In 1974, more than 2,300 evangelical leaders from 150 countries gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland to consider the witness of the church. Convened by Billy Graham and led by John Stott, the revered Anglican evangelical priest and writer, the event produced the Lausanne Covenant. The signatories to that document affirmed the global character of the church of Jesus Christ and the belief that “the church is the community of God’s people rather than an institution, and must not be identified with a particular culture, social or political system, or human ideology.”
And yet, in this country in recent years, we have heard the claims over and over again that the Christian party is Republican. No, to be a Christian is to be a Democrat. And evangelicals have been caught up in all of this.
We are now literally hours away from a critically important election and perhaps, you feel as I do that you can’t wait for the nasty, negative, slime-slinging television ads for candidates to cease. In the race for power, we’ve seen a devolution of our political rhetoric and it seems, in many ways, more and more difficult to find any truth in the sound bytes that ride the airwaves, crowd online postings, and fill newspaper pages.
With the name “Christian” often directly or tangentially attached to these antics, one has to wonder how all of this may have damaged our witness and the integrity of our message.
There are those who would argue that Christians shouldn’t be engaged in politics at all. John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties advocacy organization that supports religious rights, is one.
In “Churches and the Corrupting Influence of Politics,” Whitehead wrote the following: “attempts to turn the pulpits of tax-exempt churches into political platforms seem to fly directly in the face of current IRS guidelines that make it clear that churches or other religious organizations may lose their tax-exempt status if they actively participate or intervene in any way in a political campaign.”
Whitehead goes on to argue that since the church exists to teach the good news—the gospel—Christians should stand outside the status quo and that includes politics. Whitehead argues that since Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, Christ was apolitical. He insists that, as followers of Jesus, Christians should, likewise, be apolitical.
Bill Barnwell, in an article entitled, “Our Hope is in the Gospel, Not Politics and Government,” also insists that “fruitful ministry should be our motivation, not fruitless politicking.”
But, since the founding of this country, Christians have exercised political and social leadership and, whether folks like it or not, American citizens are participants in the American governing structure. Citizens are assessed taxes; they are counted in the Census; they are in government computer systems at all levels; most send their children to government-run schools; they drive their vehicles on government-maintained roadways, they are called to abide by government-mandated regulations. And they feel the impact of their government’s geopolitical decisions.
I might note at this juncture that, while our attention has been drawn to the presidential race, the turmoil in our world has increased substantially. Russia recently unveiled its largest ever nuclear missile—Satan 2—which is capable of obliterating an area the size of Texas. NATO is now engaged in its largest military build-up on Russia’s border since the Cold War. The US is dispatching troops, tanks and artillery to Poland. At an October 26 meeting of defense chiefs in Brussels Germany, Canada and other NATO countries also pledged forces. The move comes after Russia has been busy deploying hardware of its own. Last month, Moscow said it was stationing nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic exclave. Two weeks ago, two Russian warships armed with cruise missiles slipped into the Baltic sea.
Not that long ago, chessboard imagery was used to describe geostrategy: then the United States and the Soviet Union represented opposing kings and other nations served as their assorted knights, bishops and pawns. Now the world seems not only to be engaged in a chess game, but at the same time is playing something more akin to a game of Chinese checkers where marbles of different stripes crisscross one another’s paths from different angles toward different destinies.
Internationally and domestically, our government must deal each day with questions related to foreign policy, violence, terrorism, the environment, the economy, education, immigration, and so much more. We need leaders who can negotiate the new world map, leaders who can keep us safe, leaders who will protect our Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms. And Christians are entitled to a say in who those leaders should be.
Again, in a myriad of ways, we engage with the government of this country every day of our lives and our vote matters. When our vote is cast to reflect God’s moral principles, it advances the two great commandments, loving God and our neighbor. Remember Edmund Burke once declared: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Your vote is the ultimate check and balance on your government and your vote is a witness to your conscience. Even if your moral vote is defeated by the false arguments of popular secularism and postmodernism which promote the denial of absolute truth and the rejection of divine authority, you will have witnessed to the truth of your conscience and preserved your right to speak for moral change. John Hancock, whose signature dominates the Declaration of Independence, gives this challenge,” I conjure you, by all that is dear, by all that is honorable, by all that is sacred, not only that ye pray but that ye act.”
Your vote is needed to preserve our liberty for future generations: Our Founding Fathers wrote in the Journal of the Continental Congress, 1774: “It is an indispensable duty which we owe to God, our country, ourselves and posterity, by all lawful ways and means in our power to maintain, defend and preserve these civil and religious rights and liberties for which many of our fathers fought, bled and died, and to hand them down entire to future generations.”
For these reasons (the last four of which I’ve drawn from the Providence Forum), and most importantly for biblical reasons, our voices must be heard in government, we must weigh in on the issues facing our democracy, our votes must be counted at the polls.
Now, there are so many other questions related to politics–beyond whether a Christian should vote–but for the sake of space, I’ve narrowed this message to the following. How is a Christian in this country to relate to civil authority? Does a Christian have a biblical right to be involved in civil disobedience against the state? How should we respond when a government passes a law or behaves in a way that strikes against our Christian sensibilities? And are there principles, based on scripture, that can guide us as we look to the upcoming election? In this posting, I’ll attempt to make a first pass at all of these questions.
Our starting point is what is considered the key passage on the Christian and civil authority: Romans 13:1-7. But this won’t be our only reference. We’ll be pulling into our examination several other passages from scripture that serve as qualifiers to Paul’s words as they were addressed to the Roman Christians of 50 A.D.
READ ROMANS 13:1-7; 1TIMOTHY 2:1-5; 1PETER 2:13-17
In order to apply the words of Paul and Peter to the 21st century, we must see how they applied to the first century within which they were written.
We should realize, first of all, that the existence of the Roman Empire proved, in many ways, beneficial to the early church. Apart from anything else, the fact of the so-called Pax Romana (Roman peace) from 27 AD to 180 BC made it possible for Christianity to spread more quickly and widely than in more tumultuous times.
Central to the spread of Christianity was also the existence of a fine system of roads radiating out from Rome and extending across the Empire. The world was at peace and under the control of one power. Furthermore, up until the time of Nero’s reign, Christianity was considered a novel foreign (Jewish) superstition brought to Rome by the uneducated lower classes and, as such, it was largely ignored. However, in AD 64, Emperor Nero set fire to Rome and then blamed the Christians for it, thus introducing the church to an era of martyrdom.
But, at the time of Paul’s writing, in the years before the persecutive reign of Nero, and, at the likely time of Peter’s writing as well, Rome was clearly a restraining force against chaos. It is “good government” that Paul and Peter address here. Neither deals with the question of how Christians should relate to a government gone sour. Nor do they give any guidance as to how Christians should involve themselves in a participatory democracy. Care must be taken in making 21st century applications especially since in Revelation 13:18, Rome is pictured as having fallen under the control of evil and Christians are then expected to relate to it quite differently.
One other thing we should understand before we proceed: God is not just a “religious” God. His providential care includes the control of nations – it is God who sets up civil rulers and their authority is delegated from Him. God works out His plan through rulers that we perceive as evil or as good. God is in control.
So, keeping in mind these initial qualifiers, let’s see what Paul has to say concerning the Christian’s relationship to good government.
First of all, everyone is to submit to the governing authorities. This word is sometimes mistranslated “obey.” Submission here should be understood in light of Romans 12:10 (which speaks to honoring others above oneself) – Paul is saying here that Christians should recognize the claim that the authorities have upon them. This idea, however, should be mediated by the greater claim of God. In this regard, we note Acts 5:29, where Peter and the other apostles declared, “We must obey God rather than men” and Mark 12:13-17, where Jesus insisted in relation to taxes, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
If a government is good, it helps a Christian toward the good that God has in store for him or her, by providing encouragement to do good and discouragement from doing evil and by curbing the worst excesses of other individuals’ sinfulness and providing them with selfish reasons for behaving justly. Paul goes on to say that since the Christian knows the ruler has been appointed by God, to disobey would create a guilty conscience.
He concludes the passage by urging Christians to pay their taxes. There is a clear sense here and in other early Christian writings that Christians ought to pay for the services and benefits they receive from the government. And if the state is owed honor and respect, it should be paid honor and respect.
The problem comes when the state goes too far. Although human government is divinely instituted, it doesn’t follow that its authority is unlimited. On the contrary, the scriptures give ample evidence that when governments usurp the authority of God by demanding subjection to laws contrary to clear commands of scripture, the government has exceeded its authority.
In Deuteronomy 13, in Jeremiah 7, in John 14, Christians are called to an unqualified obedience to their Lord and God. Christians, as we’ve seen from our passage in Romans, are also called to submit to the governing authorities and to recognize that, even where the civil authority is not Christian, God can use it as a servant for good. Civil disobedience becomes an issue when these two claims come into conflict, when God commands us to do something which the civil authority prohibits or when the civil authority commands us to do something which God prohibits.
That the conflict is real and that civil disobedience may be a Christian option is acknowledged by much of the church throughout history and, most importantly, by the Bible itself. Three examples of biblical civil disobedience are Daniel’s illegal prayer in Daniel, chapter 6; Peter’s illegal preaching in Acts 5; and Paul’s refusal to leave his prison cell in Acts 16. In the history of the church, there has also been preaching conducted against the direct order of the state, illegal assembly, illegal printing and dissemination of scripture, refusal to take oaths, refusal to participate in certain activities of the military, refusal to worship the emperor, and violation of racially segregationist laws.
While the basic principle is clear – we must obey God rather than human beings – we have to be careful that our motives in civil disobedience are pure – that we are seeking to obey God and His Word rather than trying to rationalize any disobedience growing out of other motives or interests. Before one resists a government, there needs to be much prayerful searching of the scriptures and deep analysis of the situation at hand.
The clearest indication for civil disobedience has always been an overt conflict between civil authority and the tasks of discipleship. Scripture tells us that disobedience is allowed when the government forbids worship of God (Exodus 1:15-21); dictates that God’s servants be killed (1Kings 18:1-4); commands believers to worship idols (Daniel 3); requires believers to pray to or to worship a human being (Daniel 6, Revelation 13); and when it forbids believers to spread the gospel (Acts 4:17-20).
In a church I pastored in Pennsylvania, we were blessed to have among our number a young Romanian woman. The experience of the church in her homeland provides an excellent example of what would appear to be biblically-endorsed civil disobedience.
For many years, in the Ceausescu era (1965 through 1989), the Department of Cults kept a tight rein on all churches with a policy of intimidation, interference and interrogation. Romanian Christians were imprisoned and murdered. Parts of a shipment of 20,000 Bibles donated by the Hungarian Reformed Church were discovered turned into toilet paper at a Romanian pulp mill. Dozens of churches were demolished, including a 200-seat Baptist Church in Comanesti.
Over the years, dissent in Romania found its home in the clandestine activities of Christian believers. There was underground printing. There was Bible distribution. There were small group Bible studies. Then, in 1989, when Laszlo Tokes, pastor of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Timisoara, Romania refused to end his outspoken criticism of the brutal regime of Ceausescu, officers were dispatched to the church to take him in. When they arrived, they found a human blockade. What began as a congregation’s protest in support of its beleaguered pastor became the nine-day revolution that costs thousands of lives but brought libertate—freedom—to the Romanian people.
As one respected Pentecostal leader from Bucharest said, “Christianity in our country is like a nail. The harder you strike it, the deeper it goes.”
The church recognized a higher authority than the state. We have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with those Christians in countries around the world who are struggling under repressive regimes. When a governmental authority exceeds or abuses its power and behaves counter to the clear dictates of scripture, civil disobedience is a biblical option.
We have a responsibility to submit to the legally instituted civil authorities unless we are certain they have violated biblical principles. The higher authority to whom we submit is the Lord.
The Ten Commandments, the message of the prophets on God’s justice, the Sermon on the Mount, and the apostles’ teaching on the social implications of the gospel are other essential sources for a clear perception of the command of God which supersedes all other commands.
So, finally, are there principles, based on scripture, that can help us as we look to Tuesday? Well, Deuteronomy 17 offers guidance as to the characteristics we should seek in the ideal candidate. Passages throughout scripture also stress the issues of primary concern to the Lord.
In Deuteronomy, we are told that we are not to put a foreigner in authority over us. The candidate must, therefore, be a patriot, an individual who vigorously supports our country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors. The passage also suggests that the one who would lead us must believe in a strong national defense.
Deuteronomy goes on to call for a leader who is a person of unimpeachable integrity, free from any hint of corruption, free from any hint that, in public office, he or she would line with gold his or her pockets or the pockets of cronies.
Further, the individual being considered as leader should be a person of humility who does not consider himself or herself above those who are being served, a person who is humbled by the awesome responsibility of the office and has an awareness of his or her own limitations.
In Proverbs 29:2 we read: “When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan.” Character matters in elected officials.
Our Second President, John Adams, declared in his address to the military dated October 11, 1798: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion…Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
The Lord insists that we are to advocate for the treasure that is the family; we are to advocate for the sanctity of life. The ideal candidate, in honoring the scriptures and the Declaration of Independence, would defend the right to life of all, including those individual still in the womb.
Throughout the scriptures we are also reminded of the need to tell the truth and to make right judgments. The Supreme Court was never intended to be a representative body; it is charged with upholding the laws of Congress and the laws of the Constitution. The ideal leader should be committed to defending the truth and defending right judgments. The Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 teaches that, “in everything, we are to do to other what we would have them do to us.”
When we honor this rule, we give to others the religious liberty and free speech we desire for ourselves. Similarly, we are then in a position to insist that our liberty of religious conviction and free speech are not assaulted or abridged.
The ideal leader should, of course, also be a student of Scripture.
But, we don’t have ideal candidates on the ballot, do we? Unless, Jesus of Nazareth is on the ballot, as one commentator opined, we will always be choosing the lesser of two evils. Or in the case of this election, write-ins or third party candidates as well who have little to no chance of winning.
As we approach the voting booth and look at the full range of candidates—not only for the office of President but for each seat that is open–we must pray for conviction from the Lord. We must vote, as best we are able, using the lens of scripture. We must consider each individual’s character, proposed plans, and the platforms of their parties. We must pray the Lord will guide our hands as we register our votes.
The words of 2nd Chronicles 7:14 have been much on my mind in these days: “If my people who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Please lift with me this prayer:
Gracious God, as you have instructed us in 1st Timothy, chapter 2, we pray for all those who are now or will be, following this election, in authority over us. We pray that they would lead in such a way that we might live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. We pray for ourselves that you might guide us individually as we vote on Tuesday. Guide each one us in our selection of candidates and in our understanding of the issues facing us. Guide us, as a nation, Lord that we might honor you in all our policies. Lord, we also raise to you the nations of the earth and especially those Christians within them. In countries where the Christian witness continues to be repressed, may a movement of your Spirit open the eyes of believers to your great power. Lord, we pray for our sisters and brothers who live under totalitarian regimes and we pray for ourselves as well that they and we might be given the wisdom and courage to be God’s witnesses and God’s ambassadors. May the gospel of the saving power of Jesus Christ be advanced in a mighty way in the midst of an ever-changing world. We pray all these things in the name of and for the sake of our precious Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen