Being Christ’s Body in an Election Season
It is a wonderful thing to live in a democracy – to have a say in the selection of one’s government. Christians in many parts of the world today, and most Christians throughout history, have not enjoyed the privilege of voting for their leaders.
However, living in a democracy also presents challenges for the Church. Both Christ and the Apostles taught that genuine unity is vital to the health of any congregation.1 Yet elections, by their very nature, encourage people to disagree. Elections only work if citizens are allowed to express differing opinions. How can a local church maintain congregational unity while allowing its members to participate in the electoral process?
Here are some thoughts about how to approach the upcoming election as a church:
1) Recognize that no candidate is perfect.
In the history of our nation, no perfect candidate has been listed on any electoral ballot, ever. When we vote, we are always faced with the choice between flawed individuals who represent imperfect parties. To canonize one candidate and demonize the other is to deny a central tenet of the gospel – “all fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Everyone in our congregation who votes will, therefore, vote for a leader who, if elected, will make decisions and institute policies that are contrary to the values of God’s kingdom. Rather than criticizing our brothers and sisters for the choices they make in the voting booth, let us link arms and recognize that this is not an easy decision for any of us. We are all trying to do the best we can when we vote.
2) Remember that there are worse things than having a bad government.
What could possibly be worse that having an evil president in the Oval Office? Having evil thoughts, bitterness, and hatred in our own hearts. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” This verse teaches me that my personal happiness, the health of my family, and the impact I have on others depend more on what is going on inside me than on what goes on in the White House.
Throughout history, at various times, Christians have lived under horribly despotic governments and have thrived. They have lived productive lives, reared happy children, built growing churches, and maintained grateful hearts. I do not mean to sound dismissive of the importance of our upcoming political decision, but I do want us to remember that the work of God in this world will not rise or fall on who our next president is. The presidency is not ultimate. The Supreme Court is not ultimate. The United States is not ultimate. Only Christ is ultimate. “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).
3) Let us not merely allow God to speak. Let us allow him to choose the topics he wants to address.
After the killing of George Floyd, I noticed that some churches immediately replaced their on-going preaching plan with a sermon series on racial justice. Recently, I have seen churches suspend their teaching program to dedicate their pulpits to messages about politics. I do not mean to be critical of other pastors. I trust they are making the right decisions in their context. But I feel the church needs to be careful not to let its teaching ministry be shaped by the current news cycle. For the most part, at ACC, we either preach from one of the traditional lectionary passages for a given Sunday or we work our way through a biblical book. A value of this approach is that it allows the word of God to determine what we think about on a Sunday morning rather than having our agenda decided by whatever topic the media happens to be obsessed with that week.
Of course, by working through Scripture systematically in this way, we will inevitably talk about issues like justice and societal righteousness. These topics are common in the Bible. But addressing these matters when they arise in Scripture, rather than when they pop up in our Twitter feeds, safeguards the church against being swept up in the bitter political arguments of the day.
Pastor Ken Mbugua of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Nairobi, Kenya has shepherded a congregation through many deeply contentious, and sometimes violent, political elections. He advises pastors, “Though the heated conversations of the day sound all-important, we should remind ourselves that the Word of God endures forever. News channels, newspapers, and social media are filled with mere opinions. So, pastor, make sure you execute your God-given charge and preserve your pulpit for that Ancient Word. Don’t confuse the value of any political insight with the value of God’s Word for God’s people.”2
4) Pray. Pray a lot.
1 Timothy 2:1-2 says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” We should pray for those who oversee the electoral process in our country, for the candidates who are seeking office, and for whoever wins the upcoming election. Pray that God will bless our nation with wise leadership and that all parties will respect the outcome of the election. Any nation whose Christian citizens support its leaders with prayer is a nation that is blessed indeed.
5) Rejoice when fellow Christians vote differently than you do.
In elections where the moral differences between candidates are not crystal clear (in other words, in almost all elections), we should expect that members of a local church will not all vote the same way. Diversity of political opinions in a congregation shines a light on the power of the gospel to unite us just as much as ethnic or economic diversity do. In a recent interview, Pastor Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. said, “The wider our disagreements are inside a local church, the more testimony can be given to the clarity of the gospel and the uniqueness of the gospel…. If we are able to see people who hold different positions on debatable [political] issues at the same church it shows that those things we agree on are more important and heavier in our identity [than are our political views].”3
Of course, celebrating the diversity of political views that can exist within the church does not guarantee that we will understand those who differ with us. We might find their views outright distressing. This is why it is so important that we listen carefully and respectfully to each other. Pastor Michael Lawrence of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon writes, “Living with our fellow church members in an understanding way as we move toward a divisive election this November doesn’t mean giving up our political persuasions…. It does mean paying loving attention to the person whose politics you disagree with but whose communion you share. It means treating their feelings with tenderness and respect because those feelings are usually the first and most important facts you will encounter, and their feelings are not up for debate. Instead, those feelings are an invitation and opportunity to understand and enter into the experience of a fellow member of the body of Christ….” 4 James 1:19 gives us helpful counsel when it says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”. Likewise, 1 Peter 3:8 says, “Be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.”
I have voted so far in 10 presidential elections. Only twice have I voted for the candidate who won, and on those occasions, I soon regretted my choice. In every election in which I have participated there have been Christians I respect who voted differently than I did. That is okay. Far more important than getting our candidate elected to office is that we be people whose lives are transformed by the love of Christ – that we love and accept each other, that we pray for our leaders, and, in the words of the prophet Micah, that we “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Let us pray that God will help us to approach the current electoral season in ways that honor him.
1 Jn. 17:20-22; Rom. 15:5-6; 1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:3-6.