When it comes to the church and political involvement, I live by some convictions that I formed a little over ten years ago. These apply to the church (i.e., to me as a pastor, our governing board and our official programs), not to individual believers. I believe in full involvement in the political process for individual believers. For most of us, it means being informed, voting and promoting our political convictions. For a few, it means running for office, volunteering in political campaigns, a career in politics or some other forms of deeper involvement. (I also have no problem with parachurch organizations taking political policy stands, especially in areas of their expertise.)
But the church is another story. My conviction is that the church should steer clear from political policies whenever possible. The church should speak to the issues, the problems, the injustices, etc. But it should not promote particular policy solutions to those problems and issues. I’m not talking about promoting particular candidates or parties. I’m talking about specific political solutions to problems or issues we care about or our nation faces.
Why not get involved in particular policy solutions to the issues of our day? Three principles:*
- The Principle of Expertise: The church lacks the necessary expertise to sort through policy solutions and make recommendations. Many individuals in the church have that kind of expertise, and we encourage them to get fully invested and involved in shaping policy. (That's one of the ways Christians can be salt and light in our world.) But the church lacks the expertise to put its stamp of approval on policy solutions. Let’s say the church is concerned about the poor, and that one of the problems the church is concerned about is housing for the poor. And let’s just say that a politician or advocacy group is advocating that banks be required to make a certain amount of low interest loans to people who qualify. Does the church really have the expertise to judge whether that solution is a good one or not? I don’t think so.
- The Principle of Discretion: The church must be careful that in its advocacy it doesn’t choose a bad solution that winds up discrediting the gospel. Let’s say that several large churches get behind this proposal for low interest loans. But in the process banks start experiencing an inordinate number of defaults, and the government winds up having large deficits from trying to rescue the banks it forced to comply. And let’s say the policy is later discredited. In fact, a nonpartisan study indicates that it was a wrong-headed policy that helped no one and hurt a lot of people. How does this reflect on the gospel? How does this impact the church’s mission to proclaim the Good News and demonstrate the rule of God through acts of love and compassion?
- The Principle of Conscience: Christians who believe in the authority of Scripture can generally agree on the overall issues and problems. But those same Christians are all over the map when it comes to policy solutions. For example, I think we can all agree that murder is a sin. (We can agree on that, can’t we?) Murder, then, is the issue. What is the best political policy solution? Should the government’s role be primarily to prevent or punish? What prevention programs work best? What punishments are just? A church is standing on high ground when it speaks to the issue. And it should address issues, even controversial ones. (By the way, when the church speaks to these kinds of issues, it should do so with gentleness, humility and respect.) But when the church gets behind one policy solution, it unnecessarily violates the conscience of believers who disagree with or oppose that solution or who actively promote a different policy solution.
The one exception I can think of where the church should speak to policies is when a policy is actively unjust. A policy that promotes injustice and requires immoral behavior should be condemned by the church. For example, forced abortion for population control, slavery (yes, slavery is still an issue in many countries), ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, racist laws and many other such issues can and should be addressed. There may be other exceptions, but this is the only one I can come up with. (A case may be made for speaking out against policies that allow unjust or immoral behavior, but I'm not sure on that one.)
These are the convictions that guide my actions as a pastor and leader in the church. My convictions are not driven by tax laws, notions concerning the separation of church and state or most of the other ways these issues are usually framed in public discussion. It puts me out of the mainstream of thought and practice on political and religious right and left. Some of our members have castigated me for not taking a stand on policy solutions (or problems framed from a policy solution perspective). I’m interested in your thoughts.
*The three reasons listed are adapted from John Stott, “Should the Church Take Political Action?” This article can be accessed through Zondervan.