Do Pastors have “Pulpit Freedom”?

“And you shall speak MY words to them . . . .” ~ Ezekiel 2:7

This Sunday, October 7, 2012, over a thousand pastors across the country have vowed to endorse one of the current presidential candidates from their pulpits, record those endorsements, and send them to the IRS. This is all in protest of the 1954 tax code amendment that prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” According to these pastors, this prohibition violates the freedom of religion and freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and so they have decided to defy it this coming week on what they are calling “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.”

For reasons that will soon become clear, we do not intend to make any comment on the political or constitutional issues involved here; but the way in which this debate is being framed raises important theological issues that, like all theological issues, need to be analyzed biblically. Dr. Jim Garlow, pastor of San Diego’s own Skyline Wesleyan Church and one of the leaders of the “Pulpit Freedom” movement, in an interview aired just this week, appealed to all pastors’ right to free speech which, he claimed, means that they ought to be allowed to “say whatever they want from the pulpit.” This right includes, of course, the ability to discuss their own political opinions in church and encourage their congregations to vote for specific candidates.

Whether or not pastors have such rights in the eyes of the state, there is a deeper question here: do they have such rights in the eyes of God? We don’t believe that they do. Many reasons could be given, but we will focus on just two closely related ones. We do not believe that pastors have the right to “say whatever they want from the pulpit” because doing so is 1) an overstepping of ministerial authority and 2) a violation of Christian liberty.

One of the core doctrines of the Protestant Reformation was the “ministerial authority” of the pastor as opposed to the “magisterial authority” claimed by the Pope and priests of Rome. The idea is that the authority of pastors is not absolute but strictly limited within the bounds of the Word of God: the only authority they can rightly claim is that derived from the ultimate authority of the Head of the Church Jesus Christ and of His will as revealed in the Scriptures. As 19th century Scottish theologian James Bannerman put it, pastors are

. . . ministerial and subordinate, having no authority or discretion of their own, and being merely ministers or servants carry out the will and execute the appointments of Christ. They are not masters to do their own will, or act at their own discretion, but servants, held bound to submit to the will and carry out the instructions of another. There is a magisterial and supreme authority in the church; and there is a derived and subordinate authority, accountable to the former. The one belongs to Christ as Head of His Church, the only law or limit of His authority being his own will; the other belongs to the Church, or the office-bearers of the Church, the law or limit of their authority being the power intrusted to them by their Master, and the instructions given to them by Him (The Church of Christ, 1:219).

Consequently, pastors have no right to say anything from the pulpit but what God has said first. Like the prophets of old, they must be able to preface everything with “Thus saith the Lord.” If God has not endorsed a particular presidential candidate in His Word (which He has not), then the pastor as a pastor has no authority to do so either.

Overstepping of ministerial authority inevitably leads also to a violation of Christian liberty. The limiting of pastoral authority to the bounds of God’s Word is one of the chief divinely-bestowed protections of our liberty in Christ. As our Confession states, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to His Word, or not contained in it” (LCF 21.2, emphasis added). Pastors cannot bind anything upon the consciences of God’s people that God has not first bound upon their consciences in His Word. To tell God’s people for whom they ought to vote is to do precisely that.

So no, we do not believe that the pastor has “pulpit freedom” in the eyes of God: pastors are, in fact, strictly forbidden from saying “whatever they want from the pulpit.” In light of the limits placed upon their authority and in protection of the liberty of the believers they serve, pastors are to speak from the pulpit only what God has authorized them to speak and not a word more. Whether or not they are guaranteed unrestricted freedom of speech by the Constitution in the eyes of the state, they are denied such freedom by the Scriptures in the eyes of God. Pastors need to remember this with fear and trembling. Usurping authority that belongs only to Christ and trampling upon the liberty He died to secure for His people – those are not things that He will take lightly.

All this to say, we your pastors will not be telling you who to vote for this Sunday. We are not authorized to do so.

~ Pastors Jason and Jim