WHAT PRESBYTERIANS BELIEVE
Presbyterians are called to engage in policy
By Craig M. Howard | Presbyterians Today
Politics are personal. As God’s people, we feel our politics. When we watch the news or read it on our iPad, we experience a potpourri of emotions. We get excited, angry, demoralized, indignant, frustrated and more. Some of us take a sabbath from Facebook, while others turn off Twitter.
Amid this charged atmosphere stand the church and its pastor. The 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth once said to preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. That, though, has become a risky high-wire act.
We all agree that preaching political extremism, or support for or against a particular candidate, is out of bounds. It is wise to stick to issues that have a biblical mandate, and not single out personalities in the news. But as Christians in the Reformed tradition, our religious person and our political person are one. John Calvin himself believed that Christians should be involved in civil affairs because the laws they create are designed to protect the virtues of Christian life that are expressed in the church.
In 1983, the 195th General Assembly adopted the study “Reformed Faith and Politics.” The document recognizes that our political system is created and maintained by sinful people. The results of these systems are imperfect at best, as cited in the study when it says, “A person caught up in the love of God knows that earthly justice is usually only rough justice.”
“Reformed Faith and Politics” provides excellent biblical direction for the pastor and members of the congregation to engage in the political life. From the message of prophets, examples of kings and the life of Jesus, the document speaks clearly that the path laid out for Christians is one of political involvement and not apathy.
Scripture and our Reformed tradition provide permission for the pastor to engage in the political life, both in the pulpit and outside of it. But how does a pastor engage these topics and not get run out of town?
The solution emphasizes building relationships. The first responsibility of the pastor is to love the people. When the pastor is pastoral and demonstrates care in the lives of the parishioners, the pastor can stretch the boundaries of the sermon because the parishioners know the pastor loves them. When the pastor has been with a parishioner in times of crisis, the parishioner is more willing to give the pastor a break when they disagree with a sermon in the pulpit. As 1 Peter 4:8 tells us, “True love covers a multitude of faults.”
Our modern church culture does present a headwind to the relationship strategy. Simply put, people don’t attend church like they used to. It is common for members to attend once every six weeks. One pastor shared, “If they come once a month, I’m pushing for them to be on session!” How can pastors nurture relationships when attendance is so infrequent?
Today’s pastor must use both old and new technology in order to build deep relationships with modern periodic church-attenders. In addition to pastoral visits, the pastor can use Bible class, Sunday school and other gathering opportunities to encourage respectful political speech and activity. The pastor can also use Facebook, Instagram and other technologies to keep up with the lives of parishioners, learn of prayer requests and stay connected even when the parishioner doesn’t attend worship frequently.
Preaching politically goes beyond standing in the pulpit and pontificating. It involves building relationships with members that are as deep as possible, considering the limitations of current church attendance patterns. It is our calling as Presbyterians to hold in tension the political person and spiritual person, and to teach our membership to do the same.
Craig M. Howard is the presbytery leader of the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy in St. Louis.
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