I was recently invited to teach a seminar at Christ College, Sydney, on “pastoring in a politicized age.” Preparing for that seminar gave me the opportunity to craft a few bullet points of applied political theory for pastors. In other words: how can pastors best shepherd their people to think rightly about politics

Granting that particular issues may vary broadly from country to country, here are eight principles pastors should regularly bring before their congregations.

1. Politics are designed by God to be a blessing

At its most basic (and noble) level, politics are an expression of the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbour as yourself. In a post-Babel world, there is diversity in languages, ethnicities, and governments. Nations strive against nations, and God has established varying mechanisms in culture for people to collaborate together for the common good. This was government’s design (Gen 9:6 ). Paul specifically calls government “God’s servant for your good.”

We can often allow our thoughts of politics to be jaded and clouded. But if we allow politics to be jaded too much, we will harm our ability as pastors to train up a new generation of leaders who will advocate for the family and for human life. We won’t have advocates in the public square for justice and those who will protect children, family, and marriage. It is good to be reminded that politics has potential to do massive good in society. However, pastors should also teach that:

2. Politics are often turned into a curse

Like all of creation, politics are marred by sin. People, from the mighty to the weak, frequently use their power to exploit (Ecclesiastes 4:3). In fact, oppression often takes place at the hands of those who themselves are being oppressed (Ecclesiastes 5:8). You might see a law enforcement agent abusing his power and not realize he himself is being abused by those above him, who are acting on ungodly orders by those higher up, and so on. It is so common that Solomon says, “Do not be amazed at the matter.” It’s just how the world works. What God gave for good is often abused for individual power, riches, and unjust gain.

This is true at a societal level but is also true specifically in human hearts:

3. Politics are an idol

Because politics have the potential for good but are often used for evil, people are prone to idolize it. People treat politics like a religion. They think that government can right the wrongs, change the weather, and give meaning to life. People are prone to viewing government as those in the Ancient Near East viewed their municipal deity: if we sacrifice in the right way, and worship with sufficient passion, our god will hear us and cause prosperity. In today’s world, when something bad happens, people appeal to government for mercy, and promise to do better next time. So much of modern politics can only be explained as religious activity, as people think that unless election goes this way or that way, then their nation is doomed. Or, conversely, if there is any hope for a future generation, it is found in a certain political outcome. That, simply put, is idolatry. Because of this idolatry, it is critical that: 

4. The church is an embassy

Picture the cheesy American movies where a good guy is being chased through the streets of some third world country, and right as the bad guys close in, the good guy darts inside an American Embassy. Saved! This is how the church should function. Imagine people in our congregations running through the streets, being pursued by idolatry, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Sunday mornings they are out of breath, and just barely leap into the church doors escaping their pursuers. Of course, they will scatter back into the world in a few hours, returning to face the temptations yet again. But pastors strive to make church an embassy of a different kingdom; a place where politics can’t quite pry the door open. Instead, we are concerned with the business of a different king. Rightly practiced, this doesn’t minimize the trials of the week, but simply regulates them to a different kingdom. Meanwhile, the church exists primarily to draw people up. But that doesn’t mean we deny the present issues  our congregation is facing, because “the church as embassy” has to be paired with:

5. Church as the training grounds

Here I’m thinking particularly of young people. Society minimizes what God designed for good. Families are under attack, law enforcement is ridiculed, and justice is perverted. Left to their own—or to the world—kids will grow up with no external validation of the importance of family, law enforcement, bravery, or the beauty of marriage. It is critical for pastors to teach on the virtues of self-sacrifice for the common cause, the priority of the home, the goodness of a wife that nurtures and a husband that provides.

Zooming out, churches should encourage people to sacrifice their lives for the gospel; for missions, for advocacy, for the defense of the defenseless. The ethic that produces soldiers and police in some will produce pro-life advocates and politicians (the good kind!) in others. I heard someone say recently that when he was a boy at church, he heard about a pastor being legally threatened for teaching Christian truth, and so he decided when he grew up he wanted to become a lawyer in order to help. Last year he was one of the attorneys who helped churches in California win the right to reopen. He developed a passion for that cause from being in church as a kid.

Zooming out even further, this applies to more than kids. Adults need to be trained how to respond to the ethical dilemmas of the day. How should one respond to same-sex marriage, gender confusion in schools, or racial issues in society? A friend of mine makes tee-shirts that warn “don’t let the world teach you theology.” Well, the same could be said for ethics. Christians, even mature ones, need help in the areas of applied theology. This doesn’t have to (always) happen from the pulpit, but the church needs to equip people to act in a morally confused age. But with that said,

6. Christians (especially pastors) don’t have to be caught up in current affairs

After the last presidential election, I had people from every side encouraging me to “say something” to the congregation. People sent me emails from the My Pillow Guy (“Trump to be restored next week!”) and others sent me emails from a former FBI Director (“The walls are closing in!!!”). They were encouraging me to talk about the validity of the election from the pulpit. Instead I preached a sermon on Psalm 131, where David says, “My eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too marvelous for me”). It was incredibly encouraging for me to realize that David was a king, and even he said, “Some things are above my paygrade.”

If the church is an embassy, pastors do well to prioritize what kind of truth they want to teach. Pastors should be experts in the Word, not in the news. Early on in seminary, I remember Pastor MacArthur telling one of my classes that pastors probably shouldn’t have time to know all the latest sports scores and the standings of the AFC Central. The same could be said for the latest news.

Truth be told, I’ve had scores of people ask me, “Are you going to tell everyone they need to vote for X this November?” but I can’t remember ever meeting anyone who was genuinely confused about who to vote for, wanting my opinion. Those that want the pastor to “say something” are usually looking for validation, not information. I’d rather use my influence to teach people about the election in Ephesians 1, more than the election in November.


7. The great commission is the antidote

Politics are indeed a form of loving your neighbour, but the best way to make a lasting change in society isn’t through politics, but through mission—specifically the great commission. A nation can (and should) make laws against sin, but to change a sinner’s heart requires the gospel. Abortion should be illegal, but the mission of the church is to bring people to Jesus. I recognize some might argue that this is a false dichotomy. “Can’t you encourage people to vote and to come to Jesus?” But the two messages crowd each other out so quickly. I want to use my influence to direct people to Jesus, not to transform society. I’m not post-millennial—I grant that the world may wax and wane time and again. But the world won’t “get better” until Jesus comes back. So, the most immediate impact a church can have is through evangelism.

This is not a call to isolationism because at the same time, the church is also making disciples and sending those disciples into the world to stand for righteousness and check evil (see point 5 above!). But the church sees gospel growth in terms of conversions and discipleship, not in terms of elections. This is good, because if success were seen in terms of elections, we’d be in trouble. Christians have a math problem. Democracy is good, but the road to heaven is narrow. Christians don’t determine the outcome of an election—we are like Gideon; we are too few to sway by numbers. But that’s ok, because our agenda is validated in the waters of baptism more than the voting booth.

Which is perfect because:

7. Worship belongs to God, not government

This final principle is the most critical today. COVID exposed that far too many congregations (and pastors!!!) were willing to grant government the ability to regulate church worship. In contrast, Jesus said, “Render to Caesar things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Clearly he was referencing taxes, but a good pastoral exercise is to make a list of what belongs where: what actually does belong to government and what belongs to God? One list is going to be much shorter than the other, and while some Christians’ lists may vary from others, at a minimum, congregational worship belongs to God, not government.

If this principle is regularly taught, it will help prepare people to not only be courageous in the face of government overreach in other areas but will also teach them to view politics with the proper degree of importance—which is probably a notch or two below where they would be otherwise inclined to place it.