Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but Christians are salt and light in their society, protecting it from the rot of sin.
This morning in church one of the members of my class asked me about my opinion on Christians being involved in politics. There has been a great deal of press, largely negative, on the issue of evangelicals opposing the legalization of same sex marriage, and this brother was unsure about what the Bible teaches about the issue. While I do not pretend to speak Ex Cathedra, this issue is important enough to examine what Scripture teaches, especially in light of our current circumstances in the United States.
First we must define terms. I will not theologically define the word “Christians” because the Old Testament testimony is important for this discussion and there were no Christians during those times; simply followers of Jehovah, the God of the Bible. For our purposes, a Christian is anyone who deems himself or herself a Christian. We must now define “politics.” According to Merriam Webster online, politics is “the art or science of 1) government, 2) guiding or influencing government policy, 3) winning and holding control over a government.”
Followers of Jehovah have been involved in the issues of their day since the beginning. Abraham led an army to defeat Mesopotamian coalition forces in Canaan (Genesis 14:1-16). Joseph served as a high ranking official in Egypt, probably under one of the Hyksos pharaohs (Genesis 41:38-49). Moses was a political and a religious leader, and the line of kings from Saul to Zedekiah obviously served political purposes. Even after the Babylonian exile, Daniel (Daniel 6:3), Mordecai (Esther 8:1-7), and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:1) served as high officials in the Persian Empire. It is important to note, however, that the people of God were a single nation, Israel. Although people from other nations served the Lord (Rahab – Joshua 2, Naaman – 2 Kings 5:1-19, and others) and Abraham was to bless all the world through his heirs (Genesis 12:1-3), the covenant promises came through the children of Abraham. God commands His people to “seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan and plead for the widow”, activities with significant political components (Isaiah 1:16-18).
The situation is less clear in the New Testament. Due to the work of Christ for all mankind, not just Israel, the people of God included individuals from every race and tongue (Acts 2, 8, 10). The covenant promises were no longer transmitted only through one nation, but now through one man, Jesus, for every nation. Therefore, political action as described in the Bible changed. We no longer see physical armies fighting the enemies of the Lord or the proclamations of kings over a political Christendom. Rather we see individuals making up the Body of Christ engaging in spiritual warfare (John 18:36, Ephesians 6:12) and resisting political authority only when it directly contradicted the commands of God (Acts 5:29). In fact, Paul teaches Christians to submit to government (Romans 13:1-7), and he probably wrote this in the mid 50s AD, during the tyrannical reign of Nero (54-68 AD).
Nowhere in the New Testament, however, do we find a passage that commands Christians to stay out of government. Jesus neither told the Roman centurion to leave military service (Matthew 8:5-13) nor condemned Pilate for his work as a governor. Paul used his political status as a Roman citizen to aid with his ministry (Acts 16:36-40). He also ministered to people in Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22). Philip never condemned the Ethiopian for his political service (Acts 8:25-40), nor did Paul when standing before the rulers Felix, Festus, and Agrippa (Acts 24-26). Clearly there is nowhere in the New Testament where believers are prohibited from engaging in political activity. The church engaged in social welfare activities (such as the care of the widows in Acts 6), and no knowledgeable person can honestly deny that social programs have strong political influence. In the New Testament, nevertheless, it is clear that making disciples, not political activities, was the priority for the early church.
Another important factor in this discussion is the type of government under which followers of God have lived. Old Testament believers lived under autocratic regimes; whether their own or that of Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, or Persia. During the Intertestamental period (roughly 400 BC to 4 BC), the Jewish people were still subject to dictatorships, but this time from Greece and Rome. In such circumstances, political activism as we know it today did not exist. If someone wanted to change a government, their options were invasion, revolution, assassination, or other types of intrigue. Voting and peaceful transitions of power were rare.
Christians today find themselves in vastly different circumstances. Too often we forget that the American government is “of the people, by the people and for the people.” If we as American citizens have a government that is ineffective, out of touch or even evil, it is our own fault, because we are the government. People get the government that they ask for. Lazy, foolish and selfish people want someone else to take care of them and that is what they get, a tyrant. Industrious, wise, and selfless people want both freedom and responsibility; they are able to govern themselves. If we are the government, its character is a direct reflection of our own.
We have seen that the Bible never forbids political activity and in some cases encourages it. The very notion of government of the people, by the people and for the people eliminates the possibility of some people being excluded from politics. To the question “should Christians be involved in politics” the American answer has to be “of course, because every American is a member of his own government; that is how freedom works.” James Madison wrote in The Federalist #51 “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” It is plain to all but the most vapid that men are not angels and angels do not govern men. Therefore, government of the people, by the people and for the people is the best government available to man today. Christians must be involved.
What the Bible does forbid, however, is Christians putting their hope in this world. This should be obvious because everyone leaves this world in death, so how can anyone place their hope here? Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36)” and also said “…they are not of this world, even as I am not of this world (John 17:14).” Genuine followers of Christ throughout the ages have stored up treasures in heaven and not on earth (Matthew 6:20). No amount of success in the world, neither financial nor political nor any other, should be the hope of Christians, for gaining all the world is no profit to one who loses his soul (Mark 8:36). No political leader or governing coalition will bring peace and justice to a society, much less to the whole world. History has amply demonstrated that the more power you give political leaders, the more they will oppress you (1 Samuel 8:10-19). Even such godly men as David failed.
What shall we do? Believers in Jesus Christ must place their hope in Christ. We must give glory to God and serve Him in whatever capacity He has called us. We must “render unto to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s (Mark 12:17).” This suggests that we must be engaged in supporting and governing our country, but more importantly engaged in making disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20). If we seek first the kingdom of God, and seek second the kingdom of man, all of our needs will be given to us. We will be living in right relationship with our Lord and our neighbors.