Is there a role for Adventists in politics?
Abraham, Joseph, Esther, Daniel, Moses. Familiar names to most everyone. But, for a moment, consider how these and other Bible characters were catapulted to center stage. Consider also the significant blessings brought upon the world as a result of their having occupied positions in politics.
Joseph exercised his God-given gift of interpreting dreams when he foretold seven years of prosperity for Egypt followed by an equal number of years of devastating famine. He then crafted a plan by which to safeguard the nation and its inhabitants during these perilous times. Rewarded for his sound advice, Joseph was appointed head of state, second only to the king. “Why did the Lord choose to exalt Joseph so highly among the Egyptians? He might have provided some other way for the accomplishment of His purposes. . . but He desired to make Joseph a light, and He placed him in the palace of the king that the heavenly illumination might extend far and near. . . . So in Moses also God placed a light beside the throne of the earth's greatest kingdom, that all who would, might learn of the true and living God.”1
Similar to the experience of Joseph and Moses was that of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Seeing in these youth the promise of remarkable ability, Nebuchadnezzar determined that they should be trained to fill important positions in his kingdom. “Behold the Jewish captive [Daniel], calm and self-possessed in the presence of the monarch of the world's most powerful empire.… The King of kings was about to communicate great truth to the Babylonian monarch.”2 And, rewarded for his distinguished service, “the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men. Moreover, at Daniel's request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon, while Daniel himself remained at the royal court” (Daniel 2:48, 49, NIV).
The Old Testament line-up of godly individuals employed in public service continues with Ezra. His life “among the Jews who remained in Babylon was so unusual that it attracted the favorable notice of King Artaxerxes, with whom he talked freely regarding the power of the God of heaven. . . . So great was the king's confidence in the integrity of Ezra that he showed him marked favor.… He made him a special representative of the Medo-Persian kingdom, and conferred on him extensive powers.”3 Likewise, Nehemiah, chief security officer (cupbearer) for King Artaxerxes “was admitted freely to the royal presence. By virtue of his position, and because of his abilities and fidelity, he had become the monarch's friend and counselor.”4
Obadiah, yet another devout believer in the Lord, was appointed governor of King Ahab's palace (1 Kings 18). He remained faithful to God irrespective of his position with Israel's most wicked king. Furthermore, because of his trusted position, Obadiah was able to shelter and feed one hundred of God's prophets during the nation's three-and-a-half-year famine.
Then there was Esther, who in God's providence was chosen queen of the Medo-Persian kingdom. In that capacity she alone was able to thwart Haman's plans to exterminate God's people. And, for reporting an attempted assassination on King Ahasuerus' life, Esther's uncle, Mordecai, was given the position formerly occupied by Haman, “elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than all the other nobles” (Esther 3:1, NIV).5
In contrast to the Old Testament, New Testament writers explore more the kingdom of righteousness. However, it continues to profile people involved in public affairs. One such story is that of Zacchaeus. Luke (19) relates the dramatic change wrought in this man's life because of his encounter with Christ. And, as a result of their meeting, this once disreputable character now discharges his duties with a clear conscience, yet there is no evidence to suggest that Christ intimated that Zacchaeus abandon his position as Jericho's chief tax collector.
Then we have the life of John Wycliffe, a modern-day Christian holding various governmental appointments. Ellen White comments: “While acting as chaplain for the king, he [John Wycliffe] took a bold stand against the payment of tribute claimed by the pope from the English monarch.… The demands of the pope excited great indignation, and Wycliffe's teaching exerted an influence upon the leading minds of the nation.… Again Wycliffe was called to defend the rights of the English crown against the encroachments of Rome; and being appointed a royal ambassador, he spent two years in the Netherlands.… Soon after his return to England, Wycliffe received from the king the appointment to the rectory of Lutterworth. This was an assurance that the monarch at least had not been displeased with his plain speaking. Wycliffe's influence was felt in shaping the action of the court, as well as in molding the belief of the nation.”6
Throughout the ages, Christ's followers have influenced those in authority. What these persons held in common were characters beyond reproach, respect for temporal leaders, and responsiveness to God's voice. Their exemplary lives underscore the value of Christians holding public office.
Irrespective of examples from Scripture, there exists great divergence of thought with regard to the degree or level of Christian involvement in politics. Believers' thinking toward the state seems to sway between two extremes. On the one hand are those who, like the Jehovah Witnesses, disassociate themselves from anything political, eschewing any form of political participation, including voting, entering military service, or holding elected office based on their conviction that “all governments are under Satan's control.”7 This is in sharp contrast to the Catholic Church which regularly formulates positions on social justice and public policy, staffs an Office of Government Liaison representing the church's position before the U.S. Congress,8 and maintains a website by which to inform the laity of positions held by the church on various political issues.9 Then there are those who occupy positions to the extreme right of the spectrum, laboring to establish Christ's kingdom as an earthly domain, a modern-day theocracy.
Aliens and strangers
As a church, Seventh-day Adventists manifest ambivalence when it comes to participation in politics, with one exception–in defense of religious liberty. Most problematic seems to be the interpretation and application of five passages of Scripture. The first biblical passage refers to Christians as “aliens and strangers” on planet Earth (Hebrews 11:13-16; Philippians 3:20-21). Similarly, church hymns make reference to God's people as “pilgrims.” But should these “other world” references lead one to conclude that persons of faith have no moral responsibility toward this present, earthly home?
Christ was challenged on this very point–as to where Christians' loyalties should lay. The question posed was, “To whom should personal taxes be paid, to God or Caesar?” It was on this occasion that the Master introduced the concept of dual citizenship. He clearly stated that both the earthly and heavenly realms are deserving of our allegiance (Matthew 22:15-22; see also Romans 13). Christians are to adhere to national laws and support national initiatives, when not in violation of conscience, while ever mindful of a higher, a heavenly commission (2 Corinthians 5:20).
God's role in earthly powers
A second biblical concept with which Christians wrestle is that of distinguishing God's role in earthly governance from that of our own. Since God's work is to establish and remove rulers (Daniel 2), doesn't that then make a Christian's involvement in the political process unnecessary, even meddlesome?
In fact, it is true that all those in authority–presidents, prime ministers, and kings–rule only at God's bidding. Consider, for instance, the control God exercised over Babylon's prideful King Nebuchadnezzar. While out walking one day on the roof of the royal palace, he mused, “‘Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?'” The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, “‘This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes'” (Daniel 4:29-32, NIV). This historical account clearly demonstrates God's power over earthly potentates.
But the prophet Micah (6:8) calls our attention to our important responsibilities as believers–practicing justice and extending mercy, exercised with utmost humility. Similarly, the prophet Amos (5:24) called out for justice to “roll on like a river, and righteousness like never-failing streams”(NIV). Would it then be conscientious of Good Samaritans to repeatedly encounter victims along the roadside without inquiring as to how to reduce the crime rate? And would it be deemed responsible for Christians to daily dispense bread to the hungry yet not contemplate the nation's economic policy and methods by which it might be improved? Helping to formulate public policies is one avenue available for Christians to provide evidence of their faith through their works–by exercising concern for others.
Not to be yoked with the unbeliever
A third warning issued by those who would dissuade Christians from seeking public office is that we are not to be yoked with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-17). The concern is that affiliation with the world will cause one to become spiritually contaminated or to compromise principle.
One theologian weighing in on the application of this biblical principle is Ronald Thiemann, dean of Harvard University's Divinity School. He writes that “precisely because a pluralistic society requires conversation and exchange with those who are ‘different,' public space provides a context within which faith seeks understanding in dialogue with persons holding diverse commitments.”10 The public square affords a challenging yet rewarding forum for following Christ's admonition to be wise as serpents yet harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16).
Kingdom and the world
The fourth argument posed against Christians entering politics is Christ's own words: ‘“My kingdom is not of this world'” (John 18:36, NIV). Reference is made to Ellen White's commentary that “the government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses–extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet the Saviour attempted no civil reforms. He attacked no national abuses, nor condemned the national enemies. He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power. He who was our example kept aloof from earthly governments. Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart.”11
No Christian would dispute the fact that humanity cannot be “improved” by legislative means or governmental edicts. Rather, it is a changed heart that transforms character, behavior, situations, and thus, society. But this statement of Ellen White was not intended to limit arenas in which Christians might work and witness.
In fact, we find Ellen White speaking publicly and publishing extensively in favor of the strictly enforced city and town ordinances closing saloons,12 against the enactment of Sunday laws,13against the “sin of slavery.”14 She also spoke in defense of Seventh-day Adventists during the U.S. Civil War, threatened by the military draft.15
Furthermore, she provided the following encouragement to young people contemplating politics as a Christian vocation. “Dear youth: what is the aim and purpose of your life? Are you ambitious for education that you may have a name and a position in the world? Have you thoughts that you dare not express that you may one day stand upon the summit of intellectual greatness; that you may sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation? There is nothing wrong in these aspirations. You may every one of you make the mark. You should be content with no mean attainments. Aim high, and spare no pain to reach the standard.”16
Her life demonstrated that there is a call to Christian involvement in politics born, not of partisanship, but of thoughtful review of the issues and responsible action.
Indeed, there are specific prohibitions offered to Adventists with regard to church involvement in politics: (1) those who “teach the Bible” in the churches and schools are not to express their partiality for or against certain politicians or political issues for it may stir up the minds of others, leading to division in the church; (2) church members are discouraged from voting along party lines “for we do not know whom we are voting for;” (3) members are admonished not to “take part in any political scheme” or political partnerships. Rather, Ellen White reminds us that Adventists are to be governed by elevated and holy principles: (4) members are not to align themselves with politicians unsupportive of religious liberty; (5) Christians are not to wear “political badges” that would in any way lead to division within the church; (6) tithe should not be used to pay anyone for “speechifying on political questions;” and (7) church publications should not exalt influential individuals for they are mere mortals, nor laud their work, as it passes away.17
By living exemplary lives, Christians serve as epistles “known and read by everybody” (2 Corinthians 3:2, NIV), for the express purpose of recruiting citizens for Christ's eternal kingdom.
Separation of church and state
Separation of church and state is the fifth and strongest argument urged upon Christians who would seek political posts. But, what might surprise Christians is to learn that most governments share concerns of the religious community when it comes to co-mingling the sacred with the secular. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote, “Most of us do not want our leaders confusing their own will with God's but neither do we want them to ignore religious and moral principles.”18
An honest assessment of church-state relations demonstrates plenteous benefits that religious groups derive from sound political structures–tax exemption of church properties and federal aid to students attending religious institutions of higher learning in the U.S., to name just two. Besides these and other benefits, think about how difficult the work of the church would be without governmental guarantees of civil liberties and the rule of law.
Likewise, consider how impoverished nations would be without God-fearing folk. By maintaining high moral standards, acting on love for one's neighbor, operating local food banks and extending international disaster relief, Christians exert a positive influence on the social order. “Were those who serve God removed from the earth, and His Spirit withdrawn from among men, this world would be left to desolation and destruction, the fruit of Satan's dominion. Though the wicked know it not, they owe even the blessings of this life to the presence, in the world, of God's people whom they despise and oppress.”19
Seventh-day Adventists have a vital role to play in the nation's governing process. When Christians absent themselves from politics, what political scientist David Easton terms “the authoritative allocation of values,”20 public policy is left to unbelievers: School curriculum is designed, national policy is set, and global determinations are made without offering a Christian, a Seventh-day Adventist perspective. Might those governing interpret our silence as Adventists holding no opinion on issues, that Adventists have nothing to contribute to the discussion?
Granted, the life of faith must be given priority over political matters. As Christians, we are ambassadors, not of a political party, but of Christ's kingdom. Politics is volatile and if one is not careful, a political point won can be a missed opportunity to reach the hearts of people holding opposing positions. Christians must be ever mindful of their first calling.
Scripture contains many examples of God's messengers having compromised the position to which they were entrusted. King Saul became so totally absorbed with eradicating his presumed enemy that he failed to lead the nation to God's ideal. Another example is that of David. God instructed the king not to conduct a census of males of military age for fear that the nation would base its security on the size of the army rather than on reliance on the power of God. Nevertheless, David ordered the headcount, with devastating results. Wisest of all men, King Solomon allowed his nation to degenerate as a direct result of his becoming preoccupied with women. Then there was King Hezekiah who, in welcoming Babylonian representatives, extolled his nation's economic vitality rather than introducing his visitors to God, the source of these blessings.
“Strong were the temptations surrounding them [Daniel and his three colleagues] in that corrupt and luxurious court.21 But, “[i]t was not pride or ambition that had brought them into the king's court, into companionship with those who neither knew nor feared God.”22 “Their faith was strong in the consciousness that God had placed them there where they were, that they were doing His work and meeting the demands of duty.”23
Today scores of Adventists serve their countries faithfully as judges, ambassadors, city mayors, ministers in government positions, and other prominent roles. Whether Christians serve as political appointees, government staffers, or private citizens equipped with a voice, a vote, and a prayer (Jeremiah 29:7), may the glory of God radiate through us, promoting justice and well-being, and attracting men and women to Christ's eternal kingdom.
Jane Sabes (Ph.D., Auburn University) is a political science professor at Andrews University. Previously, she served as secretary of health and human services in the State of Wyoming. Her mailing address: Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104, U.S.A. Email: email@example.com.
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1958), pp. 368, 369.
- --------, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1947) pp. 496-498.
- Ibid., pp. 607-610.
- Ibid., p. 628.
- See Ibid., pp. 601,602.
- _____, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1911), pp. 81-85.
- Ronald F. Thiemann, Religion in Public Life: A Dilemma for Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1996), 169.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1948), p. 509.
- _____, Signs of the Times, (December 04, 1907).
- _____, Review and Herald, (March 30, 1911).
- _____, Review and Herald (August 27, 1861); Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn, 1948), vol. 1, pp. 264, 534.
- Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Progressive Years 1863-1876 (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1986), p. 40 with additional references located on p. 34-44 and 99-109.
- Ellen G. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1923), p. 82.
- _____, “Special Testimony Relating to Politics,” Fundamentals of Christian Education (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1923), pp. 475-484.
- Madeline Albright, The Mighty & the Almighty (New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 2006), p.104.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 306.
- David Easton, A Framework for Political Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
- Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn. 1911), p. 482.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Ibid., p. 493; see also pp. 494 and 497, 498.