Political Engagement: Responsibility, Government & God
- 2006 10 Nov
Evangelical political engagement is a topic of concern and discussion among many Christians. As the believer's raison d'etre is the advancement of the gospel for the joy of the nations and the glory of God, that reality is accomplished in obedience to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1:28). Charles Spurgeon understood that twin directive and preached Christ and the application of His will as it had bearing on the politics of his day and often swayed elections at the local and national levels. Many evangelical pastors of a bygone era did the same without compromising or neglecting the gospel of Christ. Hence, it seems appropriate to offer a few observations along those lines.
First, the government must be engaged by the believer. We live between two worlds as Augustine termed them: the city of God and the city of man. We are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's (Matthew 22:21) but our ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and that citizenship is prioritized over our earthly citizenship. After all, we are strangers in this world (1 Peter 1:1) and therefore our ultimate allegiance is to Christ. But, our citizenship here demands a certain measure of political involvement when given opportunity. For example, in the aftermath of King Solomon's death, "Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had gone to Shechem to make him king (1 Kings 12:1)." The people were involved, even if only in a small way, in making Rehoboam king.
The extent of any individual's involvement in the political arena is grounded in calling and giftedness just as the extent of one's involvement in missions, prison ministry, or a myriad of other spheres is so determined. At the same time, just as all believers are to engage in evangelism, all believers are to be involved in the political process in some way.
Of course, our influence as Christians is in the realm of ideas and not exerted by force or coercion. Freedom of conscience, religion, and speech, among other freedoms, are unalienable rights and gifts from the Lord God Himself. Christianity cannot be coerced, mandated, or legislated and our goal, as in any endeavor, is the salvation of souls. The government cannot accomplish that. Only God can.
Now, freedom entails responsibility and the understanding that we are bound by God's will, ways, and sovereignty. Thus, while Christianity cannot be legislated, political engagement is part of the cultural mandate which is inextricably intertwined with the Great Commission. We must not coerce but we must influence.
Recently David Kuo, a former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, published his book, Tempting Faith, the result, in part, of his disillusionment over administration staffers calling evangelicals "nuts" and "goofy." He urges the religious right to take a two-year fast from politics.
While much of what Kuo says should be heard and heeded, regarding the fast, Chuck Colson has a more biblical proposal. He notes, "Kuo is right about one thing: Christians involved in politics must maintain their independence; without that, we play into the hands of those -- Republicans and Democrats -- who would use us. Both parties are doing and saying things to attract so-called values voters. But Kuo is dead wrong to suggest that that Christians ought to enter into a time of 'fasting' from politics... Christians need to influence politics for justice and righteousness. But we must do so with eyes open, aware of the snares... Today Christians may find themselves suspect -- I have experienced this myself -- to the very people on whose side they are fighting. But that is the price they must pay to preserve their independence and not be beholden to any political ideological alignment... Only by continuing to fight for our beliefs, regardless of the temptations, compromises, or being called 'nuts,' can we achieve the kind of moral reform and protection of human rights that Christians throughout the centuries and in every culture work for." The point is that the government must be engaged by the believer.
Second, the government has great opportunity to do right. Government officials don't live in a vacuum. Some have access to special revelation and grace while others have access to general revelation and common grace. By virtue of providence and such revelation and grace, they are given opportunity to do right by the people. When Rehoboam was made King, "...Jeroboam and the whole assembly of Israel came and spoke to Rehoboam, saying, 'Your father made our yoke heavy; now therefore, lighten the burdensome service of your father, and his heavy yoke which he put on us, and we will serve you (2-5).'" Just as Rehoboam was informed of a problem and given the opportunity to do right, so to are our governmental leaders.
The sad reality is that Rehoboam later made some egregious errors with regard to the people. And yet, most of the time, individuals don't make regime or nation ending decisions at one time. They spiral downward over time in the face of great opportunity to do right. The erosion of freedom may be swift by way of invasion from a foreign power but most often that erosion is a slow process that occurs over time from within as the state arrogates more power to itself. (More on that sad reality below).
Third, the government chooses between good and bad advice. Note the advice given to Rehoboam. He "...consulted the elders who stood before his father Solomon while he still lived, and he said, 'How do you advise me to answer these people?' And they spoke to him, saying, 'If you will be a servant to these people today, and serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be your servants forever.' But he rejected the advice which the elders had given him, and consulted the young men who had grown up with him, who stood before him... Then the young men...[said], "Thus you should speak to this people... 'My little finger shall be thicker than my father's waist! And now, whereas my father put a heavy yoke on you, I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with stinging whips (6-11)!'"
Good advice, biblical advice, has to do with servant leadership. Good government is limited and protects the citizenry from predators. Bad government, unbiblical government, is oppressive and destructive of liberty. Rehoboam received bad advice from his boy-hood friends. It should not escape our notice that the Hebrew word used to describe them as "young" was derisive in context and was meant to describe them as children. His sycophantic friends were mere children in regard to their understanding and gave him corresponding counsel.
Christians must conduct themselves in principled ways. Those who find themselves in leadership must serve and those who are not in leadership must give biblical advice to those who are. Even as advice was given to Rehoboam, so too must Christians be at the table giving biblical advice to those in the public square. That advice may be given by way of seeking office, writing letters, or speaking to issues in different ways and contexts. At the very least, Christians can vote. That vote must be grounded in biblical principle and thus, even if the vote is cast for a losing cause (as the elders advice was rejected by Rehoboam), believers will have stood before God and man and declared "this is the way, walk ye in it." That dynamic is something to be considered when voting for the "lesser of two evils" vs. voting for a principled amendment or candidate even in the face of certain loss. Will we as Christians be "elders" or "children" as we advise with our votes?
At the same time, other contexts provide opportunity for biblical, political advice and instruction. J. Michael Johnson, Chief Counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, was a recent guest on our radio broadcast. He talked about the erosion of our rights, the erosion of our religious freedom, and a variety of related court cases. He noted that homeschooling could eventually be outlawed in this country and that Christian schools are being forced to hire homosexual teachers. He cited the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision that stated parents have no compelling interest or say in the sexual content of their children's curriculum. These developments may be surprising to many and Johnson admonishes us to be informed. The truth is that if we are informed, our conversations in the coffee shops and around the water coolers will be informed and others will be influenced as we bring a biblical worldview to the issues of our day. Remember, the pen is mightier than the sword.
Fourth, the government is often unwise and chooses wrongly. After receiving conflicting advice, Rehoboam took the advice of the young men and said to the people "...My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with stinging whips (12-14)!" Both history and the Scriptures teach us that the state moves toward oppression. In Romans 13, we are told to submit to the evil Roman state. One of the beasts of Revelation is evil government. When Paul told Timothy to pray for government officials he was not only concerned for their salvation but he was concerned that Christians be enabled to live quiet and peaceable lives (1 Timothy 2:2). He knew all to well that the state does not promote God's righteousness but a righteousness of its own which is more often than not opposed to Christ and His church (Romans 13). The state militates against our leading peaceable lives and thus we pray for said peace and freedom.
We should not be surprised when the state oppresses even as Rehoboam oppressed the people like his father Solomon (despite the fact that he actually loved God). By way of example, the question of whether or not a church has the right to publicly discipline one of its members over an extra-marital affair and its consideration by the Texas Supreme Court is shocking in light of our brief heritage of religious freedom in America. But, it should not be shocking in light of history and Scripture.
Fifth, the government, wise or unwise, is God ordained. Rehoboam was oppressive. But God raised him up for a purpose: "So the king did not listen to the people; for the turn of events was from the LORD, that He might fulfill His word, which the LORD had spoken by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat (15)." That's why we submit. God ordains all governments that come to pass (Romans 13). And that's why we must not be discouraged when things don't go our way.
Christians must learn that the state is not the answer to our problems or the problems that plague our culture. The state cannot save us; only God can do that. Knowing that the Lord raises up kings and removes those same kings as He pleases should be a source of great comfort for us. We are told that "the king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes (Prov. 21:1)."
So, whether it's election season or any other season, be involved in the political process of the nation. Pray, persuade with the word, vote, and influence. But above all, regardless of what happens in the political arena, trust in the Lord; He is sovereign in the affairs of men.