How Do We Talk About Politics In Church?
Does God care about our politics? How do we grapple with politics through a discipleship lens? And what role does a pastor play in this process? This is something Jonathan Romig has reflected on as a part of his pastoral ministry.
The first need in connecting whole-life discipleship and politics, Jonathan says, is a self-awareness of how our politics shape us spiritually. “When you turn on cable news or that podcast, you are being discipled, even if you don’t realize it. We need to realize that if churches aren’t discipling people in relation to politics, someone else is. And when it comes to your spiritual formation, cable TV does not have your Christlikeness in mind.”
Over the last few years, Jonathan has tried to take this need for discipleship seriously. “I try not to be partisan,” he says, “but I do talk about politics sometimes. If you care about your city, you need to talk about the issues that impact your city.”
He considers the words of the prophet Jeremiah to God’s people in exile: “Seek the welfare of the city” (see Jeremiah 29:4-7). In the New Testament, Jonathan reminds us, Peter says Christians are living in exile and also called to seek the welfare or shalom of the city where we find ourselves. “We’re not at home in America. We are citizens of a different ‘city,’” he says. So, we must ask, “How can I seek the shalom of my city, even as you go into that voting booth? Obviously, we may disagree on some of what that looks like at the end of the day, but I think if that’s our starting point, it’s a place of unity.”
Jonathan is clear about the goal of politics-related conversations in a church context. “I’m not trying to make people fit my political profile and to be just like me. I’m trying to move them one step further in faithfulness to Jesus. I want to move them one step further in operating out of faith and not fear, trusting God, and not viewing politics through the world’s lens.”
“So much of our politics is based in fear,” Jonathan says. “Fear leads to anger and alienation. It leads to fight or flight. But as Christians we should seek a model of flourishing and the common good.”
What does this picture of “flourishing” in our political, social, and cultural engagement look like? He says we can most easily define it by what it’s not. “It’s not domination, where we’re seeking power and control. It’s not isolation, where we wall ourselves off. It’s also not assimilation or fusion with the culture where we say everything is good about the culture and we accept and affirm all of it.”
Instead, we’re called to what Jonathan refers to as a “faithful prophetic presence.” We seek to be faithful where God has us and be obedient to Him—whether that’s at the office or in a political conversation. In every place, we can seek the common good and model that peace-maker, Sermon on the Mount ethic that makes us radically different than the world. Sometimes, though, this means we need to “speak truth to power” and take a stand on something.
Living in this way and modeling it as a pastor “is not an easy thing, and it’s not always clear,” says Jonathan. “It’s a principle we have to work out with a lot of prayer. We need the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”
It is the Gospel that gives us courage to prayerfully examine our political positions, Jonathan insists. “The Gospel tells us we are sinful and broken, so we can expect there will be aspects of our political positions—both in what we think or how we live them out—that are fundamentally wrong. This give us a posture of humility and repentance. But the Gospel also tells us we are beloved children of God, so we can have the courage to examine and be open to changing our thinking and behavior. This gives us confidence in forgiveness if we realize we’ve made a mistake.” The Gospel gives us reassurance as we honestly engage in these things, as we remember “we aren’t saved by holding all the right positions.”
Conversations about politics haven’t always been wildly popular in Jonathan's experience. There have been times he’s gotten push back after a sermon or small group discussion. There’s been times when he’s been told he shouldn’t talk about certain issues. But he’s willingly engaged with these fellow believers, inviting them into conversation and even having them over to his home. Some of these conversations have now continued over a few years. “You have to be patient,” he says.
As a pastor, there is a need for discernment to know what you can talk about from the pulpit and what should be reserved for more personal conversations. Pastors need the Holy Spirit’s guidance to know when to push and how to push their congregations. “As a pastor, I am going to make mistakes,” Jonathan says. “Even if I preach the wrong series at the wrong time, if I do it in faith, seeking the Lord, trying to trust Him, God can still use that.”
At Jonathan’s church, conversations related to politics are happening in a variety of settings. He thinks of them as incremental steps and building blocks as people in his congregation engage with that facet of their discipleship. He sometimes preaches sermons or sermon series on topics appearing in the political cycle. There are opportunities for people to wrestle more personally in Christian ed and small group settings. He and other leaders at the church have had a book discussion to process a political issue together. He hopes that through all of this, the people in his church will be developing self-awareness, teachability, and humility. But, he says, “At the end of the day, I need to trust the Holy Spirit is at work in their life, at Christ’s pace.”
In his own formation, Jonathan has found help in mentors. As a pastor, “it helps to have someone you can go to outside of your church,” he says. He has a mentor he can share sermons with before he preaches them to get a different perspective. He advises other pastors, “If you are going to preach a political sermon, it could be good to get someone else to take a look at it and process it with you.”
When he thinks about politics and discipleship, Jonathan can’t help but come back to the Gospel. First of all, the cosmic nature of the Gospel, and our hope of God’s redemption of all of creation, shapes the way we see political issues. “It allows us to take a step back from focusing on getting a particular person into power and thinking instead about how the Gospel impacts a certain issue or what it would look like for Jesus to redeem it.”
“Maybe the way of Jesus is actually a lot harder than casting a ballot. Maybe seeking shalom will actually involve a lot more personal work,” Jonathan says. “Jesus never called us to be the empire. He called us to His Kingdom. And His Kingdom has come, is coming, and will come. Today, we live like His Kingdom is here.”
Jonathan Romig is the pastor of Cornerstone Congregational Church in Westford, MA.
This article is part of our ongoing series, Through the Valley: Real Conversations About Following Jesus When the Road Gets Hard, in which we're talking about discipleship in the parts of life that are difficult, complicated, or sometimes controversial.