by John H. Redekop
Part One of a series of three webitorials on the relationship of believers with government.
Some citizens harbor cynicism and negative reactions to governments.
For example, the cynical election lawn sign: “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.” I am very grateful and supportive. The secret for being grateful is to compare our governments not to the ideal but to others and to the alternative to government which is anarchy.
My starting point in this analysis is that both church and state are agents of God, that they have different mandates, that they have partially different ethical obligations, that the church has the primary claim on Christians’ allegiance, and that the church, not the state, is the bearer of the meaning of history.
This study rests on the biblically-based assumption that God has a role for Christians in governmental structures. Throughout history some thoughtful Christians have disagreed. For example, in 215 AD the early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote that “Nothing is more foreign to us Christians than politics.” Given when and under what conditions that saint lived, his statement is understandable but it is not normative.
Some people have argued that because Jesus never got involved in politics, His followers also should not get involved. Why not concentrate, they say, only on proclaiming the Christian Gospel and let the political realm take care of itself?
One can argue, it seems to me, that both in His words and in His deeds, Jesus did, in fact, get involved politically. Aside from His interaction with political officials during His ministry, He was crucified by Roman authorities because of alleged insurrection and treason. Beyond that, however, it must be stressed that Jesus’ situation differed markedly from that in which we find ourselves.
- Jesus had a unique mission. We do not have that mission.
- In many areas, including parenting and spousal relationships, Jesus and His disciples did not actually model behavior. Jesus spelled out guiding principles.
- Palestine, in Jesus’ time, was an occupied country. Occupied countries, especially in ancient times, suppress serious political activity by citizens.
- Palestine, in Jesus’ day, was not a democracy and thus the public had no opportunity for political involvement in the sense that we do.
In our day, governmental structures and activities have largely replaced the church as the encompassing framework within which the other aspects of life occur. This reality has very serious consequences for Christians and for the Christian church. It also has great consequences for governments.
1) Why should individual Christians view the political order as an arena of opportunity, influence, and responsibility?
Christians hold a positive view of government because the political order is a parallel, although secondary, order functioning alongside the church to serve God’s human creation. It is very important. Government is the agency of the state, it is an expression of God’s love and especially His providence toward all of society but especially those who have exercised their God-given right not to become part of God’s church. God’s love and care extends to all of humanity.
Christians hold a positive view because God can achieve considerable good through the operation of the political order. God uses the state to prevent anarchy, to maintain law and order, to undertake good measures for society, and to maintain a climate of freedom. Proverbs 14:34 reminds us that “righteousness exalts a nation.”
Christians hold a positive view because church and state share many concerns and goals. This reality is hardly surprising given that many of the positive services now provided by the state were first pioneered by the church. Indeed, many ministries are still carried on by the church in the areas of health, education, elder care, disaster service, emergency relief, ministry to refugees, assistance for the homeless, overseas relief, and many other endeavors. Thus church and state are now both involved in such pursuits and, in fact, they often cooperate.
Christians see government as an arena for effective service because government is big and is still growing. Its tentacles now impact the church and the lives of individual believers in countless ways. This produces many positive outcomes but it also creates serious challenges and problems. A problem arises when governments make claims and enact policies which contradict the values proclaimed by the church, values often previously also rejected by the state. Same sex marriage is a case in point. These challenges dealing with additional moral issues such as abortion and parental rights need to be addressed and sometimes resisted.
Christians see the political realm as important because complete detachment and political irrelevance is no longer an option. Maybe it never was but people assumed that being totally disconnected from politics was possible. The political realm now impacts us in so many ways, and has become so dominant in our social and economic environment, that the question becomes one of what our involvement will be, not whether we will be involved.
Christians see the political realm as important because no part of a Christian’s life lies outside the scope of Jesus’ lordship. His lordship extends to all human organizations and structures. Jesus is thus also Lord of the political order. God’s compassion spans the earth (see Mark 16:15) Understanding exactly what this means is an ongoing challenge for every Christian citizen.
Christians should not be “of the world” (John 15:19), but are very much in the world. God, in His wisdom, has chosen Christian citizens to be His representatives here in the world. Given that fact, Christian citizens ought surely to become knowledgeable about the social setting into which God has placed us. We read repeatedly that God greatly loved the world even in its fallen form and its sometimes rebellious stance (see John 3:16). So should we!
Christians see the political order as an arena of Christian service. People of faith who possess integrity and dedication to serve others can make a great impact in any arena. William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King, Jr. are compelling examples. Given that God’s Word emphasizes that political rulers are God’s agents (see Romans 13:1 – 7), Christian citizens ought not to hesitate getting involved politically. But we need to remember that although government is an agent of God, in part it functions according to a sub-Christian ethic. This means that there will be situations when at least some Christians decide that their religious convictions prevent them from participating.
In this regard Christian citizens ought to be careful not to compartmentalize life. Some years ago a certain Christian missionary to South Africa reported that he had totally refrained from commenting on oppressive racial policies so that he could more easily preach the Gospel. But he was in error. The Gospel does address racism and suppression. This missionary should have reflected on the insight of William Templeton, Anglican theologian and Archbishop of Canterbury, when he said that “It is a great mistake to suppose that God is only, or even mainly, concerned with religion.”
Christian citizens take government seriously because sometimes the moral challenges are so great that only government action can address them successfully. In fact, sometimes government itself is the source of the ethical problem. In this regard we do well to remind ourselves that political apathy and indifference can produce devastating results. A case in point is the consequence of a church remaining mostly silent when Hitler took control of Germany in the early 1930s and introduced the contemptible holocaust and plotted massive aggression.
2) What, then, are the specific obligations and desired contributions of Christian citizens?
Christian citizens affirm the legitimacy of the state and its government and submit to it. The Bible states, in I Peter 2:13 – 15, that we shall honor and respect our rulers. Christian citizens are instructed to do this “for the Lord’s sake” and in order to counteract “the ignorant talk of foolish men” who may charge Christians of being anti-government and even inclined towards anarchy. While Christians citizens, on occasion, have good reason to oppose certain government policies and actions, may work diligently to remove certain politicians from political office, and may even campaign to replace a given political party, they never reject the necessity of the institution of government. Accordingly, informed and responsible Christian citizens should never describe government as a necessary evil; it is a God-given good!
Christian citizens are to be law-abiding. They should be known as honest, trustworthy, dependable, and law-abiding. As much as possible, they model submission to government and acceptance of laws. There are, of course, exceptions. When political authorities overstep their bounds, when they try to hinder Christian citizens or people of other faiths from being obedient to God, which is an over-riding commitment, then, like the apostles in the first century, these Christian citizens disobey rulers (see Acts 4:13 – 21; 5:23 – 29). When this happens, then, Like Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others, they accept the consequences even as they press for more enlightenment.
Christian citizens ought to be politically informed. In Matthew 16:3 Jesus is quoted as rebuking the Pharisees because they could not “read the signs of the times”. Clearly He thought that being informed about what is happening in society is important. In political matters, as in other dimensions of life, Christian citizens need to make an effort to “read the signs of the times.” God wants His followers to be interested and knowledgeable about both of His major agencies on earth.
Christian citizens ought to be government’s most perceptive and most useful critics. Precisely because Christian citizens have a moral measuring rod for assessing governmental policies and performance, we can serve a useful gadfly function. When we detect some ethically bad policy or action, we call attention to it and urge our rulers to remedy the situation. The issue at hand may involve racism, prejudice in immigration policies and regulations, corruption in the bureaucracy, the misuse of foreign aid, militarism, desecration of the environment, judicial injustice, and much more.
As Christian citizens seek to be responsible critics, we should realize that governments will likely not be favorably impressed if the only issues about which we complain are those which are self-serving, which benefit us specifically. If we advance only our own causes, then what are we doing more than any other self-centered group?
Renowned Christian scholar and commentator, M. Richard Shaull, applies this truth when he states that. “The question of bread for me is a material question; the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual matter.”
Considering the broad picture, Christians call on all institutions and all people to live by the godly principles of justice, righteousness, truth, humanitarianism, the defense of human dignity, the pursuit of peace, and the need for personal integrity.
Christian citizens must always be tactful but should never stop moralizing about evil policies and practices. If we address evil we are following Jesus’ example.
Let me cite a particular problem in this regard. Some government leaders have complained when religious people object to their mistreatment, to name-calling. But Christians respond by saying that it is not bigotry or hatred to call attention to bigotry and hatred.
In pressing for enlightened governmental policies and actions, Christian citizens must not forget to affirm excellent policies and commendable behavior. My personal axiom goes as follows: I affirm when I can so that I can with credibility criticize when I must.
Christian citizens ought to be thankful. In various passages the Bible exhorts Christian citizens to be thankful for the institution of government. “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority…” (I Timothy 2:1 – 2). Political leaders rank first. In our day, where a distinction is made between the institution of government and the incumbents of the day, we begin by being profoundly thankful for the institutions of government and, to the extent that government conduct is at least acceptable, we also express thanks for the current office-holders. They are, after all, the ones who make the whole system work.
The tax-withholding argument generates many dilemmas. First, it is virtually impossible to ascertain what percentage of my taxes goes for any specific part of the government’s budget.
Second, if the withholding focuses on military expenditure, which seems usually to be the case, are the tax withholders advocating that the country should have no military capacity, no back-up strength to aid the police in maintaining law and order? If that is their argument, then they are going against clear Biblical teaching which tells us that the political authority “is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
Thirdly, and most importantly, if the argument is that governments should not possess any coercive power, whether to be used in an immediate situation or, more likely, as a general back-up capacity to maintain law and order, then these critics are really saying that they advocate anarchy because without the potential of coercive force, a government, according to all standard definitions, is not, in fact, the government of the jurisdiction.
As a symbol, tax withholding makes a statement but it is a very blunt instrument.
The financial activities of government, especially tax collecting, are frequently criticized and lampooned. Ronald Reagan once said that “The taxpayer is someone who works for the government but doesn’t have to take the civil service exam.” Mark Twain was more acerbic: “What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin.” An Italian saying states: “The economy grows at night, when the government sleeps.” Tax-collecting, however, is a crucial activity of a vital agency.
Christian citizens ought to be willing to become involved in the political process. In what manner and to what extent requires analysis which goes beyond this presentation. But it seems right to say that while the democratic right to vote includes the right not to vote, I believe it is both wise and right for godly citizens to vote. Voting facilitates the successful operation of god’s second agent. The opportunities for more extensive involvement, both partisan and non-partisan, are extensive. Let us not too easily excuse ourselves. Maybe we need to remind ourselves that, as Dag Hammarskjold put it, “the way to holiness leads through action”. Jesus, we know, commended the Good Samaritan not for what he said, but for what he did.
Christian citizens pray for their governments. The biblical instruction is clear. In I Timothy 2:1 – 2 we are commanded to pray for those in authority. In Ezra 6:10 we are instructed to “pray for the well-being of the king and his sons.” Even those rulers who conduct themselves despicably are worthy of prayers, at least prayers for enlightenment. After all, Jesus himself told Christian citizens to “pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:28). An even more pointedly he said, “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Christian citizens remind political rulers that ultimately they are accountable to God. Our political leaders need to know that both as individuals and as political authorities they must some day give an account to God. Those citizens who take the Bible seriously, believe that to be true. There is a Prime Minister of prime ministers, a King of kings, and a President of presidents. Jesus underscored the notion of god’s sovereignty when he reminded the governor, Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).
Not all Christian citizens are called to extensive political involvement. Time, talent, abilities and opportunities vary. But, surely, every citizen can find some way to express Christian servanthood in the political realm.
Christian citizens, on the one hand, reject the extreme of Constantinian captivity of the church, that is, the creation of a civic religion, and, on the other hand, they also reject apathy, the avoidance of any involvement.
As Michael Gerson has reminded us, “Christians in politics have to be idealist about goals and realists about means.” Some Christians reverse the two and then stand back because political activities are not always saintly.
Many years ago the social ethicist, Ron Sider, stated that all Christians must have humility in asserting their positions on political issues. His point is well taken.
Concerning all political involvement, Christian citizens participate in that kind of activity and support those types of organizations and causes, which permit the practice of Christian ethics and servanthood.
Christian citizens concur with the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, ”A religion that ends with the individual ends” and also with the insight of Edmund Burke’s observation: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
This webitorial is based on Dr. John Redekop’s book Politics Under God, Herald Press, 2007.
Politics Under God
“Dr. John Redekop provides a timely and passionate primer on politics, citizenship, and the relationship between church and state from a Christian perspective.”— Bruce Clemenger, President, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
John H. Redekop Ph.D., is D. Hum. (hon.) Ottawa, Laurentian Leadership Centre.
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Can Civil Governments Function According to Christian Ethics?
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