04 March 2016

of preachers and politicians

(Or, The Gap Between Jeffress and Lucado Explained by a Pastor Who Has Met Neither of Them)

I can still remember quite vividly the encounter I had when, in the church entry after the morning service, a visibly upset woman moved towards me with a determined look on her face. Her words were clear, "I am so often blessed by your sermons. But, let me tell you, don't get political up there." In that moment I could not for the life of me figure out what she was talking about, at least in a way that would call for such a reaction. We spoke for a few moments, though I was unable to convince her that I do not, as a rule, preach politics. I did make it clear, however, that I would preach the gospel, and if our overly-politicized culture steps onto that road, then it would probably get run over.

I would find out later that this particular woman, who was a retired school teacher, had been actively involved in some tug-of-war that was happening between the teacher's union and the school board. I didn't even have children in that school district, and was unaware of the issue. But I made a reference to education as a whole and she simply thought the two were connected. That conversation was an important reminder that no matter what the preacher may say, there is always a translation of sorts as it is heard and understood through the filter of everyday life that any particular listener may have.

There are always a multitude of variables and factors to consider in the preaching experience, and I have had many moments where public discourse, political positioning, and cultural issues have been a part of the gospel message I have sought to convey. However, I stand in a firm commitment that I will not endorse (publicly or privately) a political candidate on any level, nor will I share my personal opinion on legislative or judicial issues. (Since I have strong opinions on such things, there are days when this can be more challenging than others.) But I will speak the truth of the gospel in love, and I will understand that it will get me into enough trouble without become a political mouthpiece or commentator.

This is why I have difficulty with pastors, mostly in large churches, making their political endorsements known, often going so far as to use the pulpit as a soap box – either themselves, or by inviting candidates to stump during morning worship. It is not hard for us to understand why pastors do this: it reinforces themselves as culturally relevant and influential and successful. Such activity masks the desire to "win" with doing a good work for the kingdom. And, for some reason, it viewed as an extension of the work of the gospel – even it is not.

Robert Jeffress is pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, and has had no problem telling his congregation of about 10,000 that they should vote for Trump in the upcoming election. This is ludicrous on two levels: first, the body of believers who gather for worship should not be subjected to a campaign rally, even if it refers to scripture; second, it is highly questionable that a Christian minister should openly endorse someone who is as devoid of character as Donald Trump.

When people endorse candidates they are signing-off with what that particular person stands for, and when a pastor endorses there is, attached to this, a sense of moral and ethical agreement. So, Mr Jeffress endorses a man who has openly and publicly demeaned women, is advocating that our military engage in illegal actions (war crimes), repeatedly threatens those who question his "facts," belittles others with crude comments while dodging discussions of substance, and most recently sought to clarify the size of his anatomy in the last presidential debate. (This list could continue, but that is far enough to make the point.) I might question what sort of a congregation Mr Jeffress is leading, or what it means to be a "Values Voter," since he speaks at their events. Instead, I will keep to my primary point – this is the sort of man he has chosen to use his position as a pastor in the church of Jesus Christ to endorse to those who are under his spiritual care.

(No, there is no morally perfect candidate, which might even give us that much more of a reason not to endorse from our pulpits.)

At the same time, another pastor in Texas, Max Lucado of Oak Hills Church, a San Antonio congregation of about 4000 people, has published a challenge to the words and behavior of Trump, asking for "decency" to be a part of this political process. He does not make this a political discussion, but rather a cultural critique that rises from the standards in scripture. Based upon the reactions of Trump and his followers, I can only imagine what sort of angered responses Mr Lucado has received. But such is the work of the gospel – not to endorse or defame a candidate, but to bring the values of the kingdom to the discussion, even when (especially when) they run against the grain of culture.

There is a gap that exists between these two approaches, and the state of our nation makes the difference stark. Of course the gospel message will divide – Jesus was straight with us on that. But it divides as it reveals one kingdom coming against another; and it divides, oddly enough, when the followers of one kingdom work out God's love, not cultural anger and frustration. Considering Jesus' mission we see that he intentionally did not seek political change – he was too radical for that, and he knew that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. His followers have always done best when they have followed on the path of changing hearts and minds rather than candidates and court cases.

The Founders themselves were always cautious that we should keep our priorities in order, and this is why you find God atop anything that is Country. Yes, they had a synthesized faith and freedom understanding that looks different that ours today, but theirs was a calling to follow the Almighty in their quest of patriotism. What has happened instead is that the modern preacher who seeks to conform to the image of the patriot has forgotten that we are to be conformed instead to the image of Christ. This is true for all of us. We cannot shroud the church with the flag, making the radical message of the gospel subservient to the whims of election cycles. In so doing we damage the work of eternity which has already been placed in the human heart. Shrouding the church with the flag is tantamount to laying it to rest in the ground, for the true work of the church is, at that point, done.

There are many pastors who are choosing to break their silence as I have just done, and the temptation to take this too far is going to be great. But let us remember the role of the pulpit and the congregation to facilitate transformation through the work of the Spirit upon human hearts. All that we gain or lose outside of that wither away, like the flowers of the field when the breath of the Almighty blows upon them.

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