Well, here we go again. It seems like only yesterday that we were staying up all night to see who really won Florida, then watching the recount, and then waiting for the courts to confirm the choice of our President. It seems like only yesterday, but it was really four years, and already it is time for another election.
The 2004 presidential election is of vital interest to Christians across our country. We are interested because we believe that even in a democratic republic, the leaders of our government are called and appointed by God. As the Scripture says, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). We are also interested in the election because the things that governments do—like waging war, collecting taxes, incurring debt, providing social services for the poor and elderly, determining the legal basis for marriage, and setting policy for law, education, business, and the environment—can serve either to promote or corrupt righteousness in our society.
We are also interested in the election because we believe that as Christians we have a responsibility to engage in the political process. God has called us to be good citizens, and one of the ways we carry out that calling in a representative democracy is by wisely exercising our right to vote. As private citizens, Christians have as much right as anyone to participate in a political party, advocate a political position, or persuade people to vote for a particular candidate.
But what are our responsibilities as a church? Are they the same as our responsibilities as private individuals, or are they different?
As usual, both Republicans and Democrats are doing what they can to mobilize churches for political action. This means identifying congregations that are considered friendly to the party, and then conducting voter registration drives at those churches. It means recruiting representatives to promote the party’s presidential candidate in their local churches. It means distributing voter guides that show how members of Congress have voted on selected issues, especially ones of special concern to Christians. In some cases, church members have even provided church directories for their party to use in sending out political mailings.
We believe that most of these activities are appropriate for Christians. (I say “most” because we forbid the distribution of our church directory, which is only for the fellowship and ministry of our members and regular attenders). However, we do not believe that political action is part of the ministry of our church as the body Christ, or that it properly belongs under the oversight of our elders. This pulpit is not partisan. We do not have a political platform. We do not belong to a political party. And we do not endorse candidates for office. We do not even register voters. Although this would be well within our legal rights, we do not believe it is part of our calling as a church, any more than it is our calling to hand out tax forms, help people get a driver’s license, or facilitate other civic duties.
There are a number of good reasons for this. First, there is a legal reason. If we were to engage in political advocacy, it would jeopardize our status as a non-profit organization, with potentially serious financial implications. This does not mean that we are not allowed to speak out on moral issues, including issues on which political parties are strongly opposed. This is part of our prophetic ministry in teaching the Word of God. But we do not use moral issues to mobilize our members for political action.
A second reason why this pulpit is not partisan is that there is more than one Christian position on most political issues. For example, Christians generally agree that we have a spiritual responsibility to help the poor. After all, this is the plain teaching of Scripture (e.g., Prov. 14:21; Matt. 19:21). However, Christians may well disagree about the role of government in helping the poor, or about the best policy for alleviating poverty, or about the relative priority of helping the poor as over against other functions of government. To take another example, Christians who agree that war is sometimes justified may also disagree as to whether or not a particular war is just. Christians who disagree about such matters may well have good theological reasons for their viewpoint, but the viewpoint itself is a matter of judgment that goes beyond any specific teaching in Scripture. The Bible generally does not prescribe public policies.
As a church, our primary calling is to declare the Word of God, which is the only basis for our authority. As we teach the Bible, we may sometimes explore its political implications, but we may not bind anyone’s conscience beyond the teaching of Scripture. And since most political discussions fall into that category, they fall outside the boundaries of our authority as a church. Our calling is spiritual, not political.
Finally, there is an evangelistic reason why we do not politicize our preaching. When the church becomes simply another way of doing politics, then people rightly perceive that politics is what really matters. So to the extent that a church becomes identified with a political cause, it loses its ability to communicate its spiritual message of salvation in Christ.
This is especially true in a politically diverse community like Philadelphia. If someone walks through the doors of Tenth Church and hears a Republican message or a Democratic message, they will either agree with that message or disagree with it. If they disagree with it, they will probably never come back. But either way, they will not be confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ, with the forgiveness he offers to sinners. And since this is what people need most of all, it will be our main message before, during, and after the upcoming election.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org