Last night I became aware of a difficult situation one of my fellow pastors got himself into a few days ago. Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, traveled to Washington, D.C. to introduce Governor Rick Perry at a gathering of conservatives, and in the process to give his “personal” endorsement of Perry’s run for president.
In his speech Jeffress acknowledged one of his reasons for supporting Perry was the fact that Perry openly proclaimed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Jeffress felt it was critically important at this time in United States history to have a devote Christian in the White House. In the process of endorsing Perry he implied that some of the other candidates…in fact one in particular…did not meet this standard.
After his speech, Jeffress was cornered by the media and questioned about his views of other candidates and his view of Mormonism. In the course of the interview, Jeffress espoused his view that Mormonism was not considered within mainstream Christianity…calling it a “cult.”
In the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Dallas, Jeffress defended his actions to his people. He tried to explain that his “personal” endorsement of Rick Perry did not represent the “official” position of the church. He also defended this theological statements about the tenets of Mormonism to the standing ovations of his people.
As a pastor, I understand all too well the challenges of being “prophetic” and yet not becoming a “pawn” in the hands of politicians. When one is the pastor of a high-profile church it is very difficult to separate the “personal” from the “corporate.” In some sense, one of the reasons people care about our perspective on things is because of the positions of leadership we hold. As this story unfolds First Baptist Dallas now must deal with the consequences of the “personal” actions of their pastor. Even if he was well-meaning, his actions have created a firestorm that sadly undermines the reach of the gospel.
When one takes on the mantle of being a pastor, a higher calling falls on one’s shoulders. This higher calling demands ultimate allegiance to one Kingdom–the Kingdom of God. Endorsing candidates and political parties or movements may appear to be prudent, but in the end I fear these actions undercut the church’s voice into the society.
In addition, in the post-Christian world we live in, pastors will have an increasingly difficult time making theological arguments in our highly secular world ruled by sound bites. To explain the differences between evangelical Christianity and Mormonism cannot be done on a bumper sticker or with a simple slogan. The differences cut to the heart of the gospel and person of Jesus Christ. I fear the secular media has no patience nor understanding of the real issues, but enjoy creating a stir that paints the church in a bad light. Therefore pastors need to be careful in their approach to these issues.
In the highly charged political environment we face spiritual leaders need to be very thoughtful and strategic in their actions and statements. I would recommend we err on the side of preaching the gospel and leave the politics to those called to serve in that arena.