Category Archives: racial justice

Pastors and Politics, Part 1: Courage and Wisdom

This two-part series encourages local church pastors with wise discipleship and effective engagement on issues of political concern. In this first essay, the focus is on the boundaries of wise communication. The second essay looks at some of the hidden issues and groups overlooked in our polarized era. The author has been a pastor and public intellectual for over thirty years, speaking at business, educational centers, public forums and in churches.

Dr. Jim Baucom, senior pastor of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, VA (in the heart of Metro Washington, D.C.), shared about his growing and vibrant community: “People speak of America divided between Blue and Red, Democrat and Republican. Well, our church is very Purple! We have women and men worshiping and serving together that differ deeply on some policies and principles but agree that Christ unites us in our faith and service.”

Pastor A.J. Swoboda leads Theophilus Church: “We are a church in SE Portland. We are here to help people Find Jesus, Build Community and Pursue Justice.” A.J. is a leading voice in ecological theology and helps churches, seminaries and businesses steward the environment as part of worshiping and serving the Lord. He recently published an important book, The Subversive Sabbath, calling believers to recover the divine principle of rest as part of a healthy life in Christ. One of his happiest moments as a pastor came during the 2016 election. Two members of his church are local political leaders from each party. One Sunday just before the November election they served communion together.

These stories of communities finding a deeper unity in Christ and welcoming women and men from diverse persuasions are heartening and offer insights for pastors in our angry, polarized American public square.  How do pastors unite compassion and conviction and wisely disciple women and men for participation in public life?

The fear of “being political” keeps many pastors from addressing critical issues. Pastors are rightly concerned about ideology and partisanship eclipsing gospel focus. At the same time, addressing vital moral and social issues is an essential part of effective discipleship and mission. What are some boundaries and insights needed in navigating these rapids?

Three Insights

There are three initial thoughts which help displace fear with courage and reactions with wisdom. The first principle is respecting clear boundaries of biblical truth and civil law. The Bible clearly leads Christians toward good citizenship, prayerful concern for authority and reasonable adherence to the laws in place (Romans 13; I Timothy 2). At the same time, obeying divine mandates above the civil ones and understanding that kingdom citizenship takes priority over current power structures is vital (Matthew 5; Acts 5; Hebrews 11). According to current American law (The 1954 Johnson Amendment to the IRS tax code), churches and other nonprofit organizations that are exempt from taxation, “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” So, there are only two restrictions on political discourse that threaten the religious, non-profit status of a local church. The first is endorsement of a specific political candidate. The second is endorsement of one political party over another. In other words, blatant partisanship.

Pastors and churches CAN

  • Speak on any political issues
  • Lead voter registration drives (non-partisan)
  • Host events inviting all candidates

The issue for most is not the letter of IRS regulation but the fear of alienating members and seekers. This leads us to the second insight: Pastors must choose their issues wisely and frame their arguments biblically. The late theologian Donald Bloesch once said that, “Ideology is the enemy of theology.” Pastors must help congregants discover biblical conviction and discernment on particular policies, not just a particular party’s talking points. In many cases, biblically wise framing will help believers engender new ways of seeing (and even solving) contentious issues. Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted for obedience in the kingdom, not obnoxious political agitation.

For example, being biblically pro-life is more than being against abortion. Concern for all people from conception to coronation – especially the broken, poor and vulnerable – is foundational for biblical obedience. Respect for those in the military must be joined with a passion for peacemaking, a hallmark of wise Christian leadership. Libertarian and socialist answers for poverty alleviation fall short compared to a Christian vision for human flourishing that incudes spiritual, relational, social and economic help and private/public integration of resources (See Corbett and Fikkert’s seminal work here: When Helping Hurts, a recommended MTF resource).

Boundaries and wise discernment of the deeper issues must be integrated with the third attribute of wise leadership: courage. Courage is the virtue that avoids the extremes of fear and foolishness. In Joshua 1, the Lord tells the new leader of Israel four times to be “strong and courageous.” In Ephesians 6, Paul asks his readers to pray for boldness in proclamation, even under persecution. Some issues are morally clear, and it is the pastor’s task to unveil the rich biblical insights underneath stated convictions. Some issues require more discernment and here humility joins courage as leaders declare their understanding.

Pastors, speaking courageously is needed. When undergirded by deep prayer and tears for our beautiful and broken world, such speech cannot be confused with the agitation propaganda and polarizing insults permeating our public discourse.

History and hope can frame our communication. It took courage for pastors to speak against slavery and it takes courage to foster racial reconciliation. It took courage for pastors and missionaries to oppose rapacious colonialism and it takes courage to promote justice for all. It took courage for pastors to help bring justice to the workplace, reducing child labor, and encouraging fair conditions and wages. It takes courage for pastors to take on entrenched powers in cities and states keeping many from thriving. And it takes courage for pastors to avoid ideological captivity and empower their congregants for leadership in all spheres of society.

Wise boundaries, Biblical foundations for discernment and courage will help pastors shepherd wisely.

There are Answers: If We have Courage

This is the beginning of a series entitled, “There are Answers: If We Have Courage.” We will examine what many regard as intractable and unsolvable issues. We will fearlessly look at economic justice and the future of work, tax reform, immigration, Middle East policy, human identity, including gender, sexuality and transhumanism, racial tensions, religious freedom, academic and intellectual liberty, political polarization and principled compromise and global/local culture and life.

As always, we will distill insights from as many perspectives as possible – within the bounds of axiomatic principles and critical thinking. Conservatives may balk as the complexities of institutional transformation are evaluated. Liberals will worry that emphases on personal responsibility and certain enduring values will reverse gains in liberty. Good! We need deliverance from narrow ideological agitation propaganda.

In this essay, two issues foundational to all the rest will be examined: 1) the crisis of human identity/nature (anthropology); and 2) the crisis of objective knowledge and truth (epistemology). Without clarity on who we are and what we can know, all dialogue devolves into subjective opinion, with any critical comments deemed intolerant or a microaggression. Without such clarity, human freedom is confined to certain private experiences and life is increasingly controlled by a totalitarian state, since people “need help and cannot care for themselves.”

What does being human mean? Diverse philosophical and religious traditions answer this question in a variety of ways, from accidental evolutionary materialism to bearing the image of God. Are we merely highly evolved animals or divinely-crafted beings called to steward the rest of creation? Is human nature defined by physical processes alone or in there a unique interaction of body and spirit, brain and mind? In addition to our basic identity, are humans (like most of nature) either male or female or is there an almost infinite spectrum of identities?

Regardless of worldview, most people through most of history have not questioned the unique nature of human beings and the basic binary realities of male and female identity, albeit with a variety of opinions of erotic affections and actions.

Going forward, our American and global experiments in ordered liberty rooted in truth and virtue rest on humankind being uniquely endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights and responsibilities. Anything less than this and we devolve into arguments over blood and soil, raw scientism or fantastical speculations on human/machine singularity.

What about our foundations for knowledge? Until a half-century ago in the West, a basic correspondence theory of truth allowed for both cohesiveness and spirited debate, unity of essential facts and diversity of interpretations. No one argued whether certain events actually happened, though their impact and interpretation made for lively discussion. Today, we are told that there is no objective “there” – all we can do is interpret stories and hopefully find some convergence with shared narratives and opinions. Former President Obama’s two (!) pre-presidential autobiographies are perfect examples of ideological fabrication. Why do we need his “composite” portraits of friends and mentors? Why can we not have access to his records and writings? Why? Because history no longer stands on its own – it must serve the purposes of political advocacy. Beyond historical narrative, our epistemic crisis has fueled the same subjectivism for private and public morality, gender confusion and even allowed some to question full freedom of conscience and speech!

The uniqueness of being human and the knowability of the world are essential for grounding all arguments over justice and truth, love and human flourishing. Instead of marginalizing philosophical traditions, we should rediscover the wisdom of ancient texts and the goodness of contemporary research and synthesize these insights, so we can have a basis for social cohesion.

Our future as a nation – indeed as a human race – rests on this.

Billy Graham: The Voice of Our Century

Billy Graham’s recent passing way at age 99 stirs up deep emotions as I consider the impact of his preaching and service. In addition to billions hearing the gospel and millions converted, thousands of leaders were trained and millions more helped with compassion outreach.

Along with John Stott, Graham is the founder of the Lausanne Movement, a global evangelical network that is dedicated to evangelization and human flourishing in the kingdom. In just over 40 years, we have seen a shift in global Christianity from “the West to the rest” to ministry now being “from everywhere to everywhere” and the majority of Christians residing in non-Western nations.

As he reflected in an interview with Diane Sawyer on his life and ministry he said, “I wish I would have done more about race.” This from a man who integrated his meetings and lost friends as he rightly rejected racism and segregation. He also regretted the lack of time with his family and proper self-care…what humility for a world leader!

Billy Graham.

A voice of my lifetime, bearing witness to grace and truth. our best tribute? Faithful service and witness in all I do. And continually growing in kindness, love and wisdom. May we begin every encounter with every person with love and respect. The Cross welcomes all and when the Holy Spirit is working, there is a new sociology.