As November 6th approaches, folks have begun to ask me my thoughts about the involvement of Christians in the US political process. Many Christians have never taken the time to think about this subject. After all, we’ve grown up in America, and we understand our role in the electoral process. However, many have failed to ask how being a Christian should inform the way we think about our responsibilities as citizens. The questions I’ve received most often are these:
Does the Bible say anything about our role as American citizens?
Does the Bible say anything about our role as American citizens who are also citizens of God’s kingdom?
Does the Bible say anything about the role of churches in promoting political agendas?
As this election nears, I want to share my response to these questions. I will include a brief answer to each question in the order that I’ve listed them, and I will conclude with some principles that should guide us as believers during this, and every, election cycle.
First, does the Bible say anything about our role as American citizens? Specifically, of course, the answer is no. America didn’t exist when the Bible was written, so there are no specific references to our country in scripture. That being said, the Bible does provide some guidelines for living our lives as Christian citizens, of this or any country.
Romans 13:1-7 provides the clearest description of our role as citizens:
”Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
Within this text, you will find the following principles that God has given us regarding our relationship to our government:
• We are to be subject (subordinate oneself, put oneself under, obey) to our government, unless they force us to choose between obeying government and obeying Christ;
• God ordains government;
• God ordains governmental leaders;
• It is sin to resist governmental authorities (see bullet point one above);
• As citizens, we are to choose to do good, not evil;
• God ordains government to maintain civil order;
• Submission to governmental authorities protects us from God’s wrath and preserves our consciences before Him and others;
• We are to pay our taxes and required revenues;
• We are to honor and respect those whom God places in positions of governmental authority.
Other texts support this:
“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:13-17
“And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances,3 but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius4 and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.” Mark 12:13-17
”Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” Titus 3:1-2
As these verses demonstrate, we have very specific responsibilities as citizens. As American citizens, we have the unique privilege to be a part of a political process like few other people on earth have ever enjoyed, including Jesus, the disciples, and Paul. As such, we should be good stewards of this opportunity, striving to make decisions in the light of God’s word and with a clear conscience before Him. We must embrace these biblical principles, because they teach us how to do this.
Second, does the Bible say anything about our role as American citizens who are also citizens of God’s kingdom? God’s word spends far more time talking about the kingdom of God than it does about earthly governments. Governments have been rising and falling since the creation of man; the one constant throughout, however, is the kingdom of God. It has been growing and flourishing through all of human history, and one day it will culminate with a divine Monarchy—the literal reign of Jesus Christ as King on earth. Consequently, other than the verses I reference in this article, God has little to say about our interaction with human governments.
That being said, however, God has much to say about our role as citizens of the kingdom of God. Matthew 5-7 provides an amazing description of those who live as residents of God’s kingdom, regardless of the governmental system they are under. Here are some additional principles that speak to our role as Kingdom residents who are also American citizens:
• Jesus is the Sovereign King over all earthly rulers:
“Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.” Revelation 1:5
• God raises up governments and governmental leaders:
“Daniel answered and said: ‘Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. 21 He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.’” Daniel 2:20-21
• God is sovereign over the decisions made by governments:
“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wills.” Proverbs 21:1
“For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled.” Revelation 17:17
• Our primary purpose as residents of God’s kingdom is to seek God’s kingdom, in our lives and in our world, because God’s kingdom transcends earthly governments:
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:33-34
• Our allegiance to Christ transcends our allegiance to any earthly government:
“But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’” Acts 4:19-20
“20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
As these verses demonstrate, there is a unique tension here. We have a dual citizenship: as followers of Jesus, we are citizens of both heaven and earth. There is also a hierarchy here as well: we owe allegiance to Christ, and we offer allegiance to our country. Furthermore, as long as Christ and country do not come into conflict with one another, we follow Romans 13 and live in the reality of Romans 12:18. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” If, however, we must choose between obeying Christ or obeying the government, we must always choose Christ.
Third, does the Bible say anything about the role of churches in promoting political agendas? The answer is both yes and no: yes in the OT and no in the NT. In the OT, when kings who received their thrones by virtue of God’s covenant ruled Israel, the prophets had much to say about their idolatry and wickedness. After all, Israel is the people of God, and He had very clear laws for the nation to follow.
In the NT, however, there is absolutely no teaching that the church should be proclaiming a political message. Jesus never preached against the Romans, although they were oppressive to his people. He taught the people to pay their taxes and carry a soldier’s equipment with joy if forced to do so. Jesus submitted to their authority when he was arrested. He acknowledged that Pilate was ruling by virtue of God’s sovereign will of decree (John 19:11). He didn’t respond to his treatment with anger or vitriol. Instead, he reaffirmed that he was the king of a different kingdom, and his followers didn’t accomplish their mission with violence or hatred, but rather peace and love (John 18:36-38). Jesus wasn’t about transforming earthly kingdoms; he was about transforming lives for his kingdom.
Similarly, Paul never spoke about political activism, either. When he wrote the text in Romans 13, the Caesar was Nero, one of the most brutal leaders of all time, and a violent persecutor of the church. Many believe it was Nero who killed Paul. One would think that if there were ever a time for political activism in the church that would have been it. Instead, however, Paul focused his attention on the gospel (1 Cor. 1:18-31). His message for citizens of Rome, or any nation, was one of civil obedience, respect for authority, and prayer for governing rulers. (1 Peter 2:17)
Consequently, there is no biblical support for a politically active church. Clearly, however, many have adopted that mentality. Their argument goes like this: “God didn’t command us to do it, but he didn’t command us not to either.” This is bad theology, of course. It’s like the person who says, “God didn’t mention Euthanasia, so it must be ok.” We must always look at the whole of scripture when we develop our theology. The evidence is scripture is clear: God created the church to proclaim the gospel, baptize and teach disciples, and evangelize the world—not to focus its attention on the foibles of politics.
What are we to do as Christians who are citizens not only of the US but also of God’s kingdom? Here are my thoughts:
• As Christians, our focus must be centered on the kingdom of God and the command to live as Kingdom residents. Christians live under all types of political systems around the world, and God calls them to live out the gospel under every one of them. (Mt. 5-7)
• As Christians, we must live in the reality of the mission of the church. Ultimately, our battles are not against people or political parties. It is against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) Like Christ, we must stay focused on his mission. Governments don’t change people–God does!
• As Christians, we must strive to be wise stewards of the opportunity we have to be involved in the political process in the US. As is true with every area of our lives, scripture alone must guide our decisions when it comes to elections. We must never allow blind loyalty to a party or a person to trump our loyalty to God and His Word. (1 Cor. 10:31)
• As Christians, we must never judge the motives or choices of others. Jesus alone has been given the authority to judge. (Mt. 7:1-5) The decision about whom to vote for, or whether to vote at all, must be decided on an individual basis before God. Every person will give an account of their lives when they stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and that includes how they participated in the political process.
• As Christians, we are free to share our own positions about political issues, but only in a spirit of humility and grace, so that we do not cause a brother to stumble. It is always arrogant to act as if ours are the only opinions that have any merit. Similarly, anything that creates division in God’s church is a sin. This includes conversations about political events or elections. (Titus 3:1-2, 9-11)
• As Christians, we must be intentional about prayer. (1 Thes. 5:17) God has given us prayer as a gift. We can talk with God about anything, including a political election. As with all of our prayers, however, we must submit to God’s sovereign will. (1 Jn 5:14-15) Ultimately, though, the most important prayers we pray are not about earthly governments; they are about the kingdom of God and the work of the gospel. (Eph. 6:10-20).
As Christians, we must participate in politics as Kingdom residents. In a few short weeks, this current election cycle will be over for another couple of years. God will reveal his sovereign will of decree for our country, and life will carry on as it always does. What we cannot do, however, is leave a trail of hurt feelings, hemorrhaged relationships, and judgmental attitudes in our wake. If our church, or any church for that matter, is divided and distracted from God’s mission because of an election, the cause will not be patriotism—it will be sin! I’m praying that God will spare us from this fate and help us to navigate it with humility, grace, and a Kingdom-driven focus!