VANCOUVER, Wash. (Christian Examiner) — President Clinton was impeached when I was a local church pastor. The issues involved matters of morality that required a response from pastors, on occasion, but doing this in a "non-political way" wasn't always easy. The Sunday following his impeachment was most memorable. I began my message saying that in the past week someone had done something to our country for which I could never forgive them. "The harm to our country was so great it could not be overlooked," I said. I could see the congregation bracing themselves for what I would say next. They thought, "Oh no, here it comes!" And then, just when they thought I was about to launch into a political rant, I said, "I will never forgive Michael Jordan for retiring from the NBA!" which was the other "big news story" of the week. That statement prompted the biggest outburst of laughter we ever enjoyed together.
All laughter aside, political issues are always difficult for pastors and churches, and perhaps doubly so in an election year. And when politics intersects with biblical teaching, it often requires a response from pastors. But as important as elections are, and they are important, evangelizing the lost is truly vital. And lest you want to evangelize only Democrats, or only Republicans, I want to suggest some guidelines for our conversations with others, particularly with unbelievers.
First, the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be the supreme message of our lives. When speaking with unbelievers, do not risk offending them and lose any chance of witness by discussing politics. Stick with Jesus as your subject. If we confuse receiving Jesus with adhering to a particular political viewpoint we will destroy our witness to at least half of our neighbors.
Second, God's ways are not man's ways. Politics and elections don't deter or detour Him. There are many biblical examples of God orchestrating the politics exactly the opposite of what believers would have preferred. Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were God's instruments, the Bible says, though they were pagan rulers and wicked men. Contemporary historians say that Chairman Mao Zedong, the atheistic ruler of China for 27 years, who sought to destroy the church, helped to establish the conditions for the explosive church growth that China has experienced in the past 30 years. I read recently that the two countries in which the Church is growing fastest, as a percentage of the population, are Iran and Afghanistan. The article suggested that growth is being accelerated by hardline, Islamic rulers, which are turning people away from Islam and toward the Prince of Peace.
Third, heart transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. The most important thing we can do for the lost is lead them to Jesus, then teach them to pray and read the Word. If they (or we!) will do these things, the Holy Spirit will transform their (our) minds so that they (we) become more like Jesus. When people come to Jesus their morality and worldview changes. About a year ago one of our Northwest churches led a young couple to Christ who made their living by farming marijuana. The pastor told me that they got very involved in Bible study and were hungry to grow in Christ. By the fall, the couple became convicted that they needed a new line of work. Jesus saved them, forgave them, and He is transforming their hearts and minds. Note that salvation came before transformation.
Fourth, the "world" already regards us politically. The message of the Church to the lost world is too often a political message, and that is a shame. If you ask an unbeliever what a conservative, evangelical Christian is, he will describe them with political language. We have already seen this in the current presidential race as various candidates vie for the "evangelical vote." It is far better to be known for the ministry we do and the God honoring character we have than the political stand we take, or the candidate we endorse, if we want to have spiritual influence with the lost.
Finally, the true Gospel is cross-cultural and cross-political. It works in every context. The Gospel works in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and the United States. It works in free societies and in those ruled by tyrants. The true Gospel can bring conviction of sin to liberals and conservatives, and both need Jesus.
I once had a professor whose father was a pastor. He said that a man once came to his father asking for spiritual counsel. He visited with the man, and then asked, "Aren't you a member of such-and-such a church? Isn't so-and-so your pastor?" The man said that yes, he was correct on both matters. My professor's father then asked, "Why didn't you go to your pastor for counsel?" And the man said, "If I needed a golfing tip I would speak with my pastor, but I needed to speak with a man of God." Ouch!
That is the greatest lesson that professor ever taught me and I've never forgotten it. Whether you are a pastor or a layman, the people you know will figure you out. In time they will know what is most important to you. Each of us must decide, is it more important to share our political opinion or to share Christ. Don't be known as a political preacher or political Sunday school teacher. Better to be known as a lover of Jesus and seeker of lost souls.
Rick Adams is the executive director of the Northwest Baptist Association, headquartered in Vancouver, Washington. This commentary appeared on the SBC Today blog and is used with permisson.