Pastors and Power

Richard Baxter saw, hundreds of years ago, the dangers of cozying up to political power. Ministers of the gospel, if they aren’t careful, will not only sacrifice original thought but also Biblical truth in order to avoid being ostracized, mocked, or disagreed with. Social media has made this quite apparent in the current year. For instance, as the pro-life position has become more and more subject to mockery, less and less Christians are publicly affirming it. I can think of two anti-political pastors (Greg Boyd and Josh Porter) who are “anti-political” as an expression of theology. So, they don’t really talk much about opposing abortion (as a matter of principle one should stay out of politics), but both were happy to engage in making fun of Trump and his voters on Twitter. I suspect that these strategies are more to appeal to people of a left-leaning political slant. And in fact, I’ve known many pastors personally who have taken a similar approach to ministry: mocking openly anybody in their churches that the political left finds distasteful.

Sadly, most positions are held by most people as a matter of tribalism rather than as a matter of truth. This state of affairs ought not be, but it is. As an aside, tribalism is a human default. The prime difference between the Christian and non-Christian tribes is that our chieftain (Jesus) commands us to put truth as our top loyalty (he is the Truth). So there’s a sense in which Christians should have the most disagreements (as seeking the truth entails argument) and the most unity (as we applaud the honest search for truth). Anyway, here is Baxter’s prescient commentary on our own time:

I would not have any to be contentious with those that govern them, nor to be disobedient to any of their lawful commands. But it is not the least reproach upon the Ministry, that the most of them for worldly advantage still suit themselves with the party that is most likely to suit their ends. If they look for secular advantages, they suit themselves to the Secular power; if for the air of Ecclesiastical applause, then do they suit themselves to the party of Ecclesiastics that is most in credit. This is not a private, but an epedemical malady. In Constantine’s days, how prevalent were the orthodox! In Constantius’s days, they almost all turned Arians, so that there were very few bishops at all that did not apostatize or betray the truth; even of the same men that had been in the Council of Nice. And when not only Liberius, but great Osius himself fell, who had been the president, or chief in so many orthodox Councils, what better could be expected from weaker men! Were it not for secular advantage, or ecclesiastic faction and applause, how could it come to pass, that Ministers in all the countries in the world, are either all, or almost all, of that religion and way that is in most credit, and most consistent with their worldly interest?Among the Greeks, they are all of the Greek profession: and among the Abassines, the Nestorians, the Maronites, the Jacobites, the Ministers generally go one way. And among the Papists, they are almost all Papists. In Saxony, Sweden, Denmark, &c. almost all Lutherans: in Holland, France, Scotland, almost all Calvinists. It is strange that they should be all in the right in one country, and all in the wrong in another, if carnal advantages and reputation did not sway much: when men fall upon a conscientious search, the variety of intellectual capacities causeth unavoidably a great variety of conceits about some hard and lower things: but let the prince, and the stream of men in credit go one way, and you shall have the generality of ministers too often change their religion with the Prince in this land. Not all, as our Martyrology can witness, but the most. I purposely forbear to mention any latter change. If the Rulers of an University should be corrupt, who have the disposal of preferments, how much might they do with the most of the students, where mere arguments would not take! And the same tractable distemper doth so often follow them into the Ministry, that it occasioneth the enemies to say, that reputation and preferment is our religion, and our reward.[1]


[1] Richard Baxter and William Orme, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 14 (London: James Duncan, 1830), 198–199.

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