How Much Should The Church Be Involved in Politics?
I guess the whole premise behind writing a blog entitled “Seeking” is that I don’t claim to have all the answers. And here on the week of the national elections, political involvement is one topic where I’ve never sat down to clarify in my mind where we should stand. I have some broad ideas, but the details are where it gets tough. So while this could be dangerous, I’m going to use this week’s post to “think out loud” on this issue biblically, and try to draw some personal conclusions on the fly. So this will be fun. I hope. ;) For all I know, I could change my mind tonight, but here goes…
First of all, what’s the issue? As you probably know, there are all sorts of views on how engaged the church should be with the political world. I understand David Lipscomb believed that Christians should have nothing whatsoever to do with the “kingdoms of the world,” including not even voting. While most of us wouldn’t agree with that perspective, I know at Great Oaks we have some who believe we should be more involved in political discussions as a church body, and some who wish we would say even less about political and national issues than we do.
But here’s the question I’m asking myself: what if Jesus was the preacher at Great Oaks? Would he encourage more or less political involvement? Would He be telling us to write our senators or organizing petitions to send to our leaders on moral issues? Would His sermons include denouncing political leaders or judges for failing to honor God? Or would He think that we have bigger goals, focusing more on extending the gospel in the community? Would He focus on teaching the truth on moral issues to the people rather than trying to enforce them through law? Wow, tough questions.
So let me brainstorm biblically about God’s people and political involvement, and then try to draw some broad conclusions…
· Clearly it’s OK for God’s people to be involved in government and politics as individuals. Joseph, Nehemiah, and Daniel are 3 easy examples of faithful men who were high up in government positions. (And in nations that were not God-honoring nations: Egypt, Babylon, Persia.)
· Cornelius served as a centurion, a prominent leader in the Roman army (Acts 10:1).
· Mordecai and Esther give an example of God’s people asking for laws that would protect the people of God, who were being threatened (Esther 8-9). The Jews prayed for their success at every step.
· Nehemiah asking King Artaxerxes to give him the resources to build the Jerusalem walls show God’s people requesting and using the resources of the government to help fulfill God’s desires for His people (Neh. 1-2).
· The prophets often preach against rulers showing a lack of justice toward those who were poor or powerless (for example, Jer. 22:2-3, Ezek. 45:8). Zephaniah 3:3 denounces princes and judges who use their positions to indulge themselves and take from others.
· John the Baptist publicly denounced Herod, the Roman tetrarch over the regions of Galilee and Perea, for being in a marriage God did not approve of (Matt. 14:3-5). He was eventually killed for speaking out.
· Paul demanded his legal rights in defending himself from his accusers, pointing out his Roman citizenship to limit his punishment (Acts 16:35-39 and Acts 22:25-29) and also appealing to Caesar to be ensured a fair trial (Acts 25:9-12).
· Jesus shows us virtually no political involvement, outside of saying that we should honor the leaders and pay taxes (“give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” Matthew 22:21). This shows that it is possible to fulfill appropriate responsibilities to government without encroaching on the honor our lives should give to God.
· Surely Jesus’ teaching that we should “seek first” the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33), which kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36) factors in this discussion somewhere.
· But of course, we must not obey government if it conflicts with the word of God. (Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” Peter said this after the ruling body of the Jews demanded that they stop preaching Jesus.)
· Perhaps it is significant that Jesus was not born into a noble family where He would be an earthly king, which God certainly could have chosen if He thought that was the best way to change the world. And Jesus avoided letting men make Him a king when they tried to (John 6:15).
· Romans 13:1-9 presents God’s vision for what He wants governments to be: authorities that have the power to punish evil and uphold good, serving as a “minister of God” in that role.
· 1 Peter 2:13-17 teaches, among other things, that we should submit to governing authority and show the world by our lives the ignorance of those who accuse Christians of wrongdoing.
· 1 Timothy 2:1-4 says Christians should pray– including prayers of thanksgiving – for “kings and all who are in authority,” so Christians can have the freedom to live godly lives and help other people come to know God and be saved.
Well, that’s a lot of information to lay on the table and try to pull together some conclusions! Many good people have honest disagreements over the limits of each of these thoughts, but here’s some broad-brush thoughts I get out of these biblical examples…
1) First, the easy stuff: we should pray for our leaders, give them appropriate honor, but remember that we have a higher kingdom that we are part of (Phil. 3:20). Our highest loyalty must always be to God.
2) Another one that seems pretty easy to affirm: it’s definitely OK for individuals to be politically involved, as many of God’s people have done before. If you want to campaign and vote and lobby politicians, go for it. But if you want to pursue political stuff, make sure that doesn’t distract you from pursuing more important things like your personal growth in faith, teaching others the gospel, Christian service, etc.
3) Since the kingdom of God is my higher calling, I sure don’t need to confuse being a “good Christian” with being a “good American.” In worship especially, we need to make sure that our prayers, songs, and thoughts are directed to God’s goals and not just the goals of our country. A July 4th “Let’s go, America, be a great country!” doesn’t seem like an appropriate worship theme (depending on your definition of "great"). But a July 4th emphasis on praying that God would bless us and help us be a nation of people who pursue Him and do good for Him is certainly an appropriate theme. Does that distinction make sense?
4) A little more challenging: as a preacher, perhaps I shouldn’t ignore pointing out political injustice and moral deficiency in leaders and judges, as the prophets and John the Baptist did. God certainly shows His displeasure with those things, butI might be tempted to ignore them, lest someone think I’m meddling in politics. Sometimes our country has done and will do things that are wrong in God’s sight. I don’t need to ignore those missteps for fear of seeming unpatriotic. God’s people need to see that God’s judgment is the most important measure, and that earthly powers are still subject to Him. (This could include criticizing things like allowing abortion, but could also include criticizing using military force inappropriately or having policies that hurt the poor.)
5) The main goal of prayer and government petition by people in the Bible is requesting government to allow God’s people to do what God wants them to do: return to the Jewish homeland and rebuild in the Old Testament, prayer for peace to practice faith and teach others in the New Testament. It was God’s people asking for permission to live out their faith. (For example, if our freedom of religion or speech were ever hindered, God’s people would certainly have a biblical mandate to pursue political change, asking the authorities to allow us to keep living according to our faith.)
6) But God does expect the governing authorities to uphold right and punish evil (Rom 13, 1 Pet 2), so it seems appropriate to want our government's laws to line up with God's laws as closely as possible. But it seems that we would want the enforcement of the laws to not be oppressive in taking away the freedom to choose that God has given all men. (We sure don't want a Christian version of Muslim Shariah law, where those who step out of line can be killed for it.)
7) And perhaps the toughest lines to draw: While individuals were involved in politics, we do not see God’s people as a body making political change a major goal, right? This is where it gets the toughest. If I understand it correctly, the body prays for those who pursue political goals (such as Esther and Mordecai), but the church as a body has higher goals such as the Great Commission and teaching the truth. In following Jesus’ footsteps, it seems wise for churches to make sure our “higher goals” are not distracted by political goals. We must as a body be known for the gospel more than be known for our political involvement. This is one way the “Religious Right” movement has probably made our culture less open to the gospel, because political disagreements have become the culture’s first impression of those who claim to be Christians. All things being equal, it seems to me the church’s major efforts for change should come from teaching the truth, praying, and personally acting, rather than enforcing or publicly making the church’s mission a political agenda. Is that a fair way to put it?
(I realize that honest Christian men and women have different thoughts on this point in particular, and I respect their thoughts. Perhaps I should say it is “unwise” for a church to make political activism a goal, though perhaps I can't say it is “wrong” to do so. It just seems to shift the church’s focus off of what is most important, changing who we are and who people see us to be. Maybe it’s just a matter of keeping first things first.)
Churches in America have the challenge of (1) standing up for God in a culture where the people in theory make their own laws (which encourages us to speak out to culture on God’s truth and perhaps be involved ourselves) and (2) making sure our culture sees us for who God wants us to be: a Christ-shaped community of redeemed believers calling other sinners to salvation, not a group who pursues political power over others. Holding those 2 principles in balance is our biggest challenge in determining whether our political involvement is too much or too little.
Oh well, I don’t know how much progress I made in my own thoughts. Some of these lines are tough to draw. Keeping first things first is the biggest thing I’m reminded of, and hopefully my off the cuff thoughts didn’t overstate or understate too much around that core idea. Keep thinking and praying about it for yourself, and I’ll do the same…