Recent events in Nigeria have led me to reflect on how believers should relate to the political realm. Instead of talking about the protests, which I have done elsewhere, I want to offer a broader reflection on the relationship of the individual believer and the church with political affairs.
Is politics so dirty a game that respected Christians should avoid it and leave it for the unbelievers? Should we vote and participate in political activities? More importantly, should Christians seek the transformation of culture? How does the protestant view of the separation of church and state affect our political involvement?
Welcome to the ride.
The Greatest commandment
One of the Pharisees once questioned Jesus about the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus, in response, quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. According to him, the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mathew 22:34-40).
All the law and the prophets (a description of the OT canon) hang on those two commandments.
Paul highlighted some of the OT’s moral commands and summed them up in one command – love your neighbor as yourself. He would assert that such love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10).
In his dispute with the legalists who would make circumcision a precondition for salvation, Paul affirmed that “neither circumcision nor circumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
John insists that such love is one of the evidence of a heart renewed in Christ. It is the evidence that we are in the light, belong to the truth, have passed from death to life, and God lives in us (1 John 1-3).
To be a believer is to love God and our neighbors. John also argued that love for brother is evidence of love for God (1 John 4:19-21). No one can claim to love God that does not love his or her neighbor.
John also insists that such love must be in actions and truth, not merely words or tongue (1 John 3:16-20). It involves meeting the needs of our brothers.
James also emphasizes the practicality of such love – it involves “doing something about his physical needs” (James 2:16). Clothes and food are examples of such practical love. James also adds that such practical love is the essence of true religion (James 1:27).
Politics and the realities of life
Karl Marx introduced the concept of substructure and superstructures to argue that production and distribution forces affect every other area of life.
I believe it is more accurate to see politics as the substructure of society. Whether an economy is capitalist or socialists, for example, is a political decision. For example, a political victory for the Democrats in the US is a vote for socialism/communism while a vote for Republicans is a vote for capitalism, by and large.
Religious freedom is also a political issue. People were executed in Europe for their beliefs because of certain political convictions. Even if religion informs political convictions and decisions, the decision is still political.
You can’t legally preach the gospel in certain places today because of political decisions. The Hitler-led genocidal killing of the Jews was a political decision.
Bertolt Brecht, a Theatre Practitioner, gave the perfect summary of this point:
“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”
If I love my neighbor, I want him to have religious freedom. But his possession and enjoyment of such freedom depend on political decisions. Beyond religious freedom, I want my neighbor to enjoy other fundamental liberties and freedom like the right to free speech, life, and private property.
If I love my neighbor, I want him to live in a thriving economy, where he can work, get paid, and take care of his family. While I can give him out of my abundance, I know that the best thing is for him to have his work and care for his family. But his ability to do that depends on the economic decisions that some politicians will make.
Showing love for my neighbor requires practical and direct actions from me – giving, calling, offering a ride, inviting him to dinner, etc.
But a large portion of what determines the welfare of my neighbor is out of my reach. If he can’t get a job because the minimum wage was increased and companies are laying off workers to pay that minimum wage, there is little I can do for him. My ability to give is limited to my income.
If his business shrinks because of a doubling of the tax rate, there is not much I can do beyond giving what I can. If bad economic policies increase unemployment and he loses his job, there is not much I can do.
If my neighbor expresses a conviction on a matter, I can love him by protecting him from the guy next street that wants to punch him in the face. However, I can’t do much if the state’s governor comes for him for thinking that the new road he is constructing is a waste of money and an opportunity to siphon public funds.
My love for my neighbor means I want him and his family to enjoy peace, prosperity, freedom, and human flourishing. But whether he enjoys those depends more on the political decisions of the civil government than mine.
God as the creator of civil governments
God is the creator of civil governments. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).
As an intelligent designer, everything he creates has a purpose. God created civil governments as “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong” (13:4) and commend those who do good (13:3). Peter also affirmed that civil authorities are sent “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14)
The hearts of men are desperately wicked. If left to ourselves, we’ll self-destruct. Man is so corrupt that civil society is impossible apart from God. God is the one restraining the manifestations of the evil in our hearts.
God does this through the influence of the gospel on cultures and the establishment of civil governments.
The civil governments are God’s servants.
Paul, writing to Timothy, urged him to pray for the kings and those in authority so “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”
If the civil governments are acting rightly, they must ensure peace and security and tolerate religious liberty. The civil governments should enable us to live as free men – as God’s servants (1 Peter 2:13-16).
In Psalms 82, we also see that civil magistrates are to rule in justice and righteousness. God called them ‘gods” and “sons of the Most High” because, in their rule, they image God, who is the ruler of all things.
To summarize, the civil government acts according to its design when it can punish evil, commend what is right, ensure peace and quietness, foster religious liberty, and rule in justice and righteousness.
Civil governments make political decisions. Therefore, a large part of what happens to us and our neighbors depend on civil governments acting according to God’s design. When they do, society flourishes; when they don’t, society languishes.
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).
The Lordship of Christ
When Christ commissioned his disciples, he told them that all authority in heaven and earth belongs to him (Mathew 28:18).
In his resurrection, God exalted him to the highest place (Philippians 2:9-11). His name is above every other name. When he rose from the dead, God put all things under him (1 Corinthians 15:27). He is “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:20-22).
Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15, Revelation 19:16).
He is the Lord of believers as well as non-believers. Christ’s lordship extends to all things and everyone. He is the Lord over the Church, education, arts, entertainment, business, and politics. Everything in heaven and earth is under His sovereign lordship.
Objectively, Christ is Lord over all. Subjectively, there are many people and many aspects of society that are not surrendered to him. When believers proclaim the gospel, we bring more people under subjection to the objective Lordship of Christ.
Because we are Christ’s representatives on earth, we are also responsible for bringing every facet of society under subjection to Christ. We seek to bring art, business, and politics, among others under subjection to Christ, the Lord over all.
Humanity is fallen and separated from God. That separation from God is the result of all the evil in our lives and societies. When Genesis 3 happened, it was a downward hill from there. We rejected God’s Kingship when we obeyed the serpent and forsook God’s commandments.
Before they sinned, Adam and Eve were perfect humans. They were the true definition of what man was to be. After the fall, there was a devolution; as we moved away from God, we became less human (the humanity God created).
But through Jesus Christ, God is redeeming humanity. Because God created us for himself, the closer we are to him, the more truly human we become. When individual lives and cultures submit to his lordship, they become more human. Submission to his Lordship is the recipe for human flourishing.
The Christian and politics
Remember that the believer’s duty is to love his neighbor. In love to our neighbors, we want them to flourish. But we know that the most significant factors that will determine his flourishing are beyond our control.
Yes, we preach the gospel to our neighbors so they can be saved. However, loving our neighbors also involves seeking their welfare and flourishing in this life.
Since a big part of their welfare and flourishing depends on the political decisions that civil governments make, we must bring civil governments under the lordship of Christ.
We have a Christian duty to ensure that civil governments are doing their God-given duties – punishing evil, rewarding good, ensuring peace and quietness, securing religious freedom, and ruling in justice and righteousness.
Also, because Christ is Lord, the standards of justice and righteousness must conform to God’s moral laws ad principles.
The more a civil government fulfills these duties, in conformity to Christ’s standards of justice and righteousness, the more it flourishes. When the civil government flourishes, society flourishes, and our neighbors flourish.
God has written moral laws in our consciences (Romans 2:14-15). Even though we don’t live under a theocracy, God has written His moral laws in our consciences. No wonder most societies have laws against things like murder, theft, and rape. We have the image of God, and part of that image is our moral consciousness.
However, because of sin, we sometimes sear our consciences (1 Timothy 4:2). We call evil good and good evil. God gave us moral laws in his word, so we don’t rely entirely on our fallen consciences for standards of right and wrong. The bible also contains many examples in the Israelite set up of how these moral laws play out in society.
As believers, custodians of God’s word, our task is to remind our civil governments of the moral standards of justice and righteousness that God demands.
When our hardened conscience begins to think that killing innocent babies in the womb is okay, believers must remind civil governments (and the culture at large) that God forbids murder. If society’s conscience is seared and civil governments want to marry James and John or Mary and Martha, we should remind them that God forbids homosexuality.
When the civil government desires to establish an economy that rejects the God-given rights to private property, we call it out. When civil governments deny the freedom of religion, we remind them that they are under the Lordship of Christ, who commands them to establish religious freedom.
We should take our stand against every policy that disobeys God’s moral laws and prevents human flourishing.
Tools for the task
What means are available to us for this task?
Unlike the early Church that lived under an emperor, many Christians today live in democratic societies. Consequently, we have more means of loving God and our neighbors through our political choices.
- Voting for civil magistrates that will rule under the Lordship of Christ – fulfilling the duties Christ places on them.
- Civil offices: Believers in civil offices are to rule under the Lordship of Christ. Also, believers should be more open to God calling them into political offices.
- Holding civil governments responsible: We should keep civil magistrates on their toes by reminding them of the Lordship of Christ and calling them to repentance when they act out of line. We must use the means of advocacy available to us.
- Responsible citizenship: Wherever we find ourselves, we must model good citizenship. We cannot be hypocrites. Believers in leadership positions should also be models of leadership under the Lordship of Christ
- Support: In addition to voting, we should also support leaders who will rule under the leadership of Christ.
- Resistance: When civil governments require disobedience to God, we must stand firm in resistance. We must obey God rather than men. When they overstep their God-given rights and encroach into our liberties, we must resist.
A leader does not necessarily need to be a genuine Christian to commend our votes. Voting for a civil magistrate is different from voting for a Pastor.
We live in a fallen world, and imperfect people will rule. When Paul and Peter were writing, Nero was the King.
Because of common grace and the “Imago Dei,” God can give us good leaders who are not necessarily Christians.
A good leader can perform the duties of civil governments outlined above and rule in justice and righteousness without having a renewed heart. As the gospel permeates societies, many people will act in moral and righteous ways who are not necessarily genuine believers.
We must vote and support the best man for the job – the one who would rule under the Lordship of Christ (whether he recognizes that lordship or not) and promote the flourishing of our neighbors.
Separation of Church and state
Many people misinterpret the protestant doctrine of the separation of Church and state to mean a withdrawal of believers from political discussion. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Separation of Church and state means the state does not control the Church, vice versa. How does that work out practically?
The state cannot establish a particular church as the state church that everyone must attend. That is, the state cannot give preference to one Church over another.
Also, the state’s ruler cannot serve as the ruler of the Church at the same time, vice versa. You can’t be the pastor of a local church and still be the governor. Also, you can’t be the governor and be the pastor of a church.
It also means that the state cannot intrude into the affairs of the Church. The state cannot determine when we meet, how we meet, or what songs we sing when we meet.
Separation of Church and state does not forbid the Church from transforming culture or calling the civil governments to order. It does not prevent preachers from speaking and writing about political matters or advocating for civil governments ruling under the Lordship of Christ.
Making Politics Horses and Chariots
“Some trust in Chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalms 20:7)
While we love God and our neighbor through our political choices, we must never make politics an idol.
The primary calling of the Church is to proclaim the gospel and bring souls to Christ. Cultural transformation is a product of that witness. We must not be so involved in politics and cultural transformation that we forget the souls of men.
The best way we can love God and our neighbors is to bring them to a saving knowledge of Christ.
While we want to establish cultures where the gospel’s proclamation is not hindered, we must be willing to keep laboring for the gospel, whatever the culture. We don’t run away from China and North Korea to the United States or Ethiopia.
Whatever the culture or the civil government’s nature, we must embrace our calling to proclaim the gospel to every nation, language, tribe, and people.
Furthermore, we must let go of all of our utopias. While we should strive to transform more cultures, we should realize that we live in a sinful world. The only utopia that Christ promised us will come only at his second coming. Whether our society is transformed or not is up to God’s sovereign purposes.
No matter how better societies become politically, our eschatological hopes must be in the bodily return of our savior. We must remember that this present order of things will be characterized (at the same time) by the success of the gospel, persecution of God’s people, and the gathering of evil forces under Satan, the beast, and the false prophet (Revelation 12-14).
Paul perfectly sums up our Christian hope:
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21).
Christ is Lord over all things. Included in all things is the civil government. As those who have submitted to that lordship, we must proclaim the Lordship of Christ over every realm of human life.
God created civil governments for distinct purposes. Believers, out of love for God and our neighbor, must call civil governments to fulfill those purposes. We must use all the tools we have to ensure they are punishing evil, rewarding good, ensuring peace and quietness, promoting religious liberty (among others), and ruling in justice and righteousness – as defined by God’s moral laws and principles.
The more we bring society under the Lordship of Christ in this way, the more society flourished; the more human we become.
However, as we pursue cultural transformation, we must remember that only the gospel can produce it. Moreso, we must remember that our hopes do not lie in politics and earthly societies but in the coming of our Lord to create the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13).