The Politics of Jesus, Message Six: Nathan Finn’s “The Pulpit and the Public Square: Some Observations from the Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon”

Dr. Nathan Finn, assistant professor of church history at The College of Southeastern, gave a lecture on Friday at the “Politics of Jesus” conference at the First Baptist Church of Durham, NC.  The talk was thoroughly researched and thought-through and included much helpful material to chew on from the life and ministry of Charles Spurgeon.  Finn is an emerging Southern Baptist leader and a very promising scholar, and his message showed how one can do very fine historical work and bring it to bear on important questions of the current day.

“The Pulpit and the Public Square: Some Observations from the Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon”

On Saturday August 16, 2008, California megachurch pastor Rick Warren hosted a televised forum featuring major party presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. Each candidate was questioned independently by Warren for one hour before an estimated crowd of 5000, most of whom were members of Warren’s congregation. The majority of the questions dealt with issues where religious convictions and personal morality intersect with public policy. The forum was aired by all three major cable news networks, each of which reported higher ratings than normal for a Saturday evening.[i]

The forum was not Rick Warren’s first foray into political engagement. Warren, a Southern Baptist, has been increasingly vocal about political issues over the last decade. Some of the causes he champions are not traditionally associated with religious conservatives. Though Warren remains vocal in his opposition to both abortion and gay marriage, he has also called upon his fellow evangelicals to address social issues like poverty, the AIDS pandemic, and climate change. Warren’s Saddleback Church even hosted a World AIDS Day summit in December 2006. Among the speakers were noted ministers and politicians, including future presidential candidates Obama and Sam Brownback.[ii]

When Warren embraces the role of pastor/political activist, he is following in a long line of Baptist ministers in the last half century who have used their pulpits, both literal and figurative, as a platform for engaging the public square. African American Baptist pastors like Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth were at the center of the Civil Rights Movement. Progressive Southern Baptist pastors like W. W. Finlator and Carlyle Marney made the case against the war in Vietnam and advocated the Nuclear Freeze movement. Independent Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell emerged as the most visible leader of the Religious Right, a movement that was vocally supported by high profile conservative Southern Baptist ministers like Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, and James Robison. At the present time, Baptist ministers as diverse as Richard Land on the Right and Welton Gaddy on the Left are actively involved in political advocacy that is rooted in their religious convictions.

But even these politically minded pastors were not the first Baptist ministers to take an active role in engaging the public square. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892) was the Victorian Era pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, which at the time was the largest church in the English-speaking world. Like many of us who are present at this conference, Spurgeon held evangelical convictions about the nature of the Bible, humanity, salvation, and mission. Also like most of us, Spurgeon personally engaged in various types of political activism that were born out of his Christian convictions. Because of these similarities, I believe there is much that we can learn from Spurgeon about the relationship between the pulpit and the public square, despite the fact that Spurgeon lived his entire life on a different continent during a different era. My address this morning will highlight aspects of Spurgeon’s political activism and suggest some ways that evangelical ministers can similarly engage the political culture in our own 21st century American context.

An Assumption and a Caveat

Before proceeding, however, I need to confess one assumption and offer one caveat. First, my assumption: I assume that all of us present at this conference affirm the formal separation of church and state. I make this assumption for two reasons. First, we are Americans, meaning all of us likely agree with the First Amendment of our Constitution, which both guards against the establishment of a state-sponsored religion and protects the free exercise of religion by those who live within our borders. Second, a good many of us are Baptists, a particular type of Christian that has argued from our inception that full religious liberty is best preserved when church and state remain organically separate.[iii]

Now by assuming we all agree in principle to the separation of church and state, I am under no illusion that we would all agree as to the application of this concept. Some might even object to the language of church-state separation because of the way that various anti-faith agendas have co-opted the phrase and used it to undermine traditional values that many of us hold dear. Some may fear that to even use this expression is to concede a rhetorical advantage to our ideological opponents. I am personally sympathetic to these concerns, though for our purposes together I think I can use this terminology without you assuming I am in league with any anti-religious political agenda. Besides, this is a conference hosted by a group of Baptists, an ecclesiastical tradition where the language of church-state separation predated Thomas Jefferson by a century and a half, though obviously not the contemporary secularist application of that terminology.[iv]

The fact is American evangelicals have never marched in lock-step when it comes to applying the First Amendment, perhaps because there has never been one single understanding of what church-state separation actually means. At least two major views have been articulated by evangelicals, both of which have been ably defended by some Baptists. Some evangelicals argue for what might be called an accomodationist understanding of church-state separation. Most accomodationists argue that the government should accomodate religious beliefs and practices, provided that it does not show favoritism to a particular sect or belief. Isaac Backus is the most famous Baptist proponent of this view. Accomodationists tend to argue that the Constitution is positive in its assessment of religion and that the primary concern of the First Amendment is to guard against a state-established church. We might say that contemporary accomodationists tend to read the “non-establishment” clause of the First Amendment through the lens of the “free-exercise” clause. Though I confess that I cannot offer any quantifiable evidence, it appears to me that the majority of present-day politically engaged evangelicals tend toward an accomodationist understanding of church-state separation.[v]

Despite the present popularity of the accomodationist approach, there have always been some evangelicals who have argued for what might be called a strict separationist understanding of church-state relations. Most strict separationists argue that the government should be completely neutral concerning religious beliefs and practices, neither supporting nor harming any particular sect or belief. John Leland is the most famous Baptist proponent of this view.[vi] Strict separationists argue that the Constitution takes neither a positive nor negative view of religion and contend that the primary concern of the First Amendment is to guard against government-endorsed religious activity. We might say that contemporary strict separationists tend to read the “free-exercise” clause of the First Amendment through the lens of the “non-establishment” clause. It appears to me that a minority of present-day politically engaged evangelicals are strict separationists, probably because this view predominates among most of our opponents in the culture wars. Nevertheless, many evangelicals do hold to strict separationism, though they often apply the principle differently than secularists who claim religious neutrality while operating out of a sometimes brazenly anti-faith agenda.[vii]

Of course both accomodationist and strict separationist views are general tendencies; I suspect many of us are eclectic in our own convictions, though we likely tilt in one direction or the other. Still, despite whatever differences in opinion may exist concerning our views of church and state, I suspect that no one in this room hopes Uncle Sam will begin dictating religious policy to American citizens or desires to see a national theocracy where religious teachings are imposed on the American people. To say it another way, I assume our fundamental agreements outweigh our differences when it comes to church-state separation.

This brings me to my caveat: We cannot simplistically replicate Charles Spurgeon’s political engagement in our own context. Instead, he must be contextualized for twenty-first century American evangelicals. Spurgeon’s milieu was quite different from our own. Though Spurgeon the Baptist advocated church-state separation, Spurgeon the British citizen lived and ministered in a context that affirmed a national church, the Church of England. Spurgeon rejected the validity of that state church, but the history of the relationship between church and state in England led Spurgeon to argue for the fundamentally Christian nature of his society. Spurgeon believed in a Christian England because, on paper at least, England had been “Christian” in some sense since the medieval era. Spurgeon simply wanted to see a generically Protestant England that did not discriminate against non-Protestants.

Though I think most of us would agree that the Judeo-Christian tradition is central to Western Civilization and helped shape America’s founding, I doubt most of us would argue that America is, or has been, or even should be a “Christian nation” in the same sense that England has historically been a “Christian nation.” Whatever the personal religious sentiments of the various Founding Fathers (and it can be debated), it is clear they did not envision America following England’s example in these matters.[viii] America has never advocated a national religion, regardless of whatever role Jewish and Christian moral theory has played in our nation’s history. So while we all want to see biblical principles influence our body politic, I trust none of us want to see the state becoming formally religious in the sense of officially affirming (or denying) specific Christian doctrines.

Spurgeon’s Political Engagement

Having confessed my assumption and offered my caveat, we may now proceed. As we consider Charles Spurgeon’s political engagement, we need to bear in mind that his views about the relationship between the pulpit and the public square were the product of his theological convictions about God’s sovereignty. Like the earlier Puritans, from whom he drew much spiritual inspiration, Spurgeon believed that God sovereignly rules over all creation.[ix] He would have agreed with the turn of the 20th century Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper, who famously argued, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[x] As Spurgeon biographer Lewis Drummond notes, Spurgeon’s political philosophy “grew out of his basic theology, namely, that God is sovereign over all of life, and that includes politics, business, the home and every other aspect of one’s being. Therefore, every Christian shares the responsibility to see to it that godly ideals are infused into the very fabric of society, and that forces one into the political arena.”[xi]

Spurgeon engaged the political culture of his day in a number of ways. First and foremost, Spurgeon encouraged Christians to be politically active. Spurgeon believed that it was a matter of faith for Christians to exercise their civic responsibility by participating in the political process. One way Spurgeon encouraged responsible Christian citizenship was by urging Christians to vote, often using strong religious language to do so. For example, Spurgeon compared the importance of voting to the importance of praying:

God has made us our own governors in these British Isles, for, loyal as we are to our Queen, we practically are Caesars to ourselves. We are now called upon to exercise one of the privileges and duties which go with liberty, let no man be neglectful in it. Every God fearing man should give his vote with as much devotion as he prays.[xii]

In a reference to Jeremiah 29:7, Spurgeon noted that if God expected the Jewish exiles to seek the peace of the pagan country that had captured them, how much more so should Christians seek the peace of a Christian nation?[xiii]

It was not enough, however, for Christians to merely cast a ballot; Christians should vote Christianly. Spurgeon urged believers to “vote on the Lord’s side” by electing just rulers and supporting laws that reflect biblical principles.[xiv] He did not shy away from speaking out about those issues to which he thought Christians should give particular consideration when they went to the polls. Like earlier British Baptists who preached against moral evils like slavery, Spurgeon preached and wrote about such issues as Sabbath laws, the opium trade, temperance, and the need for universal suffrage.[xv] The latter issue was of particular importance to Spurgeon because it entailed extending voting rights to the poor working classes, making it even easier for Christians (and others) to vote. On each of these issues, Spurgeon attempted to give a biblical rationale for why Christians should take a particular position.

As mentioned earlier in this address, Spurgeon was a lifelong proponent of disestablishing the state church and embracing full religious freedom. This conviction was a product of both Spurgeon’s Baptist identity and his status as a Nonconformist, a Christian who refused to abide by the strictures of Anglican worship. Like most Nonconformists, Spurgeon was appalled that non-Anglicans had to pay taxes to support the Church of England and was willing to harass some of his clerical colleagues about their cushy, state-supported lifestyle. For example, when two Anglican ministers asked Spurgeon what would happen to them if disestablishment occurred, Spurgeon responded playfully, “you will have to do as I do, live upon what your people give you.” When the two clergymen expressed concern that they would become poor if they had to rely on their parishioners’ contributions, Spurgeon encouraged them to teach their parishioners what Scripture says about giving in anticipation of the “day of their emancipation” from the state.[xvi]

Spurgeon’s humor should not lead us to conclude that he was not passionate about disestablishment. In both sermons and print, he probably spoke out more concerning religious liberty than any other political issue. But for Spurgeon, religious liberty was more than a political issue. In an 1855 sermon titled “Spiritual Liberty,” he argued that religious liberty is the product of a nation that is blessed by God and is for the purpose of an even greater liberty:

There is a liberty, dear friends, which Christian men alone enjoy; for even in Great Britain there are men who taste not the sweet air of liberty. . . . But he is the free man, whom the truth makes free. He who has grace in his heart is free; he cares for no one; he has the right upon his side; he has God within him—the indwelling Spirit of the Holy Ghost; he is a prince of the blood royal of heaven; he is a noble, having the true patent of nobility; he is one of God’s elect, distinguished, chosen children, and he is not the man to bend, or meanly cringe. . . . Spiritual liberty, brethren, you and I enjoy if we have “the Spirit of the Lord” within us. What does this imply? It implies that there was a time when we had not that Spiritual liberty—when we were slaves. But a little while ago all of us who now are free in Christ Jesus, were slaves of the devil: we were led captives at his will. We talked of free-will, but free will is a slave. We boasted that we could do what we pleased; but oh! what a slavish and dreamy liberty we had. It was a fancied freedom. We were slaves to our lusts and passions—slaves to sin; but now we are freed from sin; we are delivered from our tyrant; a stronger than he has cast out the strong man armed, and we are free.[xvii]

For Spurgeon, religious liberty was not an end unto itself, but was rather a means to a greater end: genuine, voluntary spiritual religion among individuals who look to Christ in faith.

Because of his convictions about religious liberty, Spurgeon was a vocal leader in the Liberation Society, an organization that was devoted to disestablishing the Anglican Church. Though Baptists and other Noncomformists had enjoyed religious toleration since 1688, in Spurgeon’s mind toleration was not enough:

We are told that we enjoy toleration, the very word is an insult. What would the members of the dominant sect think if we talked of tolerating them? We shall never be satisfied until all religious communities stand upon an equal footing before the law. . . . An Established Church is a spiritual tyranny. . . . That which our fathers died to overthrow we are compelled to support. We cannot help being indignant; we should be less than men if our blood did not boil within us at such injustice.[xviii]

Spurgeon withdrew from the Liberation Society in 1891 because of alleged theological liberalism in that organization. Liberalism was a topic which had been at the forefront of Spurgeon’s mind since he separated from the Baptist Union over the same issue in 1887. Despite his break with the Liberation Society, Spurgeon remained a firm proponent of disestablishment his entire adult life.[xix]

For Spurgeon, being a good Christian citizen also meant having an informed position on political issues that are not directly connected to religious convictions. To use our modern terminology, Spurgeon believed that Christians should care about all issues, not just “social” or “moral” issues. Because of this conviction, he sometimes took a public stance on matters related more to foreign policy than biblical morality. The most notable example is the issue of Irish Home Rule, which Spurgeon publicly opposed, despite the fact that his friend and fellow evangelical, Prime Minister William Gladstone, supported Irish independence. I will touch on Spurgeon’s specific concerns with the Ireland situation in a few minutes.

Despite his conviction that Ireland should remain part of Great Britain, Spurgeon publicly spoke out against the expansion of British imperialism. Drummond notes that while Spurgeon was a loyal British citizen, he never equated Great Britain with the kingdom of God. Spurgeon was convinced that imperialistic expansion resulted in the unchristian treatment of those nations that were occupied by British forces. For example, in 1857 Spurgeon preached to over 23,000 people at London’s Crystal Palace. The occasion was a National Day of Mourning after the Indians revolted against British control. Spurgeon used the occasion to question whether Britain should even be in India:

Whatever great powers have interfered with smaller inoffensive nationalities, for the sake of increasing their territory, or their influence, they are verily guilty; . . . wherein our civilized races have oppressed and degraded aboriginal tribes, the sin cries out before the high heaven.[xx]

Spurgeon considered imperial expansion to be a national sin worthy of his public condemnation. Though he was particularly critical of the Conservative Party Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whom Spurgeon believed was promoting further imperial expansion in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and South Africa, he was also willing to criticize his own political allies when they advocated imperialistic policies.[xxi] Spurgeon believed distinctively Christian citizenship necessitated a willingness to disagree with your political allies and even your nation when unbiblical policies are being advocated.

In addition to voting and speaking out about political issues, Spurgeon argued that some Christians should more directly engage the political culture by holding public office. Spurgeon knew that there was a strong tradition of evangelical politicians in recent British history. The so-called Clapham Sect, which included several politicians, was a network of Anglican evangelicals that advocated a number of policies meant to bring moral reform to Great Britain. The most famous member of the Clapham Sect, William Wilberforce, helped Parliament pass legislation to reform prisons and to improve the working conditions of various types of lower-class laborers. Wilberforce also co-founded a Society for the Suppression of Vice and a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Most famously, of course, Wilberforce was the leading voice for the abolition of both the slave trade and slavery itself in the British Empire.[xxii]

As in our own day, there were some clergy in Spurgeon’s era who argued that Christians should not soil themselves by being involved in secular politics, but Spurgeon held no such view. Though he rightly rejected all forms of political corruption, Spurgeon argued that some Christians should serve as politicians. According to Drummond, Spurgeon claimed that if one argues that a Christian should not serve in politics, he should also argue that a believer cannot serve as a surgeon or telegraph clerk.[xxiii] Like many Protestants dating from the time of Luther himself, Spurgeon argued that God calls Christians to serve in many types of vocations, including that of politician.

Spurgeon believed pastors should befriend politicians and even advise them when appropriate. Spurgeon himself was friendly with a number of politicians, including both evangelicals like the Earl of Shaftsebury and non-evangelicals like David Lloyd George, a future prime minister. But Spurgeon’s most well known politician-friend was William Gladstone, the four-time British Prime Minister who was known as the “Grand Old Man” of the Liberal Party. Spurgeon was often a guest of Gladstone at the Prime Minister’s home at 10 Downing Street in London, while Gladstone, an evangelical Anglican, occasionally attended services at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.[xxiv] In Spurgeon’s mind, there was nothing wrong with pastors and other Christians using their personal relationships with politicians to directly influence them to govern in a manner consistent with biblical principles.

Spurgeon believed it was perfectly appropriate for Christians to be members of political parties. He was personally a member of the Liberal Party his entire adult life, primarily because the Liberal Party advocated universal suffrage. Furthermore, Spurgeon was a fierce critic of the Conservative Party because of the close ties between that party and the Church of England. He once even quipped he would rather vote for the Devil than a Tory![xxv] Spurgeon believed that personal liberty, including religious liberty, stood a better chance of flourishing under Liberal leadership. He urged his congregation to vote for Liberal Party candidates, denounced Conservative Party positions, distributed leaflets promoting particular candidates, and expressed his opinion through personal correspondence and published articles.[xxvi]

Some Christians questioned Spurgeon’s outspoken support of the Liberal Party. For example, during the election of 1880, Spurgeon received a letter rebuking him for stooping to party politics. Spurgeon responded:

Dear Sir, Your letter amuses me, because you are so evidently a rank Tory, and so hearty in your political convictions that, in spite of your religious scruples, you must needs interfere in politics, and write to me. If there is anything defiling in it, you are certainly over head and ears. However, dear sir, I thank you for your kindness in wishing to put me right, and I can assure you that I vote as devoutly as I pray, and feel it to be a part of my love to God and to my neighbor to try to turn out the Government whom your letter would lead me to let alone. You are as wrong as wrong can be in your notion; but, as it keeps you from voting, I shall not try to convert you, for I am morally certain you would vote for the Tory candidate. In things Divine, we are probably at one; and you shall abstain from voting as unto the Lord, and I will vote as unto the Lord, and we will both give Him thanks.[xxvii]

Spurgeon was honestly convinced that voting Liberal was voting in a way that was consistent with his beliefs. He was unafraid to publicly identify with a particular political party when he believed it best represented the convictions of Baptists and other Nonconformist Christians.

Despite his identification with the Liberal Party, Spurgeon believed that loyalty to Christ ultimately should trump loyalty to a political party. Furthermore, while Spurgeon never hid his Liberal political convictions, he never allowed politicians to speak from his pulpit and he refused to sit on any party’s platform.[xxviii] Spurgeon argued that Christians should always be willing to break with party loyalties when conscience demands. This is exactly what he did when Gladstone introduced a bill proposing Irish Home Rule in 1886. Spurgeon was convinced that in a free Ireland, the Catholic majority would discriminate against the Protestant minority. Spurgeon did not vote for the Conservative Party, but he encouraged all who would listen to only vote for those Liberal Party candidates who were opposed to Irish Home Rule. This meant voting against Gladstone. [xxix]

The fracas over Irish Home Rule eventually led to a split in the Liberal Party. As a result, Gladstone had to step down from the Prime Ministry and the Conservatives formed a new government. In an 1890 letter reflecting on the incident, Spurgeon expressed no regrets about the split in his political party and Gladstone’s loss, even though the incident led to the cooling of the two men’s friendship:

That Irish stew! The last dose was well peppered, and served up hot! Perhaps now that they are separated they will get together; they seem to have been greatly divided while they were united! Poor G.O.M.! How he must feel the insults of those for whom he has forfeited everything! Yet he seems to hold on to their scheme though he knows that it is not only dangerous, but attainable. I am glad I am neither of Gladstone nor Parnell. He that wades not up to the ankles, will not go in up to the loins.[xxx]

Historians debate how much of a role Spurgeon played in these events. His influence was considerable among the working classes of London, leading some to suggest that his break with the Liberal Party’s leadership contributed to the split in the party and the end of Gladstone’s government.[xxxi] Regardless of what role Spurgeon may or may not have played in the events themselves, there is no doubt that he refused to uncritically align himself with a party’s platform. He believed Christians should avoid partisanship and never become simply another voting bloc within a party’s constituency.

Contemporary Application

Having discussed how Spurgeon used his pulpit to engage the public square, we must move forward by drawing some contemporary application from his example. I want to make three observations from Spurgeon’s political engagement and apply them to our present context.

Observation 1: Like Spurgeon, contemporary evangelical pastors should encourage their congregations to exercise responsible Christian citizenship. This is perhaps the most crucial way that the pulpit engages the public square. A minister’s primary responsibility is to equip his parishioners through both teaching and example to live out the implications of their faith in every sphere of life. Now unlike Spurgeon, most contemporary pastors will likely not be publicly endorsing candidates. Because most churches enjoy tax exempt status as 501c3 nonprofit institutions, it is illegal for pastors and other church leaders to endorse political candidates, at least in their official capacity as ministers. More on this issue in a few minutes. What this means in terms of voting for political office is that pastors must instill in their congregation the biblical values that will aid them in making wise decisions when they enter the voting booth.

Church leaders should never imply that voting Christianly is a simple matter; there are always complicating factors. Several thorny scenarios come to mind. Many Christians understandably want to vote for fellow believers. But in many elections there are no candidates of faith (or at least substantive faith) from which to choose. Christians should be prepared to vote in an election when there are no candidates who share their specific religious convictions. In some elections there may be a candidate of deep faith, but that person is ill-suited for office for reasons unrelated to his or her convictions about moral and social issues. Perhaps the candidate is ignorant of some other major issue, or inexperienced, or has proved inept in former positions of leadership. Christians should be prepared to vote against a fellow believer if that candidate does not have the requisite skills to serve in office, regardless of his or her apparent level of piety.

There are also other complicating factors. Sometimes scandals disrupt or even negate the viability of otherwise qualified candidates, including candidates who are appealing to evangelicals and other religious conservatives. Sometimes candidates are not particularly forthcoming about where they stand on some of the issues that matter to people of faith, leading to voter confusion and even ignorance about a candidate’s convictions. Sometimes candidates evidence inconsistency in their beliefs concerning various moral issues. For example, what about a candidate who is anti-abortion but favors embryonic stem cell research? Sometimes candidates have stated convictions on some issues, but their policy proposals are inconsistent with those convictions. Roman Catholic politicians who claim to be personally pro-life while supporting pro-choice policies come to mind. Sometimes third party candidates complicate races, creating a crisis of conscience for many voters: do I vote for the candidate I most prefer, or do I vote for the least offensive candidate from the major political parties? Both Ross Perot and Ralph Nader have arguably shifted the outcomes of at least three presidential elections in recent years. Church leaders must prepare their parishioners to vote in a manner consistent with their Christian convictions, even when complicating factors make the choice difficult.

The same principles that apply to equipping Christians to vote for candidates also apply to ballot-determined initiatives. The good news for pastors is that with referenda issues, church leaders enjoy much more freedom to directly encourage Christians to vote in a particular way based upon biblical principles. This happens every election cycle with matters like state-sponsored gambling, homosexual marriage, and sometimes even restrictions on abortions. In coming years these issues will likely be joined by other issues with religious (or at least moral) implications, including immigration, environmental concerns, and any initiative that substantially influences matters of wealth and poverty.

Advocating a Christian understanding of voting is not the only way pastors should encourage their parishioners to exercise responsible Christian citizenship. Like Spurgeon, contemporary ministers should encourage some parishioners to seek political office and should not hesitate to befriend and even influence politicians. The same goes for individuals serving in appointed political office. In our contemporary context, there is also an entire class of politically active individuals who are not politicians, but serve as policy experts, work in political think tanks, or lobby on behalf of a particular cause. Pastors should encourage Christians who are involved in these types of vocations; for better or worse, they play a critical role in our political culture.

There are two things that pastors and other church leaders should keep in mind as they seek to influence those who are interested in a political career or who are currently employed in government-related positions. First, pastors should only offer authoritative advice when Scripture speaks clearly about an issue. While a minister’s opinion about any matter might be valuable, it is difficult to make definitive biblical declarations about many issues. While the Bible seems to speak clearly about the dignity of human life and the nature of marriage, things get more complicated when it comes to war and peace or wealth and poverty. Furthermore, the Bible has no clear instructions on matters like energy and infrastructure. A pastor should never imply his opinions are inherently biblical; frankly, they often are just his opinions.

Second, pastors should not pursue church discipline against politicians who disagree with their church’s convictions about matters to which the Bible does not speak with clarity. I personally think Roman Catholic bishops are justified in denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians; the Catholic Church (and the Bible) is clear on the dignity of all human life.. But I do not think it would be a good idea to deny communion to a candidate who has a different understanding of tax cuts, off-shore drilling, or global warming. The Bible has not clear teachings on these issues.

Observation 2: Like Spurgeon, contemporary evangelical pastors should focus their engagement on those issues where faith most clearly intersects with public policy, but not to such a degree that they are ill-informed about other issues. In the days following the 2004 presidential election, political pundits had much to say about those so-called “values voters” whom many argued played a crucial role in securing President George W. Bush’s reelection. In this case, the chattering class was just aping language that some Religious Right leaders like James Dobson and Richard Land had been promoting for months before the election. For example, Land’s Southern Baptist sponsored Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission launched an initiative called “I Vote Values” as a way to encourage Baptists and other evangelicals to vote Christianly. Values voters, in the common usage of the term, are mostly evangelicals and other religious conservatives who care deeply about moral issues like the dignity of human life and a traditional understanding of marriage. I suspect almost all of us in this room would be classified as values voters.

Like Spurgeon, religious liberty should be a special concern of American pastors and all Christians. Our context is obviously different because we have no state church in America. But there are still many threats to religious liberty. Militant secularists seek to purge the public square of any and all religious voices. Though they claim to defend religious liberty against the threat of “theocrats,” what they really mean is that they wish to protect America’s burgeoning moral libertarianism, and the public policies that support it, from citizens who are seriously religious. Religion’s cultured despisers want to liberate American culture from any conservative religious influence, even if that influence comes through means that do not in any way threaten the First Amendment. To be fair, most secularists do not care if you are religious, even deeply so; just make sure you keep your religion to yourself.

In my opinion it is a great tragedy that over the past couple of generations a good many evangelicals, including many of my fellow Baptists, have advocated positions that are closer to the People for the American Way or the ACLU than the framers of the Constitution, all in the name of preserving religious liberty. These misguided evangelicals have at times lent support to the anti-religion agenda, seemingly unaware (or at least unconcerned) that they are actually contributing to a climate that is poisoned against religious arguments and conservative moral convictions. One cannot help but think that a combination of party politics and poor education has much to do with evangelicals who attack religious freedom in the name of defending religious freedom. But I am not telling this group anything you do not already know; there are folks out there, even some of our fellow evangelicals, who wish those of us in this sanctuary would simply go away.

It is only natural that conservative people of faith would gravitate toward those issues related to traditional Judeo-Christian morality and religious liberty, and pastors and other leaders should encourage Christians to care about these issues. But these are not the only important matters in American politics. In fact, there are numerous other issues that touch a greater number of people: taxes, energy concerns, war and peace, education, and economic matters. I do not think it is helpful to try and rank these concerns; all of them matter, though different issues matter differently to various types of people. The point is this: Christians should care about all of them.

As I mentioned earlier, it is quite true that the Bible does not provide simple solutions to some of these issues. The Bible simply does not give us any direct information about the validity of school vouchers, the best way to administer Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the effect that tax cuts will have on the economy, or the timetable to bring American troops home from Iraq. But there are biblical principles that can be brought to bear on each of these issues and any number of other matters. Furthermore, we must remember that the Bible is first and foremost a grand narrative that communicates the creation of the world by God, the fall of humanity through sin, the redemption that has been wrought in Christ, and the final re-creation of the entire cosmos. What relationship does God’s creation of the world have on environmental issues? How should we view war and peace in light of humanity’s fall? How does the cross relate to matters of social equality and economic justice? How does the coming re-creation of the world affect the way we view personal wealth and poverty? These are questions to which all Christians should be seeking theologically sensitive answers that can be applied to our contemporary context. Pastors and other church leaders must help them to think through these matters. Evangelicals should never retreat one inch from the moral issues we have emphasized over the last generation, but neither should we limit our concerns to these matters.

Observation 3: Like Spurgeon, contemporary evangelical pastors should be as politically active as they choose, though this activity should never be merely partisan in nature. Pastors can and should engage political issues in sermons and in print, participate in grassroots movements that advocate or criticize particular policies, and contribute to campaigns or PACs that represent their convictions. But a minister—and all Christians in general—must keep two things in mind about such activities. First, direct, personal political engagement must be weighed against the pastor’s ability to preach and teach the gospel, which is the primary calling. Many pastors may decide it is best that they not vocally support a political party or speak out about some issues because to do so would hinder their freedom to commend the gospel. Every minister must remember that he is a herald of the gospel before he is a registered member of a particular political party.

Second, and closely related, pastors and all Christians must be willing to break with their political party when that party embraces positions that undermine the teachings of Scripture. Political parties are by nature creatures of compromise. Platforms change over time, as has happened in each of the two major parties over the past half century. Third parties often exist to protest specific compromises that have been made by the major parties. Responsible Christian citizens must be willing to change political parties if their preferred party compromises on matters which ought not to be compromised. Furthermore, while responsible Christian citizenship often—maybe even normally—means to vote for the best option among electable candidates, pastors and other Christians should be willing to form new political coalitions or even cast protest votes if that is the only course that seems consistent with biblical principles. This will inevitably irritate political parties; politicians enjoy having the unquestioned support of voting blocs. But Christianity is not a voting bloc, and politics is only one means that believers use to engage their culture with the gospel and ideas that are derived from that gospel.

I want to close this section with a brief discussion about pastors and political endorsements. As previously mentioned, tax laws hinder most pastors from endorsing candidates, though there is always a minister getting in hot water for telling his parishioners how they ought to vote. Many of you are no doubt aware of the Alliance Defense Fund’s Pulpit Initiative and the recent Pulpit Freedom Sunday. Several dozen evangelical pastors have publicly endorsed political candidates from their pulpits with the intention of drawing a lawsuit from the ACLU alleging the violation of church-state separation. Alliance Defense Fund intends to represent the churches in the hope that the law will be struck down and a pastor will be able to make political endorsements without fear of losing his church’s tax-exempt status.[xxxii]

I confess I have mixed feelings about The Pulpit Initiative. On the one hand, I oppose this law and any law that would prohibit a minister from speaking freely to a congregation. The law itself undermines religious liberty and it should be struck down. On the other hand, I am convinced, like Spurgeon, that pastors should never make endorsements for primarily partisan ends. A minister should not endorse John McCain because he is a Republican, nor should he endorse Barack Obama because he is a Democrat. The fact is most ministers’ parishioners have a pretty good guess as to how the pastor is going to vote anyway. Rankly partisan endorsements are the stuff of unions and newspaper editors, not ministers of the gospel. While I do not know if such partisanship is the purpose of The Pulpit Initiative, I have little doubt that some politically minded pastors would like nothing more than the laws to be changed so that they can use their platform to promote their favorite politician or party.

This is my position: though pastors should not endorse candidates for merely partisan ends, at times it may be necessary for a pastor to endorse a candidate for reasons related to the gospel itself. By God’s grace I do not think we find ourselves with the faith itself being threatened on a regular basis. But we could. For example, if a particular candidate announced that he or she would support policies that would severely curtail religious freedom, then pastors need to be willing to forfeit tax exemption and endorse or criticize particular candidates. The freedom to proclaim the gospel itself is at stake, and there are laws that are higher than those that govern 501c3 institutions. If the tax laws are changed, then pastors will be free to endorse as they see fit, though this freedom should be exercised with great responsibility. If the laws are not changed, then even though I personally believe they are unconstitutional, they should be obeyed unless it becomes necessary to break them for the sake of the gospel, regardless of whatever financial or other penalties may result from that action.

Conclusion

As I conclude this address, I want to return briefly to Rick Warren’s Faith Forum with Senators Obama and McCain. In the days after the event, many of my students wanted to know my opinion. Specifically, many of them wanted to know if I thought Warren’s high profile political engagement is appropriate for a pastor. I told them I was pleasantly surprised with the Faith Forum in particular and Warren in general. See, my students know that I am something of a walking contradiction: a political junkie who is irritated by politicking preachers and Christians who talk more about their political party than the good news of Jesus Christ. But I have been generally impressed with how Warren has handled these m


[i] Brian Stelter, “Campaign 08: Rick Warren’s Ratings-Driven Life,” TV Decoder Blog, The New York Times (August 19, 2008), available online at http://tvdecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/19/election-08-rick-warrens-ratings-driven-life/?scp=2&sq=Rick%20Warren&st=cse (accessed August 25, 2008).

[ii] Tim Grieve, “Left Turn at Saddleback Church,” Salon.Com (December 2, 2006), available online at http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2006/12/02/obama/ (accessed August 25, 2008).

[iii] For a recent introduction to Baptist convictions about church-state separation, see Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III, eds., First Freedom: The Baptist Perspective on Religious Liberty (Nashville: B&H, 2007).

[iv] See the discussion in Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1999), 207–08.

[v] For a discussion of the different views of church-state separation, see Carl Esbeck, “Five Views of Church-State Relations in Contemporary American Thought,” Brigham Young University Law Review 2 (1986): 371–404. For a discussion of accomodationism and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, see Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture, Religion and American Culture (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002), 107–64 and Jerry Sutton, A Matter of Conviction: A History of Southern Baptist Engagement with Culture (Nashville: B&H, 2008), 288.

[vi] For the differences between Backus and Leland’s perspectives on church-state separation, see Steven Hall Fennell, “Harmony or High Wall: A Comparison of the Views of John Leland and Isaac Backus Concerning Church-State Relations” (Th.M. Thesis: Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1989).

[vii] Daniel Dreisbach has recently argued that strict separationists fundamentally misunderstand Thomas Jefferson’s language about a “wall of separation” between church and state. See Daniel L. Dreisbach, “The Mythical ‘Wall of Separation’: How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church-State Law, Policy, and Discourse,” First Principles # 6 (June 23, 2006), published by the Heritage Foundation, available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/PoliticalPhilosophy/fp6.cfm (accessed September 18, 2008).

[viii] For two recent discussions of the religious convictions of America’s founders, see Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Random House, 2006) and Michael Novak, “Faith and the American Founding: Illustrating Religion’s Influence,” First Principles # 7 (November 6, 2006), published by the Heritage Foundation, available online at http://www.heritage.org/Research/PoliticalPhilosophy/fp7.cfm (accessed September 18, 2008).

[ix] For more on Spurgeon’s theology, see Ernest W. Bacon, Spurgeon: Heir of the Puritans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), and Iain Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon (London: Banner of Truth, 1966).

[x] Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

[xi] Lewis Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1992), 520.

[xii] Quoted in Drummond, Spurgeon, 521.

[xiii] Drummond, Spurgeon, 516-518.

[xiv] Drummond, Spurgeon, 518.

[xv] Drummond, Spurgeon, 518–19, 522, 526, 532. For more about British Baptist activism against slavery, see H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 300–01, and Michael Haykin, A Cloud of Witnesses: Calvinistic Baptists in the 18th Century, ET Perspectives No. 3 (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Times, 2006), 39–44.

[xvi] C. H. Spurgeon, Autobiography: The Full Harvest, 2 vols. (reprint, Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1973), 2:450–51.

[xvii] C. H. Spurgeon, “Spiritual Liberty,” February 18, 185, available online at http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0009.htm (accessed September 11, 2008).

[xviii] From a leaflet dated March 19, 1880, quoted in Drummond, Spurgeon, 529.

[xix] Drummond, Spurgeon, 530–31.

[xx] Drummond, Spurgeon, 533–34.

[xxi] Drummond, Spurgeon, 532–34.

[xxii] For an overview of the political engagement of Wilberforce and other evangelicals, see John Wolffe, The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers and Finney, A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements and Ideas in the English-Speaking World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 193–227.

[xxiii] Drummond, Spurgeon, 516-518

[xxiv] Spurgeon, Autobiography, 2:436; Drummond, Spurgeon, 512.

[xxv] The Sword and the Trowel XV (1879), 245, quoted in Drummond, Spurgeon, 517.

[xxvi] Drummond, Spurgeon, 516–17, 526.

[xxvii] Letter of March 22, 1880, text available online at http://baptistgadfly.blogspot.com/2008/08/spurgeon-voting-to-lord.html (accessed September 11, 2008).

[xxviii] Drummond, Spurgeon, 516.

[xxix] Drummond, Spurgeon, 525.

[xxx] Quoted in Spurgeon, Autobiography, 2:486.

[xxxi] Drummond, Spurgeon, 525–26.

[xxxii] For more about The Pulpit Initiative, see the website of the Alliance Defense Fund, available online at http://www.alliancedefensefund.org/issues/religiousfreedom/churchandstate.aspx?cid=4485 (accessed October 6, 2008).

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Politics of Jesus, Message Six: Nathan Finn’s “The Pulpit and the Public Square: Some Observations from the Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon”

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  2. chris

    It should be well noted that JUDAS ISCARIOT tried to use Jesus’ ministry as a platform for political and military uprise.
    He was in extreme error to say the least.

    Jesus rebuked Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane for trying to use force on Jesus’ captors putting to rest any misconceived notions that this was some uprising.

    There are many other examples where Jesus went to great lengths to distance himself and his ministry from being considered political or military.
    I am sickened by many things in the pulpit and find this “vain revolution for political freedom of speech” particularly irreprehensible and contrary to the teachings and overall impetus of Jesus’ ministry.

    As a sideline note I would also like to point out that none of the candidates are running for office of priest or pastor.
    To criticize one politician for being “pro choice” or in favor of stem cell research while giving full support to a candidate who advocates fully the use of war, torture, and nuclear armament not only for defense but also as a ” first strike” option, is garbage and contradicts all that Jesus came to establish as his message and legacy.

    I would like to add another thought that sacrificing a church’s tax exempt status is extremely irresponsible when considering that the minister is being entrusted with money that did not come from him nor belongs to him.
    (see all the biblical listings for stewardship).

    I would like to charge and challenge all elders and/ or board members to challenge and rebuke your pastor if you feel he is abusing his post of shepherd for the sake of spewing politically in a place that should bring respite from all of this rather than becoming a platform for it.

    Remember…America is a democratic republic with the first amendment to the constitution protecting in large part our freedom of speech…

    God’s Kingdom is NOT a democracy but an absolute monarchy with one true king and emperor.
    Jesus NEVER used His authority or exclusive privileges as God’s Son to advocate or support any political or military entity.
    We need to remember which kingdom we are in and which King we serve.

    -Chris
    cpkoste@gmail.com

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