By Joel Rainey
For many months already, people have been stewing over what many believe will be the most vitriolic election year our nation has seen in some time.
I’ve never believed the hype that tends to come every four years from people on the right and the left who declare each subsequent election to be “the most important election in our lifetime.”
But as I survey the landscape from my vantage point, I’m inclined to believe this one just might be one of the ugliest.
During times like these, people of faith need the guidance of their pastors. But over the years, I’ve seen a couple of approaches by a few Christian leaders that just aren’t helpful.
On the one hand, some completely ignore the political landscape on the basis that “I don’t talk about politics.” I can understand the desire of not getting drawn into debates over a kingdom that we know is temporary.
But there’s a big difference between refusing to go down the political rabbit hole and acting as though the coming elections aren’t a reality.
When the early Christians said, “Jesus is Lord, not Caesar,” their intent wasn’t to isolate faith from politics, but rather, to put each in its proper place. They hoped to emphasize their devotion to the king was to be defined by the King of kings.
On the other end of the spectrum are hyper-partisan pastors who call out those they perceive to be less-than-desirable candidates and passionately distribute literature to persuade their congregation toward their preferred candidates.
In the middle are people who want to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the voting booth by thinking critically about all the issues involved and how their vote impacts those issues.
But to provide people the guidance they need, pastors need to strike a balance between ignoring an entire year on the political calendar and looking over the shoulders of our people as they cast their votes.
How do we do this? Let me suggest some general guidelines:
1. Talk about Issues, not Personalities.
Sure, it’s easier to take shots at politicians than it is to take apart and examine the issues being debated. When issues arise, especially in national campaigns, we need to apply the teaching of the Scriptures to those issues.
Trust me; your people are intelligent enough to be able to take the grid you give them and hold it up against the candidates.
You don’t have to attack an individual. That may be how they do it on cable news networks, but you’re called to a much higher standard.
2. Love All, Serve All.
You may recognize this phrase, which appears prominently on the wall of every Hard Rock Café in the world. The meaning is plain: treat everyone the same. And for pastors, this means we’re to treat everyone pastorally.
On occasion, pastors may get the opportunity to spend time with candidates for political office. Whether at the local, state, or federal level, these experiences have taught me these people, too, need a pastor.
Candidates and their families face unspeakable scrutiny from the press and the public (especially those who oppose their candidacy).
Incumbents merely add the stress of a subsequent campaign to a job that, as it turns out, was far more taxing on their health, family, and peace of mind than they ever imagined when they first took their oath of office.
When given that audience, our primary concern should be pastoral. That means we seek to minister to the soul of the politician (yes, they have souls too), and our doors are open to anyone.
When it comes to the candidates themselves, love them all with the love of Jesus—not to gain access to power or to get your business card in their hands, but because you care about their souls.
3. Never, under any circumstances, endorse a candidate.
I don’t say this because I think it’s good legal advice. Personally, I don’t believe anyone should be legally punished because of anything they say, and that includes a pastor who wants to endorse a candidate.
But just because I think it should be legal doesn’t mean I don’t also think it’s a really dumb thing to do.
If I endorse a candidate in my capacity as a pastor (and let’s be honest, I can’t separate myself from the office by simply saying “as a private citizen,”), I’ve essentially said, “I feel this is God’s candidate.”
Think about the implications of that for just a moment. That means everything this person does during their term of office is now associated with the name of Jesus via my pulpit-centered political endorsement.
It’s not a smart thing to do, and it may even result in you taking the name of the Lord in vain. So don’t do it.
4. When you preach/teach on issues, be sure to admit complexity.
One prominent example of this principle is the importance that will be given to potential war in the Middle East during this election cycle.
Politicians in both parties will be forced by the debate format to reduce their positions to quick and easy solutions that take less than two minutes to explain. That’s not fair to the candidates, but it’s also a somewhat reckless approach to such an important issue.
Such is precisely the time for your people to be reminded of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and many others who’ve for the past two millennia given us a rich history of just war theory to be contemplated deeply and taken with deadly seriousness.
Explore the complexity of the issues being debated, and help your people think critically, deeply, and biblically.
5. Use elections to make disciples. Don’t use disciples to win elections.
Our end goal as pastors is to grow deeper, more passionate, biblically informed, world-changing followers of Jesus. It isn’t to mobilize a political voting bloc.
So, in the end, make sure you’re equipping people to affect this temporary kingdom positively, but doing so with their eyes on the eternal one.
One tangible way of doing this is to encourage environments where people on opposite sides of an issue in your church are put in the same room and resourced with what they need to talk honestly with each other, while still treating each other as brothers and sisters.
I’m convinced that even when the contrast is sharp, the church is capable of having a far better conversation than what we may hear on cable news this coming year.
Election seasons are strategic times to preach and teach about important issues. But at the end of the day, disciples aren’t strengthened and God’s Kingdom isn’t advanced by taking over the power structures of this temporary world.
Keeping those things in balance is important for pastors who want to be found faithful during the election season.
JOEL RAINEY (@joelrainey) is Lead Pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He’s husband to Amy, father of three, serves on the adjunct faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of four books, and blogs at Themelios.