Does federal government law prohibit a minister from talking about political issues from the pulpit? A primer By Jack Kettler
Does a minister have the freedom to address political issues from the pulpit? Assuming yes, should he do this? Should a minister endorse a political candidate? Should the state through its agencies have the right to say what a church may or may not say? What is the principal focus of the pulpit ministry? What is a political issue? Is it different from a biblical issue? It is the intent of this primer that the reader will come away with answers to these questions.
Some history of churches and politics in America:
Last century Congress modified the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code § 501(c) (3) to restrict the speech of non-profit, tax-exempt organizations, which included churches in 1954. This legislation became the Johnson amendment for Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who introduced it in July of 1954.
Before the Johnson amendment, there were no restrictions placed on churches by the government. The main stipulation in the amendment was that churches were not to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. The Johnson amendment does not prohibit church involvement in voter registration and even political debate forums among various candidates.
However, after the Johnson amendment became law, churches now had to limit the time discussing political issues and candidates for public office. Spending too much time could put at risk the church’s tax exemption status. Remaining silent would protect their tax exemption. Silence is not necessarily golden. Forfeiting the 501 (c) (3) status is a possible strategy for the continuing of political discussions and debate in the pulpits without fear of the IRS agents coming for a visit.
This primer does not believe the Johnson amendment is justified. This amendment in the hands of unscrupulous men can be used against Christ’s Church. At the same time, the amendment is not the end of the world issue for churches.
The crux of the matter, how is a political issue defined?
The term “political issue” can refer to things such as abortion, taxation, government welfare spending, public or private or homeschooling, sexual perversion, and immigration policies regarding foreign trade issues to name a few.
Can a political issue be a biblical issue? The student of Scripture will immediately recognize that the issues mentioned earlier are spoken of in the Bible. It can be argued that there are only biblical or moral issues. Because of the supremacy of the Bible in defining right and wrong, the Johnson amendment can be viewed as a trickster ploy, forcing an artificial redefinition of terms in order to silence and limit debate. The state cannot restrict how much time a church devotes to biblical or moral issues.
In 1Kings, we learn of Ahab as the seventh king over Israel and as a man who did more evil in the sight of Yahweh than any king who lived before him. Ahab engaged in politics, which were, at the same time, moral or biblical issues. Under the Johnson amendment, would Elijah have been able to rebuke Ahab and call for removal from office? Could Elijah have endorsed another candidate for office?
In 1Samuel 16, Samuel anoints David to be king. The anointing of a king is even stronger than endorsing a candidate. Would the IRS have moved against Samuel for violating the Johnson amendment? Biblically speaking, the IRS has no authority to determine what may be said in churches. The IRS is a tax collection agency, not speech monitoring agency, or is it. Will it next become a thought control agency?
Have ministers lost their freedoms? Can a minister speak against political, moral corruption in light of the Johnson amendment? Is this a quandary for ministers?
The so-called political issues listed above are, in fact, biblical issues; they are the same. The minister of God has the moral high ground. We can expose the Johnson amendment canard for what it is; it is a bald face attempt to switch definitions and silence the ministers of God in the pulpit.
The real quandary is for representatives from the IRS and their attempts to enforce the Johnson amendment:
What qualification does a representative from the IRS have to talk about biblical issues? Do they have biblical training in the science of exegesis? Since Congress created the IRS, constitutional restrictions apply to them also.
Representatives from the fed gov will not acknowledge this line of reasoning regarding them, and biblical qualifications to necessary distinguish biblical issues. No, not any more than an atheist will concede that his worldview cannot account for or justify the use of science, logic, and ethics.
The conflict between the Johnson amendment and the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Question: Does the Johnson amendment overturn or restrict rights that come from God enumerated in the First Amendment?
Answer: Yes, it does. Precisely, it does by violating “…make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”
Consider an example of the absurdity of so-called political issues and the Johnson amendment:
Which came first, the Scriptures or the “Johnny come lately,” Johnson amendment?
Consider the life issue in Scripture:
Just as the Scripture says, the babe in the womb is a baby:
“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe [βρέφος] leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe [βρέφος] in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke1:41-44)
Noun – Nominative Neuter Singular
Strong’s Greek 1025: an unborn or a newborn child
God knows the distinct personalities of the unborn:
“The children struggled together within her, and she said, if it is thus, why is this happening to me? So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger. When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.” (Genesis 25:22-26)
The death penalty is required for the killing of an unborn baby:
“If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined…. But if there is a serious injury, you are to take life for life….” (Exodus 21:22, 23)
These above passages are relevant to the modern day pro-life pro-death battle. Is the pro-life and the death-loving abortionists’ battle political? Alternatively, is the battle one of religious apostasy versus faithfulness to the teachings of Scripture? It may be political; however, it is first, Biblical!
When the above passages on babes in the womb were written, the land of North America was a harsh wilderness. The IRS was nowhere to be found.
This primer is not advocating the pulpit on Sunday to become a forum to expound the politics of the day. In addition, the previous statement should not be understood as to deny the Church of Christ through its various ministries the right to speak the truth with complete freedom.
Things put in perspective for activist hot heads:
What is the principal role of the pulpit ministry?
The church is to remain faithful to its primary mandate of Scriptural teaching and preaching and evangelism:
First, what type of preaching or teaching is best in the pulpit to support worship? Traditionally, in many Reformed Churches, there is catechetical and expository preaching.
Catechetical preaching uses a catechism such as the Heidelberg to organize the weekly sermons. Since the Heidelberg, catechism encompasses all of the essential doctrines of the faith. In time, the congregation will be well schooled in the Scriptures or the whole counsel of God.
Expository preaching starts with a passage of Scripture, and then it considers the grammar, the context, and the historical setting of that passage. This method is called the grammatical-historical method. Expository preaching usually comes, from a book-by-book, verse-by-verse exposition. Similarly, the book-by-book, verse-by-verse preaching, will in time teach the congregation the whole counsel of God.
These two methods may seem to limit the pulpit preaching when a biblical topic such as perverse sexuality is a hot button issue in an upcoming election. The church has many options to address issues outside of the pulpit.
Both the catechetical and expository methods cover the entire scope of the Scriptures or the whole of Scripture. When the Bible talks about sexuality, the preacher will preach on the topic. For example, the pastor is teaching on Romans 1:26-27, the issue of homosexuality will be covered.
Consider several ways to solve the problem created by the Johnson amendment and the need to address an issue biblically and expediently.
First, the church could declare the Johnson amendment null and void and an ungodly attempt to silence the churches’ moral authority. We should obey God rather than a man.
Second, the following are ideas for a biblical course action living within the reality of the Johnson amendment:
First, during Sunday school classes, topics can be covered in a more timely fashion that may be relevant to an immediate pressing biblical issue, like a pro-life march or collecting signatures for ballot initiatives. At a church announcement time, a verbal or printed handout can identify times and locations where important moral issues will be discussed along with plans of action.
Second, pastoral and congregational prayers can be used to petition the God of Heaven for relief from ungodly laws and political tyrants. Pastoral prayers necessarily involve praying for political leaders. These prayers in extreme circumstances could even be imprecatory.
Third, today, ministers can write books, write blogs, send e-mails, and give radio and television interviews on biblical issues. The Bible settles the debate on Scriptural issues, not fed gov representatives.
Forth, the Puritans in New England had Election Day sermons. An Election Day sermon was not on Sunday, but before voting. It could be in the morning, the day of the election or night before. The Election Day sermon was not a Lord’s Day sermon. It is therefore not a violation of the regulative principle of worship. A meeting like this could be handled by a ruling elder or someone appointed by the session of the local church. It could be at the church or a separate location. A separate location has the advantage of attracting more people.
The Puritans utilized a covenantal understanding of Scripture that taught the civil government is founded on an agreement between God and the people. Civil magistrates swore an oath of office similar to a minister’s ordination vows. Both the clergy and magistrates are ministers of God. The elected leaders were obliged to follow God’s laws from which the laws in a Godly society were built.
Blackstone expresses this Puritan understanding of government well:
“The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures…[and] are found upon comparison to be part of the original law of nature. Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.” – Sir William Blackstone
As long as the civil leaders were faithful to their swearing into a public oath of office to keep God’s laws, the people were to obey. If the leaders acted contrary to the terms of the oath of office, the people were to resist. Unfortunately, this concept of resistance is somewhat of a novel today.
“For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought, rather, to spit upon their heads than to obey them.” – John Calvin (Commentary on Daniel, Lecture XXX Daniel 6:22)
“Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” – John Knox
Churches that teach the whole counsel of God will have a biblically educated membership. The biblically educated church members will go into the market place of ideas and press the biblical claims of truth. The members of the church can go as citizens into the political realm and press the claims of Christ where it may be prudent for the clergy to remain invisible.
The Priesthood of All Believers authorizes the individual church member to be representatives of Christ in society. The Priesthood of All Believers is the genius of Protestantism. Now we have a biblically educated spiritual army, rather than the limitations of the professional clergy. Limitations should be understood as numerical.
Is refusing the 501(c) (3) status, a solution allowing the church the freedom to endorse political candidates? Yes. Although theoretically, this may not satisfy a radical secular state.
If a church does choose disincorporation, it does not free the church from other biblical considerations relevant to the church and state relations.
The Church is Not Politics. The Church is the Church and is separate from the state. Even in the Old Testament, in Israel, there was a sharp distinction between the priesthood and kingship.
Practical reasons for a church not to endorse political candidates:
There is a danger for a church to engage in certain activities, such as endorsing political candidates. It has been a great temptation for churches to endorse political candidates throughout the ages. The church like everyone wants stability and security. Gaining the favor of politicians may seem like a reasonable course of action. A political endorsement is one way to gain favor. However, one of the dangers is that since churches cannot predict the future actions of political candidates, it is unwise for a church to place Christ’s stamp of approval on a political candidate who may in the future commit evil acts. An endorsement of a candidate who becomes evil will bring reproach upon Christ.
Theological reasons the church why should not endorse candidates for office:
Centuries before the Johnson amendment, the question concerning Christ’s Church endorsing political candidates has always been a theological issue. Many Reformed and Presbyterian churches have held to the position known as “sphere sovereignty.” Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, and Prime minister, formally developed this position.
Kuyper summarized sphere sovereignty as follows:
“In order that the influence of Calvinism on our political development may be felt, it must be shown for what fundamental political conceptions Calvinism has opened the door, and how these political conceptions sprang from its root principle. This dominating principle was not, soteriologically, justification by faith, but, in the widest sense cosmologically, the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible. A primordial Sovereignty which eradiates in mankind in a threefold deduced supremacy, viz., 1. The Sovereignty in the State; The Sovereignty in Society; The Sovereignty in the Church.” (1)
In addition to the God-ordained sovereignty of the threefold spheres, the confessional standards bind elders in Presbyterian Churches. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith in section 31:5 reads:
“Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs, which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition, in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”
As seen in the above quotation from the Westminster Confession, the confession itself restricts the political activity of churches at the synod level. This section of the confession reflects the doctrine of “sphere sovereignty.”
Additional reasons for limiting the mingling with the state at the local congregation level:
Blurring the distinction between church and state is not wise. Consider the historical dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics regarding the state. For those familiar with church history, it will be apparent that we have a far better situation than our forefathers. If independent churches and Protestants begin endorsing political candidates, will the Roman Catholics follow our lead?
The dangers of this:
The Roman Catholic Church in the past controlled political rulers. Tens of thousands of Protestants paid with their lives. In Colorado, for example, there are over four hundred thousand Roman Catholics. There are probably no more than two thousand people of Reformed convictions in the state. It is not difficult to figure out who will dominate politically. Large blocks of Roman Catholic following the decrees of Marxist utopian Pope is not a good political situation.
The fruit and the power of the pulpit ministry in Reformed Churches:
This may be why John Calvin has been called:
“The virtual founder of America.” In addition, “He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.” – Harvard professor and historian George Bancroft.
John Adams, America’s second president, agreed and declared: “Let not Geneva be forgotten or despised. Religious liberty in the West owes Calvin much respect.”
“Calvinists are the true heroes of England. They founded England, in spite of the corruption of the Stuarts, by the exercise of duty, by the practice of justice, by obstinate toil, by vindication of right, by resistance to oppression, by the conquest of liberty, by the repression of vice. They founded Scotland; they founded the United States; at this day they are, by their descendants, founding Australia and colonizing the world.” – French atheist Hippolyte Taine (1828 to 1893)
“Calvinism has been the chief source of republican government.” – Lorraine Boettner
Consider Gordon H. Clark, a Presbyterian philosopher, and theologian’s essay on the role of civil magistrates:
“Where the Roman church controls the government, Protestants suffer oppression and physical persecution. Their churches are bombed and their ministers are murdered . . . . In our own land the Romanists are constantly attempting to divert public funds to their own purposes. A while back they were advocating an ambassador to the Vatican, and will probably push it again when they see an opportunity . . . . And bills have been introduced into Congress to honor the Virgin Mary by issuing commemorative stamps for the Marian year. Unfortunately, there are also Protestants who want a close tie-in of church and state.” (2)
At the current time, many Roman Catholics and Protestants work together on issues such as pro-life. Cooperation like this is a good thing. This cooperative arrangement is far better than reverting to radical sectarianism.
In conclusion, the above explication of ideas shows how the pulpit ministry can remain faithful in the duty of teaching the whole counsel of God and practical solutions for addressing the biblical issues of the day. The Church of God should never give up ground to pagan government representatives advancing the canard of redefining biblical issues into only so-called political issues.
Does a minister have the freedom to address political issues from the pulpit? Yes
Should he do this? He may, but this depends upon other factors like not interfering with teaching the whole counsel of God. If unrestrained political activity is the norm, will the church be the church or an appendage of a political party or its own party?
Should a minister endorse a political candidate from the pulpit? Generally, no. Possibly yes, during extreme circumstances. As an individual citizen, ministers can endorse candidates.
What is the principal function of the pulpit ministry? It consists of teaching the whole counsel of God.
What is a political issue? A political issue can refer to things such as abortion, taxation, government welfare spending, public or private schooling, sexual perversion, and immigration policies regarding foreign trade issues, to name a few.
Is it different from a biblical issue? Yes and no. First, yes, Soteriology, eschatology, and studies in redemptive history would not be political issues. Second, no, the issues of abortion, taxation, etc. are biblical and not fundamentally different from many political issues.
Regarding the IRS and the Johnson amendment:
The state should allow the church to speak the truth, to all issues instead of silencing what a church may or may not say.
No agency of the state has the right to bind the church on speaking to the moral issues of the day.
Therefore, Congress should formally repeal the Johnson amendment.
The minister should follow the apostle Paul:
“For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27)
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
1. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures On Calvinism, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprinted 1981), p. 79.
2. Gordon H. Clark, Essays On Ethics And Politics, (Jefferson, Maryland, The Trinity Foundation, 1992), p. 24.
For more Study:
The following books are useful helps for Catechetical preaching and gaining a knowledge of the whole counsel of God.
1. Thomas Vincent’s The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture. Banner of Truth.
2. Thomas Watson’s The Body of Divinity (in three volumes). Banner of Truth Trust. (Cf. each one of the three volumes deals with the chief portion of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.)
3. Thomas Boston’s Commentary on the Shorter Catechism, Vol. 1 & 2, Still Waters Revival Books.
4. G. I. Williamson, the Shorter Catechism, vol. 1 & 2. Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company.
5. Thomas Ridgeley’s Commentary on the Larger Catechism, Vol. 1 & 2, Still Waters Revival Books.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com