Due to the Thanksgiving Holiday, orders will not be processed until November 30th.

Podcast: How Should Christians Navigate Political Disagreements among Friends? (Jonathan Leeman)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Disagreement within the Church

In this episode, Jonathan Leeman discusses how Christians should think about political disagreements within the church. He makes the important distinction between clear, biblical principles on the one hand and prudential applications of those principles on the other, shares his take on how much pastors and church leaders should say regarding their own political perspectives online and in-person, and offers advice for those worried about political controversy causing division within their church.

How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics?

Jonathan Leeman, Andy Naselli

What should church members do when they disagree on political issues? In this short volume, readers will discover that the gospel creates unity amid diversity, not uniformity, as they learn how to engage with those who disagree on political issues. Part of the 9Marks Church Questions series.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | RSS

Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:32 - A Divided Political Landscape

Matt Tully
Jonathan, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Jonathan Leeman
Matt, it's great to be with you. Thank you.

Matt Tully
It seems like the political landscape—at least in the US, but I think even around the world—is more polarized, more frustrated, more distrustful than ever before. You studied political science at both an undergraduate and graduate level, and so I wonder, do you actually think that's the case, or is this something that every generation feels?

Jonathan Leeman
Yes and yes. I do think it's the case, at least as is indicated by polls. You'll see levels of civil trust, for instance, and trust in the institutions of society are down considerably even from the 1960s. You see greater degrees of partisanship in various legislative matters or lawmaking in general. Just think about the fact that in 1986 Antonin Scalia was voted and confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 98–0–2. But think about our Supreme Court nominations now—they're purely bipartisan affairs. There are a number of reasons that we could look to for why that's the case. On the one hand, in 1994-95 when Newt Gingrich came in as Speaker of the House, he no longer required congresspeople in the Republican party to stay in Washington D.C. over the weekend. Previously, Congressmen had stayed in D.C. over the weekends, and that meant people would intermingle with other congressmen and senators even across the aisle. But now they're going home and they're not doing that intermingling; they're not part of the same school; they're not at the pool with their kids together. We could talk about social media and how social media has an effect on the culture and division that we feel. That's probably even a bigger role than anything Newt Gingrich did or didn't do. There are lots of things we could point to; but yes, bottom line—I think there's more rancor, more distrust, more division as part of our present times.

Matt Tully
Are you saying that there was a time when politicians were required to stay in D.C. for some amount of the year? Was that a rule?

Jonathan Leeman
I don't know if it was a rule or not honestly. It was a fairly common practice for congressmen or a senator just to stay there for the weekend. They built their lives in Washington D.C. and they would visit their home districts less often. That changed with a number of certain rules—I can't give you the specifics on it—back in the mid 90s. If you went to a Georgetown dinner party in the 1980s, you would find Democrat and Republican senators clinking glasses together and building relationships even though they disagreed on Monday morning when they got to work. No longer is that the case. No longer do you find members of the two parties, on the whole, fraternizing with each other and building relationships and going to little league games.

Matt Tully
That seems so relevant even to the second comment that you made about social media where we see this fracturing of interaction, where we get into our own tribes and groups, and we talk in those. But it seems like true relationship across the aisle is becoming less and less of a real thing.

Jonathan Leeman
I think that's exactly right. Social media as a platform, as a medium, is not set up for a) building real relationships, b) garnering trust across lines of dispute, and c) persuasion. Think about a tweet. It's 280 characters. What can I do? I can't give you nuance, I can't give you tone of voice, I can't give you body language, I can't give you a history of conversation. All I can do is blast you, I think this! So people go on there with good intentions and with their consciences telling them, I need to stand up for the truth! But what happens is they stand up for the truth in 280 characters. They don't persuade anybody. All they do is they reify the lines that are already there. They gather around them people who already agree with them, but they don't do anything to build a bridge to the other side. In other words, the medium of Twitter—and I think the same is true of Facebook and whatever else you might want to say—is just not set up for a) building trust, which is b) necessary for persuasion. So what we get is just a lot of shouting at each other.

06:11 - The Heart of Political Division in the Local Church

Matt Tully
There are so many cultural and social issues these days that have this strong political side of them. It seems like even among Christians who all love the gospel and who all love the Bible, there can be this theoretical agreement on some of the underlying core principles not just of our faith, but even principles related to our society. But then there's disagreement on how policy decisions should be made based on those principles—that's where we disagree. It seems to me that because of that disagreement on policy, we can lose a recognition of the more foundational agreement that we have on the principles that we all hold to as Christians. Have you observed that dynamic? If so, how important is that to recognize?

Jonathan Leeman
That's a great point, Matt, and I think it gets to the heart of the challenge of politics in the local church. For example, you and I both agree that racism is wrong. You might then say, Well, therefore, we need racial reparations. And I might say, No, that's a horrible idea. And then you might be tempted to say, But Jonathan, if you're not willing to support matters of restitution like Zacchaeus did, I'm not sure you really understand what repentance is. And I say, No, Matt. That's so wrong. You don't understand that once somebody is forgiven that sin can't travel down to the next generation and indict me. I'm not called to pay for the sins of my father. You don't understand the gospel. What's going on? Step one: you and I agree that racism is wrong. Step two: we might even agree that American slavery was wrong. Step 3: we disagree, however, on a specific policy matter (restitutions for American slavery) as the right response to that basic point of agreement between us. And then, point 4: you and I effectively start excommunicating each other and saying, I don't think you understand the gospel! What happens? The temperatures go up. We get angry at each other. We have a hard time sitting down at the Lord's Table together. So I think it's crucial for Christians to recognize the distinction between certain moral and biblical principles and the policies which are tactical/strategic ways of attempting to implement those moral principles. Leaving space for one another to, even when we agree on the moral or biblical principles, to disagree and offer Christian freedom, charity of judgment, on those points of strategic, tactical, prudential disagreement. Most policy is prudential. Not all, but most.

Matt Tully
So you're not necessarily saying that in making that case for “leaving a little space,” as you said, that's not the same thing as saying no one's right and no one's wrong potentially in a specific policy judgment that they might make. Is that right?

Jonathan Leeman
That's exactly right. First Kings 3—two prostitutes come in front of Solomon. One says, It's my baby. The other says, No, it's my baby. There's a right answer to that question. Solomon doesn't know it, but there is a right answer. What does he need? He needs wisdom. And wonderfully, right before that passage we're told that God had offered him anything, he asked for wisdom, and God had given it. Maybe he talks to his advisers for advice, but Solomon scratches his head and finally say, I know. Bring me a sword. Cut the baby in half. Of course then the real mother says, No, no, no! She can have it. And then the narrator sums up this whole real life practical episode—in which the answers aren't in the Bible—by saying, And the people of God were amazed that God had given wisdom to Solomon to do justice (1 Kings 3:28). What was the goal? The goal is justice. That should always be the goal of politics. We're trying to do what is just. But what do we need to figure out what is just? We need wisdom. So much of politics is just asking the Lord, Oh, Lord! Please give me wisdom so that I might do justice. That's not to say there's not a right answer. There often—not always—is; but none of us have the apostolic ability to know the revelation of God to say, for example, We should not adopt this measure or go to this march on abortion. You and I could even agree that abortion is wrong, but different people are going to come along and recommend different ways of going about tackling it. How do we need to know what the best way is? We need what Solomon did—wisdom. And that's where Christians have a lot of fights with each other. It's okay to disagree, it's okay to say, Look, I really think the path that you're recommending on this racial problem-on this abortion problem-on this whatever—I really think it's all lies. But again, unless you're an apostle, unless the Lord has revealed to you as holy writ the way to approach it, you better be slow to condemn your fellow believers when they make different kinds of prudential judgments.

Matt Tully
As you look out over the evangelical church in America, and I'm asking you to generalize and maybe that's not a fair thing to do—

Jonathan Leeman
Yeah, this will be easy!

Matt Tully
Do you think that the church would do well to have more emphasis on the unity of principles that we share as Christians, or do you think we do need to continue to show in more relief the areas in which we disagree?

Jonathan Leeman
That is a tough question. It really just depends on the time and place and the people. Sometimes with Christians in America I kind of just want to say, Shut up. We don't all need to know your opinion on this or that candidate. We don't all need to know your view on this policy matter. Nobody made you a subject matter expert. Please, just stop talking. You're dragging the gospel into your view on this, and look—notice how the reputations of evangelicals are going at this particular moment. So just please be quiet! Let's emphasize what the Bible emphasizes and stop. At times I want to say that. But of course, you know what Ecclesiastes 3 says: there's a time and a place for everything. So, sometimes I want to say, Shut up. Other times I want to say, Hey, friends! We need to speak up! We need to address these matters and we need to get active. We need to protest, we need to start looking for political solutions. Be careful before you attach the name of Christ and the church to those political solutions. I'm not saying you should do that, I'm not saying you make it a matter of excommunication or what the preacher preaches about on Sunday; but Christians need to get involved and speak up. What do we need more of, Matt? I'm reluctant to say. I'm maybe slightly inclined to say given our Utopian pretensions, given how easily we as Christians in the early twenty-first century tend to think our solutions are going to be found in politics, that means we're probably inclined to speaking more than we should. So I'm probably inclined to say, Hey folks, let's just keep our mouths shut, at least when speaking on behalf of the church. But again, I just can't make that blanket statement for every occasion.

14:07 - Balancing Humility and Boldness in Political Disagreements

Matt Tully
You mentioned just a minute ago how most of the tricky political issues that we're facing right now are related, in some way or another, to the idea of justice—our pursuit of a just society and a just government that treats people the right way, however we might define that. So how do you think about the intersection of a passion for justice—that is what motivates so much of our political engagement and discourse—with the need for humility in those kinds of discussions as we recognize our own limits and biases? Another way to put it is: What does it look like to be humble in the midst of a political disagreement and yet not be a pushover when it comes to our convictions about what's important and true?

Jonathan Leeman
That's a really tough question. Let me just start by repeating what you said: At the heart of politics is the pursuit of justice. That's what we're called to do. We're called to make righteous judgments. That's one way to define justice—righteous judgments. So you have a standard—righteousness—and then you make an assessment—a judgment—based on that standard. You say, Guilty or Not guilty. Justice is righteous judgments. The goal of politics, as I said, is to pursue justice. Proverbs 29:4: “By justice a king builds up the land . . . .” First Kings 3:28: “they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.” The Queen of Sheba commends Solomon in 1 Kings 10 about how he brings justice. I think the foundation of a government's authority begins right there in Genesis 9: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” We call that a justice mechanism—insofar that a person is violated, there is to be reciprocity, retribution, an establishing of justice. So that's why people get so animated when it comes to politics, and why you should get animated. What should make you angry? Injustice should make you angry. A child being abused should make you angry. A people being exploited or oppressed should make you angry. Anger is a God-given emotion in response to injustice. The challenge, of course, is that none of us have perfectly calibrated scales for adjudicating justice, for rendering righteousness. None of us get it right every time. So as you say, Matt, there is a need for some epistemic humility in my rendering of judgments. So yes, on the one hand we are all called to seek and pursue justice. We're all called to render righteous judgments. On the other hand, as I said before, none of us are apostles with the Spirit of God revealing Scripture to us, so we're going to get it wrong. We're going to get it wrong because we're finite; we're going to get it wrong because we're fallen. So there's just this really tricky balance that we need to strike between my pursuit of rendering righteous judgments and my need to recognize that I can get it wrong and other people are going to stand in right judgment over me in some of my blindspots, in some of my sins, and so forth. One way, as Christians, that I think we deal with this dilemma is we establish two categories. We call them “whole church matters”—doctrine of faith matters—and “Christian freedom matters.” Christians unite around whole church matters—doctrine of faith matters: Who is Jesus? Who is God? Who is man? What's the Bible? What does it take to be saved? Those things we all agree on in order to be members of the same church. Everything else falls into this other bucket, the Christian freedom bucket. So depending on which of these two buckets I'm operating out of, I'm going to increase or decrease my zeal and my level of certainty. If we're talking about whether or not Jesus got up from the dead, yes. Preach that from the pulpit, bind the conscience, make it a matter of church discipline. Absolutely. Hold fast and hard to it. If we're talking about universal healthcare, that's over here in the Christian freedom bucket, and I'm willing for Christians to disagree. So in that case, exercise a little bit more humility. Lower the volume; lower the temperature; have good, solid debates about why you think universal healthcare is a good or bad idea, but recognize that you're here in Christians freedom land. You're not over there in whole church statement of faith land. That should affect how we interact, especially with other believers.

Matt Tully
What would you say to the person who rejects that distinction, or at least says it's more complicated than that. There are all kinds of political issues where this person would argue that there's a clear biblical principle at play, and then there's a clear outworking that should flow from that. And so if someone is opposed to that outworking, that political response, they are essentially tantamount to saying I don't care about this political issue. They might say, You can say you care about it, but if you're unwilling to do “X”, that demonstrates to me that you actually don't believe that principle as you say you do. What would your response be where they might say the lines are more blurry than that, or they might want to draw the lines in different places than you would?

Jonathan Leeman
I utterly affirm the fact that people might disagree with me about where we should draw the line, but that we should draw a line I'm going to insist on. In other words, you do not want to make every single political issue a whole church issue. Nor do you want to say there are no whole church issues. Everybody is going to have that line somewhere. I'm just trying to help you recognize that it's there, and now we can get to the conversation about what goes on which side of the line. Let's just start by saying there's a line there. Some issues are whole church issues, some are Christian freedom issues. Robert Bennet, a Luthan political scientist, talks about straight-line/jagged-line issues. Straight-line issues lead to whole church judgments; jagged-line issues lead to Christian freedom issues. Straight-line issues are those issues where there's a straight line between the biblical text and a policy application. Biblical text: “You shall not murder.” Biblical text: “Surely you knew me when I was in my mother's womb.” Policy application: abortion is wrong. There's a pretty straight line from one to the other. You don't have to do a lot of logical, deductive thinking to get from the text to that policy application. With a jagged-line issue, I might bring certain biblical principles to bear on my views on healthcare but it's a lot harder to get from biblical texts—about caring for the poor, caring for the hungry and the needy, private property, “you shall not steal”—down to questions about whether or not the government is responsible for healthcare and how much the government should put in. That's a jagged line. So, over here in straight-line, whole church issues we should take a biblical stand. Taking a biblical stand in that regard means the preacher should preach it and you should practice church membership decisions over it. You might disagree with me about whether or not marches are helpful in response to abortion, you might disagree with me about whether or not we should fight for various partial measures, but one things is certain: you cannot support abortion. If you are an abortion advocate, an abortion promoter, then you can't be a member of my church. We will actually, if you are seeking to promote and support and practice abortion, we will actually remove you from membership in my church. If you are a member of the Ku Klux Klan, we will remove you from membership in the church. I am calling those things straight-line issues, whole church judgments. But again, over here in jagged line Christian freedom, there's just going to be a whole host of things that you might bring biblical principles to bear. I'm not saying this is made of moral equivalency—I'm not saying that at all. Make moral arguments. But, recognize that when you notch it up a level to that whole church thing, you are now speaking for the Bible; you are now speaking as an apostle. And I'm not sure you want to do that with most political issues, again, as a matter of humility. So, we can argue about which goes where, but that you make the distinction is, I think, crucial and a huge aid to charity, patience, and unity in the church.

23:03 - The Pastor, Politics, and the Pulpit

Matt Tully
How do you think about all of this as a pastor? I think that's where pastors need to make specific decisions and need to say, Am I going to mention something about this issue or not? And if I do, what am I going to say about it? Maybe speak first to the pastor when it comes to preaching. Say a pastor is working through a passage expositionally and comes upon a principle that, to him, feels like a very applicable, relevant principle for some political issue; how does he know when it's appropriate or not appropriate to mention those political things, to highlight the fact that these principles might have bearing on some political controversy of the day?

Jonathan Leeman
That's a great question, and the very one that I think a lot of pastors are struggling with. Number one, what is your job as a pastor? It's to preach the Bible; to bind consciences with the Bible; it's to point to the way of life and obedience, and away from the path of death and disobedience. That is your job. Therefore, when you stand up behind the pulpit, you are seeking to do that. Say, Friends—people of God—this is the way to walk in righteousness and obedience according to God's own Word. I don't care about your opinions on dental practices, I don't care about your engineering speculations, I don't care about your political opinions insofar as those aren't drawn out of the Word of God. I might privately be curious to know what you think, but it has no bearing on me as a Christian seeking to follow Jesus as you follow Jesus. So to answer your question, Matt, number one: Oh pastor, please restrain your tongue to speak only Bible or things that are clear from the Bible. As the Westminster Confession puts it: “by good and necessary consequence.” As soon as you start stepping out layers of implication away from Scripture, layers of logical deduction, that's when you increasingly become like a Pharisee: We're commanded to tithe. Does that mean we need to tithe our mint and our cumin and our dill? That's where you're tying people up with burdens that are too much for them to bear. That's the pathway, historically, of Christian fundamentalism where we start extrapolating outward from the Bible all sorts of ways where we're going to say, I think the Bible means you can't dance, drink, chew, or go with girls who do. Christians shouldn't chew gum or go to the movies. They had good arguments—rational, deduced from Scripture arguments for why Christians should never go to movie theaters or a dance or listen to music with a beat; but just ask yourself, Are we going too far? Are you sure you really want to bind the conscience there? In the same way, to the pastor I just want to say, Be careful that you are speaking Bible or something that's of good and necessary consequence from the Bible. I might have a personal conversation with you privately, Matt, and say, It really doesn't seem right to me that they do this on immigration*. But even then, I just want to be super careful, insofar as I bear the title of “pastor,” not to wrongly bind the conscience where God has not allowed me to bind it. Can I give you a quick story that illustrates this?

Matt Tully
Yeah.

Jonathan Leeman
This is a story out of my book How the Nations Rage from a couple of years ago. My pastor, Mark Dever, when he first moved to Washington D.C. in 1994 and started pastoring Capitol Hill Baptist Church, had a US Senator as a member of the church named Mark Hatfield. He was a senator from Oregon and he was in his last years of service. That same year Newt Gingrich—he's gotten a couple of mentions already in this conversation!

Matt Tully
If you're listening, you'll appreciate that.

Jonathan Leeman
So there was a large majority of Republicans who won in the House and the Senate that year. In response to Clinton taking the Presidency in 1992, Newt Gingrich came in with this Contract with America. One of the stipulations was a balanced budget amendment. Sixty-six senators in the US Senate had passed, or had voted for, the balanced budget amendment. One US senator had held out—Mark Hatfield, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church. He invited Mark [Dever] down to his office one day and said, Mark, the press is hounding me, the party whip is hounding me, all my fellow senators are hounding me—by the way, I think it had already passed the House and it was in the Senate at this point and he was a two-thirds vote—everybody is hounding me, you're my pastor. What should I do? Mark Dever is a young, new pastor—age 33 or 34—on Capitol Hill. As he's recounting this to me he says, Now Jonathan, I had an opinion on what he should do. In fact, I had a very strong opinion on what he should do. I cared about this particular issue. And so I said to him, 'Senator Hatfield, I'll pray for you.' And that's all he would give him. And I said, Mark, why didn't you tell him more? He said, Because, Jonathan, I'm a pastor. I know I'm right about the resurrection. I know I'm right about the gospel. I'm not sure I'm right about a US balanced budget amendment. Therefore, I'm going to reserve my pastoral capital in Hatfield's life for those issues where I know the Bible has told me to speak. If we had been talking about the Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, or Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution—which pertained to slavery, equal citizenship, and voting rights—there I would have spoken because there I think a clear, biblical principle is at play. I'm not saying I would never speak. I'm just saying that as a pastor I have to be very careful to speak Bible and only Bible.

Matt Tully
That's interesting because oftentimes I think there's broad agreement that pastors and church leaders should be reticent to involve politics in too direct a way in their preaching. But I think maybe it's different when it comes to their social media activity or their personal, private conversations with their church members or others. So are you essentially saying that you would be very cautious about even those interactions as a pastor?

Jonathan Leeman
Yes, absolutely I would. I don't think you have to exercise quite the same caution as you do in the pulpit, but certainly you do. I taught a class called “Christians in Government” when I was a member and elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, and I remember after teaching one particular class a young lady came up to me afterwards and she said, Okay Jonathan. We have three potential candidates for mayor in the D.C. elections. All of them—Republican, Democrat, Independent—are pro-choice, so I don't have a pro-life option. What should I do? In response, I didn't give her what I would do, but I offered her some biblical principles—don't ask me what they were, I don't remember!—that I hoped would help her judgment. But I didn't feel able to weigh in and offer my counsel there. Also on Twitter and Facebook—pastor, please! You're standing up and you're speaking in front of, potentially, the entire planet. Be very careful about what you say and don't say.

30:38 - The Pastor, Politics, and Social Media

Matt Tully
What counsel would you give to the pastor who is seeing what other people—their congregants—are writing on social media? Certainly right now we're not all getting together and talking politics in person, but social media is this interesting place where it's all in public for the world to see, and we have these conversations. I think of the pastor who has seen members in his church posting things that he finds maybe deeply troubling and inconsistent with some of the principles in Scripture that he and the elders of the church would hold to. But he's seeing this stuff not from a personal conversation, he's seeing it on social media, and he feels unsure of what to do. What would you counsel him to do?

Jonathan Leeman
You could do two things: you could forbear and love and pray. Or, you could talk to the person. Those are your two options. When do I decide I'm not just going to forbear and love, I'm going to speak? Because there is a time to forbear and love. I might recognize that certain things that Joe is saying on Facebook might challenge other members, annoy other members, frustrate other members; but there's a time and a place for me to ask them to step up and forbear and be patient with Joe even as he expresses his opinions. Just because Joe is saying something that might cause a little bit of frustration to me or to others isn't necessarily to get into Joe's business and say, Take that post down. No, we need to treat people like adults and give them opportunities to work things out themselves. At the same time, I still have to have a category of being willing to address Joe for his social media posts. Obviously, one of the first reasons I'm going to address them is if I think it's going to prove disruptive to the unit of the body in some form or fashion that I worry that people might be tempted to fall out of fellowship, might find it difficult to come to the Lord's Table together—it's hard to say when you've crossed that line.

Matt Tully
That just seems very relevant right now in particular. I've heard numerous stories from churches where there are true seeds of division either beginning to grow, if not having fully manifested themselves, on these different political fault lines. A lot of times the response of pastors is to say let's be careful about that division. We don't want to sow those seeds as members. But others can hear that and feel like that's a suppression of my personal beliefs that we all agree aren't core orthodox issues. So how does a pastor balance that desire for unity in a church with respecting people's individual beliefs and that being okay?

Jonathan Leeman
That's precisely why I said I need to allow some of that stuff to go on and not get into Joe's business and say something and to treat people like adults. I think another reason I might confront Joe is if he's clearly sinning in some way. Surely if he's supporting sin—if he's calling for abortion or something like that—I probably would confront him then. If he's being just a jerk—a real jerk—and I have any kind of relationship with Joe, I might look for ways to bring it up with him. I've done that before. I've contacted members and said, Hey, I'm not sure that was the best way to say things. And wonderfully, members have responded humbly and removed things. In one case I remember a guy apologizing on social media. But the question of unity—if a matter is in an area of jagged-line Christian freedom, I don't know that I am necessarily going to ask Joe to remove it, precisely because it's in the domain of Christian freedom. It's going to be more the way he may go about comporting himself that will be disruptive of unity that I think that I'm concerned with. Again, if he's a jerk and attacking people, if it's a whole church matter, then we're talking about sin and I address him on those grounds. I've kind of worked myself towards a better answer. Maybe I should have started with: Matt, two reasons. Number one: if it's a whole church matter and it's a matter of sin, then I need to address Joe. If we're in a Christian freedom bucket, I'm less likely to address him for the thing itself, and more likely only address him for the way that he goes about talking about it. Is it loving? Is it peace-producing? Or is it cantankerous and rancorous and unkind?

35:33 - Voting and Moral Culpability

Matt Tully
That's a helpful distinction. Another issue that I think many of us are wrestling with right now is whether or not, or to what extent, that we're morally implicated in the failings, in the sins of a certain party or an individual figure or even in the system as a whole just by virtue of participating in the political process. We hear that a lot. This issue comes up when you get to the concept of voting for the lesser of two evils and whether or not that's even a valid type of category. How do you think about that issue?

Jonathan Leeman
When we vote we are exercising leadership, we are exercising governing authority, we are undertaking its burdens. The burden of leadership and authority is that you are implicated in things that you may not necessarily want to be implicated in. You've all seen the movie where the President has to order the strike to the Libyan embassy or something, and he knows he's going to kill several people but he's got to do it for this greater good. He's got to make decisions that he knows implicate him in very difficult things. Well, the same is in voting. Let me put it this way: when you vote for a candidate, I think you necessarily endorse everything that candidate says he/she is going to pursue and endorse. Let's go back to Joe. Joe's now running for the Senate, and left your church—maybe he didn't leave your church, but now Joe's running for the Senate. Joe says, I support issues A, B, C, D, and E. Meanwhile, Jane says, Well, I support issues L, M, N, O, and P. You look at A, B, C, D, and E and you're like, I support four of those. I really don't want to support E, but I really like A, B, C, and D; and I certainly don't like Jane's L, M, N, O, and P at all! So even though E is morally obnoxious to me, I know in my heart I don't support that, but I do support A, B, C, and D; therefore, I'm going to pull the lever for Joe. Here's the rough news: the fact that in your heart you don't like issue E doesn't morally absolve you from it. When you pull that lever, when you check that box, when you submit that vote, it doesn't distinguish the motives of your heart. It doesn't distinguish that you're supporting A, B, C, D and not E. You are simply pulling a lever, x-ing a box, for Joe, and Joe's saying, I support A, B, C, D, and E. So you become morally culpable for who you vote for. That's a tough thing because we live in a democracy and you know that you're never going to get a candidate who supports everything you do. Fine. That may be the case. But I'm still saying, let's be honest about it. You are still bearing a certain level of moral culpability with the leadership, with the exercise of authority, that you are doing in that vote. You can't just wish it away and say, Well, in my heart I don't really like that. No. You're still responsible. There's still a chain of connection and causation back to your vote.

Matt Tully
How does that fit with something that you write in your book—you and your coauthor Andy Naselli? You write, “People today often treat their votes as personal expressions of who they are. Yet we would encourage you to view votes less as matters of self-expression or tribal identification and more as strategic calculations concerning these kinds of non-biblical matters.” When I first read that I took that more as there's a recognition in every vote that we're kind of doing the best that we can do with the options available to us and, therefore, we might not necessarily need to be culpable for all of the bad results that might come if those were not intended to begin with.

Jonathan Leeman
I think I'm saying the same thing I said there in the booklet. I'm looking at A, B, C, D, and E, and on the other side I'm looking at L, M, N, O, and P. I realize that neither of them is a perfect choice, and I'm going to exercise my freedom to make a strategic judgment about which of those two is best. What Andy and I are speaking against when we're saying it's not a matter of self-expression and tribal identification—I think the problem with so much voting these days is I have a certain friend group, tribe, or other group that I consider myself a part of and I'm going to vote for them so as to show to everybody else in my group—or even to convince myself—that I belong to that group, not that group. Those are the Fox News watchers. Those are the MSNBC watchers. I'm not part of them. My people vote this way. Andy and I are saying, No. That's not why you vote as you do. What you do is you look at A, B, C, D, and E; you look at L, M, N, O, and P; you say someone bring me a sword. Let's cut the baby in half. In other words, we ask God for wisdom, and then we make the best vote—strategically, prudentially—we can, recognizing that moral culpability goes along with that vote.

Matt Tully
In response to that line of argumentation, there might be a Christian listening who is thinking, Well, then I'm just not going to vote because I don't want to be morally culpable for the wrong thing that this candidate might do even though that most of what they do I support. What do you think of that kind of position?

Jonathan Leeman
It's a logical and viable position. It's not necessarily the only moral position. The argument against it would be that it is an abdication of the stewardship God has given you. You might be looking and saying, That's a bear. That's a shark. I don't really want to get eaten by either, but my kids are on the beach behind me and I've got to pick one or the other. That's a stupid analogy . . .

Matt Tully
It kind of breaks down.

Jonathan Leeman
I guess the shark wouldn't get onto the beach, but you know what I'm saying! I still have a responsibility to pick what I think is best, what is wisest, even if it means bearing some culpability that I don't really want to bear. And doing otherwise is just to abdicate and forsake the stewardship. Here we are at Romans 14 with weaker and stronger consciences. Your conscience might say, No! You can't do that! You have to vote third party. Another person says, No. I've got to pick this or that according to what I think is likely going to win. I'm not going to bind your conscience on that third party issue question.

Matt Tully
Elaborate a little bit on that word “culpability” versus words that we might be more familiar with in the theological sense like “sin” or “guilt” because of something. Are you saying essentially that by voting and then being culpable for the decisions that whoever you voted for might make—good and bad—are we then sinning in that way as well? And if so, how can anyone vote if, by definition, it means we're also participating in some way in sin?

Jonathan Leeman
By “culpable” yes, I mean morally responsible. And yes, I think there's a question of sin on the line. Unless you want to remove all questions of righteousness and judgment from our votes; unless you want to say that our votes are entirely morally relative and not matters of sin and righteousness. They're just not moral activities. Our participation in the US government through the vote is not a moral activity at all. It's morally neutral. Unless you want to say that—and I don't think most people do—well then yeah. I think we have to acknowledge that sin is potentially on the line. Different Christians are going to judge differently about whether this or that is more sinful, but you just can't get away from it. But, good news! God is wise. God recognizes the stakes. We live inside the gospel, so I don't think you need to live in total fear. Nonetheless, if you've been to any ethics class, the first day of class kind of question is this: There's a knock on your front door, you answer, and the Nazi standing there ask, Are you hiding Jews in the basement? You are hiding Jews in the basement. Do you say, No, I'm not hiding Jews in the basement, and lie? Or, do you say, I have to tell the truth: yes, there are Jews in the basement, and let them be taken away and murdered? There's just not a clean answer to that one! I could pretend like the exercise of voting is always morally clean. I just don't think that's accurate. I think it involves tough, ethical decisions in which matters of sin and righteousness are at stake. Praise God that I don't have his scale of judgment, and I'm not going to get on this podcast—or any other podcast—and tell you exactly what the scale of God's judgment is on these various kinds of matters. Nonetheless, we are preparing for that day. Every Christian voter out there needs to prepare themselves for that day as they go to the ballot box on that Tuesday in November.


Popular Articles in This Series

Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.

View All


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.