For as long as I can remember, I have had a certain fascination with politics. A fair number in my church might assume I have a certain aversion, even a disinterest, as I often avoid the subject in my preaching. Some get downright angry with me for cautioning against placing too much hope in politicians or giving too much time to media voices that would suggest the hope of the world is Washington—when the hope of the world is a healthy, gospel centered church.
The truth is, I was a political science major in college and once seriously considered the State Department as my career. To this day, I continue to read widely, from Evangelicals in the Public Square to To Change the World to a recent title, Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism. I spent some formative years in Tim LaHaye’s church, where I was exposed to a church very involved in politics. And I have been teaching a course that discusses the role of church and politics for the last twelve years. None of this makes me any sort of expert, but it has shaped and informed my thinking.
I have discovered a number of thoughtful voices who would argue that the church should steer clear of any political involvement, lest we be soiled by politics. If you want to be an undivided Christian, then you should relinquish any ungodly identification of Christianity with patriotism. We’re called to be an alternative community, resident aliens. “It is not the business of Christians to work out the ethical problems of Caesar.”
The problem with this stance is that faith loses a certain integrity. The church becomes irrelevant as it takes itself out of the public square.
On the other side, I have read, listened to, and worked with those who believe we should plunge right in. It is our right and our duty to be politically informed and involved. We must do battle with a rising secularism aimed to progressively remove religion from the public square and reduce it to the private realm. The soul of America is dying. Believers should, hence, ban together in a sequence of majorities and coalitions in order to become a dominant influence. This has had a wide continuum—from Liberation Theologians to Theonomists who call for a theocracy, to former groups like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition, who wanted to restore America back to God. More recently, there have been the voices of David Crowe and James Dobson, and others on the Christian Right who have viewed the political scene as a war over definitions of marriage and life, and call for an alignment with those parties and candidates who have the right meanings.
Unfortunately, as history affirms, plunging in too far has not served the church so well. This was especially evident to me, living in Europe, where the church is a shell of itself, in part because it mixed church and politics from the beginning. Campolo once said that mixing church and state is like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It may not affect the manure, but it will mess up the ice cream. So one must be very cautious. As Chuck Colson once warned: “Christians should not unwarily plunge into the political marshlands, thinking they will drain the swamp.” They may actually get caught in the mud.
Ultimately, we must pursue the model of Christ, who refused to yield to the temptation to usher in the kingdom through political power. The truth is, redemptive needs do not have political solutions. Politics cannot solve the deterioration of the family any more than the problem of greed and debt.
So what should be our involvement, our stance, as a significant election is around the corner? Be informed—be involved. But maintain these core convictions—
- God is the One true Sovereign who ordains governments. The church is the bearer of that claim. Any authority found in government originates in the rule of God. He alone removes and establishes kings. They rule for His purposes, which are to command good, punish evil, maintain peace, and preserve justice (Rom 13:1-4). Ask yourself—who respects this divine claim and will best fulfill these divine purposes called of government?
- God calls us to submit to government to avoid God’s wrath. So no matter who is in office, our mandate is to honor them and pray for them regularly (I Pet 2:15). We are called to be the best citizens, involving ourselves thoughtfully in the public square. This means a wise church will seek to cooperate without capitulation to advance the cause of justice and human good and human rights and care for the earth and preserve life. This means thinking forcefully and carefully, refusing to be intimidated into neutrality.
Part of submission is to accept the consequences when we must disobey laws that contradict the commands of God, standing against government that attempts to take the role of the church or play the role of God, or deny us the right to preach and live the gospel (Acts 5:29). Ask yourself—who will best honor such partnerships and avoid exercising the role reserved for the church?
- God calls us to resist the tempting illusion that we can usher in the kingdom through political means. Christians betray their Lord if, in theory or practice, they equate the kingdom of God with any political, social or economic order of the passing time. The church is not an instrument of the state; it is of another realm. The kingdom of God is a thing unto itself, a community in the midst of the world called to be a redemptive influence, that does not unthinkingly cozy up to nationalism, pointing men to their trans political destiny and supra political loyalty. As Leslie Newbin once put it: “A church that sees the cross of Jesus as the central event of history can never identify any political order with the reign of God.”
The first thing to say about politics is that it is not the first thing. The first thing is God’s kingdom, God’s purposes, and God’s ways. Our first responsibility is to honor Him, fearlessly discharging the word of God, addressing the governing authority with the word of God, no matter the price. We must speak prophetically, live radically, and hold to absolutes in a relativistic age, yet with grace and humility, without a drive to power and control. Ask yourself—who will respect the fact the church, not Washington, is the hope of the world?