Here’s the audio for the message
This is the question that I have been the most “anxious” about in this whole YouAskedForIt series. This question frequently intersects our lives and has the potential of being divisive within Northshore and within the larger evangelical movement. Here’s the question: What’s the Church’s role in politics?
A lot of people sent me questions, rants, and mini-novels about how we as Christians and the Church are to respond to the pervasive ills in our culture and how we can address these through political means. So my goal is to give a theological, biblical, and pastoral framework on how we can address this big question. Now with all of that being said, what I am going to share is my personal and pastoral vantage point. Let me explain that a bit more…
Personal. I have an interesting background when it comes to the issue of politics. I served in the Army as an infantry officer, and we were expected to have an “a-political” mindset, which meant that the President was our commander-in-chief. We were to submit, drive on, and do our mission regardless of our political leanings. I know this is overly simplistic, but it formed and still forms some of my personal perspective.
Pastoral. I took over as senior pastor in 2008 during a perfect storm… one of the most heated Presidential elections among evangelicals and the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression. Some of you thought I didn’t talk about the election enough, some of you thought I talked about it too much, and some of you thought I talked about it “just right.” I led us through that season with my personal, pastoral, biblical, and theological convictions.
Back to our question, “What’s the Church’s role in politics?” Here’s how we’re going to address this question: 3 Passages, 2 Kingdoms, 1 Conclusion
I have intentionally chosen to focus on three passages within the New Testament… and specifically, three passages from epistles or letters that were written to churches and Christians living under the rule of the Roman Empire: Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, and 1 Timothy 2:1-2. There are many passages I could have chosen from the Bible, but I have a couple of reasons for focusing on these three. First, in the Old Testament, Israel was a theocracy. This means they were the chosen people of God, and even though they had a king, their ultimate national Leader was God. So, in the Old Testament, even though there are great things we can learn about just, righteous laws and “politics,” I believe that Israel’s relationship with God is fundamentally different than the U.S. and even the Church. Even though I do believe that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and ethics, we as citizens of the United States are not the “people of God” as a national entity. And the Church is a worldwide multi-ethic, multi-cultural movement of people who confess Jesus Christ to be Savior, Lord, and King. The second reason why I’ve chosen three passages from the NT epistles is that the cultural context we find ourselves in has great similarity to the cultural contexts of Paul and Peter’s day.
Background to 3 Passages. In all three of these passages, the Roman emperor was Nero who reigned AD 54-68. Romans was written somewhere around AD 55-57, 1 Peter was written somewhere around AD 64, and 1 Timothy likely around AD 66-67. And here’s some background on the Roman Emperor Nero. Nero is one of the most infamous Roman emperors. He is best known for murdering his entire family, including his mother, stepbrother, and both of his wives. In AD 64, an enormous fire destroyed most of Rome and it was rumored (but never proven) that Nero set the fire. In order to deflect suspicion, he is said to have blamed the Christians in Rome for the fire, and he as a result, many Christians were tortured and executed. Tacitus (A.D. 56-117), a Roman senator and historian who lived during this time, wrote this about the torture and execution of Christians during Nero’s reign in Annals XV.44:
In their deaths they were made the subjects of sport; for they were wrapped in the hides of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set on fire, and when day declined, were burned to serve for nocturnal lights.
So Nero was not a nice guy… and all three of these passages that we’ll address were written while he was emperor. Now it is true that we live in a democracy which is a fundamentally different form of government, but what these passages address and how they address it still have bearing on our lives as followers of Jesus even though we live in the United States some 2000 years later.
Passage #1: Romans 13:1-7. In v. 1, Paul commands “every person is to be in subjection (or “submit”) to the governing authorities.” And here is why, “For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” And remember, who is the governing authority when Paul is writing this? Nero. So this applies to all rulers and governing authorities, whether they are good or bad. I believe that Paul is writing this passage in such a sweeping, unqualified way because he wanted the Roman Emperor Nero to get the message that God is over him and that there is a God-given moral law above the laws of the states and states are to act this way. That’s what Paul means in v. 4 – “for it [the governing authority] is a minister [or servant] of God to you for good.”
Now this begs the question, “what if the government is not acting in a manner which is contrary to the moral law of God?” When is civil disobedience appropriate and allowed? John Piper in his exposition of this passage has been hugely helpful in this area (see below for links to the 4-part series). Here’s how he explained the possible grounds for civil disobedience:
1. The grievousness of the action sanctioned by law. How atrocious is it? Is it a traffic pattern that you think is dumb? Or is the law sanctioning killing?
2. The extent of the unjust law’s effect. Is it a person affected here or there? Or is it millions?
3. The potential of civil disobedience for clear and effective witness to the truth. This is the question of strategy, and there will certainly be room here for differing judgments about whether a particular act of civil disobedience will be a clear and effective statement of what is just.
4. There is a movement of the spirit of courage and conviction from God in people’s lives that indicates the time is right. Historically, there appears to be a flash point of moral indignation. An evil exists for years, or perhaps generations, and then something strange happens. One person, and then tens of thousands of people, can no longer just get up and go to work and say, “I wish it weren’t this way.” A flash point is reached, and what had hung in the air for years as tolerable evil explodes with an overwhelming sense that this state of affairs simply can no longer be!
So this is where we have a different political freedom than the Christians of Paul’s day. They lived in a totalitarian regime under Nero, and we live in a democracy. We, as Christians can and should be involved in helping to overturn unjust laws. And I’ll qualify this more as the message progresses. But I want to remind that there is no authority except that which is from God.
For a great 4-part exposition of Romans 13:1-7 by Pastor John Piper titled “Subjection to God & Subjection to the State”
Passage #2: 1 Peter 2:13-17. Once again, Peter, who is writing around AD 64-65, quite possibly after Nero has burned Rome and is now torturing and executing Christians, still tells us to “submit [ourselves] for the Lord’s sake to every human institution… whether to the king… or to governors.” His inclusion of “for the Lord’s sake” echoes Paul’s command since the Lord has established their rule but it also adds the element of our witness. How we respond impacts our witness of Jesus Christ in our world. In v. 17, this is where Peter concludes his passage: “honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” The word “honor” means “to respect.” It’s the same word that is used in “honoring parents” and “honoring the Lord.” I think we need to keep this in mind as Christians, even when some of you don’t like or don’t agree with our President. Some of you might say, “he’s not the king,” but you know what Peter is saying… respect and honor those in authority. I have heard comments and read emails where Christians, of all people, are disrespectful towards the President. I’ve heard some Christians even quote Psalm 109:8 – “Let his days be few; Let another take his office.” Read the next verse, “Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.” This kind of disrespectful behavior is dishonoring and is out of bounds regardless of whether we agree with our leaders’ political positions or not. We completely have the freedom to disagree with political leaders, but we do not have the freedom in Christ to do it in a dishonoring, disrespectful way. Exercise your freedoms to vote people in and out of office, but once they are in there, be respectful and honoring, even if you disagree with them.
Passage #3: 1 Timothy 2:1-2. In our third passage, we are commanded to pray for our leaders. We are to pray for wisdom for them and for God to move their hearts so that they might recognize His authority over and in all things. Paul says that we are to pray so that “we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Once again, this letter to Timothy is written around AD 67 and Christians are experiencing persecution, torture, and execution at the hands of the state. And our lives and how we even respond to the state are to be with all godliness and “dignity” (behavior that is respectful).
The biblical and theological reality is that we live in the midst of two kingdoms… the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. So let’s take a moment to focus on these two kingdoms.
The Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God over all time, space, and history. This is the kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim and invite us into (see John 18:36). The centerpiece of the kingdom of God is the person and work of Jesus Christ… the salvation and redemption of humanity through His death and resurrection so that we might be brought back into relationship with the God who created us and love us for His greatest glory and for our greatest good. We are to seek first this kingdom. This is a statement of priorities… we are first and foremost as Christians and as the church always to be centered upon the kingdom of God. This kingdom is our first allegiance. We are first and foremost citizens of this kingdom. Here’s the way Paul puts this in Philippians 3:20 – “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The kingdom of the world. In contrast to the Kingdom of God is the kingdom of the world. It’s not a simple contrast between good and evil… as we’ve seen in our passages, God gives the governments of the kingdom of the world power to carry out the service of law-keeping and order in a fallen world. But the contrast between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world is fundamentally two different ways of doing life… to different mindsets and belief systems. The kingdom of the world trusts in the power of the sword and seeks to control behavior, while the kingdom of God trusts in the power of the cross and seeks to transform lives from the inside out.
Charles Coulson in his Kingdoms in Conflict explains the difference between the two kingdoms like this:
Nothing distinguishes the kingdoms of man from the Kingdom of God more than their diametrically opposed views of the exercise of power. One seeks to control people, the other to serve people; one promotes self; the other prostrates self; one seeks prestige and position, the other lifts up the lowly and despised. It is crucial for Christians to understand the difference (274).
Once again, we are citizens of a different kingdom while still being citizens of our country. But the way in which we engage our world is to reflect the Kingdom of God much more than the kingdom of the world. And whenever the church and Christians try to wed the two together, history tells us that the values of the kingdom of the world tend to eclipse the values of the Kingdom of God… power and prestige tend to corrupt us. As we talked about in The Story of God series when I presented 2000 Years of Church History in 40 Minutes, in my interpretation of Church history, whenever the church cozies up too closely with the reigning societal, cultural, and political powers, we lose our ability to clearly and powerfully see and speak Jesus into that societal, cultural, and political landscape. Let’s just be honest, we like power. As fallen humans who like to build our own kingdoms, and in doing so, we are drawn to power and prestige… and in doing so, we look much more like the kingdom of the world than the Kingdom of God. So in this we must be very careful.
For more discussion and critique on the 2 Kingdoms view, see “Two Kingdom Theology and Neo-Kuyperians” (Kevin DeYoung)
Let me tell you up front, what I am about to say is the conclusion that I personally and pastorally arrive at when it comes to the Church’s role in politics. Some of you might not agree with me and some of you might… but here’s my one conclusion: There is a difference between what the Church should do as an “institution” and what Christians should do as responsible citizens. Let me explain it by what roles I believe that we should take as we engage our culture, which includes politics.
The Church. Here’s what I believe the church’s role to be as we engage our world in the cultural and political arena.
1. Prophetic Voice. As the Church we must always keep ourselves free of anything that compromises our ability to clearly, powerfully, and prophetically speak Jesus Christ and His life-transforming gospel into all areas of society, culture, and politics. Let me explain “prophetic” by the next role…
2. Proclaim Truth. The role of the Church (and therefore my role as a pastor in the church) is to preach, teach, and speak God’s Word and God’s Truth. I have said this numerous times from the pulpit… I will never tell you how to vote, but I will always proclaim the Truth of God’s word about what He has to say about the issues, which present themselves in our culture. As the Church, we are not to promote any political agenda… we are to promote the truth of God and His Word.
3. Point to Jesus. Going back to the reality of two kingdoms, everything that the Church is called to do is to point to Jesus Christ and His Cross. Our mission as the Church is to preach Christ crucified and risen so that lives are transformed from the inside out for God’s glory. That is our focus. We are to be on a mission to broken world, calling people to repent of building their own kingdoms and come to the God who changes lives through the power of His kingdom.
The Christian. Now it is true that we as Christians, as followers of Christ, make up the Church. While I truly and wholeheartedly believe that the Church is prophetically proclaim truth in our world and therefore never to be aligned with a political party or movement, I do believe that as followers of Jesus who live in a democratic society, we should exercise our liberties to make a difference when and how we can. Here are a couple of things for you to keep in mind as you engage in the political process.
1. Be Gracious & Respectful. As you have conversations with people of different political persuasions, be gracious and respectful. We do not live in a Christian culture, especially in the Northwest, and if we are going to have any audience and influence upon people, we first need to listen to other people, and then we need to present our vantage point with grace and respect. That grace and respect communicates that we actually care about the other person. And if you don’t care about the other person, then you’ll tend to lack grace and you’ll come across as disrespectful and you will have no influence for Jesus or for His Kingdom.
2. Think Biblically. Think through the issues biblically. The Bible does not address every cultural and political issue that we face, but the Bible does teach us the heart, character, and nature of God and as we pray to see our world and the issues we face through His eyes and with His heart, then our vantage point on issue will have a greater grounding in God’s Word. There are issues I believe that the Bible is very clear on and there are issues that aren’t so clear in the Bible. Have the wisdom and the humility to know the difference.
3. Think Holistically. Think through all of the issues… there are numerous issues in our culture that God really cares about. And yes, those do include the killing of the innocent in abortion and euthanasia, as well as racial genocide. And God cares also about how we take care of the poor locally, nationally, and internationally. God cares about how we take of His creation (we are called to be stewards after all). God cares about how we engage in foreign policy and wars. So we need to think through all of the issues biblically and holistically. In this way, as followers of Jesus, we can interact, influence, and vote how the Holy Spirit leads us.
Let me close with a final admonition… keep Jesus Christ and His gospel central in all you do. I make it my one aim to keep Jesus central at Northshore… in everything we do. It will only be through His gospel, His power, and His grace that lives, nations, and the world change. He uses His people to be and bring the change as we live Him out in our unique callings in our world. We are all called to be influencers and ambassadors for Jesus… in our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, our communities, our workplaces, our cities, our state, our nation, and our world. And we do that best as we keep Jesus Christ and His gospel central in all that we are and in all that we do… as we allow His Holy Spirit to transform our lives and lead us… for His glory and for our good and the good of a broken world that badly needs Him.
For some additional resources on the interaction between the Church, culture, and politics, read:
(Disclaimer: Although I find these resources helpful, I do not agree with everything within them. As you read, read critically, biblically, and theologically)
unChristian (David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons) – especially Chapter 7 “Too Political”
God’s Politics (Jim Wallis)