church and state
One week away! The nation will choose a new president and the state of North Carolina will choose a new governor one week from now. Here is an article for you to consider in the days leading up to election day. Many of you may not have time to read the entire thing right away. However, I hope you will take a few minutes when you can to check out some thoughts I have on how we are to think about the election process, especially as followers of Christ.
The Church and Elections
Do people really need to be reminded that the presidential elections are coming up? I don’t think so! With all the media blitz and saturating presence of political ads, is it possible that there is anyone who does not realize that voting day is coming soon? Yet as a pastor, I get a lot of pressure to use my influence to insist that people go to the polls and vote the ‘right way.’ Some zealous souls even suggest that I must tell everyone how to vote. Others go so far as to insinuate that I am a coward if I am not willing to sacrifice the tax-exempt standing of the church in order to take a strong political stand.
So, am I a coward? Do I fear the long arm of the IRS intruding into the business of the church? Or are there other reasons I resist taking candidate advocacy and political commentary into the pulpit? Might I have principled objections, or am I simply petrified about the governmental repercussions? Obviously people will draw their own conclusions about that, whether about me or those like me who have chosen not to use pastoral position to propagate political agendas. Let’s consider these questions further.
Am I Afraid of Losing Tax Exemptions for the Church?
Frankly, if there were no such thing as tax exemptions for churches, I still would not use my position as a pastor to become an advocate for political purposes. No, it is not from fear, but from principle that I choose never to push a purely political agenda in my role as shepherd of the flock of God. The good favor or censure of government makes no difference. Would it make any difference in whether or how you give if you could no longer get tax credit for it? For faithful followers of Jesus Christ, that should have no bearing on simple obedience to biblical stewardship practices! Well, neither does the government have any bearing on why I do not take politics into the pulpit.
Are There Principled Objections Behind This Practice?
As a man who takes seriously my calling and responsibility to exalt Jesus Christ above all things, and to labor to make the truth of the gospel and His word known and understood, I believe that I must protect the pulpit from any other agenda that would draw the church away from those endeavors. To mix human political propositions with eternal truth from God’s Word elevates the former and diminishes the latter. It gives unequal subjects an equal level of prominence and that I cannot do.
Two areas in particular have influenced my thinking. First of all, no political party represents in a consistent way the interests of the kingdom of heaven. So I am not inclined to endorse that with which I cannot fully agree. But secondly, I am very much inclined to speak to the moral issues that shape the debate and find their way into the positions adopted by the candidates and their respective parties. Therefore, I cannot side with a political party line, but I cannot neglect the moral obligation to speak to moral and biblical issues.
Illegitimate characterizations of political opponents. In a two-party system, neither party can survive the litmus test of biblical faithfulness in all points. In recent decades, the way each party characterizes its opponent have become cliché. We are regularly reminded of the differences in stereotypical portrayals that are nothing more than shamelessly superficial caricatures:
- “Compassionate Democrats” are for the poor and the victims or injustice, while the “selfish Republicans” care only about the rich and self-protection for the wealthy.
- “Principled Republicans” are for family values, moral purity and are pro-life while “unprincipled Democrats” support the destruction of family, endorse sexual promiscuity and are adamant about the right to abortion.
Are these stereotypes valid representations of all members of either party? Of course not! But in order to demonize the opposing party, they serve well to attack one another in the most negative light possible. Advocating a party or endorsing a candidate from the pulpit who is expected to represent the party platform, regardless of its tenets, does not seem prudent–not out of fear of governmental reprisal, but because the name of Christ risks being tarnished by some rather unholy associations!
Cowardice, then, is not an accusation that gives me much concern. Being forced to choose between biblical issues does give me pause. Do I have to decide between a party advocating a pro-life platform or caring for the poor? For Christians that should never be an either/or question. Moral purity or equal pay for equal work? Again, they should both be concerns of any follower of Christ. …good, affordable health care or strong family values? We want both!
Followers of Christ seldom have a clean path to follow in a two-party system. What happens is that we tend to make our judgments on which candidates may do the least harm to some of our values and the most good for others. How you make that determination largely depends on what influences have shaped your understanding of the relative values of the various biblical principles that are at stake. Followers of Christ among African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Whites often reach different conclusions about what matters the most, even though they share the same biblical foundations of faith. Why? The issues facing them in their experiences of life shape their thinking in ways that may not make sense to someone with a different background and experience. But admit it or not, the conclusions Bible-believing folks are supposed to reach are seldom as simplistic as the sound bites in the debates and political ads try to imply!
Therefore, taking the opportunity to use the influence of the pulpit to advocate a particular party or candidate does not appear to be consistent with my role as an advocate for the righteousness of Christ in all walks of life and at all points of biblical faithfulness.
Legitimate Biblical Concerns with Political Implications. Speaking to the issues that have a bearing on living out biblical faith in a pluralistic culture is another story. I should indeed declare that racial prejudice and injustice are an offense to God, just as I should proclaim that abortion breaks the heart of the One who knit that life together in the mother’s womb. I must never shrink back from attacking personal and corporate greed and materialism any more than I can back off in opposing sexual immorality (whether it shows up in the form of same sex or opposite sex manifestations).
On many other subjects I have personal preferences about how the government should function. The role of political and government leaders in taxation generates an extraordinary amount of air time and frequently dominates the debates. But is there a biblical mandate violated by big government concerns versus small government concerns? Possibly. If small government abandons the essential care required for the public good, then it does positive harm by doing less than it should. If big government sticks its nose into the spiritual lives and convictions of the people, then it has overstepped its role and should be reined in. How much or how little we are taxed may be a hard point to argue from Scripture. But I promise you that many will try!
What I am pointing out is that there are biblical concerns that the church must address that have an impact on the right and wrong practices of the nation. Those can and should be addressed…or have been addressed through the course of its normal ministry of equipping people to walk in the truth. But there are other issues that people have strong opinions about that do not rise to the level of biblical conviction and really do not have a place in a pulpit ministry that has been set apart for the proclamation of the gospel and the eternal truths of God’s Word.
Should Christians Be Encouraged to Vote?
Personally, I believe Christians should vote. Is it a matter of biblical conscience that they do? Not that I can see in Scripture. But as those who seek to be salt and light in a tasteless and dark culture, I see the privilege of voting for our leaders as a unique opportunity to participate in the process of speaking up for what we value, who we believe upholds those same values best, and how we want to see the nation governed.
So unless you have some prevailing concern that overcomes the privilege of participating in the selection of our leaders, I think it is prudent for followers of Christ to exercise the privilege given to them in a free society. Although our citizenship is in heaven, we are still on assignment here. As ambassadors for Christ, why not take every advantage available to us to exert influence on how our society conducts itself?
There are extensive studies on what our role can be as those who are in the world and yet not of the world. Entire books have been written exploring the political arena from the perspective of a follower of Christ. Suffice it to say that I do intend to vote and encourage other believers to do the same. Will it make a difference? How do you ever know when you do something good and right if it will ultimately make a difference? The motive behind doing what is good and right arises from a dual sense of responsibility and privilege.
So get out and vote. Familiarize yourself with the issues as best you can and determine which candidates best represent what you understand to be the best ideals and highest values. There are no ideal candidates, only candidates who on their best day represent their own ideals. Character matters. Ideology matters. Past records of accomplishment in leadership matter. Consistency of belief and practice matters. After weighing those things carefully and prayerfully, make your way into one of those little booths and take a deep breath and cast your vote.
You will not hear me taking time from our gospel-centered pulpit ministry to trace out all the possibilities, nor endorsing candidates who have spent billions of dollars to make their names and positions known to you. What you will hear me say is, “Be kingdom minded people and in every way possible take your stand for that which brings the greatest glory to God.” In the case of the upcoming elections, that may very likely mean that you cast a vote and choose as wisely as you can those who will lead our government for the next few years.
Just one final note. Whoever comes out on top will not unseat the One who sits on the throne of all creation. Therefore, don’t allow your peace of mind and your hope for the future to be tied too closely to the outcome of these elections. Certainly whoever is chosen will impact the direction we head as a nation, but the ultimate design of a Sovereign God will still go forward. So whatever you do, do it for the glory of His name in a manner consistent with the revealed nature of His will. He will be honored and you will be able to be at peace! The one thing we do know is that whoever assumes the leadership roles in government must be able to count on our prayers. At the end of the day, after the last vote has been counted, we get to undergird our leaders with faithful prayers of intercession. To do anything less would make us untrue to the same biblical faithfulness we are calling for in those we choose to lead. Christ will still be on the throne when all is said and done, so as His people, in this as in all things, may we be found faithful!
As I promised yesterday, I want to offer some perspectives on the state of the nation and have outlined seven ways to describe where we are and why that has left us in a very unsettled place as a people. Today is the first of those seven assessments.
A Secular Nation
If we understand the word ‘secular’ properly, most fundamentally it means to leave God out. Intentionally leaving Him out as a protest of defiance or statement of atheistic/agnostic thinking normally comes to mind when we identify something as secular. Unintentionally leaving Him out as sign of careless indifference or as evidence of an underlying absence of belief perhaps plays a larger role than we might think at first. Yet there is at least one other source of secular thinking and that is the worldview that restricts God to categories related only to faith but isolates Him from what is often described as the ‘real world’ of daily living.
Intentionally leaving God out dismisses Him as a non-entity, so insignificant to perceptions of reality that pushing Him aside does not even arise from a conscious act, but is the result of no thought even given to Him at all. Unintentionally leaving God out often occurs when statements of faith are kept separate from practical living—one confined to being, the other to doing—one rooted in faith, the other in fact—all of which are unacceptable dichotomies from a biblical perspective. The result is a ‘functional atheism,’ living your life and making your choices as if God did not, in fact, exist at all. Separatistic thinking buys the premise that we can divide the universe into mutually exclusive categories which have come to be understood in a variety of ways, the most common language describing the split as one between the secular and the sacred.
Once we begin to see the impact of this divide, we can understand how the nation has made a dramatic swing to the secular view of life and tries to convince itself and everyone else that faith issues belong on one level and real life issues on another.
Another helpful breakdown of this shows the current trend toward a split between values and facts.
Private, individual choices/Subjective/Relativistic/Belief
Public, scientific knowledge/Objective/Absolute/Rational
Armed with this understanding of the way the world is, is it surprising that this way of thinking has come to dominate the landscape of how people view life? They see private preferences based on non-rational beliefs as opposed to what they cling to as the completely neutral public realm of rational knowledge–‘empirically proven facts’ (which I say with tongue firmly placed in cheek!). Consequently, secularists believe morality has no place in the public square when it depends upon anything other than facts. Faith is ruled out of order because it is viewed as non-cognitive and depends upon that which cannot be proven scientifically for its conclusions.
Hence the secularizing of the nation. The rules are made inviolable and constructed to prohibit the possibility of considering that behind the ‘accepted facts’ are beliefs that are just as subjective and relativistic as anything relegated to the values level. For example, people assume the innate goodness of man (based on what empirical evidence?), or others make assumptions about the origin of the world and human race (for all its variations, it all boils down to a faith statement of either a Creator or a Cosmic accident—neither possibly proven in a laboratory). So unfairly dismissing faith in God and assuming belief in Him and His truth is not relevant to the practical affairs of the public life of the nation, the culture rushes to defend factual foundations that ultimately also depend on faith in the unprovable.
Christians join in the perpetuation of this charade and allow themselves to be intimidated by the secular culture into a silent complicity with the values/facts split and the sacred/secular divide. As long as we do nothing to propose sound alternatives to the existing worldview, we will remain as we have become—a secular nation. We are becoming more so with each successive generation being indoctrinated by secular minds, guaranteeing a secular future where the voice of God has been effectively silenced in the public square.
**For more information on this, Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey is a great resource. The charts here were suggested by some like these in her book and from the works of Francis Schaeffer, specifically How Shall We Then Live.