The Christian and politics: Peril or opportunity?

A case for living a life like Christ, of Christ, and for Christ in every way.

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 or seek to legislate morality?

In this article, we will first seek to identify a framework for the Christian’s stance on politics. Then we will consider how the biblical perspective might relate to a number of sociopolitical issues.

A biblical framework

We begin with perhaps the most fundamental question: How should a Christian relate to politics? A number of perspectives have been offered regarding this relationship. These might be defined as (1) rejection, (2) paradox, (3) critical collaboration, (4) synthesis, and (5) imposition.1 While each of these positions (summarized in Figure 1) may be an appropriate response in a specific circumstance, it would seem helpful to identify a unifying framework for the Christian position.

Such an overarching response might be described as the position of Lordship—the recognition that Jesus Christ is Lord of all (see Acts 10:36; 1 Corinthians 1:2), and that human society in each of its dimensions must be cognizant of His sovereignty (see Figure 3). This acknowledgement of the Lordship of Christ extends to the political arena (see Colossians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 10:31). Consequently, the believer does not possess dual citizenship, but rather is a citizen of the encompassing kingdom of God (see Psalm 47:8).

At the same time, the Christian recognizes that humanity is embroiled in the cosmic conflict between good and evil, between Christ and Satan (see Genesis 3; Revelation 12:17). This great controversy perspective acknowledges manifestations of both good and evil in each aspect of society, including politics. Consequently, in the Christian worldview, evil is opposed, yet human culture is affirmed and elevated, by the grace of God.

In any aspect of life, it is vital to consider biblical principles when formulating a Christian position. Throughout Scripture, various passages present guiding principles regarding the relationship of the Christian and politics (see Figure 3). We also find the case of individuals—such as Joseph, Moses, Deborah, David, Elisha, Daniel, Nehemiah, Mordecai, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and Jesus Christ, who exemplified these principles in action. We will build on these principles and cases as we now turn to specific sociopolitical issues.

Involvement in social causes

As Christians, we cannot ignore pressing social needs. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, we must provide assistance to the economically deprived, bring freedom to the oppressed, protect the vulnerable and powerless, and provide a voice for the marginalized and neglected (see Matthew 25:36; Luke 4:18). As stewards of the earth (Genesis 2:15; Revelation 11:18), we must work to protect God’s creation and improve the lives of others. In essence, we must love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39).

This involvement, however, is not limited to feeding the hungry and meeting the needs of the sick, as important as that is. As Adventists, we must also use our influence to raise the sensitivity of society and become a catalyst for action. We must seek to redress wrongs so that the disadvantaged members of our communities may have an opportunity to regain their self-sufficiency and self-worth.2

Furthermore, as Adventists, we must focus attention not only on individuals, but on the larger society. We must not simply “operate ‘ambulances’ to pick up the bloody victims of destructive social structures,”3 but rather, endeavor to change the structures themselves, building positive alternatives to existing evil. It is through this engagement with a hurting world that we catapult the message of Christ into mainstream culture.

Engagement in political activism

As Adventists, we must beware of passivity. We have been called to make a difference (see Matthew 5:13-15). Furthermore, a believer who does not speak out against wrong shares to a certain extent the guilt of those who commit the wrong (see Ezekiel 3:17-19). God does not expect believers to withdraw from society and leave sociopolitical control in the hands of the ungodly (see Proverbs 29:2). Ironically, “doing nothing” is in itself a political action, an abdication which opens the way for political control by those who do not espouse Christian values.

It seems clear that the Christian has a responsibility where moral issues are involved—such as the legalizing of same-sex marriages, smoking in public places, and various forms of gambling. In other areas, the believer must decide, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whether a particular form of activism constitutes acceptable Christian service or lies outside the gospel mandate.

Regardless of the particular issue, we also need to examine the form of activism. While Christians should avoid unethical or violent forms of political activism, there may be modes of activism that harmonize with Christian values and beliefs, and provide an avenue to “do justly, to love mercy” (Matthew 26:52; Micah 6:8, KJV). This may involve holding civil leaders accountable to the promises they have made and to their God-given role of establishing justice and maintaining civil order (see Romans 13). It may include the critique of government, as well as proposing strategies to enhance the well-being of society (see Genesis 41; 2 Samuel 12:1-15; 1 Kings 13:1-9; Matthew 14:1-4; Acts 24:25). It may call for speaking out against government policies that promote domination, oppression, or enslavement. It may require a stand against militant nationalism that ignores the brotherhood of all mankind (see Acts 17:26). Perhaps, most significantly, it may entail advocacy, mediation, and conciliation.4

Civil disobedience

Given the directive to submit to government, as well as the believer’s supreme commitment to God (see Acts 4:19; 5:29; 1 Peter 2:13-15; Romans 13:1-7), what is the Christian to do when the state requires that which is contrary to God’s will? This tension finds expression in Christian civil disobedience—conscientious, nonviolent action or refusal to act, which will be treated by governing authorities as a violation of law.

There is ample precedent for religious civil disobedience. Josephus5 narrates the story of Jewish resistance to Pilate’s introduction of images of the emperor into Jerusalem, in which many Jews lay in the courtyard for five days in protest. When Pilate ordered his soldiers to surround them and threaten their slaughter if they did not submit, the Jews bared their necks and said slaughter was preferable to desecration. Pilate relented, and the emperor’s images were removed.

Marcellus, a Roman centurion martyred in A.D. 298, refused to worship the emperor as a requirement for military service. He declared instead: “I cease from this military service of your emperors, and I scorn to adore your gods of stone and wood, which are deaf and dumb idols. If such is the position of those who render military service that they should be compelled to sacrifice to gods and emperors, then I cast down my vine-staff and belt, I renounce the standards, and I refuse to serve as a soldier.”6

Similarly, in the 16th century, Anabaptists violated the law by not baptizing their infants and by rebaptizing adults. The result was a concerted persecution that nearly resulted in annihilation.7 More recently, in the aftermath of slavery in North America, Martin Luther King effectively used civil disobedience in the fight against discrimination. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu stood firmly against apartheid, engaging in Christian civil disobedience at great personal cost.8

With such high stakes at risk, the Christian must find an effective means of testing whether a given situation truly requires civil disobedience. This might include the following filters: (1) The law opposed is immoral, in conflict with a higher claim. Christians were correct, therefore, when they hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II. (2) Non-disobedient recourses have been exhausted. Prior to engaging in civil disobedience, the believer should seek redress—requesting more favorable legislation, for example, or using the courts to seek to overturn a law that violates protected human rights. These methods have been used successfully, for example, by the Mennonites on issues of military service and the payment of taxes for war. (3) There is willingness to accept the penalty. In essence, believers who engage in civil disobedience must be willing to submit to government and suffer the consequences of their holy obedience—though it may mean loss of possessions, liberty, or life. With these criteria9 in place, it is more likely that any civil disobedience will also be a manifestation of divine obedience.

Political compromise

Christians sometimes retreat from political involvement because it involves conflict and compromise. We must recognize, though, that cooperation and “finding common ground” are, in fact, forms of compromise and are essential in any effective society.

The case of Pilate wrongfully condemning Christ to death, however, is a warning against the dangers of compromise. The key questions are then: Does a particular political involvement require an inevitable compromise with evil? Can a Christian in politics preserve his or her moral integrity? The deciding factor then is whether the compromise involves yielding biblical principles of morality.10 When it does not, the believer can cooperate with others to achieve a win-win solution to the conflict. When it does sacrifice principle, however, one must draw the line—prepared to even resign from political office if there is no other acceptable alternative.

Voting

Is it appropriate for a Christian to vote on a particular issue or for a specific individual? Is it proper to urge another individual to vote in a certain way? The Bible doesn’t address voting directly, principally because the prevailing forms of government at that time were not democracies. Perhaps the closest scenario may be found in the selection of deacons in the early Christian church (Acts 6:1-7). The believers were counseled to “‘choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom’” (NIV). It would thus seem that both moral integrity and a clear understanding of contemporary issues are key criteria in selecting candidates for office.

Some Christians argue that while God said to pray for civil leaders (1 Timothy 2:1, 2), He did not say to vote. Voting for a candidate, they maintain, would amount to placing confidence in men.11 While the Christian should clearly pray for the leaders of government, this does not preclude action at the polls. Christ also told us to pray for our daily bread. Should we then merely sit back and let God provide, or should we find a job and let God use us as a means to answer the prayer?

In essence, by not choosing, we decide. By not voting, we still take a stand, but it may not necessarily be the position that we would wish to take. Certain government decisions impact the family: for example, establishing standards of decency for the media, regulating drug abuse, or defining what is taught in school. According to Scripture, believers are responsible to provide for their families and to protect them from harm (Proverbs 22:6; Ephesians 5:28, 29;

  • Timothy 5:8). If one’s vote can help safeguard the family and create a more wholesome environment for one’s children, should we refuse to vote and let immoral interests bear sway?12
  • This presupposes, of course, that we are informed. Both as Christians and as citizens, we have a duty to become educated regarding political issues and platforms. We recognize, however, that every individual is still a free moral agent, and that a politician may take actions once in office contrary to his or her stated beliefs and positions prior to election. At that point, we are not responsible for those actions, but we should, through our influence, hold that individual accountable to the pledges made.

    Finally, as Christians, we recognize and respect individual freedom of conscience and belief. Consequently, we must never attempt to coerce individuals to vote, or to vote in a particular manner.13 Nor should we seek to create a powerful Christian block and enforce a moral agenda. Rather, in voting, as in all other aspects of life, we should seek both peace and righteousness.

    Partisan alignment

    The Seventh-day Adventist Church must never align itself with a particular political party or political system. Such identification, Beach notes, “may bring about a quick alpha of temporary privilege, but it will inevitably sweep the church down the slippery political slope toward the omega of evangelistic and prophetic paralysis.”14 It will erode the separation of church and state, and may ultimately lead to religious intolerance and the corruption of belief.

    Ellen White, furthermore, cautions against denominationally-employed pastors and teachers running for political office or engaging in partisan activities.15 The reason is that such political affiliation risks being divisive. A pastor, for example, could split a church along party lines and thus weaken his or her ability to minister to the whole congregation.

    What about party affiliation on a personal level? Is there a difference between political action and participation in a political party? While concern for a particular issue may lead one to support a given candidate running on a partisan platform, we should not confuse moral political action with party politics. A Christian, consequently, must refrain from voting a “straight party ticket” —supporting a candidate due merely to party affiliation. Endorsement of certain key moral issues may, in fact, cross party lines, given the platform adopted and the candidates involved. In essence, all partisan commitment must be cautious and conditional.16

    Holding political office

    Is it proper for a Christian to hold public office, either elective or appointive? How can Christians run for office without fracturing the church of which they are a part? Can a Christian politician really do much in politics that is truly Christian? Do Christian politicians have any right to allow their conscience to override the majority view of their constituents? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions. As Christian believers, however, we must carefully seek a Christian response.

    Cases in Scripture, such as Joseph, Daniel, and Nehemiah, indicate that a believer can effectively occupy a position in secular government without sacrificing moral principle. Similarly, Ellen White states there is nothing wrong with aspiring to “sit in deliberative and legislative councils, and help to enact laws for the nation,” provided that one does not compromise religious principle.17 One must, however, candidly examine the motive for seeking political office. Is one’s motivation the desire to address injustices or enhance the well-being of others, or is it a motive of fame, power, economic benefit, or self-aggrandizement?

    Perhaps the most complex aspect, however, involves the matter of identification with a particular political party, given that the vast majority of elected positions and many civil appointments involve partisan affiliation. Although one may always choose to run as an independent, the chance of breaking into government without partisan recognition in many cases is but marginal.

    If a believer does decide to affiliate with a political party, the relationship should be qualified. A Seventh-day Adventist politician simply cannot make an irrevocable commitment to anything that is not authentically Christian. Furthermore, he or she must be sensitive to the mission of the church and refrain from partisan words or actions that might damage its mission or fracture its community.

    Legislating morality

    Should Christians endeavor to legislate morality? Is there a particular Christian political agenda that believers should seek to implement? Are Christians called by God to take over government?

    While we are to be concerned with promoting righteousness, we recognize that one cannot make individuals good through legislation. A law—whether civil or biblical—does not, of itself, transform. It can merely seek to exercise some control over human behavior. Government, in essence, cannot perfect humankind, it can only protect. If morality were not to be legislated, however, then there would be no laws against theft, rape, or murder.18 Thus the question is not so much whether we should legislate morality or not, but rather what kind of morality we should legislate and how that should take place.

    How can an Adventist best contribute to ensure that laws reflect a biblical moral standard? Some avenues for action are through petitions, speaking directly with one’s elected representatives, voting for individuals who support moral issues, protesting bad decisions through pen and voice, and becoming directly involved as a politician in government. At the same time, we must recognize that endeavoring to legislate against all sin could result in a totalitarian state.

    In an insightful essay,19 Richard Neuhaus describes the “naked public square,” where religious values have been stripped from the public arenas of discourse. He also portrays the “sacred public square,” which seeks to arrogantly impose religious values by force. Both, he says, are wrong. What Christians should promote is a “civil public square,” that allows open and vigorous debate of controversial issues. To this arena, Adventists should bring a biblical perspective and persuasively present its inherent value to the well-being of society.

    Concluding thought

    In sum, although politics of itself is not inherently good or evil, there are perils as well as opportunities for us as Christians. There are dangers of compromise of principle and corruption of values, as well as allowing an involvement with politics to become all-absorbing. At the same time, there are also significant opportunities for fulfilling the divine mandate to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” serving as an effective witness for God. This perspective may lead us to a radical reorientation of thinking—from seeing Christian engagement primarily in terms of sociopolitical action, to viewing political involvement as the faithful response of witness.20

    Moreover, as Seventh-day Adventists, we must view politics in the light of end-time events, where political systems will attempt to legislate conscience and expediency will seek to trump truth (see Revelation 13:16, 17). We should be prepared to speak out in support of religious freedom and human rights, and against discrimination and decadence. We are to remain true to our duty of worshiping the Creator of heaven and earth, of which the Sabbath is a sign of allegiance (Revelation 14:6-12). We must take hold of the Word of God as the supreme authority in our lives, shaping all of our interactions, including our relationship to politics.

    While degree and form of political participation may vary for the Church, its leaders, and individual members, the mission of the gospel must always include both the proclamation, as well as 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. It includes caring for God’s creation in all of its diversity —even “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25:40, KJV—. It is a commitment to live a life like Christ, of Christ, and for Christ in every way.

    John Wesley Taylor V, Ph.D., is an Associate director of the Department of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Church. Throughout his career, he has worked in a dozen countries, under a variety of political systems. He may be contacted by e-mail: taylorjw@gc.adventist.org.

    REFERENCES

    1. In developing these categories, I am indebted to the work of H. Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), and N. Thomas, “Church-State Relations and Mission,” in James Phillips and Robert Cootes, eds., Toward the 21st Century in Christian Mission (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William Eerdmans, 1993), p. 363.
    2. B. Beach, for example, argues that “Christianity is not a religion of isolated individualism or insulated introversion; it is a religion of community. Christian gifts and virtues have social implications. Commitment to Jesus Christ means commitment to all God’s children and commitment begets responsibility for the welfare of others” (in “The Christian and Politics,” Dialogue (1997), 9:1 pp. 5, 6). This concept is further developed in C. Henderson, “Will a Real Biblical Politics Please Stand Up?”, 2007, via http://www.godweb.org/biblicalpolitics.htm.
    3. R. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press), p. 192.
    4. The Seventh-day Adventist Church, for example, has issued statements on climate change, human cloning, racism, birth control, and same-sex unions, as well as statements which have focused on specific political events, such as the crisis in Kosovo or the London terrorist attacks. These are available online at http://www.adventist.org/beliefs/statements/index.html.
    5. Flavius Josephus (trans. by William Whiston), “Antiquities of the Jews,” in Josephus, The Complete Works (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1960), p. 379.
    6. C. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (New York: The Seabury Press, 1982), p. 152.
    7. D. Heffelbower, “The Christian and Civil Disobedience,” Direction, (1986), 15:1 pp. 23-30.
    8. We might note that the philosophy of civil disobedience against moral evil was developed in modern times by individuals such as Henry Thoreau (e.g., Civil Disobedience) and Leo Tolstoy (e.g., Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence and The Kingdom of God Is Within You).
    9. Developed more fully in S. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
    10. We must always “‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness’” (Matthew 6:33, NKJV).
    11. For example: C. Knott, “The Christian and Politics,” 2001, via http://www.nlbchapel.org/politics.htm. R. Saucy, “The presence of the Kingdom and the Life of the Church,” Bibliotheca Sacra (January-March 1988), 145, p. 46.
    12. In 1881, with the United States discussing a constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages, Ellen White observed, “Many deplore the wrongs which they know exist, but consider themselves free from all responsibility in the matter. This cannot be…. Every voter has some voice in determining what laws shall control the nation. Should not that influence and that vote be cast on the side of temperance and virtue?” Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1948), pp. 387-388.
    13. “Keep your voting to yourself. Do not feel it your duty to urge everyone to do as you do.” E. White, Selected Messages, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1958), Book 2, p. 337.
    14. Beach, Dialogue (1997) op. cit., p. 6.
    15. For example: “Those who teach the Bible in our churches and our schools are not at liberty to unite in making apparent their prejudices for or against political men or measures, because by so doing they stir up the minds of others, leading each to advocate his favorite theory… so that division will be brought into the church.”—E. White, Gospel Workers, op. cit., p. 391. “Those teachers in the church or in the school who distinguish themselves by their zeal in politics, should be relieved of their work and responsibilities without delay; for the Lord will not cooperate with them. The tithe should not be used to pay any one for speechifying on political questions. Every teacher, minister, or leader in our ranks who is stirred with a desire to ventilate his opinions on political questions, should be converted by a belief in the truth, or give up his work” (ibid, p. 393).
    16. Further discussion of this concept may be found in J. Redekop, “The Christian in Politics: Some Basic Problems,” Direction, (1985), 14:1, pp. 34-41.
    17. E. White, Fundamentals of Christian Education (Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Publishing, 1923), p. 82.
    18. An insightful discussion may be found in E. Craswell, “The Biblical Basis for Christians in Politics and Government,” 2007, via http://www.whateveristrue.com/heritage/ticipate.htm.
    19. R. Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W. Eerdmans), 1986.
    20. This concept is further developed in an article by R. Mathies, “Witness and Struggle or Politics and Power: MCC Engages the World,” Direction (1994), 23:2, pp. 77-87.