Don’t mention politics! politics and the pulpit.

By Brian Edgar

Let me suggest the top five reasons preachers give for avoiding any significant reference to politics in their preaching, along with a response as to why they aren’t really convincing.

1. ‘It’s too political an issue and therefore too controversial. To many people ‘political’ means ‘controversial’ and ‘divisive’. Therefore it is best to leave such issues alone in order to allow individuals to make up their own minds about them. It’s safer that way.’
The trouble is that the gospel affects the whole of life. Some say that Jesus stressed the spiritual rather than earthly, political matters (‘My kingdom is not of this world’) but what cannot be denied is that what he said and did ultimately has implications for the whole of life and for society (‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor’). In that sense he was political and, at times, very controversial.

But controversy is not to be sought for its own sake and much can be achieved without being divisive. In fact it is better for preachers to avoid the unfortunately well accepted processes of polarised thinking and confrontational debate which characterises most public dialogue today. This approach emerges out of the fundamental political division between a government and an ‘opposition’ and is fuelled by the need of the media for conflict and confrontation. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of a preacher’s contribution to this subject could well be the way they model how to engage in a mature, biblical consideration of the issues. Engagement without polarity is not the same as indecision or going soft on fundamental matters of injustice. But it does mean refusing to unthinkingly adopt existing divisions as the only options.

2. ‘It’s too impersonal an issue and doesn’t relate to people’s real lives. Congregations do not like preaching which is not immediately applicable to their personal or family life.’

Doesn’t it? Let’s take as an example the situation which occurred some time ago (and which could re-emerge later) where there was a major public debate about industrial relations. Not just a minor dialogue but a far-reaching debate which was not just about how a wage is set, but was really about the kind of society we want to be. The public debate dealt with important aspects of the way people are treated, the nature of social relationships and the significance of family life. One does not have to be an expert to appreciate this. Yet most preachers ignored it, presumably because they did not want to take sides in a party political debate. However, one can deal with the underlying issues without addressing the political party level of the debate. The public debate could easily be related to biblical and theological principles which relate to at least five broad areas of life -

  • Money and economics – these deal with wages and what is fair and appropriate reward for work done, especially concerning the establishment of minimum levels of remuneration.
  • Time and the relationship of work to other activities – the public debate involved consideration of a potentially significant shift in the social philosophy of the way that time is viewed in our society. It dealt with the way special times and days (such as Anzac Day and other public holidays, Sundays and annual holidays) are treated. There is also a potential shift in the proportion of time to be spent in work as compared to other activities.
  • Relationships between people, families and other social groups – the public debate reflected on the way that legislation affects families and the ability of individuals to provide for dependents. Issues of remuneration, security and tenure are theologically important.
  • The freedom, choice and the power of the individual In any debate about workplace relationships there are issues relating to where power lies and ought to lie. A shift towards a more individualised approach to relationships between employees and employers is proposed. This calls into question the nature of power that individuals have and whether they will benefit or find themselves disempowered by circumstance or lack of innate ability.
  • The treatment of the weak, the less able and the disadvantaged – for some this is the central issue. Given that the gospel has a bias towards those who are disadvantaged the proposed legislation must be able to answer the question as to whether it will provide appropriate economic support and care for those who are disadvantaged and whether it will advantage or hinder those in our society who are less able when it comes to looking for work or negotiating conditions.

Even if it is not possible, or thought not desirable, to give a final, overall judgment on the value of the legislation it would be good to help Christians discern some of the issues involved and to begin the process of the application of theological and biblical principles to this issue and others which will arise in the future.

3. ‘It’s too negative and doesn’t build up individuals or the congregation. It is alright to challenge individuals about aspects of their spiritual lives but preaching on industrial relations will not build up the individual or the congregation.’

There is a perception that preaching on social issues is a form of ‘prophetic’ preaching that involves critiquing social situations and being pretty negative about the world. Some preachers stick with criticizing society’s repudiation of family values while a few are prepared to engage broader matters of social justice. But for many ‘prophetic preaching’ is not helpful to the positive development of congregational life and therefore is rarely undertaken. This understanding of ‘prophetic’ preaching as a negative critique has emerged as a reaction to an overly privatised view of the gospel. The characterisation of Old Testament prophets as solely engaged in social critique is misleading because it ignores the strong covenantal character of what they were doing and their strong expectation that the people of God have the primary responsibility to demonstrate in their corporate life the way a society should live. It is important to preach about broad matters of social and public concern not merely to critique what society does but in order to emphasis the responsibilities of the covenant people. Preaching and teaching about industrial legislation is important for the people within the community of faith, as well as for the wider community. The church must model appropriate relationships and values if it is to address society’s broader issues. Preaching about public issues should be positive and enhance the life of the church as well as of society.

4.  ‘It’s too difficult and has not been part of my training. You need to be an expert in economics to be able to comment intelligently on a topic like this. There are people in the congregation who know more about this than I do. And it isn’t reasonable to spend a lot of time trying to deal with something so complex when it will soon pass out of public attention.’

It is true that few preachers have an economics background and such issues can be difficult and complex – but only if one assumes that the purpose is to provide unchallengeable and definitive answers to all the issues raised. The role of the preacher can be to point in a direction rather than to describe in detail the destination. You don’t need to understand the mechanics of a bus engine in order to decide whether you want to get on or not. All you need to know is the direction it is heading. So too with the industrial relations proposals, one does not need to understand the full detail to understand the direction it is going in, the values it espouses and something of the techniques it will use to get there. What a preacher should understand are the basic values of the gospel and be able to relate them to relationships, the exercise of power, the value of economic development and the protection of the weak. Let’s not under-estimate what biblical values and theological principles can bring to an issue such as this. And don’t under-estimate the interest of the people in church or their ability to continue working it through after the preacher has finished preaching.

5. ‘It’s not relevant to the gospel and doesn’t appear in the Bible. Preaching on industrial relations won’t save anyone. It is not really a gospel issue and it doesn’t appear in the Bible. Best to stick to the gospel.’
The dichotomy between social action and evangelism is a false one. The evangelical proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. It is always wrong to preach on issues such as industrial relations without speaking about Jesus. Even in the public realm we must not allow anyone to think that we act on our own behalf or in our own strength. It would be wrong to artificially conceal the reason for our involvement – the call of Jesus and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Whenever possible Christians should not speak about industrial relations without speaking about Jesus.

This first appeared as part of the Australian Evangelical Alliance’s Public Theology material.

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