Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Missing the point

I've been reading the print and TV media coverage of "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" with great interest.

Dozens of pastors around the country preached politics and religion this weekend; the Associated Press via The Chicago Tribune described the coordinated events as follows:

The plan was orchestrated by the Alliance Defense Fund, a group of conservative legal advocates who want to challenge an IRS ban on electioneering in church.

Under the IRS code, churches can distribute voter guides, run voter-registration drives, hold forums on public policy and invite politicians to speak at their congregations.

But they can't endorse a candidate, and their political activity can't be biased for or against a candidate, directly or indirectly. Churches that defy the restriction risk losing their tax-exempt status.

The rule, enacted in 1954, amounts to an unfair restriction on free speech, the Phoenix-based Alliance Defense Fund charges. The group hoped "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" would provoke an IRS investigation so it can sue to overturn the federal rules.

"Pastors have a right to speak about biblical truths from the pulpit without any fear of punishment," said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the alliance. "They shouldn't be intimidated into giving up those constitutional rights."
While mainstream media have focused on these churches potentially losing their tax-exempt status, to me, that's not the real story at all. It's that these pastors have traded their clear biblical call to preach the Word for an entanglement with Caesar.

There are few points as clear in Scripture as its call for believers to pray for their elected leaders and to submit to them. Capitol Ministries, where I'm proud to work, exists in part to preach this message:

  • It is God, not man, Who removes and establishes political leaders (Daniel 2:21).

  • God is in control of all circumstances, not just politics, and we are to be "anxious for nothing," instead praying to Him with our requests (Philippians 4:6).

  • We as Christians are called to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

  • We as Christians are also to be submissive to the worldly institutions the Lord has installed, particularly governmental ones (1 Peter 2:13-16, Titus 3:1-2).

  • We are to avoid "foolish controversies" (Titus 3:9).
  • "Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." (1 Peter 2:17).
There are also clear instructions for pastors:
  • They are to teach sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).

  • Their teaching is to have "integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us" (Titus 2:7-8).

  • They are to equip their flocks for the work of ministry and to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-14).

  • They are to be an example to their flocks in "speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Timothy 4:11) and "devote [themselves] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13).

  • They are to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness; fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which they were called; and keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach (1 Timothy 6:11-14).

  • They are also, as "soldiers" for Christ, to avoid entanglement in "civilian pursuits," keeping an eye on the greater prize (2 Timothy 2:3-4.
These are but a few examples. Given the clear Scriptural directives I've cited (and dozens more I didn't), leading a flock seems like a very big job to me, one that can and should take all of a preacher's time and focus to accomplish. The Apostle Paul lived during a period of profound governmental corruption and cruelty -- and yet, instead of preaching activism and political overthrow, he consistently wrote of our duty to dedicate ourselves to prayer and to turn from the things the world finds important. His silence on politics, coupled with exhortations to pray for our leaders, speaks volumes.

While these pastors may feel that under the U.S. Constitution they have the right to speak out on political matters despite IRS regulations to the contrary, as citizens of God's kingdom they are to live by His rules, not the world's, just as all Christians are. Further, no one is really telling them that they can’t preach politics if they feel compelled to do so – their churches would just forfeit their tax-exempt status. This is not persecution; the same IRS standard applies to any nonprofit choosing to advocate politically, not just churches.

The Great Commission instructs Christians to "[g]o 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.” Shouldn't these pastors see politicians as their mission field and be concerned about reaching them with the gospel? How does their political activism jibe with the eternal perspective and specific call placed on their lives and ministries by Scripture?

I'm talking as much to myself as anyone else here, but taking up petty political concerns at the expense of evangelism is at best a waste of time and, at worst, an idol we put in place of the God's sovereignty and lordship in our lives.

* This is posted on the Capitol Ministries' blog as well, there with a preface from ministry President and Founder Ralph Drollinger.


Unknown said...

couldn't have said it better myself!

Sharon said...

If pastors faithfully do what you listed (preach the Word, etc.) they shouldn't have to instruct their congregations on civil matters because their convictions will be informed by God.

I suspect their real desire is not for the spiritual health of their flock, but for the political power available through the delivering of votes.