation as pastors, which is to preach the Scriptures and shepherd the people of God. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:16: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” This intense focus has led many to insist that Paul, as well as the other authors of the New Testament, not only did not get caught up in politics, but believed that no one else should either. But this is a category error. Most Christians aren’t called to be pastors. But some are called by God to serve in politics, just as others serve in education, trades, finance, the military, and so on. Pastors, while attending to the specific duties of their own vocations, should help their congregations serve in these ways.
My own denomination’s confession of faith, the Westminster Confession, says that serving in government is something ordained by God “for His own glory, and the public good” and that “it is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate.” Pastors should, then, teach their members how getting involved in politics can be good and can honor God. They should also equip their people to serve righteously. Would we rather that the only people involved in politics be those who have rejected the attempt to honor God in this vocation?
But we must always maintain the proper distinction: The pastor’s responsibility is the ministry of the Church; the politician’s responsibility is politics. The sixteenth-century French Reformed scholar Franciscus Junius succinctly articulates the necessity of distinguishing the vocation of pastors from that of politicians (magistrates) without setting the two vocations at odds:
Let them pay close attention, I pray—regardless of what page in the accounts of human society they choose to fill—to the limits of their own vocation. For there are those whose vocation is the society of human beings, which magistrates rule, and there are those whose vocation is the communion of the saints, which the servants of God shepherd as leaders, and has been most rightly instituted by God.
Much of our confusion today about pastors and politics could be avoided if we would keep the simple distinction between different, yet complementary, callings in view. Keeping this distinction in mind would free those whose vocation is politics to serve wholeheartedly without the nagging worry that their work is somehow unspiritual and displeasing to God, just as it would free the average Christian to support such work, and the pastor to fulfill his vocation as he guides them all spiritually as they do so.
Ben C. Dunson is the editor-in-chief of American Reformer and visiting professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.