Pastors: Get The Facts Then Share Them With Your Church
There can be no doubt that in recent years many pastors have become hesitant to speak out concerning critical issues facing our society. But why?
In a recent article for Christianity Today, Peter Chin shares some of his own reasons for hesitation and even fear in addressing these very sensitive yet critical issues. I confess that it’s hard for me to discern the tone of Chin’s article. I can’t tell if he is offering these thoughts as legitimate reason for pastor’s not to speak out on these issues, or if he is simply stating facts from his perspective to give insight.
For example, Chin cites the “separation of church and state” as one reason pastor’s might feel hesitate to speak on issues that could be perceived as political. He writes:
“It’s an idea that was coined by Thomas Jefferson himself, and given (some) weight by the First Amendment. And for pastors, this goes far beyond the cultural pressure that a person feels to avoid coming off as overly-religious. For us, there are legal implications because the tax free status of churches depends on maintaining this separation, although instances of enforcement are admittedly rare.”
This statement alone makes me think Chin is simply sharing his own experience and seeking to help people understand a pastor’s perspective; rather than making a case for silence using these reasons.
The idea of “separation of church and state” was not “coined” by Thomas Jefferson as it is currently used by some politicians today. Jefferson never meant for this idea to be used as a bully pulpit of weapon to intimidate and silence pastors and churches. (Chin does speak to this a little, but not enough to clarify.)
As a framer of the Constitution, Jefferson clearly had a vision for an America where pastors and churches had complete freedom to speak to any issue our country would face. It needs to be made very clear that the phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in any of America’s founding documents, none. It was written in a personal letter from Jefferson to a church that was concerned about government intrusion into church affairs. Jefferson wanted the church to know that no such intrusion – as was common in England – would occur because of the “impenetrable wall of separation between church and state.” Clearly Jefferson’s original intent has been lost.
But Chin also states that “the tax free status of churches depends on maintaining this separation.” I don’t know if Chin is misinformed or just naïve about the topic but he’s wrong. Churches are tax exempt by their very nature and existence. There’s nothing in the IRS code that demands a church get approval from the government to be tax exempt. By their very existence they are tax exempt. Now, there’s no doubt that obtaining a letter from the IRS is helpful, but it’s not necessary. So this “legal implication” as Chin puts it, is not really an implication at all.
Fun fact, not one church has ever lost its tax exempt status as a result of “political speech!”
I would advise any church concerned about the IRS and tax exempt status as it relates to political speech to consult with Alliance Defending Freedom. This group of religious freedom experts comprise one of our nation’s leading voices on this topic and have many resources to help churches understand just how free they are to speak about issues considered political. Furthermore, their “Speak Up Church” movement is leading the way in this area.
Chin goes on to say that another reason he is hesitant to speak up is because he doesn’t want to “lose a single soul.” He states:
“You see, there are many social issues that I care very deeply about, and I believe that Scripture has a clear position on. But I also am acutely aware that if I say something that is even remotely political, or could be construed thusly, I may lose the ability to speak to John, because he’s a staunch conservative. Or I can’t counsel Rose, because she’ll think I’m a right wing nutjob.”
Well, yeah, if you frame arguments in a partisan light you are liable to divide people and risk creating tension and even hostility. But, many issues we are facing are not partisan they are Gospel-centric, biblical, moral issues. The issue of marriage is not partisan, it’s not even political. Marriage is a biblical moral issue that must be understood in a Gospel context. Abortion is a biblical moral issue with a Gospel context critical for proper understanding. Any pastor seeking to educate his congregation on these critical issues facing our culture should not seek to do so from a partisan position, but a biblical position.
Of course, some issues are not inherently biblical, without an explicit Gospel context. The issue of immigration comes to mind. Does it take skill in communicating the measure of biblical truth in this issue to a diverse congregation? Certainly. Can it be done without sounding like a partisan hack for one party or the other? Of course. And that is the job of every pastor – to communicate God’s truth and help his congregation to see the biblical truth within these sensitive discussions.
In the end Chin says that it comes down to “cowardice.” He honestly confesses his own cowardice and repents for it:
“So are pastors irrelevant cowards? The answer is: yes, often times. After everything that I’ve shared, the fact still remains that we pastors often lack the courage to stand up and to be heard, and potentially to be hated as a result. Our silence is a subtle tool used preserve our egos and standing before people. This is often the case for me, and I repent for it. I am laughably weak, even if the faith that I represent is not. But there is one thing that would help me tremendously, and that is the support of my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. If I could count on the church to stand by me, then you can count on me to stand up and speak.”
Frankly, I think he is closer to the truth here than in any of his other reasons. I believe too many pastors are simply afraid of what will happen if they speak up and speak out. I get it. I’ve been there and at times find myself standing before people with knocking knees and shaky hands. Our fear does not absolve us of our duty though. We must fear God more than we fear men and seek to speak God’s truth into the pressing issues of our day.
Now more than ever our society needs bold men of God that will stand humbly, full of grace, upon God’s Word and proclaim His truth. If America’s pastors are too afraid to speak up there is little reason to believe anyone else will either.