Read the first post in the series “Exiles and Political Engagement” here.
We first must explore the appropriate mindset/worldview of the Christian who has the opportunity to engage in the political process. In this regard we must recognize (1) that God is the ultimate and eternal authority, (2) that God is the authority for the Church and those who claim the name of Jesus, (3) that God has given us civil governments as a gift to bring about public welfare and appropriate justice in a fallen world, and (4) that Christian political engagement should be motivated by love for God and love for neighbor.
God is the ultimate and universal authority
The first, essential mindset for Christian engagement in politics is to realize that God is the ultimate and universal authority. He is the “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords.” No other authority exists than that which he allows to exist. “There is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). God lifts up kings and kingdoms and He tears them down. The heart of the king is in his hands. His authority is all encompassing and no part of the world stands apart from his knowledge or control.
This has important implications for believers. First, our trust is found in God, not in the human authorities. We must never overestimate what human governments can do, either for good or for ill, nor should we underestimate the power of God to lift up a leader, judge a nation, or bring about good even in the most unjust of systems. The moment we put our ultimate trust in a human authority or political power is the moment we have bowed to a false god.
Second, our hope is found in God, not in human authorities. Christians are a hopeful people because we know the end of the story. In the end God’s reign will be fully revealed and his reign is one of perfect justice. Whereas in this world imperfect justice is the rule of the day, when Christ returns we will see complete justice based on the righteousness of God. Utopian dreams based on human governments are bound to fail due to sin, but once sin is done away with we will find true shalom.
Third, no part of the world is outside of God’s care or concern. God is not only concerned with the internal aspects of our hearts and minds. Personal piety does not capture the full measure of the reign of God in the world. God’s reign extends to the nations. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come we pray for his reign to be evident in our lives, in the Church, in our city, in our nation, and among all the peoples of the earth. We have to care about politics, not because in politics we find something ultimate, but because the One who is ultimate is worthy of universal glory, honor, and allegiance and because we confess that God’s reign is what the world really needs.
God is Our Ultimate Authority
The second essential mindset for believers is that God is not only the ultimate authority over the cosmos, but that he is the ultimate authority in our hearts. This means that we must submit our political engagement, or detachment, to His authority. We can’t simply separate out political engagement as something to which God does not concern Himself. Nor can we separate out politics as a purely “secular” part of life completely divorced from our “spiritual” acts of discipleship and worship. Since God is the ultimate authority over the nations, he is able to, and will bring about his reign. Since he is the ultimate authority over our hearts, minds, and decisions, we are responsible to honor him as we engage with the political process.
God has given the world civil governments for its good
While there have been plenty of terrible instances of governments throughout human history, it appears, according to Romans 13, that the institution of the civil government has been given with the purpose of bringing about good in the world. It is one of the “common graces” which God gives to all people. The most obvious benefit of the civil government described in Romans 13 is justice, punishing the evildoer and rewarding the righteous. The documentary Poverty Cure shows how one of the keys to a flourishing society and economy is simply the presence of a civil government which enforces the rule of law, establishes property rights, has a system to seek justice, and provides other basic governmental functions.
Like any institution, a civil government can be a force for good or for evil. Based on Romans 13, I believe that God has established the role of the civil government for good, but that is not to say governments are therefore above reproach. All are fallen to one degree or another, but all also carry with them a potential good.
Christian political engagement should be motivated by love for neighbor
What then is the motivation for Christian political engagement? It is not the acquisition of power. God already has the power and does not need a civil government in order to validate that power. Christians, as the people of the cross, do not seek power for themselves, at least not for its own sake.
Instead, the motivation behind Christian political engagement ought to be a love for neighbor. If God has given civil governments for the common good, i.e., the good of our neighbors. And if he has given us the ability to participate in the political process. Then we have a responsibility (since God is sovereign over our hearts, minds, and decisions) to seek a government which will carry out its God given task to bring about the common good of its citizens, or to aid a government in that task.
This motivation, the love for neighbor, should in no way be seen as conflicting with the other “greatest commandment” which is to love God. For the Christian, the two are never in conflict. We love God by loving our neighbor and we love our neighbor by loving God. But in this case I have placed the emphasis on the “horizontal” aspect of our greatest commandment, since the role of the civil government primarily deals with that aspect of justice and goodness which is interpersonal.
What we have here, then, is a sort of stewardship which could appropriately be called “responsible love.” It is “responsible” in that we bear personal responsibility to use the wisdom of God to make decisions which honor Him and it is “love” in that our motivation is to seek the good of our neighbors.
While God is sovereign, He has allowed us as humans to participate by our free will in the affairs of the world. God’s will in the deciding of an election will not be overrun by human votes, but humans are still responsible for how they vote, or whether or not they decide not to vote. This is how God works with his people in more than just politics. God is able to provide for the needs of his children, but his children are responsible before God for being hard workers and wise stewards of their financial resources. God intervenes according to his will for his people, but his people are responsible for offering prayers for that intervention. The same is true for politics. We don’t engage in politics because we believe that if we don’t God’s plans will somehow be thwarted by other powers. We engage in politics because we are responsible before God to love our neighbor and seek their good and because we recognize that God has given the world an institution – the civil government – which is able to bring about goodness for our neighbors.