Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Should a pastor be a politician?

With little more than a week to go until polling day, the United Kingdom is in full election mode. In Northern Ireland elections are an almost annual occurrence and politics is more ingrained in the public psyche here than in most other parts of the country. The two fields of religion and politics have often been interlinked, and many questions asked about what relationship they should have with each other. One question which is sometimes raised is whether gospel ministers should also hold political office. This is particularly relevant in Northern Ireland since there has been a long history of ministers also working as politicians. Rev Ian Paisley was an MP, MEP and MLA for many years whilst also moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church. Rev Martin Smyth was also involved in Northern Ireland political life whilst serving as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Methodist minister Rev Robert Bradford likewise served as MP for South Belfast from 1974 until his tragic murder in 1981. Many others have also entered the field of politics over the years and continued their role as a church pastor. Even today ministers can be found actively involved in Northern Ireland politics. DUP Westminster candidate for South Antrim Rev William McCrea is a Free Presbyterian minister and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister Rev Paul Reid is a councillor in Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. Beyond the shores of Northern Ireland other examples could also be cited of gospel ministers who are also elected politicians. The question to be then asked is whether this should be so; should a gospel minister also take up political office?

The gospel ministry a special calling
1st Timothy 3:1 says that 'If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work'. The role of a gospel minister is one of the utmost importance, with a special responsibility for the souls of men and women. It is not merely a job on a par with other forms of employment, but a particular calling which will encompass the whole life of the man involved. Although people will often make the tongue in cheek comment that ministers only work on a Sunday, anyone who has been involved in the Lord's work to any degree will be acutely aware that this is far from the truth. Sunday services, mid week prayer meetings, pastoral visitation and other responsibilities within the church mean that there are few busier people than the gospel minister. For a man in the gospel ministry to add a similarly demanding role such as political office to his schedule surely give rise to the question, can both roles be filled adequately? Will one not suffer because of the other? The risk must surely be that politics will eventually take such a demand on the time of the minister that pastoral visitation will be neglected, mid week meetings may be missed and sermon preparation will suffer, for the sake of nothing more important that constutuency work, canvassing or party fund raisers.

It is a well known quote that if God calls you to be a missionary then you should not stoop to be a king. We might easily say the same about involving yourself in politics when God has called you to the pulpit ministry. It is to give low regard to the particular calling and purpose of the ministry to then also pursue a career in politics. It is certainly right and proper for a minister to comment on current concerns where issues of biblical truth and morality are involved, yet the regular issues of politics should not be his concern. It is only revival which can bring real change to a country, and no minister, no matter how faithful, can bring about revival through political activity. Instead the need is for pastors to continue in prayer and the preaching of the word.

The divisiveness of political opinion
There are few topics more likely to cause argument and division among people than politics. Particularly in Northern Ireland the divisiveness of political opinion is all too evident with the at best frosty relationship which exists between the varying shades of unionism. Christians from the same church often struggle to maintain a civil relationship with one another over political differences, particularly if they are actively involved in political life themselves. It is for this reason that politics should be left at the church door, except where serious moral and biblical issues are concerned. There are many things in normal church life which can cause division in a church without the need for politics to be added to the mix, and where it is allowed to be a significant presence in the church the risk of unnecessary schism is greatly increased. It is a very easy thing to blur the lines between a church and a political party when one people hold senior positions and influence in both.

Politics cannot truly be kept out of the church is the minister himself is a politician. Though he may not mention his political activities or views from the pulpit, he cannot detach or hide himself from them, and they will surely be well known within the wider community. How many people may be put off attending a gospel preaching church because the minister's political views, which differ from their own, are so well known. It is true that some may be drawn to that church because of an empathy with his views, but others will be put off as they associate that church with a particular political viewpoint. If the party line is allowed to be prominent in the church then genuine believers of a different political view are even more likely to feel uncomfortable attending there. Already there are so many hindrances to having people under the sound of the word, that making politics another stumbling block if surely great folly.

The dirty nature of politics
The great C.H. Spurgeon once had the following remarks to make about political involvement; 'Even in the pursuit of really good matters of policy, do you know any Christian man who goes into politics who is the better for it? If I find such a man, I will have him stuffed if I can, for I have never seen such a specimen yet. I will not say, do not attend to politics; but I do say, do not let them spot you'. It is a well used statement that politics is a dirty game; conscience and principle often are of little important in comparison with what is judged to be politically expedient or beneficial to self. Loyalty, honesty and decency are scarce in politics and even those who enter into political life with good intentions can easily become tainted by it. This is not to say that no Christian should ever be involved in politics, but it is to warn against doing so lightly and without thought for the dangers which it presents.

Is the dirty world of politics really something to which a pastor need expose himself? Should the man who has responsibility for the spiritual needs of his congregation be so closely associated with an occupation which is so consistently shown in an unfavourable light. Although some may do their work honestly there is no doubt that many politicians will betray principles and indeed one another for their own ends and in such an environment a gospel minister can easily become like just like them. The question is will he then be able to go into his pulpit without bring that manner with him? The particular calling of the gospel minister means that he has been set apart from for the study and preaching of God's word. How much more difficult that becomes if he has spent his week in the world of politics.

Can a gospel minister also fulfil the role of a political representative? We think it better that he does not seek to do so.

'The work of preaching is the highest and greatest and most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called' (Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones)

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