I saw an article the other day titled, ‘what if I disagree with my pastor on politics?’ The article itself was fine, absolutely nothing wrong with it. But I found it an interesting question being asked altogether. Interesting because I can hardly understand why it matters whether you agree with your pastor on politics or not.
First and foremost, it pays to remember that most pastors are not trained to understand politics. That isn’t to say they can’t have political opinions or form credible political views. It is just to say, they have not been trained to offer political analysis nor have they been appointed to their post to make political pronouncements. Like everyone else, they can have their opinions. But it bears remembering, their opinions (for the most part) are no more expert than yours or anyone else’s. Unless your pastor has a degree in politics, political science or a relevant historical field centred on politics, as free as they are to form political opinions, they just aren’t qualified to act as an expert on such matters, no matter how forcefully they might make their case.
But let’s just assume your pastor is one of those rare beasts – like me – who has degrees in all the relevant fields and therefore can cack on about those things with whatever authority they might offer. Even if their analysis might be better formed and more considered, it doesn’t mean that theirs is the only credible understanding of how politics, philosophy and theology might interact. These things are called arts (and not sciences) for a reason. That doesn’t mean there aren’t right and wrong answers, analyses and conclusions to be drawn. But it does mean these things are discerned and understood differently and might not lead to the kind of scientific certainties and proofs some might be hoping for.
There are, of course, political matters that are inevitable in the church. We cannot consider the phrase ‘Jesus is King’ to be anything other than political. If Jesus is the name high over all, that does have some implications for how we understand government authority. That doesn’t mean there aren’t various ways of understanding it and working those implications out. It is simply to state they are inevitably there. There are times we just can’t avoid political statements in church like that.
Then there are what we might call ‘straight line issues’. There are things the Bible clearly says, in no uncertain terms, are sinful and wrong; things that the world might want to encourage. Again, there may be many ways of understanding what to do in the face of them as far as society is concerned, but it is impossible not to take a political stance on them when we pronounce them to be sinful. Minimally, we might be encouraging our people away from things the government would encourage them into. Again, that is an inevitable political stance we take.
When these sorts of issues arise, often the disagreements in church do not stem from whether the matter is right or wrong for the Christian. Rather, what tends to lead to objections and arguments is the approach Christians ought to take to these things. This is important to understand because, more often than not, we are not disagreeing as believers of what matters are sinful for us. We are not disagreeing about what we might want to encourage (or not encourage) people to do. We are disagreeing about how we think these things should be applied to wider society.
So, take Gay Marriage as an example. Leaving aside those churches that would call themselves affirming – who are beyond the scope of this particular post – most Bible-believing Evangelical churches do not have a hard time discerning Jesus’ teaching on that matter. They are aware of what he said and that it would not be appropriate for professing believers to pursue this, hard as they understand that teaching of Jesus to be. There is an agreement on what sin actually is and, therefore, what is appropriate for believers in their congregations to pursue or otherwise.
The disagreement tends to centre more around how this applies to wider society. Should Christians expect unbelievers to live like Christians? Should we stand against this in wider society or allow people to pursue this, even if we think it to be unfaithful before Christ? Should we seek to stand against the tide of secularism and preserve Judeo-Christian values more broadly in society or was it always a mistake to consider us a “Christian country”? Questions like these abound and how we answer them will affect what we think is permissible for wider society. Some would argue we should stand against Gay Marriage simply because it is sinful. Others would argue we should stand against it because of our understanding of the common good and views of sin. Others still, recognising it is sinful, do not think we should stop the world from doing what it will even if they will not be advocating for it in the church. There are various other ways of working this out too.
The same can be said over a whole host of issues. Take what the Bible says about our need to help the poor. What are we to do? Does that mean we must seek by political means to help the poor in order to fulfil that command? Does that mean through public services and taxation or through private initiative and charities (or both)? Are we only obligated to help the poor personally or should we do it corporately as a church? Is there any obligation on the church to seek the good of these things in wider society? If so, how? Ought we to vote for people who we think will best achieve this end or not?
The point here isn’t to say which of these approaches is right or wrong (if any). It is simply to note that, more often than not, our disagreements are not over the nature of sin. Nor are they over what is or isn’t good for people to pursue. They are really to do with how we think these things should be approached more broadly and, specifically, whether and how that should be done apart from the church. In the crudest sense, we are discussing application and approach. This is helpful when it comes to our political disagreements. It is one thing if our church or pastor is denying that a thing is sinful altogether, or the Bible doesn’t say something it does, it is quite another if we disagree how that particular issue ought to be handled in the public square by the church. Disagreeing over the latter is, ultimately, a much lesser issue than agreeing on the biblical reality of the thing itself.
Then, of course, there are those things that are not straight line issues. They are matters that we may come to conclusions on based on bringing together various biblical principles, but there is not direct line from a single command to the position we take. So, the Bible clearly does not tell us whether Anarchy, Libertarianism, Conservatism, Liberalism, Socialism or Communism is the political framework we ought to be pursuing. Similarly, it does not tell us which particular political parties we ought to vote for. Nor does it tell us what approach to taxation is most appropriate. Neither does it spell it out exactly what our immigration policy ought to be. In all these things, there might well be biblical principles that push us in one or other direction, but in the end, we have to admit in all these areas the Bible does not expressly lay out a position to which all Christians are wedded.
When we are dealing with differences of this order, we have to have a lot of charity and grace for other believers who work things out differently to us. All too often, these sorts of political differences get raised to the level of first order issues that end up dividing churches. Can there be anything sadder than churches dividing over matters that the Bible does not expressly demand of all believers?
And what if you disagree with your pastor over one of these issues? You may have a fully formed biblical ground for why you take the view you do. But then, your pastor may have some pretty good grounds for why he takes the position he does too. We have to be able to say, where the Bible doesn’t speak univocally or unequivocally, that we don’t insist brothers and sisters who disagree with how we work those things out – no matter how clear sighted we might feel we are on these matters – are not having their consciences bound where scripture doesn’t bind them.
We similarly have to be careful, particularly where our churches are multicultural, that we don’t assume a political worldview that is bound so tightly to one particular culture. We might well be a church in England, but among our people are British, American, Nigerian, Cameroonian, Kenyan, Iranian, Afghan, Kurds, Latvians, Chinese and a few others. We may well know that the centre ground in Britain is a little to the left of the centre ground in the USA, but do we have any clue how either compares to Nigeria or Cameroon? Even where we do know the political background, we have to be careful as we throw around terms like “government overreach” and “corruption”, knowing that these things have considerably different out workings and understandings in Africa and the Middle East. We need to be careful that we don’t pronounce the horrors and terrors of the awful political system we find ourselves in whilst speaking to people fleeing totalitarian regimes who might question our understanding of these things. Minimally, we cannot just assume that our political assumptions – which will necessarily be culturally bound – will be the same assumptions of believers from other countries.
In the end, far from being a weakness, I think it is a great strength when the church can happily incorporate all manner of political views and positions among its members and yet unite around the gospel. It should be possible for the Socialist and the Libertarian, the Labour voter and the Tory, the Lib Dem and the UKIP, the Republican and the Democrat, to all sit in the same church and worship the same God and be united around the same gospel. Far from being a cause to leave a church, it strikes me as a wonderful lived example of the gospel when we sit in the same church with people whom we seriously disagree politically. It is a great gospel witness when we can say, not that politics isn’t important, but that there is something so much more important. There is a kingdom that necessarily comes before our politics, to which we and every other member of our church belong and for whose good we want to work first and foremost.
Which is to say, so what if you disagree with your pastor on politics? Praise God that you and this man, despite your disagreement on who to vote for and why, will be in eternity together because you know who to worship and why. You may have different allegiances to political parties, but you both have a higher allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for you both to bring you into fellowship together. Praise God that the Lord Jesus doesn’t discriminate against us even though he never voted for or on the political party, candidate or issue that you currently deem vital. And let’s all leave a little bit of room for the possibility that we might just be wrong. Maybe our political calculations, well reasoned and considered as we think they are, will prove on the last day to either be far less important than we thought or point blank wrong when stood before the throne of Christ. Such as we recognise that possibility, let us extend a bit of grace to one another over these things too.
To put it another way, you disagree with your pastor on politics. So what?