Politics in the Pulpit?

One of the most challenging aspects of being a pastor in the United States in the twenty-first century is the deep division of the nation along political lines. Based on research from a 2014 Pew Research poll, it is likely that every pastor and church leader throughout the Synod serves people who identify as Republicans, others who identify as Democrats, and still others who identify with neither party.

Some church workers are very clear regarding their political preferences in personal conversations and on social media. Others choose not to reveal their political thoughts on particular candidates. In this way, church staff are no different from parishioners. Some are outspoken. Some keep the matter private.

Leading up to an election, it can become challenging for those tasked with preaching and/or teaching to speak clearly and faithfully in sermons, Bible studies, and newsletters on topics often considered political. Some are tempted to seek to sway the congregation toward their points of view. Others are tempted to be utterly silent, to plug their ears and shut their eyes to the cacophony of political opinion present in their spheres of influence.

Possible Approaches

One approach I often hear to this conundrum is “just preach the text.” If this means not shoehorning topics into the text that are not there, I completely agree. Yet I have found that part of preaching the text involves noticing how the text intersects with and applies to the lives of the hearers. Preaching the text means bringing it to the concrete reality of the saints who are gathered to hear God’s Word. Whether we like it or not, elections are part of the lives and culture of our people, and many texts do speak on topics some would label “political.”

Still, something can be said for being in the world but not of the world. The Church can serve very well as a place to find sanctuary from those things in the world that cause us the most stress and anxiety.

I see two potential ways of handling this as a pastor. One option is to let the worship service be a place of rest and respite from the political chaos of the world. Tell your congregation this up front. Let them know that you will not be speaking on any political matters, that you will not mention candidates, issues, or the election itself. Tell them why: for rest and respite. Encourage the congregation to join you in that endeavor in their own conversations as they gather for worship. Considering the two weeks before the election have us celebrating Reformation Day and All Saints’ Day, this might be the most prudent and potentially fruitful course of action.

But that does not work for everyone. The second option is to speak to the political climate not only in personal conversations but also from the pulpit. Be honest and up front that you will be doing this. Let people know that you will not be endorsing a candidate or a political party but that you find this to be an important aspect of Christian life and formation that requires our attention. I prefer to let the lectionary texts lead the way and find application where it is most natural. Here are some upcoming texts with connections to political issues that I find are not forced.

Some Texts to Consider

On Sunday, October 4, the three-year lectionary’s Old Testament Reading is Isaiah 5:1–7. This section ends with a particularly poignant phrase: “and He [God] looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” In Hebrew, the words for justice and bloodshed sound similar (mishpat and mishpach), as well as the words for righteousness and outcry (tsedaqah and tseaqah). God looks for one thing, but He finds His people engaging in something that sounds similar but is the exact opposite. God continues to look for justice and righteousness from His people, but He continually finds bloodshed and an outcry. This is most obvious in Jesus, who suffers the great injustice and bloodshed of crucifixion so that He might forgive us and make us righteous.

As we apply this to our lives, we might ask, What else is God finding among His people that should not be there, that is the opposite of what He is looking for? We might say, “He looked for devotion, but behold, division; for grace, but behold, greed; for mercy, but behold, murder.”

Regardless of how one votes or who wins the 2020 presidential election, the Church must commit herself to justice and righteousness, to grace and mercy. In our daily vocations, we must be active in these areas as we live out what it means to love our neighbors. As individuals and as the Church, we must not let our political identities prevent us from speaking and acting on these issues. Justice and the environment are not merely political issues that only Democrats can care about. Ethical issues regarding life, technology, and eugenics are not merely political issues that only Republicans can care about.

On Sunday, October 25, many congregations will observe Reformation Day. In both the three-year and the one-year lectionary, the Psalm for the day is Psalm 46. This psalm is a great reminder of who holds both our present and our future: the Lord of hosts. Though the earth gives way, though the nations rage and the kingdoms totter through whatever political upheaval, we will not fear. God is our refuge and strength. God is our ever-present help in times of trouble. As Christians, we do not rely on presidents or political parties. We do not rely on whatever nation we happen to live in. We rely on the Lord. He is our mighty fortress.

After the results of the 2020 election come out, many will feel joy and relief. Many others will feel anger and sorrow and anxiety. No matter which you feel, remember it is God who stills you. Be still, be calmed by His love, and know that He is God.

Other upcoming texts that might be helpful include the following:

  • Deuteronomy 10:12–21 (October 11, one-year), especially focusing on God’s desire for justice for those in need
  • Psalm 96:1–13 (October 18, three-year), especially focusing on worthless idols
  • Ephesians 4:22–28 (October 18, one-year), especially focusing on putting away falsehood and speaking truth
  • Philippians 4:4–13 (October 11, three-year), especially focusing on reasonableness and God’s peace
  • 1 John 3:1–3 (November 1, one-year and three-year), especially focusing on our identity as children of God

As we continue to follow Jesus, may we always remember that our identity is not found on our election ballots. Our identity is found in our Baptism, where we were forgiven, united with Christ in a death and resurrection like His, and made children of God. May we hold more tightly to that identity than all others.

Dig deeper with a four-session study on the Christian approach to elections.

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Andrew R. Jones

Andrew R. Jones serves as the pastor of First Lutheran Church and Preschool in Concord, CA. He served in mission and ministry for seven years on three continents before moving to St. Louis to attend Concordia Seminary (Master of Divinity, 2017, Master of Sacred Theology, 2018). He enjoys writing, running, and adventures with his wife, Stephanie. You can find more of his writings at patreon.com/c3pojones.

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