Republished, with permission, from Voice magazine, Jul/Aug 2013.
Americans have the privilege of living in a country with a great heritage and great opportunities. Our country has never been perfect, so it’s right for us to pray with the patriotic song line, “America, America, God mend thine every flaw.” But is there more that we should do about those flaws than pray? And if so, what shape should our public engagement look like? In particular, what about a Christian’s involvement in politics and social campaigning? Is there a way for us to put feet to our prayers that doesn’t put our feet on the wrong path?
This is a divisive issue among Christians. On one side are those who advocate a militant political approach to our nation’s moral ills. Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with some of today’s prominent forms of Christian political activism. There’s a real danger for the Church and Christians to become overly politicized. Sometimes Christians embroiled in public arena battles seem to lose sight of what the good fight of faith is really about. On the other hand are those who advocate a withdrawal from all engagement, seeing it as a rival to true Christian ministry. In some cases this includes prohibitions against voting of any kind. While I view my calling as an ambassador of Christ of far greater importance than my being a citizen of a great country, I believe there is such a thing as Christian citizenship, a way to meaningfully engage in the concerns of public life without getting our gospel priorities out of order.
What complicates this issue are the different settings when comparing the New Testament world to our own. The New Testament was written in an era in which Christians had virtually no ability to be engaged in political discussion about the common good. The Scripture tells believers to submit to human authorities so long as such submission does not impinge on their submission to King Jesus. Those directives are still applicable today. But when God puts His people in times and places where they have the freedom to influence public policy, what are they to do? Do they have a civic responsibility?
At the very least, Christians in the free world have a civic opportunity. Wisdom needs to dictate the degree of involvement, and that degree will not be the same for everyone or in every setting. Some might simply determine to take their role as voters more seriously, some might become active in communicating respectfully with their representatives, some might work to defend Christian liberties, and a few might become statesmen or politicians themselves. But to whatever degree Christians personally take advantage of the opportunities they have, their involvement ought to be governed by gospel driven motives and constraints.
What is the motivation?
Some of today’s Christian political action seems to be motivated by anger, fear, and power. Christians can be very vocal in their anger over the way our nation has degenerated. Along with anger, fear seems to motivate the discourse of some believers whenever they talk about the moral climate. This in turn motivates the pursuit of political power to abate that fear and anger. While there are grave matters of concern in our culture, we must not let that concern degenerate into angry, power-hungry fear. There is a time to express moral outrage, but Christians are taught by the gospel to be motivated in all of life by faith, hope, and love. Love in particular is a far greater motivator for Christian citizenship than fear. Christians ought to be known for their “politics of love”—that is, a love for others, for God’s truth, for Christ’s church, and for the gospel that drives our engagement in public affairs.
Consider how love can motivate us
First, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Mk 12:31). We will be better motivated to vote and engage in other forms of social action if we see such as opportunities to love our neighbors. Our love should show itself by endorsing values, policies, legislation, and leadership which promote righteousness, justice, and the common good. At times, our non-Christian neighbors may not agree with us as to what is the common good. For instance, the preservation of traditional marriage and opposition to gay marriage is a common good issue, but many progressives in our society don’t think that campaign is good at all. Love for one’s neighbors is not always understood or appreciated for what it is. But we must love even when we are hated. Love for our neighbors and pursuit of the common good is a much better Christian motivation than anger or fear.
Second, we are to love God’s truth and His glory. God is the originator of the principle of human government, and He designed it in part to reflect His glory. Poor government reflects poorly on God’s glory. Thus we should seek to lift up God’s truth so that others might see the goodness and wisdom of His ways. We are not called to build a theocracy—a distinction that Christians need to articulate clearly. Only the return of King Jesus will ever bring about the direct rule of God in this world. But when laws and structures of society fail to promote truth, righteousness, and justice, we should care, especially when we’re able to do something about it.
Third, we are to love the Church. Through our voting and social action, we have the opportunity to promote freedom which can aid the promotion of the gospel and the ministry of the Church. Paul instructed Timothy and the Church in Ephesus to pray for their secular rulers, partly with a view that the church would enjoy liberty in gospel proclamation (1 Timothy 2:1-6). Now, liberty must never become an idol. God knows how to make the Church grow whether in the soil of freedom or persecution. And yet neither Jesus nor the apostles instructed us to pursue a course of persecution. While early Christians had little voice in the days of Caesar, we have the sovereignly-given opportunity to influence government for the better and so care for one another.
Last, but not least, we need to love the gospel of Christ most of all. The real power to change people’s lives lies in the soul transforming power of Christ. First and foremost, we want to be known as people of the gospel, not as social campaigners. If the gospel is the soil of our lives and ministries, then the main tree that we should tend is the verbal proclamation of the Word and discipleship unto the obedience of Christ. There is room in that same soil to grow the lesser vines of Christian social action. But in the end, we want to be known for our commitment to the greater rather than the lesser.
We must remember that our faith and hope do not rest in our efforts, our laws, or our republic. Our faith and hope lie completely in King Jesus, regardless of what may happen to America. We are citizens of the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, a kingdom which will never fail. We need never worry about elections turning out badly in that realm. The work of the gospel must always claim our first allegiance and our greater energies.
But while we labor in light of Christ’s coming, there’s both room and need for us to seek the common good as an expression of gospel-motivated love. “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).
M. Scott Bashoor is senior pastor of the Bible Church of Buena Park, California and a professor at The Master’s Seminary.