In recent months, during the run-up to war, as Americans clashed with Iraqi forces and now as they try to restore order to the country, I've been shepherding a more divided congregation than usual. Some of my parishioners say that our troops are performing the godly work of liberation, using their weapons to free the oppressed. Others argue that Jesus would take a stand against the war and armed occupation, since he opposed the use of violence. I can find ample theological support for either view, although I have tended to oppose the intervention and to urge restraint.

Have I joined clerical colleagues in protests against the war, then? No. Because I respect various religious views on this issue, I don't see one clear Christian course to take. It seems to me that you have to eliminate the gray areas and see an issue in black and white before you take to the streets.

But I still preach -- and I'm in a powerful position, standing before a full house on this Easter morning, armed with conviction and the Scriptures of my choosing. It's a forum that many a politician would love. Yet, while I've been calling for restraint and diplomacy, I see danger in using theology to justify personal political convictions, and so have resisted the temptation to preach one-sided sermons that will confirm the views of some parishioners and infuriate others.

Not that we ministers are supposed to focus on pleasing our people. I have risked alienating some members with criticism of the war, reminding them, for example, that the Lord abhors our worship of the false gods of Western affluence, worldly power and high technology. I agree with Michael J. Easley, the senior pastor-teacher of Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, when he says, "I think my 'job' is to clearly teach the Scriptures, not be persuaded by what may or may not be our people's views." But that statement raises the question, "Which passage of Scripture?"

The Bible offers both the story of God's liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt and Jesus' command to turn the other cheek. I could build a pro- or anti-war case depending on whether I preach on a story of the Israelites destroying their enemies by the edge of the sword (Joshua 6:21) or on Jesus commanding his disciple to "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). I've come to realize that it is a mistake to use scriptural stories in such isolation. The genius of religious leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu is that their messages come not from individual passages but from basic biblical concepts, such as love of one's enemies, which they have used to transform the thinking of vast segments of society.

"There are three ways to use Scripture in preaching -- text, context and pretext," says Rabbi Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. All are legitimate, he argues, but "to be truly faithful and honest, the religious leader should own up to which process is at play. I find it helpful to acknowledge my prejudices before I begin pontificating," he tells me. He makes a point that I try to follow, but I can't pretend that I can entirely separate my political views from my interpretation of the Scriptures.

I'm aware that a political gap often exists between clergy and parishioners. I am more liberal than my parishioners in many areas, such as in my desire for more diversity in the life of the church. Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, a national Christian marketing research company based in Phoenix, tells me that "it's no great secret that clergy in mainline churches tend to be more liberal theologically and politically than the people in their pews." Such a difference can be enlightening, as one of my church members, Thomas Larsen, a retired Air Force officer, discovered when he arrived several decades ago at Fairfax Presbyterian with a conservative point of view. "Our senior pastor, Henry Baumann, was very liberal," he recalls, even participating in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, but he "gave such excellent sermons that I always came away feeling that I had learned something, and that we had grown closer in our political/social/theological thinking."

Congregations often fracture, though, and lose their effectiveness as a force for good in the community, when clergy become radical or dogmatic. Liberal "extremism," says Bob Kaylor, my colleague at the Homiletics preaching journal and an associate pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Colorado Springs, "makes for a 'one note' preacher. Those who pick up a particular social issue and constantly bang away at it seem to alienate at least half the people they're addressing." At the other end of the spectrum, Kaylor says, are those "whose theology is so rigidly dogmatic that it smacks of legalism and exclusion."

Extremists of all persuasions are probably preaching to the choir, picking up on political trends rather than creating them. It seems that the influence of religion on lifestyle, worldview and politics is really very small, whether you are a liberal or a conservative. According to Sellers, although evangelical church theology calls for a conservative lifestyle, studies show that there is a surprising lack of lifestyle differences between born-again Christians and the general population. In fact, there is no difference at all in the divorce rate or in the likelihood of watching an R-rated movie or MTV. "Religion tends to be a mile wide and an inch deep," he concludes. The danger of religious extremists is that they are willing to pick one scriptural passage and use it not to challenge people, but to fire up those who are already prone to follow the preacher's line of thought.

Because preachers have used the Bible to support and justify all types of horrors and injustices -- slavery, anti-Semitism, the subordination of women, to name a few -- it is critically important that pastors and parishioners wrestle with Scripture together. This tragic history makes Michelle Fincher, a member of my church, both nervous and cautious about what she hears from the pulpit. "Regardless of how much I respect and admire the preacher," she tells me, "I am responsible for studying and asking questions -- of the government, of the church and of myself -- in order to develop an informed, prayerful opinion or decision on ethical issues."

If we clergy can create communities in which controversial issues are discussed openly and respectfully, then we'll stand a chance of identifying dangerous political positions or flawed scriptural interpretations and of influencing people more than we can -- or should -- with our Sunday morning monologues. Bruce Douglass, a faculty member at Georgetown University and an elder at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church in McLean, believes that in this time of shrill rhetoric, "it may well be that one of the most valuable services the churches can perform is simply to provide a setting where people with differing opinions can come together to exchange opinions in an atmosphere of mutual respect." Out of such dialogues, the church may decide to act -- as Henry Baumann and members of Fairfax Presbyterian did in the 1960s, when they felt inspired to step out and work for civil rights.

All of this sometimes makes me wonder how I should seek -- or hope -- to influence my congregation. I want to challenge people morally and spiritually, but I am aware that their outlooks are often deeply entrenched. I constantly check my own motivation: Have I questioned the invasion of Iraq because Jesus said "Put your sword back into its place," or have I used this passage to justify my own political opposition to a preemptive strike? That process of questioning has made me realize that while I would gladly join a demonstration of solidarity with Iraqi Christians -- a statement I believe to be religiously grounded -- I would feel deeply uneasy in a protest against administration policies.

If we fail to wrestle with these issues, personally and congregationally, then we can easily remain trapped in our preconceived notions. If, on the other hand, my members and I keep dialogue alive, then we will stand a chance of discovering an unconventional truth together. That truth may have political implications -- and could even send us off to the Mall protesting -- but it won't divide us as long as it remains grounded in the sacred texts we share.

Henry Brinton is the pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church and senior writer of the preaching journal "Homiletics."