The notion of the separation of church and state has been a fixture of American public discourse for many decades. The language actually comes from a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson to a group of Baptists in Connecticut in 1802. In the letter, Jefferson wrote that the United States’ Constitution had established a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Secularists love appealing to this metaphor to argue that religion should have no bearing on government. However, Jefferson used this metaphor, not to protect government from the influence of religion, but to protect religion from intrusion from government. The Baptists were concerned over the government’s role in upholding established religion in violation of their individual consciences. Jefferson wrote to assure them that he was on their side.
Historical references aside, the relationship between church and state continues to perplex. Many of us rightly grow uneasy when we see pastors using their pulpits to lobby for political candidates and turning their worship services into patriotic celebrations. We realize that there is a distinction between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God (Matt. 22:21), but we’re not always sure what goes into each category.
Many react to such abuses by mandating silence from the church on the topic of politics. This view maintains that pastors should stick to “spiritual” topics and leave the heavy lifting of national policy to secular experts.
This position, however, erroneously divides the world into secular and spiritual realms and naively assumes that the public square is naturally religion-less. As Christians, we believe that every aspect of life is transformed by Christ. There is no subject over which Jesus is not Lord, including politics. If pastors do not speak about politics, that void will be filled by others who are equally religious in the values that they hold. Any discussion of values is a religious conversation, whether those values be secular or Christian.
Therefore, assuming that a pastor should avoid becoming a partisan lackey, how does one go about leading the church to apply the gospel to the realm of politics? I don’t have all the answers, but here’s a few that come to mind.
First, attack idols. Contemporary author, Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, uses the language of idolatry to describe “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” Keller’s description is helpful in describing how even a good gift can be latched onto as a God-substitute.
We live in a politics-obsessed age. I’m often perplexed by the discrepancies I observe between personal lives and social media profiles. I know people who love Jesus and serve others relentlessly, yet what they post on the internet would never communicate that. What seems to really get them excited—the public obsession of their lives—is partisan politics. Pastors need to remind their churches that there is only one King who ultimately saves, ultimately satisfies, and is ultimately worthy of worship.
Second, distinguish between important things and ultimate things. Political issues are important. The Bible teaches that earthly governments are ordained by God for the purpose of upholding order and justice (Rom. 13:1-7). The church is called to pray for political leaders to legislate in a manner that frees the church to pursue its mission (1 Tim. 2:1-4). In a democratic republic, the Christian should use his or her voice to advocate for human flourishing as defined by Christ.
However, the mission of the church does not depend on who occupies the White House, governor’s mansion, or Senate seat. Politics is not ultimate; Christ’s Kingdom is. Jesus specified that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). One day, all of the political powers of the earth will be no more and only one throne will be left standing. It’s important that we tie our ultimate hope to that Kingdom.
Third, differentiate between your voice as herald of God’s Word and your voice as citizen. The pastor has a right to voice political opinions. In a healthy church, the congregation will want to know what the pastor thinks about the issues of the day. However, God doesn’t tell us who to vote for. Because of that, the pastor’s political opinions must never be equated with the voice of God.
“In my opinion” is not the same as “thus says the Lord.” The pastor must make every effort to make that distinction clear. The Sunday morning sermon is a time dedicated to proclaiming God’s Word to God’s gathered people. When we allow advocacy of our personal political opinions to intrude upon that sacred moment, we cheapen worship and trivialize our God-given calling.
While there are political issues that God has clearly spoken on—the issue of abortion comes to mind—the pastor must work hard to clarify that voting is largely a matter of individual conscience. No matter how strongly we feel about an election, the decision is being made by flawed people voting for other flawed people. There has never been a candidate who even remotely embodies the values of Christ’s Kingdom. Your vote should be taken seriously, but your vote has no bearing on your eternal destiny. Christ already took care of that.