I grew up through the 1980s in Northern Ireland, a time when matters of politics and faith were tragically intertwined. Clergymen spoke like politicians, and politicians like clergymen. Slogans were bandied about which often implicated God and faith in the political preferences of the speaker. Even as a child I found much of this distasteful and disconnected from what the Bible seemed to say.
Fast-forward thirty years, and I now serve as Pastor of a small Baptist church on the eastern coast of Northern Ireland. I commenced pastoral ministry sixteen years ago, and decided then that politics would play no part in how I served the Lord. As time has passed my conviction on this has remained the same, but my motives for being a non-political pastor have broadened and deepened somewhat.
Those first sixteen years of the twentieth century have been deeply political. Following the horrific events of 9/11 and the brutal wars that followed, there is a strong sense in the Western world that politics matter. In recent days, with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, and the ongoing electoral debacle that has been the EU Referendum in the United Kingdom, politics is high on the agenda. The Brexit debate has brought politics very close to home. Never before have I heard so much incidental discussion of the political world, nor have I ever heard people disclose their actual voting preferences and practices so freely.
In such an environment it would be easy in Christian leadership to now ‘go political’. Our issues are no longer provincial or incidental, and in some cases they are nationally existential. Is there, then, not a responsibility for people like me who have been charged with the care of God’s people to speak and lead in this area as well? This question has been much on my mind in recent days, and increasingly I find myself answering it in the following three ways:
- Politics is not my business
If the Brexit debate has taught me anything, it is the sheer complexity of political discourse. In the run up to the vote I made it my business to read, listen to and watch as much material as I could on both sides of the argument. This determination had an unexpected outcome for me: the more I engaged with the issues, the more confused I felt. Statistics seemed to have the flexibility of an olympic gymnast, political prognoses seemed vastly contradictory, and people whose opinions I respect were deeply divided. I’m sure that some of this sense of confusion springs from my own intellectual limitations, but it also surely points to how complicated politics is. Government and legislation have so many moving parts, and are so tightly interlinked with other disciplines, that it boggles the mind of most people when they face a decision on how it should be directed.
All of this reminds me that politics is not my business. As a citizen I can seek to be as informed as possible, I can interact with debate (actual or virtual), and I can solicit and enjoy discussion with friends. But as a minister of the gospel I am not qualified to be a political guide to those under my care. On themes of ethics or justice I can and must give biblical counsel, but those are areas of pastoral overlap rather than being part of the political mainstream. I can no more politically lead the Christian believers in my care than I could treat them medically. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
- Politics is a messy business
At the present moment the United Kingdom is a deeply divided nation. A referendum returning a narrow majority on a central issue shows the profound diversity of views and concerns that people harbour. In this kind of environment being a political pastor can actually be detrimental to the work of the gospel and the health of the church.
On Sunday morning past there were undoubtedly members of our fellowship who were quietly glad that Britain could now leave the EU, others who were dismayed at the electoral result, and still others who feel perplexed and concerned about their future, regardless of how they voted.
And I am not called to mediate between these positions, or even to palliate these political divisions.By its very nature the church is (or ought to be) an ethnically, culturally and politically diverse group. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends borders and ethnic markers, it embraces people at whatever point they find themselves on the political spectrum, and it allows for liberty of conscience on non-gospel issues.
My calling is to teach what the Scriptures say and to care for the souls of those in our fellowship. To bring the messy business of politics into that mix would be divisive and perhaps abusive of my position as pastor. The Christian church has enough points of divergence and difference theologically without adding the accelerant of difference politically.
- Politics is a momentary business
Ultimately my joy in being a non-political pastor is that my main concern is not temporal or political, but eternal. I serve the King of kings, and I stand side by side with citizens of his kingdom, regardless of their momentary political badges. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20), and it is for this kingdom that my energies are chiefly to be spent.
This doesn’t give me a free pass from civic responsibility, it doesn’t mean that Christian belief should be ghettoised or live in glorious separation from the real world. Being so heavenly minded that one is of no earthly use is no more desirable now than it was when that cliche was coined.
For the voiceless, the Christian must speak clearly and with conviction, on matters of justice and human dignity the Bible has a unique perspective which should be shared, and Christian preaching which does not equip believers to live in the real world falls short in at least part of its purpose. But to bind these broader kingdom areas to the continuous present tense of today’s political world minimises what the gospel is all about, and makes our message just one more perspective to be adopted or ignored.
To (badly) paraphrase Alistair Campbell ‘I don’t do politics’, and I’m glad of that fact. I don’t want to lead in areas where I am unlearned and unskilled, I don’t want to feed and fuel division among people who are poles apart politically but who belong to the same Lord and Saviour, and I don’t want to be distracted by the momentary pressures and contingencies of the political world. It is my deep joy to be a non-political pastor.