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Preaching on Politics from the Pulpit

5 tips to help you preach during the political season.
Preaching on Politics from the Pulpit

The 2016 presidential campaign season has been as divisive as any we've seen in decades. In the midst of all of the political pyrotechnics, many local pastors are wondering how to properly address socio-political matters from the pulpit without threatening the peace, purity, and unity of the flock. Jesus' instructions about paying taxes to Caesar offers wisdom for how to address thorny political issues from the pulpit.

In Mark 12:13-17 some Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus and publicly ask him about his politics. They ask "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" The kensos or "poll tax" was at the center of a socio-political firestorm because it was considered the symbol of Jewish oppression. It was the annual one denarius tax, about one day's wage, that Rome imposed on every non-citizen (including every Jewish man and woman) throughout Empire to fund the continued Roman occupation of Judea. Every time they paid it, the Jews were reminded that they were a subjugated minority group under Rome's thumb.

The gospel, not the ballot box, is the power of God unto salvation.

A few decades before Jesus' ministry, Judas the Galilean (the father of the zealot movement) led a failed insurrection against the Romans fueled precisely by frustration over the poll tax. So this question is political TNT. If Jesus says "No, don't pay the poll tax" he'd be killed by the Roman authorities as a political revolutionary. But if Jesus says, "Yes, pay the poll tax" he'd lose his following since (inspired by Judas the Galilean) the Jewish masses mostly believed supporting the poll tax also meant colluding with a pagan empire and overlooking their personal and systemic suffering. Finally, if he refuses to answer altogether, he'd be branded as a moral coward more interested in saving his own skin than telling God's truth.

Based on how Jesus responded to this controversy in his day, I see five principles for preaching on politics.

Avoid political passivity from the pulpit

Many preachers would do everything in their power to avoid addressing such a politically charged issue. But Jesus met the issue head on. "Jesus said to them, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.' And they marveled at him." After calling attention to Caesar's image on the coin, Jesus says pay back to Caesar the stuff that has Caesar's image on it, and pay back to God the stuff that has God's image on it. According to Genesis 1:27 we were made in God's image. This means pay your taxes to Caesar but give your life, including your civic and political life, to God. Jesus is calling for gospel-grounded active socio-political engagement in service to God.

Today's gospel preacher must have enough moral courage to speak directly, in specific concrete details about how to give God our civic lives in this culture and society. The Lord holds us accountable to use our civic lives to honor him. We cannot throw up our hands, disengage, and take our gospel testimony with us. Our God calls us in personal and civic life to "give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" (Psalm 82:3). Remember, paying taxes was not merely a personal, moral choice. It was also a deeply social act and Jesus speaks to it as a social reality. The faithful preacher cannot care for the souls of God's people and their community without also caring deeply about and speaking to the issues that impact their lives and communities.

Avoid political primacy from the pulpit

Although one danger involves avoiding socio-political matters altogether, another danger involves putting too much confidence in politics. In the passage, Jesus also calls attention to the inscription found on the Roman Denarius. "And he said to them, 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?" The inscription on a Denarius read "Tiberias Augustus Caesar, son of the divine Augustus Caesar." This inscription reflected the cult of the empire, which held that the emperor was "divine." In other words, the Empire was ultimate, guaranteeing life, freedom, and happiness. The Cult of the Empire held that local religions existed to serve the ultimate purposes of the state. But Jesus completely reverses this. He is saying "swear allegiance to God as ultimate, and then pay your local taxes as just one expression of your ultimate allegiance to God."

Preachers go woefully wrong when they emphasize the power of the flag more than the power of the Cross. This is a huge mistake that has caused untold damage among American churches. Christ and his gospel must be seen as supreme so that the people of God are not tempted to "trust in horses and chariots." The Lord's redemptive purposes for his people will move forward no matter how the elections go in November and no matter how things go with American politics. The gospel, not the ballot box, is the power of God unto salvation. Therefore, our socio-political engagement should NEVER be the main point in any gospel sermon.

Preachers must not culminate a gospel sermon with "Therefore, you should go out and vote this way, or therefore go out and support this legislation, or therefore go out and support this Supreme Court nominee." The main point in every gospel sermon must be about what God has done in Christ to save sinners. Anything that we say about civic engagement must serve the purposes of highlighting the redemptive glory that our God has revealed in Jesus Christ. Our political lives are one temporary part of our lives that we are called to offer up to the God who saved us, not with silver or gold, horses or chariots, but with the precious blood of his Son Jesus Christ.

Avoid political parochialism from the pulpit

The passage says, "And they marveled at him." The reason the crowd marveled at Jesus was because his answer went beyond the scope of their narrow political categories. The masses didn't believe it was possible to give Caesar his due and God his due at the same time. But if they had paid closer attention to the Scriptures, they would have known better. For instance, Proverbs 24:21 says "My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise." Biblical figures such as Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah all honored pagan kings as an expression of their fear of the Lord. Contrary to popular belief, it was possible to fear the Lord and honor the king at the same time. Jesus rejected the political parochialism that the leaders tried to foist upon him. Guided by Scripture, Jesus' answer rose beyond the confines of their false socio-political dichotomies.

Gospel preachers must challenge the scope of the moral concerns represented by the political parties of the day. Informed by the revelation of God's Word, gospel preachers can see moral truth that political parties cannot. They can see the worth of unborn lives snuffed out by abortion, the worth of black lives snuffed out by police brutality, and the worth of lives ruined by lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan. For them, the sanctity of life means protecting the dignity of every life created in the image of God. Preachers become co-opted pawns of political factions when their moral message parrots the talking points of any political platform. For instance, if the only social ethical issues a preacher ever addresses are abortion, religious liberties, and gay marriage, something is seriously wrong with the scope of their concerns. These are worthy issues to address, however Scripture speaks to so many more social realities than these.

Avoid political partisanship from the pulpit

Again, our passage says, "And they marveled at him." None of the political parties there that day would have been happy with Jesus' answer since it didn't precisely identify with any of them. Jesus couldn't be categorized as a revolutionary or as an acommodationist. He avoided political partisanship in his public ministry. Preachers must do the same. They must carefully speak to issues in a way that does not put them in partisan box that is not too closely identified with any party or party platform.

Many preachers fall off the rails at precisely this point. They intentionally or unintentionally use their pastoral authority to endorse political candidates or identify specific legislative solutions that mirror party platforms. This awful tendency threatens the peace, purity, and unity of Christ's blood bought church. It makes political partisanship a litmus test for Christian orthodoxy and discourages believers from joining certain churches or even associating with other believers. Remember, whereas the Bible speaks clearly to the morality of our social circumstances, it never tells us how to legislate social solutions in a 21st century western democracy. So we must avoid making any sermon application directly about legislation. We can speak to the morality of these issues and let the Christian make informed decisions about how to apply this in the voting booth.

We must also recognize that there are diverse approaches to political issues. There are faithful believers whose love for the Lord and reading of Scriptures leads them to take a variety of social stances. We dare not think that faithful Christians can only be card carrying Republicans, or card carrying Democrats, or card carrying Independents.

Avoid political pride from the pulpit

The reason the crowd marveled at Christ was because they knew they had heard divine genius. Preaching on politics is not easy. We must approach the complex social issues of our day with humility, intentionality, and measure. Humility causes us to labor over the Scriptures, think hard, and ask for wisdom about how they apply to the complex issues of life. Pride causes us to avoid understanding complex problems and positing oversimplified solutions. An overly simplified outlook can cause people who have a different perspective to be turned off from hearing the rest of what is being proclaimed. I've been in some spaces where the preacher went on a political tangent and offered an oversimplified view of some moral issue. The last thing you want is for someone to miss the message because the preacher was led by their biased assumptions on a social topic. Of course, an over simplified understanding of the problem will evoke an oversimplified approach to the solution. Pride causes us to avoid carefully considering the context so that we can do the necessary work of seeking how to apply the biblical principles faithfully in that context. Before you speak to these issues understand the Scriptures and the context so that you can faithfully apply what the Scriptures say.

Finally, we preach in faith that the Lord will cover over our inadequacies. 2 Timothy 3:16 says "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." We know Scripture is sufficient to train us in righteous social engagement. As we preach on these issues we do it in faith that as long as we point our people to Christ and his Word the resource will be there to help them engage faithfully.

Mika Edmondson is the pastor of New City Fellowship OPC, a cross-cultural Presbyterian church in Grand Rapids, MI.

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