President Trump made a promise at the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast to repeal the law that prohibits political endorsements from the pulpit. The law is known as the Johnson Amendment and was established in 1954 to restrict tax-exempt churches and other entities from engaging in partisan politics. The language under the Internal Revenue Code reads, “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Trump signed an executive order today that, in part, focused on adjusting the Johnson Amendment in order to lift restrictions on churches and pastors.
On the surface, this sounds like a win for evangelicals. And there are some positive aspects of this executive order to be thankful for as a Christian, or as a person of any faith. Religious liberty is a non-negotiable bedrock of our democracy and is in my thinking one of the clearest non-partisan issues in front of the American people. Furthermore, for Baptists, religious liberty has been one of the pillars of our identity and our history. So, an executive order to re-establish a commitment to religious freedoms for every person of faith is welcomed, needed, and appreciated.
But as for me and my church, we will continue to refrain from political punditry and partisan endorsements as a church, regardless of the status of the Johnson Amendment. Here’s why:
The Misson of the Church
Although we tend to use the word “missions” when discussing the command Christ gave to his church, the reality is that the church has a singular mission – to make disciples. God’s redemptive decision before the foundation of the world to rescue rebellious sinners through the sacrifice of his only begotten Son is not merely one of several narrative threads woven into the biblical story. It is the story. And it is this story of Christ crucified that directs the church both in her remembrance of who she is, and also who she is not.
Politics, although designed for the social good of the people, is nevertheless a pursuit of power in order to realize a particular approach or theory for how a country should be managed. It’s an important mission. Just not the mission of the church. And entangled in the political mission of our government is an unavoidable trap to out-negotiate, to out-wit, to out-con, and to out-maneuver an opponent for the purpose of achieving greater power. This ever-present agenda of the political world simply does not mesh with an institution who is to be known for our humility, self-sacrifice, love of enemies, servanthood, and allegiance to a different kingdom. The church is to pray for those who are involved in the political game. The church is not to play it.
The Issues of the Church
The Johnson Amendment has no power to regulate the most important ecclesiological responsibility: preach the word. There is no law on earth that would keep me from preaching the holy scriptures, and if the church is faithful to exposit the Bible, then the issues will be addressed. And if the issues are addressed, then the congregation will be shaped and formed by God to wisely choose the best candidate at any given time. Legendary pastor Adrian Rogers said, “if [a pastor] has done his job, his members will prayerfully and correctly use the standard of God’s Word to select the right candidate.”
And remember, the Johnson Amendment concerns a 501(c)(3) institution. It obviously has no power over the lives of individual Christians, even those who are most committed to the church, to support, endorse, debate, and oppose any candidate they choose. What we are addressing here are the actions of the church as a whole.
We do not need the Johnson Amendment lifted in order to speak to the most pressing issues of our time as a church. We need only the word of God and people who are called to preach it and teach it.
The Purity of the Church
Pastors and churches are human. I believe in the integrity of most churches to pursue only what Christ has established for his people and to hold to his moral authority alone. But we are human. And the purity of the church, both from within and the perception from without, would be open to attack like never before if we embraced a political agenda. The Johnson Amendment is designed to protect the interests of both the state and the church. Without those protections, political heads will quickly attempt to funnel money through our churches in return for a particular endorsement or plug. Need a new church van? No problem, just oppose Senator Smith and support Senator Jones and it’s yours. And by the way, ease up on the sexual purity rhetoric right now – Senator Jones is dealing with a few things and we don’t need that pressure on him right now.
You see? We might scoff at these ideas now as unrealistic. But within our own Southern Baptist Convention, we have already felt the power of political leanings in ways that have not only embarrassed us, but harmed the pursuit of our mission.
The Future of the Church
What kind of legacy do we want the church to have in 25 years? Surely it is to be like the apostle Paul, who would boast only in Christ alone. Our children and grandchildren need a church committed to the counter-cultural, risk-taking, gospel-centered message of a risen Christ without the dilution of a secondary political agenda. The church is not alienated from the political sphere, but the work she does carries an eternal future hope that extends well beyond the mere endorsement of a political party or piece of legislation.
To live coram Deo is to live one’s life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, for the glory of God. And that is my approach to the church and politics. When our churches lead our people to “seek first the kingdom” and devote themselves to the undivided, unrelenting glory of God, then their influence in the world, including the political world, will be known and felt. And it will be felt in ways that are true to the church of Jesus Christ. Ways that are lasting. Ways that are commendable.
Christians should be thankful for any action that seeks to strengthen religious liberty in our country. I hope President Trump, and future presidents, will not stop pursuing, defending, and increasing the freedoms of religious people. But we must be careful to properly discern what true religious liberty looks like. And when churches walk through the door of political engagement in the name of religious liberty, they might find themselves on the verge of losing both.