Should Politicians Speak from the Pulpit?

This editorial was written by Mika Edmondson, doctoral student at Calvin Theological Seminary. See full bio below.

Like a whirlwind, he and his entourage blow in 45 minutes late for service. After the pastor hands him the mic, he makes his political pitch to the congregation peppered with religious clichés and out-of-context scriptures. Of course, he is WAY too modest to ask for your vote directly, instead he only asks for your prayers. Just as quickly as he showed up, he is gone (there are still other churches left to “hit up”) leaving a trail of church fans, brochures and campaign slogans in his wake. Does this sound familiar?

As local and national campaign cycles ramp up, many Black churches will once again consider whether or not to allow politicians in their pulpits on Sunday morning. For some congregations, this question is not even up for debate. The “social question” has always enjoyed an especially significant place in the formation of Black preaching, and indeed the establishment of the Black Church tradition in America. Moreover, the Black Church has always occupied a uniquely central place in the social, political and economic life of the Black community. When you take these together, it\’s easy to see how many Black churches may be inclined to open their pulpits to political “champions” for justice. However, I hope to show that there are some important reasons to avoid this common practice.

Here are five common reasons churches choose to hear political candidates from the “sacred desk” along with some challenging food for thought.

1. The Social Activism Agenda: In order to publicly promote and align themselves with certain social and political causes, some churches invite politicians to address them from their pulpits.

So exactly what\’s wrong with reason #1? In short, it tends to wrongly identify politicians and their political ideas with the authority associated with God\’s Word. Let me explain. The “sacred desk” is considered sacred because it is the physical space where God\’s Word is normally declared to God\’s people. Only God\’s Word (applied by the Spirit) actually carries the divine authority and power to bring genuine new life, light, and holiness to sinners. However, in Black churches, the podium itself often carries with it a real mental and symbolic association with the authority of the Word of God. If you don\’t believe me, try getting your average traditional Black lay member to casually stroll up to stand behind the “sacred desk” (even on a weekday).

The pulpit also carries a strong association with pastoral authority since this is the place pastors most often fulfill their duty to “feed Christ\’s sheep.” In some circles, this identification is so strong, the closer one sits to the pulpit, the more pastoral authority one is considered to have. Therefore, Senior Pastors often sits directly behind or alongside the pulpit, with assistant pastors and associate ministers usually positioned further out. If you don\’t believe proximity to the pulpit is identified with pastoral authority (at least in many traditional Black Baptist circles), ask yourself whether you could imagine your senior pastor ever sitting in the furthest seat from the pulpit.

With the strong mental association of pulpits with the Word of God and pastoral authority, politicians (functioning in the capacity of politicians) have no business speaking from them. It simply gives their political message way too much authority. Congregants may easily make the link that because this person is announcing their political platform from the pulpit, it must be divinely authorized. Mental associations are stronger than we often realize. For instance, attractive models and beer have very little actual correlation with one another. However, beer companies know that if they put images of beautiful women alongside their brand of beer, consumers will make the mental association for themselves. Likewise, politicians need not explicitly say “The Lord commands that you vote for me or support this policy.” The image of them speaking from the pulpit gives a strong mental association which likely already conveys this very idea.

Even our lived experiences ought to warn us against this sort of thing. Perhaps we personally know of local churches that have been “burned” by politicians who once spoke from their pulpits only to be eventually exposed as corrupt and scandalous. Often, such churches wind up wishing they had never allowed them in the pulpit in the first place. The most adulterous, lying, thieving politicians we could possibly name have more than likely been in somebody\’s pulpit. Can you imagine saying “Amen” to their political rhetoric on Sunday morning, before finding out on Monday morning that they have been implicated in a sex, drug, or money scandal? You\’d probably feel duped and somewhat “sullied” to say the least.

2. The “Are You Down?” Test: In order to prove a political figure shares their common commitments, values, and interests, some churches invite them to participate in their sacred worship services. This often includes special recognition, seating, and even an invitation to address the congregation from the pulpit. They figure, “if this politician can sincerely worship with us, they must be ‘down for us.\’”

So exactly what\’s wrong with reason #2? It cheapens the Lord\’s sacred worship into a means to “vet” politicians. At weekly worship, the community of professing believers in Christ gathers to honor, adore, and praise its God. We come to hear the gospel announced through the Word (Bible Based preaching) and Sacraments (the Lord\’s Supper and Baptism). As believers, we regularly seek our heavenly Father for continued grace to live for the glory of his Name. Therefore, our focus should be on the LORD, not Councilman such and such. We have no business peeking at them during service to try and discern whether their worship is “real” or cheapening God\’s sacred worship into some kind of political proving ground.

3. The Public Service Announcement: Some churches view their pulpits as a convenient platform, to help congregants better understand the relevant socio-political issues of the day and their voting options in November. Usually, they intend to better equip church members to properly exercise their rights as citizens.

So exactly what\’s wrong with reason #3? This also confuses the purpose of our worship gathering. It is Biblical to encourage the saints to practice good citizenship as a secondary implication of the gospel (see Romans 12:17-18, 13). However, we shouldn\’t turn worship into a political showcase to do so. Sunday morning worship must “keep first things first” and be deliberately and singularly focused upon Christ and His gospel (see Ephesians 4:13). On Sunday, the saints don\’t gather to learn about political candidates, they gather to learn about Christ.  If we allow our worship service to become a “rock the vote” rally, we risk sending the unhealthy message that our unity rests in U.S. citizenship, rather than our common faith. (see Ephesians 4:5-6, 13)

Perhaps a local church could legitimately serve its surrounding community by hosting forums Monday through Saturday where community members could hear from elected officials or candidates on the issues. However, even at this kind of event the local church (as a collective body) must be very careful not to endorse any one candidate or party. If it does, it risks causing undue divisions with brothers and sisters of differing political persuasions. For instance, if you are a die-hard Democrat or progressive independent, would you honestly feel completely comfortable joining a church that publically endorsed the McCain/Palin ticket back in 2008?…In most cases, probably not. Of course, this works in reverse for conservatives as well. One of the glorious parts of the gospel is that it breaks down social, political, and economic dividing walls, bringing people together people who otherwise would never come together (see Ephesians 2:14-16).  An individual Christian, say Sister Jenkins who sits on the third pew, can endorse whoever she sees politically and morally fit. However, when a church as a collective body, say the Jenkins Memorial Baptist Church endorses a political party or candidate, it can run against the unifying purposes of the gospel.

4. The Quid Pro Quo: Some pastors offer their church\’s pulpit to politicians as a personal or political favor.

So exactly what\’s wrong with reason #4? I love the Lord and I love His Church. Honestly, it deeply hurts to admit that this actually happens. However it does. All-too-often, private conversations between some pastors and local politicians can sound something like this. “Congressman (or whatever) you can speak to the congregation and we will even let you hand out some flyers if you will help us get that piece of land or contract we want once you are elected.” Perhaps there is no real need to elaborate on this one. Most of us have enough sense to know that “pimping” the pulpit off to the highest bidder is a disgusting abuse of pastoral or church authority.

5. The Pastor/Politician Identity Crisis: Some pastors\’ sermons sound so much like political action speeches, their congregations don\’t know where the role of social and political activist ends and pastor begins. These churches see no problem with having a politician in the pulpit because they virtually (sometimes literally) already have one in a clergy robe preaching to them every Sunday.

So exactly what\’s wrong with reason #5? It confuses pastoral authority and the gospel itself. This pastor/politician identity crisis is a major trend today.  There are simply too many dimensions of it to adequately deal with here. However, we might be able to scratch the surface.

There are clear boundaries between the role of a pastor and the role of a politician, social activist, and community organizer. I have already mentioned the historical importance of the “social question” in Black Church life. Given this fact, some people consider the pastorate to be the best springboard for a career in politics, social activism, or community organization. They simply use the influential and public status of the pastorate within the Black community to push a social, political, or economic agenda couched in religious symbolism and language.  Frankly, there are some people who should prayerfully reconsider seminary education and pursue a degree in law, finance, or sociology instead. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these callings. They are legitimate and necessary. However, the pastor has a distinctly different calling.

The pastor is called to feed, protect, lead, and care for God\’s precious flock through faithful and focused gospel ministry. Pastors must not “entangle” themselves with matters not directly addressed in scripture or related to the gospel (see 2 Timothy 2:4). Pastors are not called to be experts in economics, political theory, psychology, sociology, etc. They are called to be experts in the message of the Bible, the character and nature of the God it reveals, and whatever directly concerns salvation in Christ. For instance, explaining the biblical gospel and how it shapes our views of marriage and family is a first-order gospel concern. However, giving specific recommendations about the best way to legislate these matters is not. Pastors must be extremely modest in their pronouncements here because the Bible itself almost never speaks directly on matters of legislation.

We must also make a clear distinction between the gospel on the one hand, and its social and political implications on the other. The gospel has real and vital social-implications, however the gospel is not the same as its social consequences. The biblical gospel is this: Jesus Christ (the Son of God) died on the cross for our sins. God publically vindicated him by resurrecting him from the dead on the third day as King, Lord, and Judge of all creation. Anyone who turns from sin in faith towards Christ will be graciously saved from their sin through his name because of Christ\’s righteousness and not their own. (“I am moving into my final whoop y\’all”) In Christ, God promises and grants believers forgiveness of sins, adoption as his children, resurrection from the dead, and life everlasting with Him (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, Acts 3:18-19, Acts 10:39-43, and Acts 13:38-39).

This glorious good news fundamentally reshapes every area of our lives, including our politics. I for one thank God for the gospel-informed social activism of Black believers throughout America\’s history!  However, we must be careful about our order of priorities. If we remove the gospel itself from the top shelf in “pulpit proclamation” and replace it with gospel-informed politics or social activism, we risk losing everything. What do you hear or preach more about on Sunday morning—reconciliation with God through Christ or reconciliation with other people through social activism?

Some pastors have doubled as politicians because they have simply lost faith in the power of the gospel to bring real transformation to people\’s lives. They figure “if you really want to see change happen, you must engage the political process through legislation.”  I want to remind such individuals that the gospel, not its implications, but the gospel itself is still “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Mika Edmondson is an ordained Baptist minister. He holds a Master’s of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School (Nashville, TN) and is currently working toward a doctorate in Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI). He may be reached at medmond3@calvinseminary.edu.

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