American Pulpits and Politics: The Hope of Our Nation

While driving to Charlotte, North Carolina, I heard Pastor John MacArthur encourage Christians to vote. It wasn’t that long ago that he left the impression in his book Why Government Can’t Save You1 that Christians should resist putting too much emphasis on politics. I was glad to hear him take a more active role to help Christians understand that politics is not outside the parameters of a Christian worldview. Like MacArthur, I do not believe civil government can save anybody. The same is true for self-government, family government, and church government.

There are 30 million evangelical Christians in America, and millions do not participate in politics even though the Bible says that the civil magistrate is a “minister of God” (Rom. 13:4). These Christians don’t vote for any number of reasons. “To the pulpit, the PURITAN PULPIT, we owe the moral force which won our Independence,”2 John Wingate Thornton wrote in The Pulpit of the American Revolution. Too many Christians don’t believe or know this history.

Many Christians believe that they can be neutral, that their participation does not matter. There is no neutrality. By not engage culture at the political level, another worldview dominates and impacts all of us. We must then live under their standard. In the film The Edge of Darkness starring Mel Gibson, a corrupt United States Senator tries to avoid the man he hired to kill Gibson’s character. As he stares down the barrel of the gun being pointed at him, the Senator appeals to his authority. “You can’t shoot me. I’m a United States Senator.” The assassin replies, “By what standard?” And so it is with everything. (1) There is an ultimate standard in every decision that is made

Founding American ministers of the gospel confronted the issues of their day by appealing to the people in terms of the Bible. The annual “Election Sermon” still “bears witness that our fathers ever began their civil year and its responsibilities with an appeal to Heaven, and recognized Christian morality as the only basis of good laws.”3 In addition, the clergy were often consulted by the civil authorities in the colonies, “and not infrequently the suggestions from the pulpit, on election days and other special occasions, were enacted into laws. The statute-book, the reflex of the age, shows this influence. The State was developed out of the Church.”4 As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long ago, the American pulpit “gave birth to America”:

On the eve of the revolution, in his last-ditch attempt to stave off impending catastrophe, Edmund Burke reminded the House of Commons of the inseparable alliance between liberty and religion among Englishmen in America. Mercy Otis Warren noted in their 1805 history of the American Revolution: “It must be acknowledged, that the religious and moral character of Americans yet stands on a higher grade of excellence and purity, than that of most other nations.” Of the Americans on the eve of the Revolution Carl Bridenbaugh has exclaimed, “who can deny that for them the very core of existence was their relation to God?”5

There were some ministers, however, who refrained from appealing to the Bible for examples and prescriptions for reform. Rev. Nathaniel Ward (c. 1578–1652), pastor at Ipswich, Massachusetts, in his election sermon of June 1641, grounded “his propositions much upon the Old Roman and Grecian governments.” John Winthrop (1588–1649), first governor of Massachusetts, described this as “an error.” There was good reason for Winthrop’s objection: Why should the church appeal to “heathen commonwealths” when it is the heathen principles that have made it necessary for the church to be involved in reform efforts? Winthrop believed that “religion and the word of God make men wiser than their neighbors,” thus, “we may better form rules of government for ourselves” than to adopt the failed principles of the past, what he called, “the bare authority of the wisdom, justice, etc., of those heathen commonwealths.”6 It was the heathen past that had to be swept clean if the people of God were to become the model of Christian charity that Winthrop spoke about aboard the flagship Arbella in 1630. Such a task is no less true in our day.

There are implications to the gospel message. Jesus said that you will know a converted person by the fruit his profession produces (Matt. 7:15–23). A “profession of faith” does not validate a person’s conversion. James tells us that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26): “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27). Should Christians stay out of politics if laws are passed that hurt orphans and widows? Homosexuals are pushing to have laws changed to allow “gay couples” to adopt children. Many of these adoptees are orphans.

Maybe the advocates of a “just preach the gospel” message have a limited understanding of the comprehensive transforming effects of the gospel. Paul told the Ephesian elders that he did not shrink from declaring to them the “whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). A reading of Paul’s letters to the churches will show that he spent as much time on Christian behavior after conversion as he did on correct doctrine. Politics is one area where many Christians want to draw the line.

It is hoped that but a few will think the subject of [civil government] an improper one to be discussed on in the pulpit, under a notion that this is preaching politics, instead of Christ. However, to remove all prejudices of this sort, I beg it may be remembered that “all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” [2 Tim. 3:16]. Why, then, should not those parts of Scripture which relate to civil government be examined and explained from the desk, as well as others. Obedience to the civil magistrate is a Christian duty; and if so, why should not the nature, grounds, and extent of it be considered in a Christian assembly? Besides, if it be said that it is out of character for a Christian minister to meddle with such a subject, this censure will at last fall upon the holy apostles. They write upon it in their epistles to Christian churches; and surely it cannot be deemed either criminal or impertinent to attempt an explanation of their doctrine.7

Mayhew’s point is well taken. If the writers of Scripture, as instruments of God’s will (2 Tim. 3:16–17), did not think it improper to discuss political issues, then how can ministers who claim allegiance to God-breathed and infallible Bible fail to address not only politics but every issue discussed in Scripture? The entire created order is open to discovery and study.

Paul repeats the commandments prohibiting adultery, murder, and theft (Rom. 13:9), and sums up his specific exhortation on the law with the general command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (13:9). These instructions come after Paul informs the Roman Christians that the civil magistrate is a “minister of God” (13:4) who is to make a determination between good and evil behavior (13:3). What standard should the magistrate (God’s civil minister) use to make these determinations?

These commandments have multiple social applications. Certainly the civil magistrate is to find it his duty to love his neighbor by not burdening him with excessive taxation and bureaucratic entanglements to frustrate his God-endowed freedoms to earn a living and provide for his family. No doubt the magistrate is to work for a civil order that results in a “tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:2). In the first-century, all that these Christians could do was appeal to God with “entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings” since they had no freedom to petition the Roman Empire with their political wishes (2:1). God through His mercy has established the United States as a civil society in which we can through our voice and vote make changes for the betterment of all. We have the constitutional right, as the First Amendment declares, to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It seems by all of this that Paul went beyond what many might think is “just preaching the gospel.” You can find similar emphases in all the New Testament letters as well as in the ministry of Jesus. Redemption from sin (the new birth) is the first step in what it means to be a “new creature” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). These first steps are described by the writer to the Hebrews as “elementary principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12), the milk stage of growth (1 Peter 2:2). The time must come when the student matures to become a teacher (Heb. 5:12). The goal is to grow in Christ. “For every one who partakes of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (5:13–14). The “only-preach-the-gospel” mentality stunts the growth of the new convert.

The writer to the Hebrews is adamant about development in the faith, so much so that he offers the following admonition to his readers: “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith in God” (6:1).

  1. John MacArthur, Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2000). []
  2. John Wingate Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution or, The Political Sermons of the Period of 1776 with a Historical Introduction, Notes, and Illustrations (New York: Burt Franklin, [1860] 1970), xxxviii. Emphasis in original. []
  3. Cited in Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, xxiii. Emphasis in original. []
  4. Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, xxii-xxiii. Emphasis in original. []
  5. Ellis Sandoz, Political Sermons of the American Founding (Indianapolis: LibertyPress, 1991), xiv. []
  6. Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, xxv. []
  7. Jonathan Mayhew, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers (January 30, 1749) in Thornton, The Pulpit of the American Revolution, 47-48. []
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