The Christian who is involved in the material history of this world is involved in it as representing another order, another master (than the prince of this world), another claim (than that of the natural heart of man). Thus he must plunge into social and political problems in order to have an influence on the world, not in the hope of making it a paradise, but simply in order to make it tolerable — not in order to diminish the opposition between this world and the Kingdom of God, but simply in order to modify the opposition between the disorder of this world and the order of preservation that God wills for it — not in order to “bring in” the Kingdom of God, but in order that the gospel may be proclaimed, that all men may really hear the good news of salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. – Jacques Ellul
Christians, when rightly informed and motivated, change the character of political debate. They bring the moral standards of God’s kingdom into the civic realm and thereby become agents of His common grace — of His provision for those who believe as well as those who don’t.
“Forgiveness of sins is the central message of the gospel,” says theologian Wayne Grudem. “That’s the only way people’s hearts are truly transformed.” But that’s the opening of a fuller gospel story. The whole gospel, Grudem believes, includes a transformation. God’s grace changes people, and as a result they change everything around them. Families are renewed. Schools are rejuvenated. Businesses reorient their mission and purpose. What’s more, the gospel of Christ, because it changes hearts, changes the course of civil government.
We don’t want to become modern day Gnostics, Grudem argues. God cares about our spiritual lives, but He also cares about food, water, jobs, and housing. When God commands us to love our neighbors, He means to love them holistically. That means we’ll care about laws that protect preborn children. We’ll care about policies that defend marriages and families. If we love our neighbors, we’ll naturally be concerned about the corrupting moral influences that creep into public schools.
The Church isn’t the kingdom of God, says writer and Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson, but by expressing concern for these issues Christians reflect the love, justice, and righteousness of God’s kingdom. In Colson’s view, the Church becomes a compelling presence when Christians — in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces — exhibit a vision that “holds the world accountable to something beyond itself.” Christians understand human nature for what it really is, Colson says, and that perspective affects the civic conversation. According to Colson, human politics is based on the premise that society must be changed in order to change people, but Christians understand that it’s the other way around: People must be changed in order to change society.
As they enter the public square, God’s people recognize the authority of Christ’s kingdom, they bring its ethical standards into the stream of history, and — through them — Christ’s kingdom breaks the “vicious and otherwise irreversible cycles of violence, injustice, and self-interest.” As God’s people engage in debate — as they create, shape, and lead public policy — it’s evident that Christ’s kingdom has, in Augustine’s words, equipped them to be the best citizens in the kingdoms of man.
Author and theologian Richard John Neuhaus pointed out that atheists obey laws; they vote, pay taxes, and lend a hand to needy neighbors. But good citizenship, Neuhaus says, requires more. Good citizens feel compelled to give a moral account of their country. Good citizens want to recommend their country’s virtues “to citizens of the next generation,” and they want to “transmit that regime to citizens yet unborn.” It is, Neuhaus contends, “those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus that turn out to be the best citizens.” That’s because their loyalty to the political order is qualified by a loyalty to a higher order. Their ultimate allegiance is not to the regime or its founding documents, “but to the City of God and the sacred texts that guide our path toward that end for which we were created.” Such citizens, in Neuhaus’ view, were specifically designed for “dual citizenship.”
The late theologian Carl Henry believed that Christians, as citizens, have a duty “to work through civil authority for the advancement of justice and human good.” It’s a pervasive responsibility. After all, politics determines whether we’re at war or peace. It affects the nation’s job supply, wealth creation and distribution, and property rights. It determines our freedom to speak, write, and worship. Even the circumstances of family life, says writer J. Philip Wogaman, often depend on government policy, including the quality and content of public education.
Christian citizens naturally “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Such good deeds, says Grudem, include commending and criticizing policies that affect the poor and powerless. We teach church members to do “good works” in hospitals, schools, and inner-city neighborhoods, so why would we exclude government? Our good works there, as in other spheres, give glory to our Father.
In every culture, Wogaman observes, religion tends to be important to people who care about politics; likewise, politics often matters most to those who care about religion. And often, these are the same people.
So what then, uniquely and specifically, might be the point of Christians’ participation in politics?
Christians Keep Government Accountable
Romans 13:4 tells us that government authority exists for our good. But how, Grudem wonders, if no one explains what God expects, can government officials serve Him well? 1 Peter 2:14 further explains that government is to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. Again, Grudem asks: How, unless they receive counsel from the religious community, can mayors, senators, or presidents understand God’s view of good and evil or right and wrong?
Throughout history, Grudem recounts, God has called His people to counsel secular rulers. Daniel told King Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful ruler on earth at the time: “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:27 ESV).
Joseph, as Egypt’s second-in-command, often advised Pharaoh. Moses confronted the Egyptian ruler and demanded freedom for the Israelites. Mordecai counseled King Ahasuerus of Persia. Queen Esther, too, was influential in Ahasuerus’ court.
In the New Testament, John the Baptist was quick to confront officials about morals, even scolding Herod the tetrarch “for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the evil things that Herod had done” (Luke 3:19). These “evil things,” Grudem supposes, included Herod’s acts as a government official.
In Acts 24, Paul speaks with the Roman governor Felix “about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment.” It’s a safe bet that Paul held Felix accountable for his conduct as a public officeholder. And it’s clear that he captured the governor’s attention: According to verse 25, Felix was alarmed and sent Paul away.
Christians Bring Transcendent Values
In 1966, Time magazine provoked a national uproar. The magazine’s April 8 cover daringly asked: “Is God Dead?”
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche may have introduced the God-is-dead concept in 1889 but, Colson observes, Nietzsche’s point wasn’t about God’s existence, it was about His relevance. God was declared dead, Colson says, “because we live, play, procreate, govern, and die as though He doesn’t exist.”
The “God is dead” movement of the 1960s quickly faded, even as Christianity continued to thrive. Nevertheless, an atheistic philosophy slithered into American politics. From the mid-1960s to today, atheism has become more aggressive and more political. It now insists on being believed, says Colson. It insists on imposing its views and seeks to forbid any competing vision.
Colson has seen a steady devaluation of values, so much so that it’s difficult now for anyone to declare something right or wrong, to call one thing good and another bad. It’s difficult to distinguish what’s just and unjust. Without a set of transcendent values, Colson explains, nothing governs how we are to live together.
Once God is removed from civic life, Neuhaus argued, we’re left with two principal actors: the individual and the state. With God out of the picture there’s no mediating structure to create moral values. Without religion, there’s no counterbalance to the state’s ambitions.
And yet, says Wogaman, religion is always the basis for judging a society’s beliefs and values. When politics is evaluated or criticized on the basis of values, the question — whether acknowledged or not — becomes a religious one. As a result, when legitimate religion is banished the vacuum will be filled by bogus religion, a kind of religon that, to borrow Neuhaus’ phrase, has been “bootlegged into public space under other names.”
Former Yale scholar Alexander Bickel made the point that law, if it’s to be viewed as legitimate, must be backed by moral judgment. In a democratic society, Bickel said, state and society “must draw from the same moral well.” Government makes moral judgments, and they’re judgments of an ultimate nature. Without religion’s influence, “secular” reasoning is given the force of religion.
“Removal of the transcendent sucks meaning from the law,” Colson adds. Without an ultimate reference point, there’s no just cause for obedience, and that means the state must seek more and more coercive power.
Christians, then, must enter the civic realm because the Church conveys moral values. As the late James Boice once wrote, “Religious people are … the only citizens who actually advance the nation in the direction of justice and true righteousness.” Christianity not only provides for individual concerns, but for the ordering of a society with liberty and justice for all. Christianity alone, Colson says, as taught in Scripture and announced in the kingdom context by Jesus, provides both a transcendent moral influence and a transcendent ordering of society without an oppressive theocratic system.
Society’s well-being, then, depends on a robust religious influence. We don’t need more laws, Boice stated, arguing that without a moral citizenry even existing laws can be used immorally. The nation needs people willing to live by God’s moral laws. That’s the only way to retard evil’s advance. It’s also how the moral standards of God’s kingdom gain ground and community life becomes, as Augustine predicted, “organized in the image and likeness of the heavenly city.”
Civil government benefits from a community of people whose lives testify to “this law behind the law.” The whole of human society requires a community that believes some things are right and some wrong, and which adheres to the God-given wisdom that pervades all creation (see Proverbs 8 and Proverbs 22).
Christians Provide a Restraining Influence
But the church is more than a model. By its presence in the culture it is a restraint on the kingdom of man. Contrary to popular illusion, says Neuhaus, it’s not government’s job to promulgate moral vision. That duty belongs to other social institutions, especially the Church. When the state steps beyond the bounds of its intended authority, the Church becomes an “effective source of moral resistance.” But it doesn’t resist for its own sake; it doesn’t resist to gather power or broaden its own following; it resists for the common good. The same attitude was evident in the late 1800s, when Southern Presbyterian pastor Robert L. Dabney taught that Christians — those in government as well as those outside — should bring their Christian conscience, “enlightened by God’s Word,” into the civic realm. Christians needed to be involved, Dabney believed, not to force their morals onto society as a whole, but to advocate for justice, show respect for life, and support the powerless.
One hears an echo of Augustine in Dabney’s words. Augustine believed Christianity was society’s most essential preservative. When nonbelievers lack the strength to act out of love for country, he explained, Christians act out of love for God. When morality and civic virtue break down, “divine Authority intervenes to impose frugal living, continence, friendship, justice, and concord among citizens.”
The Bible Instructs Us to Get Involved
Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 aren’t mere grist for intellectual curiosity, says Grudem. They’re not in the Bible for our private edification; they’re there to equip us — to teach us how to speak to government officials — and to explain how God views government’s roles and responsibilities.
Effective government is pivotal in the pursuit of justice. And true justice, Augustine said, springs from a sovereign God. Without justice there can be no community, no shared values, and no common ideals. Writer and scholar Christopher Dawson once said, “Christianity is the soul of Western civilization. And when the soul is gone, the body putrefies.” God’s people must address moral issues, they must measure public actions by biblical standards of justice and righteousness, and they must inform leaders when they — councilmen, mayors, governors, and presidents — stray from God’s intended path.
When Christians abandon the public square, what happens to community values? To ethics? To moral standards? When Christians wash their hands and turn away, who speaks for the poor and powerless? Throughout history we’ve seen the effect of Christian influence: in the abolition of slavery; advocating for universal literacy; for improved education; and for laws that protect children, factory workers, and women. That sort of impact, Grudem points out, doesn’t come from silence or withdrawal. It comes from faithfulness.
The United States isn’t the kingdom of God, and Christians today must understand, as Martin Luther understood in his time, that, “It is out of the question that there should be a Christian government even over one land.” The wicked, Luther wrote, always outnumber the good. Therefore, to try to rule according to the gospel would be like placing wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep together into the same fold and letting them freely mingle.
We plunge into social and political problems, not with the hope of ushering in Christ’s kingdom, but to provide a glimpse of something better, to exhibit our hope for what’s to come, to — as Jacques Ellul put it — modify opposition between this world’s disorder and the order of preservation that God wills for it. That way, the gospel may be proclaimed, and all men may really hear the good news of salvation.