In a recent online interview, Bruce Ashford raises an important point concerning the way Christians discuss politics—we tend to run directly to particular issues. What should a Christian think about abortion? Same-sex marriage? Race relations? Immigration? Economic disparities? National security? These are important questions but, before rushing to answer them, we should consider larger questions. What is a Christian’s responsibility to civil society? In what ways and to what degree should a Christian be involved in the political sphere? Ashford’s book, One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics, offers more than I will here, but I hope to provide a brief biblical framework.
In some respects, seeking strictly biblical answers to these larger questions is difficult, mainly because we find ourselves neither in the political position of Old Testament Israel nor the New Testament Church. The system of government in Old Testament Israel is sometimes called a “theocracy,” but maybe “theocratic republic” would be better. It was ruled by God along the terms of a specific covenant, but mediated by officials—the prophet, the priest, and the king. The United States has no such covenant with God.
The early church was born in the days of a dictatorial empire, wherein the Roman Caesar served as something of an “extraordinary magistrate”—so extraordinary that the empire eventually came to worship him. Perhaps, though, the culture around Palestine in the days of Jesus provides some insight, and a good starting point. Political engagement was, after all, the hot button of Jesus’ day. How were the Jewish people, who believed that the land was theirs as a divine inheritance, supposed to cope with the realities of Roman occupation?
The power brokers often tried to trap Jesus with this tension. The synoptic gospels relay an incident in which the Pharisees (religious zealots) actually teamed up with the Herodians (Roman loyalists) to ask Jesus a not-so-innocent question concerning whether or not Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. A simple “yes” would have given the Pharisees grounds to accuse him, and a simple “no” would have given the Herodians grounds to charge him. Jesus didn’t take the bait. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he said, “and to God the things that are God’s.” No one expected this answer, but its implications were clear. In some sense, the Jews needed to come to terms with their state of affairs, and the Romans needed to know that Jews would not give up their ultimate loyalty.
Later, when Jesus was arrested, John’s Gospel tells us he was questioned about his role. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked. Twice Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He’s a King, but his rule does not come in normal ways—it does not happen through the power structures of the world’s order.
So, I think our first principle for civic responsibility is that of Critical Distance. A Christian’s primary commitment is to Jesus and the announcement of the good news—the gospel—that the crucified & risen Messiah is reigning and redeeming and will reconcile all things to the Father. But this reign comes subversively—not through the power structures, not through the political process, not through votes, but through His people, His church. It happens from the ground up, from life to life, in the gospel-shaped community, disciples making disciples, of all the nations, to the end of the age. That’s how his kingdom comes. This dynamic is reflected in the way Peter would later address the churches in Asia Minor, calling them “elect exiles.” They were chosen by God, but rejected by the world. Until Christ’s return, this is the position of every believer.
Our primary commitments to Christ and the gospel should prevent us from aligning too closely with a political party or platform, and keep us from placing too much hope in political power. Sometimes Christians are tempted to think that if we’ll elect a certain candidate, then things will be made right. Yet, if we aren’t careful, we can begin attach Messianic hopes to a human being, which always disappoints. Political machinations always threaten to hijack the gospel and draw us away from our central concern and subversive approach, so believers must be vigilant to maintain an arm’s length from partisan alignments.
In another post, Ashford addresses the “binary structure” of American political life—the polarization of “conservative” and “progressive” ideologies. On the one hand, conservatism fears the unintended consequences of social reform, and finds its utopian vision in a past, supposedly golden age, nearly deifying individual freedom and nearly demonizing government intervention. On the other hand, progressivism nearly deifies social reform and nearly demonizes those who are skeptical, and believes that the golden age can be just around the corner if we’ll take the right set of initiatives, which are usually government-driven.
Despite what one may hear on talk radio, neither position has any certified orthodoxy. There are not fixed rules by which to determine who is a “real” conservative or a “real” progressive—these ideologies are constantly in flux. As Christians, we indeed adhere to a set of fixed, transcendent ideas, and so find ourselves in an awkward spot. From a biblical point of view, conservatives need to be more honest about the past and progressives need to be more realistic about the future. Chronological biases can blind us to certain realities. We might describe the unchanging truth of the world simply by paraphrasing John Newton: man is a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.
Man is a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.
The gospel must be in the driver’s seat of our convictions. It must be our platform, because by it God will judge all other platforms. Our first loyalty requires a critical distance from partisan politics by which we can speak to it without being trapped in it.
Yet, Scripture does not call us to retreat from the public square or the political arena. Indeed, the Bible cites and commends numerous examples of believers engaging in civic matters for the benefit of society. Perhaps there’s no greater example in the Old Testament than Daniel, a Jewish prophet who was exiled with his people to Babylon. He was a man of faith living in a relatively secular society, yet he sought to influence king Nebuchadnezzar in every possible way, telling the king to “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed” (Dan 4:27).
Jeremiah the prophet mailed a letter to the exiled Jews in Babylon, telling them to “seek the welfare of the city . . . pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). In other words, for their own good, the people needed to seek what was best for your place in which they lived.
This isn’t far at all from Paul’s request that the church pray “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). For your own good and for the church’s good, Paul urged, pray for civil authorities!
But Paul did more than pray. When charged or imprisoned, the apostle never recoiled from appealing to his rights as a Roman citizen, urging those in power to act justly so that the church might do its work peacefully. In the book of Acts, and throughout the New Testament, we see centurions and other officials coming to faith in Christ, and they are never required to resign from their roles in public life because of their faith. You can be a believer and serve faithfully in civic roles for the common good and, if you do, nothing requires you to check your faith at the door. But, as you do, your faith may introduce real tensions to your work. It’s not easy being an “elect exile.”
So, to critical distance we add careful engagement. Romans 13 reminds us that God has instituted government as a means to uphold justice and keep the peace. While we submit to government and pay our taxes, we also urge government to fulfill its God-given role, and in the United States, exercising the right to vote is a way to do just that.
Voting is a civil responsibility that fits well with Christian belief, but we must not think that voting is the limit to what we can do. In history, we see powerful examples of Christian believers wielding massive influence for the benefit of society. William Wilberforce gave his whole adult life to ending slavery in the British Empire and, at some point, political action was required. The abolitionist movement in the United States was substantially fueled by religious convictions, as was women’s suffrage and Civil Rights. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr draws from both natural law and Christian revelation to argue that they key to social change is to become more authentically religious, not less religious.
So, what does Scripture say about our civic responsibility? First, maintain a critical distance. Our hope is not grounded in political power, because His kingdom is not of this world. Second, pursue careful engagement because, as Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and that certainly extends to the political realm.
In Galatians 6:10, Paul says, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially those who are of the household of faith.” Let your primary concern be of Christ and his people, though at every chance, do good. So, be informed about what is good, and act to promote it for the common good. Don’t place your hope in political power, but seek the good of your city. This is the Christian’s civic responsibility.