Politics and the Pulpit: An SBC Pastor's Perspective

How much politics belongs in the pulpit? What constitutes political speech? If it's on the news or discussed in Congress, does that mean it's political?

Freedom of religion and freedom of speech: two ideals Americans cherish, but concepts that some believe have been eroded over two centuries. A recent article on TheBlaze highlighted an ongoing debate over the relationship between the religious speech of pastors and a church’s federal tax status.

Church steeple

As non-profit organizations, churches are exempt from federal taxes, and those who give to churches are permitted to deduct those donations from their personal income taxes. That status requires that churches abstain from political campaign activity. However, some pastors have discussed political issues from the pulpit, or even endorsed—explicitly or implicitly—candidates for elected office. As a result, the IRS has threatened to revoke the tax exemption of churches whose pastors engage in what the IRS considers political speech or activity.

Thus raises the question: is such revocation a violation of the pastor’s freedom of religion and freedom of speech? According to the article, there is a movement called the “Pulpit Initiative” in which pastors are

. . . encourage[d] to preach sermons that . . . examine candidates’ stances. Aside from exploring candidate opinion, churches are encouraged to look at what Scripture says about each issue. Then, they will make specific recommendations about whether or not the congregation should vote for or against specific candidates. Following the event, each pastor lets the IRS know about his or her sermon. The hope is that making the government aware of the code violation will spark an audit. Then, the constitutionality of the Johnson Amendment can be hashed out once and for all.

The Johnson Amendment is a law passed by Congress in 1954 that “prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations (churches and charities) from engaging in campaign activity.” As such, churches and their leaders are prohibited from participating in political activities or engaging in certain political rhetoric.

As I read the article and familiarized myself with the movement, I realized that there are three key issues involved in this debate: the tax law regarding non-profit organizations, the definition of political speech, and the work of a pastor.

Tax Law: Organizations vs. We the People

Should a church’s non-profit status be in jeopardy due to the conduct of its members or leaders? This is the question surrounding the Johnson Amendment as it relates to the First Amendment. The First Amendment states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” Individuals are free to believe as they choose, practice those beliefs, and express their views.

Because these rights are granted to all Americans, some wonder why the IRS would seem to intrude on those freedoms of religious leaders. The argument goes that by revoking tax-exempt status to churches based on the speeches of their pastors, the IRS infringes upon the pastor’s God-given freedoms as outlined in the Constitution.

This debate, however, begs two key issues: the church vs. the pastor, and tax status vs. freedom. Is the local church synonymous with its leaders, or are they distinct in the eyes of the law? While I would argue that the two are distinct, that is a question best left for legislatures and the courts. Nevertheless, when discussing the tax status of an institution, it is critical to clarify the legal relationship between church leaders as individuals and the church as a non-profit institution.

Along with the distinction between the person and the institution, one must also consider the difference between tax status and freedom. While the Constitution outlines the individual’s freedoms of religion and speech, it does not guarantee an individual or institution freedom from taxation. Again, it is best left up to lawmakers and judges to determine the precise relationship between tax status and Constitutional rights.

However the law defines those relationships, the next major issue in the church-IRS debate is what constitutes political speech. What can a pastor or church leader discuss from the pulpit?

Speak No Evil . . . or Politics

In 2007, two US Senators proposed a bill (S. 1105) that many argued would be used to silence sermons against select groups, namely homosexuals, deeming the sermons as hate speech; the pastors preaching those sermons could face prison for committing hate crimes. The bill ultimately died.

Meanwhile, the IRS continues to threaten churches with revocation of their non-profit status because of supposed political speech by their pastors. But what constitutes “political speech”?

There are many issues that are viewed as political which also are doctrinal. The two most prominent are gay rights and abortion. The Bible discusses the origin and value of life. It states that man is the pinnacle of God’s creation, made in God’s image, and that all human life is precious, whether born or unborn. Scripture also teaches that homosexuality is a sin, a perverse abomination in the eyes of God.

If a pastor preaches on those passages, is he engaging in political speech merely because these issues are debated in the political arena? No. The pastor is teaching Scripture. Whether or not one agrees with the doctrines advocated, when a pastor preaches from the Bible, his speech is doctrinal, not political.

When trying to determine if a church is engaging in political campaign activity, we need to keep in mind that there are many religious and doctrinal issues that cross over into the political realm. Such issues are mutual to both, but exclusive to neither.

The larger question, beyond the classification of a pastors speech, is about the pastor’s purpose. As an individual, a pastor is free to express his political views. But as a pastor, what is his role, his duty, his mission within the church?

The Pastor’s Focus

My particular experiences and family history admittedly instills a bit of a bias toward the United States. My father is retired Air Force, having served during the Persian Gulf War and smaller military engagements preceding it. My grandfather fought in the Pacific front during World War Two and then defended our country in Korea. My great uncle served in Europe during World War Two. Other members of my family served in the military, and some continue to serve in law enforcement.

As a child, my family was stationed in West Germany for five years. As six and eight year old children, my sister and I were privileged to visit East Berlin years before the Berlin Wall fell. We witnessed the changing of the Soviet guards, saw the cameras, and experienced the sense of evil emanating from that place.

We also visited the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. I still remember the images and pictures. I saw the place where the Nazis constructed a mass grave for the Jews they murdered. I saw the gas chambers and crematories. I recall the statue erected there depicting Jews trapped in the barbed wire fence, shot and killed by the Nazis for trying to escape the horrors of that place. I will never forget the emotions, the sadness, and the anger over the evil of the Holocaust I encountered in Dachau.

Because of this background and these experiences, I am very proud to live in the United States. I cherish the freedoms our Constitution outlines. As an American, I believe the freedoms of speech and freedom of religion are sacrosanct. But as pastor, my role is not found in the Constitution or personal experiences. My pastoral duties are outlined in Scripture.

While I and other ministers have freedom of speech, we also have a specific focus as pastor. Four passages outline that focus: Matthew 28:19-20, John 21:15-17, 2 Timothy 2:2, and 2 Timothy 4:2.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20, ESV)

This passage, also known as the “Great Commission” teaches that all believers, including the pastor, are to “make disciples.” This involves both evangelism and discipleship. When Jesus told his followers to baptize people, he was referencing conversions, people coming to faith in Christ. This requires the Gospel be shared (evangelism). The fact that Jesus tells them to “go” into “all nations” indicates that believers are to take the Gospel of Christ to the world. While the pastor generally does not go to all the nations or people groups of the world, he is to focus on evangelizing those within his community, and helping others evangelize the world.

Not only must the pastor to evangelize, he is to train believers (discipleship). The second aspect of making disciples is “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The pastor is to teach believers God’s Word. He is to make Scripture understood and show how it applies to a believer’s life. He is to teach Christian doctrines and the Christian life to believers.

Jesus instructed his followers to make disciples of others, and this applies unquestionably to pastors. Part of the pastor’s role, part of his focus, is disciple making. But the pastor serves unique role as a disciple maker: he is a shepherd.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17, ESV)

Following his resurrection, Jesus explained to Peter the role of pastor: he is to shepherd the people of God. The three principal statements in this passage are:

  • “Feed my lambs” (v. 15)
  • “Tend my sheep” (v. 16)
  • “Feed my sheep” (v. 17)

For a good discussion on the meaning of each phrase and how they relate, see The Great Physician by G. Campbell Morgan. For this article, though, it is sufficient to highlight two aspects of these statements. First, Jesus viewed his followers as his sheep. They belong to Jesus (“my lambs/sheep”) and as such have a relationship with him. They depend on and follow him (“lambs/sheep”). Believers need someone to care for them, love them, support them, help them, and teach them.

Second, Jesus charged Peter—and all pastors—with overseeing the flock; the pastor is the shepherd. He is to care for, love, teach, lead, and protect the flock. Jesus teaches that the pastor’s focus is shepherding Jesus’ people, under the authority and power of Christ. Exactly how does he do this? Paul’s second letter to his protégé, Timothy, addresses this.

[A]nd what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Tim 2:2, ESV)

The second chapter of Paul’s letter outlines the “discipling method” or “multiplication principle.” Paul instructs Timothy that, as pastor, he is to take that which he learned, train others, who in turn would teach others. Following this method, discipleship becomes perpetual. Paul’s instruction reveals that the pastor must focus on training others in Christian doctrines in order that they will repeat the process. As a result, the body of believers matures spiritually and grows the kingdom of God.

[P]reach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Tim 4:2, ESV)

Within the same letter, Paul provides the fourth thing on which a pastor should focus. Paul directs Timothy to “preach the word.” The pastor is to focus on preaching God’s Word. He is to preach it at all times. In preaching the Word, the pastor addresses sin, corrects false doctrine, and leads others in right living and right beliefs. In all things, the pastor must proclaim the Word of God to others.

The pastor, as an American, has the freedom to express political beliefs; he has the Constitutional right to talk politics in church. However, the pastor’s focus is not found in the law, but in the Word. According to Scripture, the pastor is to focus on teaching the Word to others so that they mature in Christ and becoming disciple makers. The pastor’s focus is ministry, not politics. His work is growing disciples, not electing politicians. He is to promote Christ, not forward a political agenda.

As I read TheBlaze’s article, I contemplated on the work and mission of a pastor. Is he to lead his congregation to support certain political candidates or to follow Christ? Is a pastor called by God to promote a political agenda or the kingdom of God? As I thought about Scripture and what it says about pastoral ministry, I recalled that, although a pastor is free to express his political views, his calling is to focus on the Gospel.

As a pastor, I strive to teach and apply God’s Word in individuals’ lives, both my own and others. I work to make Christ known to the lost, and make him more known to the believers. While I encourage the congregation to register and vote, I never as pastor endorse any candidate or political party, either explicitly or implicitly. Furthermore, I do not allow a candidate or party to use the church or have access to church rolls for political purposes. My focus as pastor is not making elected officials, but making disciples of Christ.

Does this mean that a pastor is prohibited from discussing the views of candidates as they relate to Scripture? Is he muzzled from mentioning if a candidate holds views contrary to biblical doctrine? Neither the law nor Scripture forbid a pastor from making his congregants aware of whether a candidate’s views contradict or align with God’s Word. Many preachers throughout our nation’s history (e.g., the “Black Robe Brigade,” Martin Luther King, Jr.) preached sermons on individual freedom, liberty, and even called for people to stand up against oppression. The focus, though, remained the proclamation of the Gospel. Additionally, it is one thing to preach against evils such as racism and tyranny, and it is another to become a pulpiteer for political agendas or candidates.

Pastors should worry less about being political and more on being biblical. There is a time to stand up and speak out against social or political wrongs. However, politics and political agendas should never become the goal of a sermon, as it seems is the case with the “Pulpit Initiative.” Instead, the goal of a sermon should be making God’s truth and God’s Word known and understood.

About John L. Rothra
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