The Christian and His Relationship to Politics12 min read
In our North American Evangelical culture today the Christian and his relationship to the political world is hotly debated. Democratic principles have allowed people to actually have a say – or think they have a say – in how their country is run, and since many believers have been raised in this atmosphere a seemingly inevitable compromise with Scripture has taken place. Now we identify ourselves as politically conservative or politically liberal, rather than saying “I am a Christian with principles totally different from even the most conservative of this world.” And since real conservatives are diametrically opposed to real liberals, often believers, if their opposing party is elected, will ridicule and reprimand that government rather than respectfully submit to the authority as Scripture emphatically and repeatedly demands. So then, especially in political seasons, we as believers should be asking ourselves “What is my relationship to the political scene?” Scripture speaks much on the issue, meaning it shouldn’t be very difficult to come to a conclusion.
The Biblical Model of Government in the New Testament
Romans 13 is definitely one of the clearest passages on what God ordained government to be and what my response to it must be. Written mid to late 50s, this was during the reign of Nero, who was a tyrant if ever there was one. It must have come as a shock, then, to the citizens of Rome when in the very city of Nero they are told “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Nero ordained by God? Absolutely! This meant that should the Christians resist their political authorities, even Nero, in civil matters, they were resisting God. Why? Because whenever authority is disobeyed or reprimanded, this represents an attack to the concept of authority in general, which ultimately reflects our concept of God’s authority. When government is resisted in civil matters, God is resisted. When government is railed against, God is railed against. That is how serious this subject is in Scripture. It is no wonder, then, that Scripture places rebellion against government on the same level as those who live promiscuous lives, whether heterosexually (2 Pet. 2:10) or homosexually (Jude 8). Notice Peter’s words “The Lord knows… how to reserve the unrighteous unto the day of judgment, but chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government. Presumptuous are they, selfwilled; they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities.” Bold words! God has ordained government officials to be his public ministers to execute judgment on evil and uphold the standard of justice. Do governments do this perfectly? Obviously not even close. Even so, their office doesn’t change because they don’t adequately fulfill their duties. Thus we respect the office even if the person in the office is plainly immoral.
How does a Christian respond to this? Are we naive when it comes to obvious faults and agendas in the government? No, because Proverbs 29:2 indicates that it is an appropriate response to mourn when the ungodly are in power, implying we both recognize their ungodliness and grieve over what that means. What do we do with that grief? The book of 2 Opinions says we should hold political rallies and protests. Of course, we know that is an uninspired book which traditionalists keep trying to introduce into the canon, when it just doesn’t belong. Scripture, on the other hand gives at least three responses of the Christian when it comes to government. The first is prayer. First Timothy 2 says “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” Is it really “first of all” in our minds? The second response is consistent Christianity. Titus 3:1 says “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work.” Here we have believers who are happy to do good wherever possible. They are happy to submit, because they know faithful and active Christian living doesn’t depend upon the government that is in power. The final response is to give unto the government what is its due: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.” Is this what our Christianity looks like today? Many would say “Yes, we have these commands in Scripture, but Paul never foresaw a democratic system in which we could vote and have our voice heard.” Perhaps Paul didn’t foresee it, but God certainly did. Yet He gave the entirety of our duty to government in Scripture, and it didn’t include political involvement. Scripture applies at all times, and if these Scriptures applied in the first century, they apply equally today. Will we attack the sufficiency and inspiration of Scripture by implying that it is incomplete in its prescription?
The Danger of Political Activism in the Believer’s Life
Having been faced with what God ordained government to be and what God ordained us to be in view of the government, we need to ask if the political activism that marks much of evangelical Christianity today is really Biblical.
The first question is, should a believer take part in a governmental role? Biblically, there isn’t any room for it. Many Christians will say, “Ah, but wasn’t Daniel as well as David and Solomon in government and yet commended by God?” There are two problems with this objection: (1) It puts no distinction between Israel and the Church. One has earthly promises and dealings, the other has heavenly promises and dealings. (2) The principle behind it leads to the same excuse the Catholic Church had for the Crusades. If Israel murdered Canaanites in their conquest, why can’t we participate in Christian “Holy War”? Using visible, flesh-based means to accomplish God’s work is not for this dispensation. Furthermore, even if the Christian did become a government official, what part of culture could he change that the gospel couldn’t? Sanctification cannot be legislated. It comes from a complete change of heart by means of the gospel. “God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross.” That is the cry of the Christian, and it applies in every area of life. Also, God has just as much sovereignty over unsaved rulers as He does saved rulers. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord. Like rivers of water, He turns it wherever He wishes.” Why would believers envy a position that a perishing soul can do just as well? We have a gospel that can’t be preached by just anybody. It is exclusively entrusted to us: what a privilege! Lastly, on a practical note, the Christian will be corrupted by involving himself in government, especially as he climbs higher in it. This would be due to both peer pressure and catering to society’s wants. In a democratic system, society chooses whom it will, and if a Christian appeals to society as it exists today, that Christian should be in great fear. Christ said the world will hate us, and if it can relate to us we have a tremendous problem! (Jn. 5:19 / 1 Jn. 4:5). Further, how will that affect assembly life? Will that believer really be able to attend all the meetings? Will he be able to invest more time into it than he does into vainly trying to fix society around him? There are far too many dangers for the Christian in the political scene, and the benefits that do exist there are, again, benefits that an unsaved person can have just as much. A verse from 2 Timothy should settle the issue for us: “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.”
But what about political activism apart from being part of government? Should believers protest? Should believers hold rallies? Should believers vote? There are several Biblical principles that apply.
- For Christians to lower themselves to depending on the rule of men for their whole livelihood, one could relate it to when Israel forsook Theocracy for a Monarchy (See 1 Sam. 8). What was their problem? They wanted to be like other nations: they forgot they were a different order of people as the nation of Israel. We don’t rely on men’s politics for our duties to God; we too are a different order of people. “The nations” should not allure us in their systems.
- When the believers in Acts 12 were faced with the death of James and the possible death of Peter, what did they do? They prayed throughout the night. They were both submissive to the government, yet active before the Throne of Grace. Do we really have such a low view of prayer that we think time spent at rallies and protests will be more effective than spending that same time before the Ruler of all?
- Politics in North American culture sets people at variance; do we really want to welcome the potential for division by becoming political in focus? What if another believer is on the opposite party (which does happen)? Would we oppose them throughout the week in our activism and try to unite with them in the gospel on Sunday? That is simply unbiblical. We are members one of another every day of the week, and if we can’t do something together, let’s not do it at all.
- We aren’t called to change culture. If believers today lived in the first century, rather than saying “Slaves, be subject unto your masters” as Scripture says, we would find them saying “Slaves, participate in the liberation protests whenever you can.” But that wasn’t their business. Their business was to represent Christ and spread His gospel to change hearts, not culture.
- “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)” (2 Cor. 10:3). This should be enough for us to realize that political activism of any kind is really trying to win a spiritual battle by flesh-based means. Only spiritual means are “mighty through God.” We are pursuing vain efforts if we think that what the world can do just as easily will win battles that even believers struggle to win.
- Political activity usually means some sort of rivalry against the present government. It is sin to be known for this.
- Regarding voting, if it is mandatory in a country the believer should obey that obligation. Otherwise, we should apply 2 Corinthians 10:3, realizing it is far better to stay within Biblical boundaries in fighting spiritual battles than creating “weapons” that don’t exist in God’s eyes. Of course, because of what Romans 14 teaches regarding Christian liberty, if a Christian’s conscience demands he vote out of civil duty, and he does so to the glory of God, one really cannot say anything against that except to pray that doesn’t turn into a political mentality. Other than that, it is between the Christian, his conscience, and his God. It would be preferable, though, that the Christian not associate with political parties, which usually happens when voting is pursued.
- Both kinds of political activism that can exist with Christians are unbiblical. The first is fully Christian activism (only with the Christian community), but this takes away from our pilgrim mentality that is so praised in Hebrews 11. The Christian community has one goal: glorify God by upholding His gospel. Activism is beyond our “job description.” The second is Christian activism that is based on differing parties; thus the Christian would be active with fellow party-members, whether they are saved or not. But can the believer really justify joining in hand-in-hand with the world (no matter how conservative they are) to advance purposes based on the wisdom of men? What part do we have in trying to advance a cause that the world can just as easily advance? Is that not a slight on the gospel? Again, it is not our place to get entangled in the affairs of this world.
In conclusion, let us rejoice that we can confide in a God who is sovereign over all, Whose ultimate purpose in the end is to dissolve all rule under Him that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24). Let’s rejoice that our citizenship is in heaven, that we are a people of faith, resting in the unseen. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” (Heb. 11:13). Do we rejoice in what God rejoices in? Or do we need more? Do we look to cultural norms of patriotism for our direction, or do we look to Scripture? It’s a serious question. Most arguments for Christian activism come from assumptions based on what we are used to in a democracy, not from theology. So then, from what we have looked at, are we not to care about the political scene at all? Are we to be hermits and ascetics that smugly withdraw from society? Not in the least. It is absolutely Biblical to help the poor, take in orphans, and such things (always with the gospel in mind, not societal reforms); but these are meant for assembly context, not political contexts (See Acts 6:1-4). The government can only do that as a nice gesture. We can do it because we love the gospel. We should definitely be involved in our communities and city functions, but for the sake of testimony and not political agenda. We have to examine our motives, and if our motivations are really for the gospel then why are we not happy to spread God’s gospel in God’s way? So then, where will we find our identity, in a political party or in Christ? How will we fight our battles, in the flesh or in the Spirit? What confession will we make, that we are pilgrims or investing in this world?