Speaking out on political and social issues requires special courage for pastors, many of whom walk a tightrope entwined of strands both practical and theological.
Persecution of churches is a subtle but very real – and growing – threat around the U.S. today. Pastors and church leaders who speak out boldly can suddenly find themselves facing new tax laws, zoning challenges, and even graffiti and vandalism from groups opposed to what a church teaches. American Christians long immunized from such aggressive opposition are often loath to see persecution as a privilege (Acts 5:41).
Nor is all the opposition external. Many pastors are understandably concerned that making strong, declarative statements about political candidates and/or politicized issues will alienate significant persons in or percentages of their congregation. The price for that kind of alienation may be measured in anything from tithe checks withheld to memberships dropped.
And yet: speaking out on the character of our leaders and the issues of our time is a clear mandate of Scripture, modeled throughout the Bible by prophets like Nathan and Jeremiah and preachers like Stephen and John the Baptist – not to mention Jesus Himself, who answered questions on still-hot topics like the meaning of marriage (Matthew 19:4-6), taxes (Matthew 22:21), and the character of public officials (Mark 8:15, Luke 13:32).
Clearly, those vested with the responsibilities of church leadership are expected to speak truth to – and about – power, whether that power is represented by political authority or other Christians en masse.
One of the most fascinating explorations of what it means to confront ungodly political leadership is detailed in the adventures of Elijah, in the book of 1 Kings, as he duels for the soul of Israel with weak-souled, selfish King Ahab and his implacably evil queen, Jezebel.
Both in one-on-one encounters (17:1, 18:8, 21:20) and before all the people (18:20ff.), Elijah bluntly confronted the monarch with his sins. But the prophet also offered Ahab messages of hope (18:41), and even looked out for his personal safety and welfare (18:44). His actions are reminiscent of those of then-still-private-citizen David toward King Saul, as recorded in 1 Samuel, and of Paul toward Felix and Agrippa (Acts 26).
The Bible never prompts us to mock our leaders, hate our leaders, or pray for their destruction – indeed, we are directed to treat all those in authority with unswerving respect (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17). But the Bible also teaches that the highest respect we can give to anyone – government official or fellow church member – is to speak the truth to that person, in love (Ephesians 4:15). Jesus declared Himself the ultimate embodiment of truth (John 14:6), so to speak truth is, quite literally, to speak – to reveal – Christ to the one we address. Indeed, it’s impossible to give a faithful witness to anyone, whatever their station of life, unless we are willing to tell them the truth.
As spiritual leaders, pastors face an extraordinary and unique responsibility in this critical season, as Christians join their neighbors and strangers in communities coast to coast in making the choices of the ballot box, deciding not only candidates for national, state, and local offices, but political questions with enduring import for our country. Our prayers are with every conscientious pastor who braves the dangers of the pulpit and the public square …
… working to speak the truth of Christ not in vague generalities, from the safety of charming ecclesiastical clichés, but in firm, clear, straightforward, biblically-grounded specifics that take an unwavering stand on even the most divisive issues of our day.
May God give each of His servants, coast to coast, the courage and wisdom to discern His truth, communicate it in love, and accomplish His purpose for the people of America.