This past Sunday was an important date. Not because Christians worldwide gathered together to celebrate the resurrection of their Lord, but because a group of 100 pastors endorsed political candidates in their church's pulpits baiting the Internal Revenue Service to remove the church's tax exempt status. This is not the first time such an event took place, but everytime such a stunt is performed by well-meaning church leaders, the coverage increases.
USA Today reports:
On Sunday, a group of 100 preachers nationwide will step into the pulpit and say the only words they're forbidden by law from speaking in a church.
They plan to use the pulpit as a platform for political endorsements, flouting a federal law that threatens churches with the loss of their nonprofit status if they stray too far into partisan politics.
While other church and nonprofit leaders cringe at the deliberate mix of the secular and the religious, participants in the annual Pulpit Freedom Sunday protest hope this act of deliberate lawbreaking will lead to a change in the law.
The support from the Christian community is robust in this situation. Perhaps the most prominent voice supporting the even has come from Christian author, thinker, and influential voice Charles Colson. In an article titled Legislated Laryngitis Colson lays out the origin of church's being silenced by the IRS. He shows that then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson silenced the church in an re-election effort. He writes:
In 1954, then-Senator Lyndon Johnson was in the middle of a particularly bruising re-election battle. Two nonprofit groups had been especially troublesome to the senator, vocally opposing his candidacy.So, on a hot summer day in Washington, D.C., Johnson slipped an amendment into the IRS 501(c)(3) code that governs nonprofit organizations in order to restrict their speech -- including the speech of churches. Johnson’s amendment stated that nonprofits could not “participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing and distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.”
The penalty for such “participation?” Revocation of their tax-exempt status.
Without debate, the Senate held a quick voice vote on the amendment. As the chamber filled with a chorus of “Ayes,” the church became infected with an instant case of laryngitis, thanks to the Senator from Texas.
Colson goes on to note that prior to Johnson's amendment, the church was always at the center of public and political debate. And, thanks to an encroaching government, the church has been silenced and thus unwelcomed in the public debate. This begs the question, posed by Colson, then:
It’s now time to ask the question: Who decides what the church can and cannot say?
Should it be the government? Or should it be the church?
Colson makes an important point from a citizenship perspective. Traditionally Christians and those of other religious beliefs have had a robust influence in the political and public arena. Now, however, the government is abusing the tax code to silence unwanted political free speech. The last question quoted above by Colson is an important question for Christians to ask. Who decides what the church can and cannot say? It does seem that in this one instance (not to mention the countless hate speech codes being passed throughout the nation and throughout the West) the government is determining not what the Church can say (that's the business of hate speech laws) but what they can't say. Should not the Church, rooted in the gospel and Scripture, determine what the Church says?
I offer a loud Yes! Yes, the Church should be free. Yes the Church should speak for itself and have the liberty to say, proclaim, and believe whatever she wishes. But I am afraid that even this misses the point.
Other Christians have offered their criticism of Pulpit Freedom Sunday. The head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Richard Land, raised his concern by saying "It puts congregations in an awkward position. It's not a wise thing for churches to endorse candidates. We think candidates should endorse us." As the head of the ERLC, Land finds himself very much involved in the political arena and as a Southern Baptist I wholeheartedly respect and support Dr. Land. However, I believe that even he has missed the point.
Colson is concerned with the issue of freedom and the 1st Amendment and rightly so. Dr. Land is concerned with the State aligning with the Church and not the other way around and rightly so. But neither response is the correct one.
When we as pastors stand up in the pulpit and proclaim politics we have missed the point. Certainly there are political implications of the gospel, but to campaign for the ways of man at the cost of the ways of God is not the duty of preachers. As a pastor and as a voting citizen I know what I believe and already know how and who I am going to vote for. However, when we meet on Sunday's to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord we meet to celebrate the resurrection and worship the God of our salvation. Our priority at worship is worship, not politics.
I do believe that the government is walking on dangerous Constitutional lines disallowing religious institutions to endorse political candidates. I also am against the government passing hate speech laws that silence religious believers and leaders from espousing their convictions and faiths. I am first and foremost loyal to the gospel, not the tax code. However, when the Church gets more press regarding who they are going to vote for than the message they are called to proclaim everyday, we have missed the point.
The Bible is clear on this issue. The gospel is more important and ought to be our utmost priority than anything else including public policy. Yes Jesus did comment on political issues (like paying taxes), but he needed protested political policy. Yes Paul certainly used his Roman citizenship to his own benefit but still expected believers to submit to government (even government ruled by the wicked Nero) as we submit to our Lord. Yes Peter refused to obey the political and religious leaders of his day when they asked him to stop proclaiming Christ, but otherwise called on Christians to live peaceably among men and to obey the governmental authorities.
Furthermore, it is the priority of preachers and pastors to proclaim the gospel. When God called Ezekiel, he described him as a watchman on the wall. If he fails to proclaim the message of God, the blood of men's souls falls on his hands. But if he does proclaim God's message and they refuse to obey, their blood is on their own hands. In other words, "Preach the Word!" (2 Timothy 4:1ff).
Everything is about the gospel. Everything. And the minute we take up precious time of worship and gospel proclamation we have cheapened the gospel. If we really want to influence politics, we must proclaim the gospel. Are we trying to moralize the unconverted or convert the immoral? If we want real solutions, then we must preach Christ. The gospel is central to all that we are and believe. Unless our vote is centered on a gospel worldview, then it is empty. Unless our sermons on centered on the gospel then they are nothing more than self-help, empty psychological babble.
Clearly I did not participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday at the church where I pastor not because politics is insignificant but because the gospel is too important. Let us preach Christ and trust in the power of the gospel. You know its a sad day in the health of the Church when trust in the policies of Washington more than the transcendent message of our immutable God.
Alliance Defense Fund - Pulpit Freedom Sunday: Participating Pastors Will Exercise First Amendment Right to Speak on Positions of Elecotoral Candidates Sept. 28
Townhall (Charles Colson) - Legislated LaryngitisUSA Today - Pastors plan to 'bait' IRS with pulpit politics
CBN - Pastors to Challenge IRS on 'Pulpit Freedom Sunday'
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