It seems that we could generate much more light, instead of mere heat, if we would take the time to define the terms of our controversies. In the past few years, a social media divide has emerged among Christians who argue, on the one hand, that we must address racism by preaching the gospel, and those who argue, on the other hand, that while the gospel must remain central to the church, wider forms of social activism are also necessary as legitimate implications of the gospel. This common method of framing the debate is actually too crude to be helpful. What we need is a nuanced look at what, exactly, is being argued on each side.
I think it is a fair assumption that those on the “just preach the gospel” side actually mean something more like this: preach the whole counsel of God and seek to apply it to the lives of believers in our churches. Scripture provides for us not only the promises of the gospel—the announcement of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners—but also the ethical implications of the gospel for our lives. No one arguing for the gospel as the antidote to racism is arguing that pastors cannot condemn racism from the pulpit and seek ethical formation in their people through the application of biblical ethical teachings. They can, and they should, because numerous teachings of Scripture condemn racism and command love, and the entire logic of the biblical story from creation to new creation demands nothing less. I propose that those on the “Preach the gospel” side change their terminology to “Preach the whole counsel of God.”
What, then, is distinct about the argument coming from the other side in this debate? I think a number of Christians would want to add to the above by saying, “Yes, preach the whole counsel of God, and then follow its implications into concrete social actions, such as pressing for police reforms, criminal justice reforms, etc. Take your faith into the public square and get involved in the political process.” Here I think we need to exercise great care, because bringing one’s faith to bear on political issues is often a tricky and complicated process. Here are four principles to keep in mind as we seek to be faithful in doing so:
There is a difference between a clear-cut moral conviction that can be plainly argued from Scripture and a specific political policy that is a matter of wisdom rather than moral imperative. All should agree that a police officer kneeling on a subdued man’s neck until he suffocates is a wicked act that should never be tolerated. Not all will necessarily agree that eliminating police unions is a good step toward hindering such wicked acts. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Does the Bible speak clearly on police unions? If not, how can Christians uphold one particular policy position on police unions as a matter of moral conviction?
When Christians insist on particular political policies (which are attempts at applying moral principles to complex situations) as moral imperatives, they inadvertently add to God’s law and impose obligations on fellow believers that God has not imposed. This is called legalism. Those who argue for particular forms of public activism as necessary implications of the gospel are constantly in danger of slipping into a sub-biblical form of legalism that compromises the whole counsel of God rather than faithfully adhering to it.
Pastors are not, nor should they be expected to be, experts in social and political policies. If we expect pastors to be political organizers who direct congregations toward specific political actions, we are expecting them to be something other than pastors. The calling of a pastor is to proclaim the whole counsel of God. No more, no less.
The subtext of these conversations seems to be, quite often, that unless a Christian votes to support Democrats and Democrat policies, he or she does not take racism seriously. That assumption is the result of media manipulation, not reality.
Pastors, preach the whole counsel of God. That means proclaim the gospel as well as its ethical implications for the lives of your people. But do not overstep your authority and demand specific political actions. Leave that to the wisdom of your people. Trust the Holy Spirit to guide them in their individual callings to be salt and light in the varied ways he gives them gifts and opportunities to do so.
[This essay first appeared on my blog, pastoralapprenticeship.com.]