Politics and the Pulpit


When it comes to politics and the Church, we must hold fast to the regulative principle as understood by the New Testament.  This is the foundation of Christian Liberty, because only the Bible can bind another person’s conscience.  If what the preacher says doesn’t flow out of the biblical text, he has no right to impose it on other people, and it has no place in the pulpit.  This is a very fundamental mark of a healthy and sound church, and it can function as a basic criterion to distinguish a church, as a true charitable institution, from a political pressure group that masquerades as such in order to take advantage of tax benefits.

How this idea of a limitation on what may be addressed from the pulpit has been expressed within the Reformed tradition can be readily seen in such documents as The Westminster Confession of Faith.  That attempt at summarizing what Scripture itself teaches states in Chapter XX, “Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience,” paragraph ii: 

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience:  and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”

In other words, according to the Confession, it isn’t enough that a position doesn’t contradict Scripture; the teaching must itself be Scriptural, that is, based on Scripture.  The Church doesn’t have the authority to dictate to the people of God what the Scripture itself doesn’t teach.  The Church is limited in her proclamation to what “is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”  (The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, “Of the Holy Scripture,” paragraph vi.)  We must only “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” (Jude 3)

James Henley Thornwell put it this way in his article entitled “Argument Against Church-Boards:”  “The power of the Church is purely ministerial and declarative. She is only to hold forth the doctrine, enforce the laws, and execute the government which Christ has given her. She is to add nothing of her own to, and to subtract nothing from, what her Lord has established.  Discretionary power she does not possess.” [James Henley Thornwell, “Argument Against Church-Boards,” The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, D.D., LL.D., Volume IV — Ecclesiastical (Edinburgh:  The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974, 1875), p. 163]

The Confession cites several passages of Scripture in support under XX, ii.  The New Testament supporting passages underscore that more than the Sunday morning worship service is in view.  All of life is religious, lived in the presence of God, carried out as worship, and the Church can never impose rules and regulations or ideas about God and things that do not flow from biblical texts.

Two passages that are cited stand out very clearly in this regard:  Matthew 15 and Colossians 2.  Looking at them in their broader context, they are not about whether or not we should only sing the Scottish Metrical Psalms, a cappella, in formal worship, or whether or not we should observe the traditional Church calendar and celebrate such things as the birth of Christ, but about the limitation that God places on well-intentioned, wise and learned, seemingly Spirit-filled, Christians in telling the rest of the Church how to live and believe.

“ . . . You invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.  You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me.  But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

“Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.” (Matthew 15:6-9, 17-20)

“ . . . No one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.  Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.

“If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)-in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” (Colossians 2:16-23)

Sadly, churches contend earnestly for so much that is not based on the explanation and application of Scripture.  We contend over whether or not Christians may consume alcohol as a beverage . . . smoke, use sugar, eat high fat food, go to sporting events, and go to movies, own televisions; listen to Rock music, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.  Most of these things find some legitimacy in Scripture for individual believers to consider as a possibility of how they ought to live, but the Church cannot command such conduct, because that would go beyond the bounds of biblical revelation.

But politics is the real bone of contention in many congregations . . . most White Evangelicals are Republicans, while most Black Evangelicals are Democrats, each party attempting to seduce the Church to its own ends. Let a White Evangelical find out that you’re a Democrat, and they see you as either unsaved or terribly benighted.  Let a Black Evangelical discover that you’re a Republican, and they reject you as a money grubbing racist.

It is because of the regulative principle that I have refused permission for the Christian Coalition to put out their literature in our church or school.  Here is a case in point.

Back in 1996, there were two men in the runoff for our U. S. Representative:  Francis Thompson and John Cooksey.  The Christian Coalition’s “Voters’ Guide” subtly favored Dr. Cooksey.  This was very odd.  Dr. Cooksey, a physician who had never held elective office before, was not completely committed to the pro-life cause.  Whereas, Francis Thompson was one hundred percent pro-life and had a voting record of well over ten years in the Louisiana legislature to prove it.  Furthermore, State Senator Thompson was an Evangelical, an active deacon in a Presbyterian Church in America congregation.

So why did the Christian Coalition word the “Voters’ Guide” to favor Dr. Cooksey over Senator Thompson?  There was only one reason:  he was a Republican, and Senator Thompson was a Democrat.

The biblical issues involved needed addressing, but only within the parameters of biblical revelation, so, the Sunday before the election, I mentioned this to our congregation and told them that a godly person could vote for either candidate or may choose not to vote at all.  One could vote to strengthen the more pro-life party by voting for the less pro-life candidate or one could vote for the more pro-life candidate in the less pro-life party.  Furthermore, I stated that there are many factors that enter into a person’s decision for whom to vote and that while the pro-life issue is extremely important, it is legitimate to vote not based on a single issue.  The point of my message was that God alone is Lord of the conscience and that the Church has no authority to tell somebody what is right or wrong apart from biblical truth.  We cannot sit in judgment of how other people choose to exercise the democratic franchise in our Republic.

Another point I made was that politics is often a deceptive business and that believers need to be careful about organizations such as the Christian Coalition.  Political organizations, be they Christian in name or not, are about motivating people to work hard for a candidate and to turn out and vote.  One way they often do this is to simplify complex issues to the point of distortion.

I have never used the pulpit to tell anyone how to vote; although, some years ago, I did say that it was a sin to vote for David Duke — boy howdy!  Did I catch flak for that!  But I did get one very loud “Amen” from the wife of the state chairman of the Democratic Party.  Ours is an odd church, having had both the Republican candidate for state Attorney General and the state chairman of the Democratic Party in it.  What do you do in that situation?  Stick to Bible exposition.

My position is very different from the actual case in many churches.  Some time back in the fall of 2002, I preached to a local African-American congregation.  A short time before I got into the pulpit, a Democratic elected official came and spoke from the lectern — it was the Sunday before the upcoming Saturday primary — I can’t remember his exact words; he may have said “opponents” or “enemies” instead of  “The other side.” I was on the platform, concentrating on staring at my shoes, praying that my lily-white, Republican deacon, who chauffeured me to the church, wouldn’t stand up and say something.  When the speaker finished, I glanced up and saw that there wasn’t a white face in the congregation — my deacon was beet-red!  Anyhow, he said: “Now, you all need to remember that we must vote this coming Saturday.  We got a call from our President this past week — President Clinton reminded us how important it is that our people turn out this Saturday.  The other side is counting on it raining and us staying away from the polls.  If it rains, put on a raincoat and vote.  You only need to remember one thing: vote Democrat.”

Now, it isn’t usually that crass in other quarters, but the message is fundamentally the same, because politics is about power, and power generally comes through coalitions built on compromises.  

I attended the Religious Roundtable in Dallas, Texas back in 1980.  While Baptist Deacon Jimmy Carter had been invited, he didn’t show up, of course — this was a massive pep rally for Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party under the cloak of a revival meeting.  There were a handful of African-Americans there and members of the press — I stood in line behind Bill Moyers to get a hot dog — he’s been dogging the Religious Right ever since.  Black, Los Angeles Baptist, E. V. Hill, gave the best speech of the whole bunch — better than Reagan, better than Pat Robertson, and a whole lot better than the bevy of White Baptist preachers who spoke, salting and peppering right wing politics with Bible verses.

But we cannot go beyond Scripture from the pulpit, telling people how to believe or how to live, just as we are not free to impose on others words of knowledge, words of wisdom, interpretation of tongues, etc.  We are limited to the Spirit anointed exposition and application of Scripture, because the whole corpus of the Christian Faith has been once for all deposited with the Church in the form of Holy Scripture.

For some thoughts on the Christian becoming involved in politics, click here.

Bob Vincent