One of the biggest mistakes I've made as a pastor came when I ran for political office nearly a decade ago.
I have come to believe that pastors should never run for political office. And most of the time, we (I) should keep our mouths shut on political matters.
A study we've been doing at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, looking into The Augsburg Confession, a basic statement of the Lutheran understanding of Biblical Christian faith, has underscored what a bad mistake it was for me to run for office.
As mentioned in last Sunday's sermon, the Bible teaches that God rules the world in two ways, through two kingdoms.
One kingdom is the kingdom of God, a kingdom whose citizens have been transformed from enemies to friends of God by God's grace granted to all with faith in Jesus Christ.
Authority in this kingdom is wielded through what Jesus calls "the Office of the Keys," through the use of the "weapons" of the Word and the Sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion). These weapons are misused when exercised in the pursuit or maintenance of worldly power. In this kingdom, power is exerted not by coercion, but by grace, by the declaration of forgiveness to the repentant and the withholding of that declaration from the unrepentant.
The other kingdom over which God rules is the kingdom of the world. In this kingdom, power is coercive. It includes governments and their powers to make war, police, and enforce laws, codes, and regulations.
Pastors, called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, should refrain from political engagement except when governments command idol-worship or when they act unjustly.
Even then, pastors (and the Church) should not presume to take control of political power nor even attempt, even by lobbying or by political activism, to impose their own versions of God's kingdom on a pluralistic society. (Only God can usher in the full expression of God's kingdom, by His devices and according to His timing, anyway.)
When I ran for the State House of Representatives, I tried to make clear that I wasn't running as a Christian candidate for office. I also made every effort to point out to people that all of my opponents were Christians too.
Yet, I'm sure there were some people who voted for me because I was a Christian pastor. This in itself was a misuse of my authority as a pastor, seeming to imbue my views on things like school funding (the issue that most motivated me to run), with God's stamp of approval.
More significantly, my candidacy was a tacit laying down of the superior authority of God's eternal kingdom in favor of the inferior time-bound authority of the kingdom of this world.
Except in the instances mentioned above--command to idolatry or injustice--the Church should stay out of politics.
To me, it's breaking faith with God when we do.
When bishops and pastors, in essence, throw in the towels and endorse political candidates, pieces of legislation, or particular budget figures for appropriations by government or run for offices themselves, we tacitly say, "We no longer have faith that God can transform lives through preaching God's Word about Jesus Christ or by administering the Sacraments. We no longer accept the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives by the simple witness that sin, death, and the devil have been defeated for us for all eternity by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead of patient faithfulness to God's call to make disciples, we instead are taking up worldly authority and will try to coerce people into living Christian lives."
But even when such political endeavors--whether by conservative or liberal Christians--are successful, the fact remains: Changing people's external behaviors will not change their internal attitudes or their eternal destinies. For the latter changes to happen requires the grace of God, given through Jesus Christ to those who turn from sin and trust in Christ as their God, Lord, and Savior.
Besides, the surer path to greater justice in any society is not through the Church being in charge. History adequately demonstrates that, I think.
The surer path to justice is to preach and teach the Word about Christ and to administer the Sacraments, unleashing the Holy Spirit's power to create and sustain faith in Christ, encouraging people in a life of daily repentance and renewal whereby they seek to live out their faith in Christ in their daily lives, including the ways in which they view society and politics, the ways they vote.
I can't say with any certainty what specific policies God may want to institute in government to further His aims for people's lives. My politics are my politics and I have no right as a Christian or as a pastor to implicate God in political views that are undoubtedly riddled with my faults, sins, and blind spots as a human being.
It's a mistake for the Church to not keep its eye on our only mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ.
And it was a huge mistake for me as a pastor to run for political office, for giving up on God in that way, and for, in effect, taking His Name in vain by, however unintentionally, presenting myself as God's spokesperson in the political arena.
Thank God for the forgiveness I have in Jesus Christ.