When Florida pastor Ken Whitten started to address the 2016 presidential election in a sermon, "it got real quiet" because the congregation "knows I do not do that" typically, Whitten said.
But he spoke out because he is among Southern Baptist pastors in key swing states who, without endorsing a candidate, have felt compelled to offer spiritual counsel to their congregations in the home stretch of an at-times rancorous presidential campaign. Their concerns include harsh social media posts by Christians, the squandering of evangelistic opportunities with angry political rhetoric, and an apparent failure to rest in God's sovereign plan.
"I want to be known not as a political endorser," Whitten, pastor of Tampa-area Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla., told Baptist Press. "I want to be known as a spiritual encourager."
To help preserve church unity, Whitten has asked Idlewild members not to wear political attire to worship or post political material on social media that questions the patriotism or spiritual maturity of those who support a different candidate.
One common error believers commit, Whitten said, is to let television commentary shape their thinking about the election more than biblical principles. While the stakes are high on Election Day, "the answer for America has never ever been in the White House."
Believers know intellectually "that God is sovereign," Whitten said. "But I just see a panic in God's people" concerning the election "that I wish was not there." He added that "on Nov. 9, Jesus Christ will still be Lord."
In Pennsylvania, pastor K. Marshall Williams of Philadelphia's Nazarene Baptist Church has a similar concern.
The "major error today is to panic and be fearful, not understanding that our God is sovereign and He has everything under control," Williams told BP in written comments.
Williams is troubled by "institutional and systemic racism, injustice and racial supremacy" in America but believes no politician or political party can bring "healing and deliverance in our land."
"Our salvation is not in a donkey or an elephant," Williams said, referencing the mascots of the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, "but in a Lamb—the Lamb of God that has taken away the sins of the world."
Williams advised Christians of all ethnicities "to repent and surrender, with a radical obedience to the Lordship of Christ to push back darkness and stand up and be an ocular demonstration and a pictorial illustration of authentic Kingdom citizens, manifesting in the pulpit, the pew and the public square unconditional love, inexplicable unity and justice for all."
Williams added, "We trust only in [God] as our peace, provision, protection and prosperity in these perilous and uncertain times."
B. Scott Davis, pastor of Pitts Baptist Church in Concord, N.C., urged believers to "evaluate the policy issues of parties and personalities from a biblical worldview" while also remembering "our problems are not simply temporal and earthly issues with human solutions, but spiritual and eternal issues."
Followers of Jesus should be involved in the political process, Davis told BP in written comments. They should also remember God is sovereign over elections.
"If someone's candidate or party doesn't get elected," Davis said, "remember that Jesus said in John 5:17, 'My Father is working until now, and I am working.' It is a comfort for me to know that God is sovereign, and His purposes both will not and cannot be thwarted."
Two warning signs, Davis said, that a Christian may be placing too much hope in the election are:
• "Blindly follow[ing] a party or candidate and defend[ing] everything they do or say without honest evaluation"; and
• Becoming "so passionate and dogmatic" in political discussions "that we begin to demean the other person."
The most important outcome of a political discussion, "if our opponent is an unbeliever, is to keep the doors open to win them to Christ," Davis said.
"If we become ... belittling or demeaning toward them over political issues, we may be able to lay out our case in such a way that we walk away from them confident that we put them in their place so to speak. But in so doing, we may have diminished our opportunity to carry out the Great Commission with this person at a later date," Davis said.
Arizona pastor Chad Garrison leads a church with politically active members, including Sen. John McCain's challenger in the state's Republican U.S. Senate primary this fall. Still, Garrison has "reminded people that they represent Christ, and you can't do that if you're angry or accusing."
"No matter how [the election] turns out, we are still citizens of the Kingdom and we have a purpose that isn't connected to the election," Garrison, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., told BP.
"We're really on mission, leading people to a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ," Garrison said, "and that doesn't happen if your life is immersed in politics and that's dominating your conversation and your demeanor."
God is not merely sovereign in spite of election results, but sovereign over election results, Garrison said, noting the Lord uses national decline at times to humble people and cause them to cry out to Him.
"Just like anybody else, I'll be kind of bummed if my candidate doesn't win," Garrison said. "But our hope and our future is in the mission of Christ and the purpose of Christ."
Believers might have an incorrect perspective on the election, Garrison said, if they "are getting angry at people for political views" or writing "angry and accusative" social media posts.
"We can't represent Jesus," he said, "unless we reflect His character."
David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP (bpnews.net) reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.