Some time ago I mentioned to a Pastor friend of mine, that, I didn’t think God wanted His people to be involved in politics. Our focus should be heavenward and politics only creates the kind of strife that dumbs down our passion for God. Real followers of Jesus shouldn’t get involved in such worldly things … I thought. However today my beliefs are a little different, and I think it’s important to take a second and more serious look at the nature of Christian faith and how believers should feel about political action.
There is no doubt that those who wish obey Jesus Christ and fulfill His great Gospel commands are to seek His Kingdom first, even before their own personal desires (Matt. 6:33) but I’m not so sure that trying to seek God’s will for our lives, and the lives of those around us, means neatly severing ourselves from all things political. What if God actually cares about our nations and wants us to be intimately involved with the course our governments take? If God cares about the little things, the seemingly minor details of our lives that we invite His presence into, why would He dismiss the major details that affect us all?
Contrary to what many of us think or believe, the Bible does actually talk about politics. And while this isn’t the right space to provide a thorough exposition, a few important details are worth mentioning. Even though in ancient Israel, God wanted the Israelites to look to Him for governance and not any human ruler, something which the Israelites failed to consider, God provided the people with their first King—one Saul from the Tribe of Benjamin, After Saul we see a checkered history of good and bad kings intermittently rising, the latter bringing prosperity while the former repeatedly led the people astray. Hezekiah’s righteousness provoked God’s protection over the people while Ahab’s actions released a three year drought. The contrast between the prosperity and distress of Israel in relation to the righteousness of Her Kings is proof enough of how government affects a nation, but later on we even see how God anoints particular, unexpected, rulers for His own sovereign purposes.
Writing in the 8th century B.C., Isaiah the prophet tells us that God will one day anoint a foreign leader who will liberate the Jewish captives:
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him … For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me … I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says the Lord Almighty” (Isa 45:1,4,13).
History tells us, both from within and outside of the Bible, that a Persian leader named Cyrus
did in fact come to power in the 539 B.C., and fulfilled these prophecies with startling accuracy. He released the Jewish people, provided sanctity and enabled them to rebuild Jerusalem. Critics have tried to argue that there must have been a second author that added these prophecies centuries later but there’s no evidence for such a claim and Bible scholars call this move a “backhanded compliment” to the brilliance of God.1
In the New Testament, when the fullness of God’s will is revealed to the world, there are more explicit references to the relationship between faith and politics. When the Lord Jesus Christ is asked about paying taxes, He responds by saying that we should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Matt. 22:21), indicating that His followers should respect earthly governments and not refrain from paying dues when necessary. Then, during His trial, He also tells the Roman Governor that His Kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36), displaying a higher, more authoritative form of government distinct from our earthly systems.
Also In the Epistles we see the Apostles give us the same honor/transcendence relationship between God and politics. Paul tells us that governement is a grace to humanity, “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good … They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (Rom. 13:4-5). Peter likewise tells us to “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor,” (1 Pet. 2:17). These passages are underlined in the strongest way when we find that both men lived under a hostile Pagan government that showed little regard to those of Christian faith, and eventually executed both apostles for their allegiance to Jesus over the emperor they were telling people to honor.
From these passages and others, a relationship between followers of Christ and the political realm seems to step into view. God’s Eternal, Heavenly Government demands our highest obedience above all else—even if death is the cost. Still, while we spend our brief time here on earth, our attitude should still be one of respect to those in power. This honor/transcendence dynamic is given even more light when we see how second and third century defenders of the faith interacted with the Emperors of their time (see the writings of Justin Martyr and Aristides).
But what does this mean for Christ followers today, and how should we respond to the ever increasing hostility believers find themselves facing in the public square? Each context demands it’s own particular response, and Ancient Israelites/Roman believers provided a basic model, but still today a slight confusion seems to pervade the Christian mind. Should we live like the Essenes of old, the mystics who wandered out into the desert and wanted nothing to do with the system? Should we separate ourselves into the psychological wilderness? Others perhaps may want to live like the Zealots, the violent rebels who used violence and insurrections to overthrow their Pagan occupiers. Were they on to something? But perhaps without all the bloodshed?
Hopefully the reader knows how both of these positions might not be suitable for followers of Jesus. God doesn’t call people to extinguish our lights in the midst of darkness but shine ever brighter, nor does He call us to use violence or plot against our rulers, but rather to pray and intercede for them in the midst of all wickedness. Nevertheless I believe that many of us implicitly adhere to a third position which is just as un-Biblical—the silent giant of passivity. In the midst of respecting those in power, God also calls His people to stand for what is just and right, and to do so unashamedly and without fear. Early apologists wrote very plainly and respectfully to their emperors about the consequences for neglecting to treat Christians with the same dignity as everyone else. No malice but lots of truth. For too long, believers in the West have taken for granted the freedoms we possess—liberties offered to us through legislation that was constructed on the basis of Judeo-Christian principles. But things have shifted more radically than ever and the feasibility of those freedoms is already losing ground. Perhaps we should stay away from extremes and just be unafraid to speak and use our voices, or are we too polite (ahem, scared) to do such a thing? There is nothing un-Christian about sharing your voice in public places, even if it invites the hatred of those who disagree. But there is a danger in being silent while other loud but ill informed voices win the room and start dictating what society should perceive as good or evil; and then begin enforcing that alien perspective through law. Because as followers of the Messiah, we have an inside track to the nature of those things, and muzzling our voices will do as much good as a doctor concealing the cure to a fatal disease. We may not possess our freedoms much longer, at least not in cases of religion, conscience or speech, but while those things are still guaranteed (at least in word) under our laws, a proper Christian civic ethic invites us to be as bold and active, and respectful and God fearing as possible. May God stir our hearts and grant us Wisdom. Amen.
1See Norman Geisler’s Big Book of Christian Apologetics, section on Bible Prophecy.