I had a brief but engaging conversation the other day about the challenge of being a pastor and remaining apolitical. Essentially, the goal is to teach about Jesus and how to follow Him without encroaching on people’s political stances, since Christ followers line up across the political spectrum.
On its surface, I support this. Jesus did not spark a political uprising (although that threat was used to try to justify a need to kill Him), and I’ve written about the problem when Christians place their efforts into politics.
Unfortunately for that effort, it’s too late. We can’t try to live in a world where Christianity is apolitical because Christians have already made it political. To be honest, that’s been the case in America going back generations (e.g. using the Bible to support slavery), but it’s played an even greater role in recent decades with the “Moral Majority” and similar movements.
Christianity has become so politicized that messages from the pulpit are (whether intentionally or not) interpreted as triggers to support or denigrate one side or the other. This often happens with comparisons of how we “should stand out from the world.” That statement is absolutely true and aligns with the words of Jesus, and pastors usually include a few examples in that statement. The problem is that they often include the ones that pretty much every “Christian” will agree with while leaving out any that the audience might find controversial (regardless of Jesus’ words and actions on the subject).
Now, I dearly love the pastors who are a constant presence in my life. If I did not trust their heart and support for following Jesus, they would not be in my life in that role. The following scenario is a realistic hypothetical based on what I’ve heard numerous times from many different voices in many different church settings, not only one:
A pastor warns that they’re about to delve into some potentially uncomfortable or unpopular topics. Then they mention that, contrary to what popular culture seemingly suggests, we should not engage in certain types of behavior. These behaviors include things like drunkenness, drug abuse, sex outside of marriage, living with a spouse outside of marriage, etc. A few people holler “Amen!” or clap at the list.
This list is absolutely true. It’s also not really uncomfortable or unpopular to mention those things in the context of an evangelical church service. However, here are some that are: hoarding food, money, and shelter while people starve in the streets; lacking empathy for refugees and suggesting we have no responsibility to them; withholding health care from the sick due to their lack of resources; providing preferential treatment to someone based on their “lifestyle,” background, skin color, or belief system.
While pastors will typically also say something along the lines of “I might not have said the thing you struggle with, but we all struggle with something,” this approach is (whether intentional or not) disingenuous.
You see, the most important rule for effective communication is to speak in a way that your audience will understand. We change our vocabulary and mannerisms if we’re talking to a 2-year-old versus an academic scholar. And one of the biggest challenges of communication is that it is the responsibility of the speaker to ensure speak in a way that is clear enough for the listener to hear the intended message. While this is tough to accept, if the listener misinterprets what is said, it is the speaker’s task to find a way to ensure their intended message comes across.
Human nature desires to hear things that support a positive self-image. People will naturally (and subconsciously) interpret things in a way that makes them feel better about themselves. So in an audience of primarily consistent church-going self-professed Christians, listing a few of the most commonly accepted “sinful, non-Christian” examples of “worldly lifestyle” rarely has the effect of prompting people to think about their own shortcomings and respond in humility.
It actually does the opposite.
That’s where the “Amen!” and supportive applause comes from: because the pastor didn’t actually say something controversial to that specific audience. The pastor said something that the audience is hearing as affirmation that they’re doing it right, while the sinful world around them is just all the more messed up. It creates a division and a subconscious claim to the moral high ground.
The “Moral Majority” and similar movements combined that mindset into a political crusade and devoted three or four decades to pushing that cause, which led to a bunch of high-and-mighty Christians who are obsessed with moral image in a couple specific areas (primarily abortion and homosexuality, but also including basically anything revolving around sex) and focused on implementing their view of “Christian lifestyle” in society. But that “Christian lifestyle” is missing almost every word of Jesus, who spent a lot of time talking about giving money away to the poor, caring for the stranger among you, and blessing your enemies and almost no time talking, no time talking about abortion or homosexuality, and almost as little time talking about sex. That pretty much lines us up with the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.
So now when a pastor shares those thoughts on standing out from the world, the response is hardly humble reckoning of our own sin. Instead, the mob response is once again a little pat on the back at our own moral greatness while declaring all those out in “secular society” to be sinners.
It’s not the pastor’s fault that this context is in place. It has been for a long time, and most pastors today weren’t preaching back in the days that Christians decided to abandon any efforts of keeping the message apolitical. But, unfortunately, we don’t live in a vacuum. We can’t pretend the context isn’t there.
Further, the messaging of comparing a lifestyle that follows Christ to that of the world is inherently political. Pretending it’s not doesn’t change that fact, and using the stated desire to avoid politics does not actually do so. Instead, it chooses to be complicit in whatever message the people listening hear and take away, which in our current context is bound to be the dominant messaging of a “Christian Right” that has abandoned any premise of loving like Jesus did. And that puts the pastor even more on the line for the content, because while people subconsciously attach those meanings to what they hear, the takeaway is that “my pastor told me this in church on Sunday.”
We can’t afford to be vague. We can’t claim on one hand that the Bible applies to us today and have application points at the end of each sermon while on the other hand try to close our eyes and ignore its impact on the single most powerful secular institution in our nation and lives.
We can’t pretend to be apolitical anymore. That option no longer exists within a culture that is wrestling with everything, including what it means to be a follower of Christ. Avoiding the “controversial” points of Jesus’ own words is just complicitly extending a message that has traded the Gospel for political power at the expense of love. That’s a problem if we believe, as Jesus’ disciple John taught us, that God is love (1 John 4:8). It means we’ve actually removed God from the Gospel. And if we read Jesus’ words and pay attention to His actions, that removal of God actually lines up pretty clearly with the “Christian” political message in our society today.
I wrote one month ago asking for our Christian leadership to step up and speak out. As each day passes, that need only increases. Vague, “apolitical” attempts to share the heart of Jesus simply aren’t enough in our current context. And for that we can’t blame the culture around us; we have previous generations of Christians to thank.
When 70 percent of white evangelicals say the US has no responsibility to care for refugees, a Christ-follower – and especially a pastor – has two choices: either agree with that sentiment and abandon the actual Gospel of Jesus, or take great alarm in the mangled theology of the masses and speak out clearly to rebuke it to whatever audience they have. Anything that doesn’t explicitly point out our shortcomings as professed followers of Jesus allows us to minimize, compartmentalize, or simply brush away those inconvenient truths. It is complicit in the continued moral bankruptcy of American “Christianity.”
It might not be popular to do when so many “Christians” and “Christian leaders” are saying and supporting other things. But I seem to recall being taught that we were called to stand out from the culture around us in order to reflect Christ.