By Bob Russell
A popular Christian blogger recently suggested ministers should avoid preaching “anything political” because that’s an automatic turnoff to most seekers. He pointed out that when preachers take a position on contentious cultural issues they minimize opportunities for evangelism—especially with millennials. He applauded one of the leading ministers in America who recently announced he would no longer preach about homosexuality because it was such a polarizing subject.
WHY CONFRONT CONTROVERSIAL POLITICAL ISSUES?
That may sound like good counsel because, after all, our ultimate hope isn’t in politics but in Jesus Christ. But think about the many hot-button political issues that are also spiritual issues. Abortion, euthanasia, creationism, gay marriage, divorce, cohabitation, sexual harassment, gender identity, racism, religious freedom, proper care for the poor and aliens, women’s rights, and other pertinent topics are both civil and biblical matters.
It’s my conviction that to remain silent on controversial political issues abdicates our responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God, fails to disciple the church’s youth, yields critical territory to Satan, and is gross spiritual malpractice.
The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power and boldly proclaimed God’s Word even though it angered influential leaders. John the Baptist courageously called out King Herod for living with his brother’s wife. Jesus angered the zealots when he suggested they should pay taxes to Caesar. He undoubtedly made those who wanted to appease Rome uncomfortable when he referred to Herod as a “fox.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is generally regarded as a 20th-century hero because he bravely opposed the politics of Adolf Hitler. The cost of Bonhoeffer’s discipleship was imprisonment and death. Conversely, German church leaders who bent over backward to accommodate Hitler’s policies are now considered cowards because they remained silent in the face of atrocious evil.
Christian leaders today have a responsibility to “Preach the Word in season and out of season.” Even though we’re living in a season when many will not put up with sound doctrine, we can’t just say what “itching ears want to hear.” Our first responsibility is not to be sensitive to the seeker; our first responsibility is to be obedient to God and preach his Word, trusting it will not return empty.
Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, authored the book We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking the Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong. Mohler states that Karl Marx prophesied, “The modern age would sweep all conventional morality and political structures aside in a complete transformation of values.” Mohler then declared, “What Marx promised is now happening before our eyes.”
Francis Schaeffer wrote in A Christian Manifesto, “It is not too strong to say that we are at war, and there are no neutral parties in the struggle. One either confesses that God is the final authority, or one confesses that Caesar is Lord.”
We can’t pretend a cultural war isn’t really happening. We can’t naively claim it’s over or it doesn’t matter, because, “after all, Christianity thrives under persecution.” (Tell that to the few godly believers in North Korea!) God’s people cannot be silent! Jesus warned, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness . . . it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). The apostle Paul asked, “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8).
SEVEN WAYS TO CONFRONT POLITICAL ISSUES
The pivotal question is, How can we most effectively share God’s truth with a culture that is rapidly becoming more secular and more hostile to people of faith? How can we stand firm for biblical absolutes and not alienate the very people we’re trying to win?
1. Be balanced—avoid the extremes. In speaking the truth about controversial issues, we would do well to avoid the extremes. On the one extreme are spineless appeasers who bend over backward to be politically correct—they appear cowardly. On the other extreme are strident crusaders who continually rant against the culture—they appear hateful.
Jesus instructed us to be light to the world, but not a lightning rod. Paul encouraged us to fight the good fight of faith and yet to live at peace with everyone, if possible. So avoid the extremes of wimpish cowardice and hawkish militancy. Make every effort to maintain the powerful balance of preaching the truth in love.
2. Be biblical. The most effective way to stay balanced when dealing with social and political issues is through expository preaching. If we ministers preach verse by verse through a book of the Bible, when we come to passages that deal with sexual immorality or concern for foreigners, no one can legitimately accuse us of representing a political party. We are simply preaching the whole will of God. If we preach through a book of the Bible, we are also more likely to stay balanced and avoid disproportionate emphasis on our pet peeve.
3. Be pleasant. Preach the truth in love. Don’t attack the world with an angry tone, a clenched fist, or a fierce scowl. Let people know by your thoughtful words and gentle spirit that they are loved and that spiritual rebellion breaks God’s heart . . . and yours. It’s amazing how strong a stand you can take if you do it with a joyful countenance.
4. Be courageous. In order to avoid criticism, ministers may be tempted to buffer God’s Word with so many qualifiers that the truth is barely recognizable.
Not long ago I heard a sermon titled, “Is Homosexuality a Sin?” The sermon, one in a series on hot-button issues, had so many safeguards that the primary message that came through was, “The Bible says homosexuality is sinful. But we’re all sinners and no one sin is worse than another. And since we all need God’s grace, don’t be guilty of the greater sin, which is to be judgmental of others.” The preacher may have felt he had taken a biblical stand, but in reality there was no call to repentance and the congregation left somewhat bewildered because he essentially said what itching ears wanted to hear.
Contrast that with Franklin Graham’s statement about gay marriage:
True followers of Jesus Christ cannot endorse same-sex marriage, regardless of what our President, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the media or the latest Gallup poll says about the matter. . . . This moral issue has been settled by God Himself and is not subject to man-made revisions or modifications. In the end, I would rather be on the wrong side of public opinion than be on the wrong side of Almighty God who established the standard of living for the world He created (from “The Flood of Compromise,” Decision magazine, May 2014).
That kind of stand takes courage. Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is action in spite of fear. Just before going into battle against the Canaanites, God commanded Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
5. Be decisive. A few years ago most evangelical churches did a good job of taking a strong stand on abortion. Ministers informed their congregations early and often, “We are a pro-life church. Abortion is taking a life that God is knitting together in the womb. If you have had an abortion, we urge you to repent and receive God’s amazing grace. But we are unashamedly pro-life.”
There was little ambiguity. Visitors soon knew the church’s position. That clear, decisive stand and advances in technology have been used by God to turn the national opinion in favor of life. Few predicted that happening 40 years ago, but most churches stood for biblical truth and God honored that stand.
We would do well to follow that same consistent pattern in other controversial issues. Communicate early and confidently your church stances on divorce, cohabitation, gay marriage, gender identity, treatment of illegal aliens, women’s roles in the church, and so forth. Most people appreciate clarity and courage even though they may not totally agree. The failure to be decisive and take a clear biblical stand creates uncertainty and eventually division in the church.
6. Be relevant. Occasionally, current events beg for comment from spiritual leaders, but the scheduled passage of study does not lend itself to commentary. It may be a race riot prompted by a questionable police shooting or a Supreme Court decision on a moral issue that has everyone buzzing. Wise leaders should be perceptive and flexible enough to occasionally back away from a planned series of lessons and relate biblical truth to current events.
Fred Craddock said, “The preacher needs to understand he doesn’t just speak to the church, he often speaks for the church.” The minister should express openly, “This is what this church believes. This is where we Christians stand on this issue.” If people come to worship after their biblically based views are challenged by the world and those views are not reinforced, they go home frustrated, discouraged, and invalidated.
7. Be discerning. Know when it’s time to fight and when it’s time to be still. Some one-issue Christians pressure the preacher to lead the charge for all kinds of perceived spiritual battles. Proper health care for veterans, the appropriate display of the flag, standing at attention for the national anthem, the distribution of voter guides, the expansion of gambling, the display of the Ten Commandments at school . . . you name the cause and over-eager soldiers are urging you to take up their chosen banner.
At times Jesus intentionally avoided conflict. He healed people away from the crowd and told them not to tell anyone so the multitudes wouldn’t overreact. At other times Jesus deliberately threw down the gauntlet. The Pharisees were watching to see if he would heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The man’s disability wasn’t life-threatening, so Jesus could have waited until the next day. But instead, he said to the man, “Get up and stand in front of everyone. . . . [Now] stretch out your hand” (Luke 6:8, 10). Jesus discerned it best to confront the objections openly, fully aware that his actions would elicit intense opposition.
Leadership requires divine wisdom to know when to march forth into battle and when to remain peacefully in the camp. The Bible promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).
At the very least, Christian soldiers are called upon to stand our ground. The Bible encourages us to: “Stand firm. Let nothing move you” (1 Corinthians 15:58); “Stand your ground” and “stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13, 14); “Contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3).
If you can’t stand for a miraculous creation, the sinful nature of man, the inspiration of the Bible, the sanctity of life, the sacredness of marriage, the equal value of all races, salvation through Christ alone, and the evangelistic mission of the church, what in the world can you stand for? Where is your backbone? We can’t keep retreating from truth just because it might offend someone. We have a God-given assignment to stand firm and guard the gospel.
So be thick-skinned.
The world hates God’s truth because men love darkness rather than light. If you just stand for the basic truths of God’s Word, you won’t have to go looking for a fight; the fight will come to you. Unbelievers will accuse you of being intolerant, bigoted, and a hater. You can’t avoid it. Jesus warned, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first (John 15:18).
Sadly, some of the most scathing criticism may come from within the church. Paul warned, “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth” (Acts 20:30). Some church members are terrified that if their church takes a strong stand it will develop a bad reputation in the community. They crave the approval of men more than the approval of God, so they attack God’s messengers for stirring up trouble.
When you’re attacked, remember, Jesus offended people so much that they crucified him. He promised, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11, 12). So expect criticism and toughen up!
Dr. David Jeremiah, minister of Shadow Mountain Community Church in Southern California, has always taken a bold stand for righteousness. He explained, “I cannot sit idly by and watch believers be destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (See Hosea 4:6.)
But in fighting for the soul of America, Dr. Jeremiah wisely adds a word of caution. “America cannot be saved by politics,” he writes in his book Is This the End? “It is not going to be saved by Republicans, Democrats, or Independents. While we need wise and godly national leaders, the real answer to our problems is not political but spiritual. . . . The answer is not found in being liberal or conservative, but in being committed to Jesus Christ.”
So, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses . . . until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time” (1 Timothy 6:12, 14, 15).
Bob Russell serves as pastor emeritus at Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Kentucky. He continues to preach, provide guidance for church leaders, mentor other ministers, and write through Bob Russell Ministries.