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Faith and Politics: How Should We Live?

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Faith and Politics: How Should We Live?

John Wesley Taylor V

John Wesley Taylor V, Phd, serves as associate director of education, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

 

How should a Christian relate to politics? Should the believer, for example, become involved in social causes, engage in political activism, or practice civil disobedience? Should a Christian vote, join a political party, or campaign for a person or party? Should he or she become an elected or appointed government official?

How should the church itself relate to the political arena? Should it align itself with a particular political platform or party? Should it orient its members toward activism or civil disobedience? Should it seek to legislate morality?

Though the answers do not come easily, Scripture can provide us with real-life illustrations and guiding prin­ciples that can give us some crucial guidance in this important area of life.

A spectrum of perspectives

Though there are probably as many nuanced perspectives on poli­tics as there are faith communities, one might classify these in certain conceptual clusters.1

Rejection: Christ against politics. Many fundamentalists view their cul­ture as inherently evil, the domain of Satan. In this exclusive one-kingdom approach, advocated by Tertullian, Christians are citizens only of the heavenly kingdom. The gospel is limited to the personal life, and the world is left to the devil. Politics is consequently rejected, and the faith community seeks to insulate itself from its corrupting influence.

Paradox: Christ and politics. For others, the Christian lives in the world as best as he or she can. Christianity and the culture remain in paradox, with no resolution in sight. In this separate-kingdoms approach, politics is seen as evil, yet necessary. As a Christian, one should play no significant role in politics, participating in government only when required by law and endeavoring meanwhile to avoid its contaminating influence. The church, as an institution, withdraws into the religious sphere.

Critical collaboration: Christ above politics. Thomas Aquinas maintained that though the Christian and cul­ture must coexist, Christianity is superior to culture. In this higher­and-lower-kingdoms perspective, politics is viewed as basically good, or perhaps neutral, but still defi­cient. Though accommodation and compromise may be inescapable in certain areas, the Christian’s role is primarily that of critique—evaluating political policies from the framework of the gospel—and of judicious involvement in social issues, without compromising gospel priorities.

Synthesis: Christ of politics. In the tradition of Justin Martyr and reinvigorated by liberalism, govern­ment is viewed as inherently good, an element of the divine plan for humankind. In this inclusive one-kingdom view, little or no tension exists between the Christian and politics. Christianity is, in fact, identi­fied with politics at its best.

Imposition: Christ dominates poli­tics. Some Christians, perhaps best exemplified by liberation theology and the Christian Right, maintain that Christianity must dramatically reshape the culture. Through the political process, evil must be opposed and divine standards estab­lished as the law of the land. In this revolutionary-kingdom perspective, the world is viewed as fallen, yet redeemable. Christians are God’s agents for dramatic renovation, realigning the government according to God’s political agenda.

While each of these positions (summarized in figure 1) may be an appropriate response in a specific circumstance, it would seem helpful to develop a unifying framework. We turn to Scripture to help provide us with such a foundation.

Figure 1: Perspectives on the Relationship of Christianity and Politics

STANCE

Rejection

Paradox

Critical

collaboration

Synthesis

Imposition

Focus

Christ against politics

Christ and politics

Christ above politics

Christ of politics

Christ dominates politics

Kingdom view

Exclusive one kingdom

Separate kingdoms

Higher and lower kingdoms

Inclusive one kingdom

Revolutionary kingdom

Orientation

Politics is seen as inherently evil, the domain of Satan

Politics is viewed as relatively evil, yet necessary

Politics is viewed as basically good or neutral, but deficient

Politics is uncritically viewed as good, at least in principle

Politics must be forcefully reshaped to conform to divine standards

Depiction

C                                                                      P

C                                                          P

C

C P

C                                                                 P

P

Insights from Old Testament characters

The lives of Bible characters provide orientation for the Christian’s relation with politics, particularly in terms of underlying principles illus­trated in their priorities and actions.

Joseph. Brought before the Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, Joseph does not stop with mere explanation. He proposes a plan of political action, including political appointments and taxation (Gen. 41:33–36). Some years later, in the midst of the famine, Joseph tells his brothers that it was God who “ ‘ “ ‘has made me lord of all Egypt’ ” ’ ” (Gen. 45:9)2 and that this occurred in order “ ‘to save lives’ ” (v. 5, NIV). Joseph, in essence, con­sidered his position in government as a direct result of God’s intervention in order that he might assist others through times of hardship.

Moses. As a political activist, Moses may be without peer. For example, spotting the abuse of a Hebrew by an Egyptian taskmaster, he took immediate action (Exod. 2:11–15). This abrupt act aborted his early political career and led to 40 years of exile.

By God’s direct invitation, however, Moses initiated a sec­ond attempt to help his oppressed people by confronting Pharaoh and freeing the Hebrew nation from slavery (Exod. 2:23–14:31). He then instituted a well-developed sys­tem of government. As recorded in Hebrews 11:24–27, his work as an advocate of a downtrodden, marginalized people places Moses in the select group of heroes of faith.

Saul. In the story of Saul, we find an intriguing incident regarding civil protest. In a fit of rage, King Saul vowed to kill his son Jonathan. The king’s soldiers, however, protested, “ ‘Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great deliverance in Israel? Certainly not! As the LORD lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground’ ” (1 Sam. 14:45). Their political intervention was effective and Jonathan was spared, illustrating that political activism can alter a course of affairs and result in favorable outcomes for citizens.

David. Following God’s directive, Samuel anointed David as the next king of Israel. King Saul, well aware of David’s popularity, pursued him relentlessly, determined to kill him. By a strange turn of events, however, Saul was found in David’s power and his men urged him to kill Saul. David replied, “ ‘The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my master, . . . seeing he is the anointed of the LORD’ ” (1 Sam. 24:6). David seemed content to leave the removal of corrupt leader­ship in God’s hands, at least in terms of serving his own political career.

Some years later, one of David’s sons, Adonijah, proclaimed himself king without David’s knowledge. Nathan the prophet, aware of David’s promise to Bathsheba that her son Solomon would be the next king, notified Bathsheba of the devel­opment and urged her to petition David. Furthermore, Nathan offered to come before the king and inter­cede in her favor (1 Kings 1:11–30). Here we find Nathan, a religious leader, endeavoring to hold the politi­cal process within ethical and moral parameters.

Ahab. As recorded in 1 Kings 21:5–13, Ahab coveted and Jezebel conspired to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard. They sent a secret communication to local officials directing them to falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy. As might be expected, Elijah, a religious leader, reproved Ahab for this base crime.

The most tragic part of the story, however, is that “the men of his city, the elders and nobles . . .  did as Jezebel had sent to them” (v. 11). If these men had taken a position of integrity, in opposition to the immoral political directive, the tragedy might have been averted. Both citizens and community leaders have a moral responsibility to resist the devastating impact of a corrupt government on innocent lives.

Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar. Delighted that his dream had been interpreted, Nebuchadnezzar made Daniel ruler over the entire province of Babylon, a political position that Daniel accepted. Furthermore, at Daniel’s request, the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as provincial administrators. Daniel, a prophet of God, did not think it inappropriate for believers to occupy positions of civil responsibility in a secular government.

Daniel 3 records that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were present at the dedication of the golden image, as Nebuchadnezzar had directed, but refused to bow down to the image. In essence, they sub­mitted to civil authority, presenting themselves and not resisting punish­ment, but refused to compromise moral principle by worshiping a false god. God approved of their stance by joining them in the fiery furnace. Similarly, when confronted with an edict contrary to his commitment to God (Dan. 6:10), Daniel did not hesitate to engage in civil disobedi­ence, but at the same time, he did not resist the consequences of his convictions.

Esther and Mordecai. Although God is never directly referenced, the book of Esther presents a vivid portrayal of the great controversy between good and evil, played out in the domain of politics. The story begins with Esther, a young Jewish girl, selected from obscurity to be Xerxes’s queen, and her cousin Mordecai, a civil servant, refusing to pay homage to Haman, a high official in the court.

This extended narrative describes (1) civil disobedience, by Mordecai refusing to bow to Haman, and Esther entering the king’s presence uninvited; (2) a plan to lobby civil authority and avert genocide, by inviting the king and Haman to a series of banquets; (3) a report to authorities of criminal activity, with Mordecai revealing the assassina­tion plot; (4) the enacting of new legislation to counteract the effects of a damaging law; and (5) granting a threatened people group the right to defend themselves.

Insights from New Testament characters

John the Baptist. “Herod had laid hold of John and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. Because John had said to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her’ ” (Matt. 14:3, 4). In addition to the adulterous relationship with Herodias, John had rebuked Herod for “all the evils which Herod had done” (Luke 3:19). It seems that there is an obligation to speak out against corruption and immorality. Christians cannot excuse what rulers do simply because of who they are.

James and John. In order to gain influence and occupy key posi­tions in the anticipated kingdom, James and John enlisted the aid of their mother to petition Jesus (Matt. 20:21). When the other disciples heard of what had transpired, they were indignant!

Jesus then called the disciples together and said, “ ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exer­cise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant’ ” (vv. 25–28). Seeking political office for the sake of position and prestige is contrary to the spirit of Jesus.

Peter and the apostles. Brought before the Sanhedrin, a religious-civil government, the apostles were given strict orders not to teach in the name of Jesus. Peter replied, “ ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’ ” (Acts 5:29). When members of the council urged that the apostles be put to death, Gamaliel intervened on their behalf, persuading the council and securing their release.

This episode clarifies that (1) the Christian must maintain loyalty to a higher Authority than civil govern­ment; (2) civil disobedience can be an appropriate response; and (3) when in a position of civil authority, as was Gamaliel, one may then exert influence on the side of good.

Paul. Throughout his ministry, Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to further the gospel and work for his own protection. In Philippi, for example, Paul and Silas were publicly beaten and thrown into prison. In the morning, the magistrates sent their officers to release Paul and Silas. Paul, however, stated, “ ‘They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out’ ” (Acts 16:37). In essence, Paul requested a public admission that the govern­ment position was wrong and that the Christian community posed no threat to Roman law.3

The experiences in Paul’s life illustrate several key concepts: (1) When knowledgeable of its laws, the believer may appeal to the state for justice and protection of the well­being of its citizens. (2) Christians may use their legal rights to maintain freedom and advance the gospel. (3) A Christian must be submissive to civil authority (e.g., remaining in the Philippian jail when he had ample opportunity to escape) but refrain from participation in its cor­ruption (e.g., refusing to bribe Felix for release).

Jesus. After His baptism, Christ was tempted by the devil. The final temptation involved a political dimension: “The devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me’ ” (Matt. 4:8, 9). Jesus, however, successfully resisted the allure of worldly power.

When Jesus announced His ministry, He outlined far-reaching political principles, suggesting that fundamental changes would be needed in the basic structures of society: “ ‘The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed’ ” (Luke 4:18).4

While Christ clearly dealt with sociopolitical issues, He was not interested in holding political office or in revolutionizing the political order. Rather, He made it clear that His kingdom was “ ‘not of this world’ ” (John 18:36). His goal was to change society one heart at a time.5

In particular, the final hours of Christ’s life speak persuasively regarding the Christian’s relation to government and politics. In Gethsemane, Christ prayed that His followers, although in the world, might not become “ ‘of the world’ ” (John 17:16). When confronted by a mob sent by the civil and religious authorities to arrest Him, He did not attempt to resist or escape, although He did request that His disciples might not be apprehended.

Although Jesus would not defend Himself against false accusations when the high priest charged Him: “ ‘Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God’ ” (Matt. 26:63), Jesus replied, “ ‘Yes, it is as you say’ ” (v. 64, NIV). Later, when Pilate asked, “ ‘Do You not know that I have power to crucify You . . . ?’ ” (John 19:10), Jesus answered, “ ‘You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above’ ” (v. 11).

Although Jesus was accused of being politically subversive, Pilate declared Him to be innocent of political resistance to Roman power, stating, “ ‘I find no fault in this Man’ ” (Luke 23:4). Falsely condemned on political charges as “the King of the Jews,” Christ died on the cross, a sign of political execution.

An overarching paradigm

Having considered biblical cases and principles (see figure 2), we return to the fundamental question of how we, as Christians, should relate to politics. While each of the perspectives noted earlier can help us to understand facets of this relationship, it would seem that an overarching paradigm should guide the Christian in his or her relation to politics.

This response might be described as a position of Lordship—the recog­nition that Jesus Christ is Lord of all and that human society, in each of its dimensions, must be cognizant of His sovereignty. Paul, for example, writes, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17). “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Believers then see themselves, not as possessing dual citizenship, but as citizens of the encompassing kingdom of God.

In this view, Christians recognize that humankind is embroiled in the cosmic conflict between good and evil, between Christ and Satan. This great-controversy perspective acknowledges manifestations of both good and evil in each aspect of society, including politics. Thus, in the Christian worldview, evil is opposed, yet human culture is affirmed and elevated, by the grace of God (see figure 3).

This position of Lordship may call for involvement in social causes: caring for the suffering and anguish of others, speaking out for social justice. It may include nonviolent activism, particularly where moral issues are involved. Forms of political activism that could fit particularly well within this paradigm include roles of advocacy, mediation, and conciliation.

The Lordship perspective may involve casting one’s vote in favor of specific issues or platforms, rather than merely as a reflection of partisan alignment. Provided that one does not compromise biblical principle, it may lead a Christian to hold political office in order to better address injustices or enhance the well-being of others. Finally, while the Christian should respect earthly government, there may be occasion for civil disobedience when the requirements of the state conflict with those of the kingdom of God.

Figure 2: Biblical Principles Regarding the Relationship of Christianity and Politics

Foundational principles

 

The equality of humankind (Gen. 1:26, 27; Acts 17:26) Stewardship of the environment (Gen. 2:15; Rev. 11:18)

A moral government results in prosperity (Ps. 33:12; Prov. 14:34; 29:2)

God’s role in


God establishes civil government (Gen. 9:6; Exod. 21–23; Num. 35:12; Rom. 13:1)

government


God speaks out regarding corruption in government (Prov. 17:15; Isa. 1:23; 10:1; Mic. 3:9

 

 

 

 


God is ultimately in control of earthly government (Ps. 22:29; Prov. 21:1; Jer. 18:7–10)

Relationship to government


God expects citizens to respect and submit to civil authority (Deut. 17:12; Rom. 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet. 2: 13-17; 2 Pet. 2: 10-12; Jude 8-10

 

 

 

 

 

 


Christians are not to blindly obey civil authority (Acts 4:19; 5:29)

 


God enjoins believers to pray for secular rulers (Ezra 6:10; Jer. 29:7; 1 Tim. 2:1, 2)

Action in politics


Christianity must permeate society (Matt. 5:13–16)

 


Christians have a responsibility to critique government (Ezek. 3:17–19; Eph. 5:11)

 


God encourages active involvement in social causes (Isa. 58:6; Mic. 6:8; Matt. 25: 31-46; James 1:27

 

 

 

 


Christians are to advocate peace (Ps. 122:6; Isa. 2:4; Luke 6:29; Rom. 12:18; 14:19)

 


Christians must overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:14–21)

Tension with polities


Political relationships involve inherent risks (2 Cor. 6:14–17; 2 Tim. 2:4; 1 John 2:15)

 


Christians are Christians first (Matt. 6:24, 33; John 17:15, 16)

 


Heavenly citizenship carries both limitations and responsibilities (2 Cor. 5:20; Phil 3: 18-21; Col 3:1,2; 1 Pet. 2: 9-11

 

 

 

 


Christians must answer to a higher standard (2 Cor. 8:21; 10:3, 4)

Figure 3: Relationship of Christianity and Politics: The Paradigm of Lordship

Focus

Kingdom view

Orientation

Depiction

Christ infuses and
transforms
politics

The encompassing
kingdom

Evil is opposed, but politics, as an
element of human culture, is affirmed
and elevated by God’s grace.

C
P

 

The position of Lordship thus rec­ognizes that there are perils as well as opportunities for the Christian. There are dangers of compromis­ing principles and of a corruption of values as well as a consuming involvement with politics. At the same time, there are key opportuni­ties for fulfilling the divine mandate to be the “ ‘salt of the earth’ ” (Matt. 5:13) and the “ ‘light of the world’ ”

(v. 14). This perspective may conse­quently involve a radical reorientation of thinking—from seeing Christian engagement primarily in terms of political action to viewing political involvement as the faithful response of witness.

While the degree and form of political participation may vary for the institutional church, its leaders, and individual members, the mission of the gospel must always include both the proclamation and the tan­gible revelation of who God is. This commission involves standing with voice and vote against immorality and in favor of all that is just and compassionate and includes caring for God’s creation in all of its diver­sity—even “ ‘the least of these My brethren’ ” (Matt. 25:40). This com­mission involves furthering the kingdom of God through our witness and service. In essence, the commis­sion comprises a commitment to live a life like Christ, of Christ, and for Christ in every way.

1 In developing these categories, I am indebted to the work of H. R. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), and N. E. Thomas, “Church-State Relations and Mission,” in James M. Phillips and Robert T. Cootes, eds., Toward the 21st Century in Christian Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), 363.

2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.

3 On subsequent occasions (Acts 22:25, 29; 23–25), Paul maintained his innocence and claimed his right as a Roman citizen, ultimately appealing for a hearing before Caesar. We might note, however, that Paul’s appeal for trial in Rome was not primarily to save his life, but in order to enable him to carry the gospel directly to the imperial court.

4 Christ’s daily life was, in fact, a grassroots effort—associating with castaways, eating with the rejected of society, bringing hope to the marginalized and exploited. He spoke out against societal wrongs, such as neglect of aged parents and devouring “ ‘widows’ houses’ ” (Luke 20:47). He declined, however, to become installed as a civil authority, stating, in response to a dispute over inheritance, “ ‘Who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?’ ” (Luke 12:14).

5 Christ’s teachings are also instructive. He promoted, for example, the principle of nonviolence. “ ‘To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either’ ” (Luke 6:29). Christ further advocated the concept of submission to civil authority within the framework of allegiance to God. When the unlikely alliance of the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to entrap Him with a question of taxation, Jesus replied, “ ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ ” (Matt. 22:21).

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