Essay

Pastoral Agony

By March 1, 2016 15 Comments

There is an agony afoot among pastors and other Christian leaders.   I see it all over Facebook.   I read about it in leading Christian periodicals and in other blogs.   The agony surrounds what to say as a Christian pastor/leader about this crazy political season and specifically about the man who seems to be garnering a sizable number of evangelical votes: Donald Trump.  Again and again Facebook posts from fellow pastors begin with some version of “I don’t like posting political stuff but . . .”    “I have never as a pastor endorsed any candidate but . . .”    Even prominent leaders like Max Lucado have broken their silence as have many other leaders.

Most pastors I know are smart enough to know they have no business endorsing any one party and certainly any one candidate in elections at any local, state, or national level.   True, many parishioners–including former parishioners of mine–can tell eventually which way their pastor leans politically, but like me when I was a pastor, so most of my colleagues do not put political signs in their yards (especially on church-owned parsonage/manse property) and would never wear a campaign button on a jacket to church much less tell fellow Christians from the pulpit which candidate to vote for.    I suspect this post will tempt any number of The Twelve readers to send in counter-examples, and no doubt such examples exist.   In the main, though, pastors and other prominent leaders in the Christian community know enough to stay clear of endorsements.

But this primary season is different and not because of Republican-Democrat divides or specific policy platforms but because of tone, rhetoric, language, and character concerns.   And it all boils down to Mr. Trump.   I have already written here on The Twelve of why I also think Trump’s language should be something to flee from and condemn as Christians, not endorse or imitate.   So I won’t repeat that.   But with that as background, I raise the question: When does a pastor/leader reach a point where NOT saying something counts as pastoral dereliction of duty?

Yes, any Christian who has ever voted for any candidate in a national election has had to make certain compromises vis-a-vis his or her Christian faith.  There are always things to like and support in a candidate as a Christian and there are things that are troubling if not outright at odds with one’s Christian beliefs.   This always happens.    There is never THEE single Christian choice, and Christians of goodwill (and pastors who want to treat other people’s consciences with respect) make room for honest discussions and even disagreements on such things.   I know and have been the pastor of Christians who are equally devout, equally biblically rooted, and equally committed to helping the poor of our land but who end up supporting very different–and sometimes nearly opposing–strategies to do that.   Defend your own turf as you are able in such conversations but be very slow to claim that because a fellow Christian disagrees with you, his or her countering position is flat out sub-Christian.

But what if the bone of contention is behavior and not any given policy approach?   And what if the behavior in question is being touted as being somehow acceptable by Christian standards and is being enacted by someone who, in fact, claims to be a Christian?   What if, in short, the issues become more moral than merely partisan?   It’s one thing if the difference is one Christian person who supports supply-side, trickle-down economics to help the poor versus another Christian who thinks government sponsored help is the best way to give the poor a chance.   But what if the issue is that one person says “God in Christ asks us to support the poor in our midst and receive them as we would receive Christ himself” while another person says “God despises the poor and expects them to help themselves because God likes winners and poor people are losers”?   Well, must the pastor of these two people remain neutral on this kind of talk?   Would taking a side on this rhetorical divide be tantamount to endorsing a candidate for office?  Or do the moral, biblical, and theological issues at stake mean it is, in fact, the pastor’s job as theologian-in-residence of the congregation to make a call on this subject?

And just so I don’t lose any readers at this point who get distracted by this: I am NOT saying Mr. Trump has ever uttered a sentence like the one in my scenario above–this is an example I am making up for the sake of argument to get at the issue of when a pastor could legitimately speak up without being guilty of politicizing his or her pastoral office.

But to get at some things Mr. Trump HAS said that seem to be garnering Christian support: What do we make of a candidate who calls people “stupid” and “losers” on a regular basis, who states openly he’d like to punch in the face those who disagree with him, who uses crude sexual terms to refer to women, who coyly refuses on video to condemn white supremacists and then lies about it the next day claiming his earpiece during the interview was not working (despite the fact that he accurately quoted on air the very questions put to him)?

Calling people names is not OK when you follow the one who said that to call someone a “fool” is a breach of the 6th commandment and enough to make you liable to hellfire.   Physical violence and threats thereof  are not OK for followers of the Prince of Peace.   Crude talk is not OK for those who endorse the Apostle Paul who said that coarse language has no part of the Christian life and that there should not even be a hint of such things among Christ’s disciples.   Racism is not OK for those who believe that in Christ there is no dividing wall of hostility as all our differences are washed out in the waters of baptism.

If pastors cannot point this out, then who will?

One last note on a blog that has already gotten too long: after my last blog about Trump, a few people said to me “Well now you know how a lot of us have felt for 7 years having that Obama guy in the White House!”    To that I can but fall back in (nearly) stunned silence.  You can hate Obamacare, feel like he has weakened us on the global stage, and give him zero credit for the economic recovery that has happened since he took office at a crisis time in 2009.   You can decry his executive orders and we can stack up his number of such orders against other recent presidents to see who really had the highest such tally.  That’s all good political conversation.  But in terms of rhetoric, character, devotion to family, Obama should be applauded by all moral people.  He has never said anything in public that he’d be ashamed to have his two teenaged daughters hear.   He has been openly shouted at in Congress (“Liar!”) and has had his legitimacy as a citizen and as a Christian questioned repeatedly (with Mr. Trump having led the charge for years) but he’s never talked about punching anyone in the face or returned evil for evil.   He has turned the other cheek so often his face is raw from the beatings.   As even the very conservative David Brooks wrote in a startling column recently, there is reason already now to miss the kind of public decency Obama has embodied.   (And in terms of family values and public decency, I’d make the same case for George W. Bush.)

A pastor should be able to point that out, too.

 

 

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

15 Comments

  • Sue Poll says:

    Thank you for putting so eloquently into words what has been bothering me tremendously about the current political scene! Well said!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Thank you, Scott, for stepping off the ledge and saying what is such evident truth in this tumultuous year. When I shared the David Brooks article on FB only three or four of my friends liked it. It pained me to think that so many could not show grace and the respect for the office of president that we are called, as Christians, to practice.

  • Dale Cooper says:

    Thanks for this important comment, Scott. We pastors, who ourselves aim to follow Jesus and are called to serve as leaders among his fellow-followers–we must now not remain silent.

    Dale Cooper

  • Grace Shearer says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Scott.

  • Darrin Compagner says:

    Thanks, Scott. It seems a classic case of the question of whether to answer a fool in his folly or not (Proverbs 26:4-5).

  • debmechler says:

    I’ll add my “amen!” to the chorus. Well said!

  • Delianne Koops says:

    Well said, Scott. Thank you.
    Delianne Greydanus Koops

  • Henry Baron says:

    Let those who have ears to hear–open them!

  • George Vink says:

    Thanks for a well-written, informative article. You’ve made the case.

  • Erin Stout says:

    Thank you.

  • Wait, Scott, you have to remember sphere sovereignty, which, according to some, says that pastors aren’t allowed to comment on anything apart from doctrine. Do you want to be lumped in with those foolish pastors who spoke out on political issues, transgressing their God-ordained boundaries, poor fools like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who got caught up in politics and ended up dead, or Karl Barth, who was too stubborn to give the Nazi salute and say a simple “Heil Hitler” and was fired from his professorship at Bonn and sent back to Switzerland? You seem to presume that we should be speaking up about things that affect people all through the week, and not just on Sunday. But really, according to sphere sovereignty, only a Christian political scientist is allowed to say such things. You seem to be implying that we preachers should be talking about everyday normal life, and witness, and our attitude toward people who aren’t like us, when really we should only be talking about the nature of the atonement and the Trinity. The worst thing, though, is that Abraham Kuyper, the guy who promoted this (non-confessional and not particularly biblical) concept of sphere sovereignty was a theologian who became the prime minister of the Netherlands and founded a political party that wanted to apply Christian principles to all of public life. So he clearly didn’t understand his God-ordained limits as a pastor. So sad. /Disclaimer: Satire.

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