Monday, January 11, 2016

Politics Kills Preachers

Preaching and politics often don't go well together.

Although there have been many pastor's sons make it to the Oval Office, there has never been a preacher or pastor who has become president. The closest was James Garfield (former Civil War general who followed Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, and Hayes). He was 18 when he was born again and did some preaching before entering politics. He reportedly said that he "stepped down from the pulpit to the presidency" (I've not been able to confirm this quote) and was from all accounts a committed Christian, which caused him to hate the mistreatment of blacks both before and after the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately he is one of the forgotten presidents due to his short tenure since he was mortally shot just four months after his inauguration. But that's not what I mean by the title of this post.

Specifically, I'm talking about John the Baptist (I'll call him John Baptizer, since the Baptist denomination is something entirely different and hadn't yet been founded. You'd be surprised how many people are confused by this!). John Baptizer was the Billy Graham of his day, drawing multitudes of people out to the wilderness of the Jordan River to hear him preach fiery sermons of repentance and life change. He was a beloved celebrity to everyone except the religious elites (who did not appreciate his message), including soldiers, tax-collectors, and every-day people of Israel. Even King Herod regarded him highly. He thought John "to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him." (Mark 6:20).
Salome and John the Baptist's Head by Bernardino Luini. This
painting was once believed to be the work of Leonardo da Vinci.
Note the different expressions on the faces.

If John's desire was popularity (it wasn't), things were going pretty well...until he delved into politics. He made the mistake of opining on Herod's skanky marriage to his brother's wife (who happened to also be his niece). Evidently, the Herod family was pretty close. Inbreds, even. Yick. Apparently, this convoluted and immoral arrangement was concocted in order to bolster an image of bloodline-legitimacy to placate the Jews so the Herods could stay in power. And it was by a thin, brittle thread that Jewish sensitivities were kept tamped down. The Herods (vis. Herod Antipas and Herodias—there are several more in this crazy, intertwined, family tree!) knew this, and when John Baptizer started meddlin' he had to be silenced. No one wanted him shut down more than Herodias, whose ambition was unquenchable! She was a woman you did not want to offend. [For a great look at Herodias and the whole Herodian dynasty, read this great blog post.]

This is a problem with good preachers: they want to make the Word relevant. They feel the need to speak to what is on everyone's minds, correct the big obvious hypocrisies, make examples of flagrant public offenders. Why do they do this? Because they really believe God's Word speaks to real life. And because they present their message as weak if it does not speak to what people know is wrong. In effect, they feel they show their God to be weak. And when it comes to powerful people who are wrong, they fear they show their God to be less powerful than the people living in sin. For a man of God, that is anathema.

So John Baptizer did it. He was no doubt being asked by many what he thought about the Herods and their illicit, power-pragmatic, incestuous relationship. He did it in typical John Baptizer style. He gave God's opinion...forcefully. That's what killed the greatest man who, formerly, had ever lived.
What was he supposed to do? What were his options? He could have said, "I'm not going to weigh in on politics." In which case, he would have been seen as a coward, or at least would have allowed open sin and hypocrisy to continue unchallenged, and the people who heard about it would have been confounded. He could have pacified Herod and justified his bad behavior or at least say, "I really don't know what's actually going on." To do that would have been perhaps beneficial for him. He could have really made some good friends in high places and, no doubt, secured for himself a small fortune.

Yet, to compromise or to ignore Herod's sin would have secured a fate worse than death. John would have been forgotten. Because he would have proved himself not to have been a true prophet of God. We would not even know his name. Even worse (yes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, it still falls), he would have been judged by God himself. This is FAR worse than mere decapitation.

Today, preachers have the same choice, and the stakes are almost as high. It's hard enough in our hyper-sensitive world for a Christian to know how to handle political conversations, but for those of us who are leaders in the Christian community, its treacherous!

Preachers can "die" (figuratively—they are marginalized or not taken seriously) when they weigh in truthfully on the sin of public figures—particularly those figures who are loved by media and culture—especially political figures. Their heads may not end up on literal platters, but they can be considered no less grotesque and be no less silenced. But it is better than any alternative: compromise or turning a blind eye. While this alternative may result in a preacher's worldly honor and advancement, compromise results in the discarding of his influence and usefulness by God for the Gospel. That's a fate worse than death. I have friends and acquaintances who have placated the powerful or popular and have compromised doctrinally, missionally, and evangelistically. I pity them.

So preachers should, I think, speak to the issues on people's minds—especially the evils in the news. And that includes those in the political realm. Yes, it's risky. But to quote Paul again, "am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10). True men of God say with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). This requires courage that we may speak truth and tactfully call out sin when necessary.

But there are those who go way too far in speaking out about political issues and politicians. I've already witnessed some this political season. Here are some ways preachers can unnecessarily lose their heads:

1. When preachers become obviously partisan. Yes, political parties have platforms. Yes some issues have moral/ethical/biblical implications/consequences, so it can be tricky to know when to speak and when to remain silent. There are clear matters like abortion, homosexuality, and religious liberty. But there are issues that are not so cut-and-dried. How we deal with poverty, how we deal with the alien, or taxation policy, military might, and so many more. There is simply no clear biblical stance on some of them. To promote a political party is (in effect) to endorse it's platform—all of it—AND its reputation AND its representatives. I know some ministers whose devotion to a party (I know some on both sides) seems to outweigh their devotion to God! Not cool. Preachers, let your hearers determine their affiliation. It's not a primary issue. Yes, I'm registered to a political party but few in my body know which one. I've considered registering as an independent. But I do have political leanings and wish to participate in primaries as a Christian citizen.

2. When preachers endorse a particular candidate. I've been burned on this. I've let it be known in elections past that I liked a certain candidate only to end up with mud on my face when that candidate turned out to be someone different than I thought. That was a long time ago when I was new in ministry. Now I wince when spiritual leaders endorse candidates. They seem to be putting their faith in man. I've considered what I would do if an elder at Providence ran for public office. Would I campaign for him? My answer is "no." That's not to say I won't advise him or encourage him as a friend, pastor, and fellow believer. It is to say I can't publicly advocate for and persuade people to vote for a certain person. Primarily, that's because I am an advocate first for Christ. I campaign for him. I will not allow anything to interfere with this first priority of a pastor.

3. When preachers confuse devotion to Christ with devotion to country. The two are not the same and they are not equal priorities. Am I patriotic? Yes! I would lay down my life for my country. But I would not lay down my faith—my relationship with Christ—for my country. I am first a citizen of heaven and a child of God. That's my highest allegiance. The two allegiances are rarely in conflict, practically, and I pray they will never be. But there are scenarios where they could be. What if you're doing missions in a country with which America is at war? What if a preacher's patriotism causes someone who is turned off by patriotism to miss the gospel? What is the effect on an international person living in the USA who may misunderstand or disagree regarding Americas status as "God's country" or "the greatest country in the world" or "uniquely blessed by God" (all things I've heard preachers say). This doesn't mean you don't believe in America or in American exceptionalism. It means you want to be "all things to all people, that by all means [you] might save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). It means if you are going to boast it will not be out of pride in your country. As Paul said, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord" (2 Cor. 10:17).

4. When preachers are persuaded or blinded by factors other than biblical truth. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of historical examples I could use. A vast majority of preachers in the south preached in favor of the institution of slavery before the Civil War. A majority of German pastors would not stand against Hitler (and many supported him). Recently, Jerry Falwell Jr. made some controversial remarks to the students of Liberty University (the largest evangelical Christian university in the world), removing campus gun restrictions and encouraging them to carry. He said, “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them” (sic). He concluded by saying, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” Really? I just can't find that in the Bible. And I've heard all the arguments. Instead, we Christians exist not to "end those Muslims" but to save them. That does mean love. That may mean martyrdom. Yes, I want strong military and law-enforcement to do their biblical job to "bear the sword [not] in vain." Yes, I love the Constitution and I believe in the right to bear arms (I got a conceal/carry permit before hiking for a month with my son in the rockies in case we were attacked by a bear or cougar or something). But in order to "teach them a lesson"? Hmmm. Sometimes "conservative" needs to take a back seat to "Christian." On the other end of the ideological spectrum, radical liberals like Father Michael Pfleger, Jeremiah Wright, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and many more lesser-known leaders are ubiquitous, who go to great lengths to proliferate a victimization culture, while ignoring or shifting the blame for wrongs like absentee fatherhood, sexual immorality (including that of some of them!), runaway abortion rates, substance abuse, laziness, and lawlessness of many kinds. No matter how hard they may try, the Bible does not support their message. Instead, the Bible teaches personal responsibility.

5. When political correctness affects the way we interpret Scripture. Once again examples abound. It seems many politicians use Scripture to support their agendas (rather than letting their agendas be informed by Scripture). Bill Clinton regarding Prov. 29:18 "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (KJV). Not only did he conveniently use an antiquated and inaccurate translation, it's wrongly interpreted to mean a "political vision for a country." Instead, it literally means, "Where there is no prophetic revelation, the people cast off restraint." Quite different. Essentially, "Where there is no Bible, the people are unrestrained and do wrongly." George W. Bush reportedly used a reference about Gog and Magog to convince the president of France to support the war in Iraq. Wrong circumstances and context all together. I'm not sure I know exactly what Gog & Magog are, but I know it's not Iraq or Arabs or Muslims in this era before Christ's return. Not even close. Or what about Barak Obama's frequent use of Genesis 4:9, "Am I my brother's keeper?" to suggest that we should raise more taxes for government entitlement programs. Not necessarily! And that's not what Cain was opposing when God asked him the whereabouts of his (dead) brother.
While it's perhaps understandable that politicians would misrepresent the Bible, it's not understandable—or acceptable—for pastors! We simply can't do this. Paul wrote young pastor Timothy: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). I've witnessed too many preachers who have twisted their Bibles to say things to fit a popular or political narrative.

Let's not lose our heads unnecessarily. Let us faithfully execute our office as if it is the most important office in the world. I believe that's exactly what it is. There are times to speak out where the Bible speaks. There are times to keep our opinions to ourselves where it doesn't. That way, our credibility only grows, because it is bound to God's. When we do speak we will speak with the authority of God. And if our heads end up on platters, it will not be in vain, it will be for the glory of God.

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