The Johnson Amendment and the Christian Voice in the Public Square

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
-Isaiah 10:1-2

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the role of the church in the public square, particularly with respect to the Johnson Amendment, a piece of legislation that prohibits churches (as 501(c)3 organizations) from publicly endorsing or specifically campaigning against candidates for public office.

A recent executive order instructed the IRS to overlook the Johnson Amendment when reviewing the 501(c)3 status of non-profit organizations—in effect saying that churches and pastors should feel free to endorse political candidates without fear of IRS reprisal—and many American Christians cheered.

I wasn’t one of them. During last year’s presidential election, I wrote that I objected to pastors publicly endorsing political candidates and gave my reasons why.

But a larger question remains: What is the appropriate way for churches and religious leaders to engage the political process? What’s the mission of the church when it comes to engaging and influencing government and public policy?

My answer: We are to be prophetic witnesses to what a world governed by Kingdom principles looks like.

The prophetic mission of the church is to call the world to a new and higher standard of justice—a standard not of fairness, but of generosity.

The prophetic mission of God’s people extends back thousands of years. Isaiah's challenge to lawmakers (see above) is 2700 years old. It has been the mission of God’s people to sound the call to justice at least since then.

2000 years ago, Jesus sounded the call, too, in Matthew chapter 5:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus teaches that we live in a world that celebrates an ethic of fairness—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, love for love, and hate for hate.

But Jesus clearly states that the prevailing ethic of fairness, while it might be sufficient for tax collectors and pagans, is insufficient for Christians.

Christians are called not to uphold standards of fairness, but to be prophetic examples of what a new standard of justice might look like—a standard of generosity that offers more than is expected, more than is reciprocal, and more, even, than is fair.  

Jesus is saying, “You have heard it said of old, be fair. But I say, be generous.”

As the church engages the issues that dominate today’s public square—issues like health care, taxes, civil rights, education, poverty, and immigration—we must consciously be aware that the Christian standard of justice isn’t fairness, it’s generosity.

We have to stop asking, “What’s the fairest thing we could do in this situation?” 

The question the Christian must ask instead is, "What’s the most generous thing we could do in this situation"?

And, as Isaiah reminds us: What’s the most generous policy we could advocate for on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the widow and the fatherless--categories of people in whom and toward whom the God of scripture consistently exhibits an interest and a bias.

  • What’s the most generous policy we could support with respect to the poor and health care?
  • What’s the most generous thing we could do to alleviate poverty among the oppressed in our society?
  • What’s the most generous way to structure the tax code so that it supports widows and single mothers?
  • What’s the most generous proposal we could imagine to improve education systems and outcomes for the most vulnerable children in our communities?

That’s what the Bible teaches about how the Christian should engage the world for Christ. We need not be guided in our public witness by the Johnson Amendment or a presidential executive order. We need not fret over whether to endorse this candidate for office or oppose that one.

Instead, we should speak the words of Isaiah boldly. We should advocate on behalf of those Isaiah spoke up for often. And we should speak with prophetic clarity as Jesus did, bravely articulating a new standard of justice—one guided not by fairness, but by generosity.

If we really want to influence the political landscape and be heard in the public square, we should be endorsing Christ and Christian standards of justice to our politicians--not endorsing polticians to our Christians.

"Woe to those who make unjust laws. Who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless."

See you Sunday.