The below article was originally written for 9Marks Journal (Autumn 2020). In light of the events transpiring in Washington DC and the disturbing images of ‘Christians’ using Jesus’ name and even raising a large wooden cross outside the Capitol Hill building, I wonder if people may find this of some help for traversing the pitfalls of religion and politics.
I should point out at the start that I am reflecting and writing as an Australian who is pastoring a Church in Melbourne. That is to say, my context is different to that of Manhattan, Memphis, and Miami. Accordingly, some of my comments may need recalibration or will look a little different in another cultural setting. Whether our location is the Great Southland or some other part of the globe, one thing is certain, conversation about religion and politics is thwarted with pitfalls and precipices. While recognising the potential dangers, I do believe there is a place for Christian activism in the political sphere.
I want to offer 4 theological and pastoral suggestions in considering why and how Christians can be political activists.
1. Be clear who you are serving: Jesus is Lord of all
“In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matt 12:21)
Jesus is Lord both over creation and over the Church, “All things were made by him and for him”. There is no domain over which he does not rule and which we are not held accountable. Is there a blade of grass or family home or hall of power where the Lordship of Christ has no jurisdiction?
“He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:14)
Authoritarian secularism is on the rise in Australia, especially in my State of Victoria. Aussies have traditionally had a laissez faire relationship with churches, respecting their role and voice in the public square, even it they often chose to ignore it. This has been effectively dismantled over the past decade. Where churches were once politely acknowledged in society, Christianity is now considered by many as a danger that needs to be silenced, or at the very least, controlled. There exist few constitutional and legal protections for religious institutions in Australia. Somewhat ironic, accompanying this growing social mood to push religion out of the public square is a growing agenda to increase Governmental control over religious freedoms, even to influence what religious organisations may and may not teach on controversial issues, including marriage and human sexuality.
Should Christians listen to these calls and abandon the public square and remove themselves from the world of politics? I certainly understand why many Christian feel like withdrawing, and there are fair arguments for doing so. However, I want to contend that if Jesus is Lord over all and if God’s ways remain good and if Governments are put in place by God for the wellbeing of society, Christians (at least some) should remain active in politics and societal engagement.
2. Be clear about the domain into which you are speaking: the distinction between church and state
Jesus is Lord of all but not everything is church and the kingdom of God. On the one hand, we want to avoid the hardline secularist division of public and private religion, and we also need to avoid conflating church with State and civil society with God’s Kingdom. Too often I have seen Christians fuse Christianity with nationalism and the Christian message with a brand of politics; the results of this can be catastrophic.
The distinction however is not absolute. For example, Churches are commanded by God to pray for the Government (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Churches practising public prayers for Government serves as a powerful testimony to the broader society. The imperative isn’t conditioned by our political preferences or by the decisions made in our favour. It’s good to remind ourselves that Paul was writing at a time where there were no democratic societies and where there was little toleration of Christians, and yet he says to the church in Ephesus, pray.
Scripture also calls us to submit to and obey governing authorities, not because we necessarily agree with their policies but because God has put them in place and also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:1-6). It is also the case that on one occasion the Apostle Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal to the Emperor. In other words, there is a relationship between church and state, but they are nonetheless two separate domains with different purposes and aims.
For this reason, the church mustn’t give the impression that they belong to or represent or campaign for any given political party. The Church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, not to the Liberal or Labour Party (Australia’s two major political parties). A Christian may choose to join a political party, but a church should not. The pulpit shouldn’t be used to influence peoples’ vote or to unduly bind the conscience. When a church does this, we confuse both Christians and non Christians alike about our message and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Instead of providing an alternative to our increasingly polarised world and being the one place where true unity can be found and expressed, churches can end up adding to the problem and reinforcing misconceptions about Christianity. Trying to squeeze Jesus under any socio-political umbrella is wrong; maybe he would prefer to stand out in the rain!
For example, at Mentone Baptist, we never hand out political material, and we are disinclined to promote petitions and marches. However, we understand that individual Christians may choose to be involved in politics or to engage in social issues. While each member of the church supports and joins in the church’s mission, it is also the case that believers have God given opportunities to serve Christ in other ways that are outside the church: among these is involvement in political activity.
3. What’s your message? Understanding the distinction between gospel and common grace
As an Australian citizen, I share the same set of rights and responsibilities as other Australians. I have the opportunity to voice concerns about social policy and moral issues. However, not everything is the Gospel and not every political cause is directly related to the mission of the church.
I would counsel Christians who are interested in engaging in the public square to understand what the Gospel is and isn’t, and what should be defined as God’s common grace to society. I appreciate that this task isn’t always straightforward. Defining the issue theologically is a help when it comes assessing zeal, time, and effort. It provides the necessary framework for understanding political concerns and to weighing up its importance. Is this an issue of righteousness or of conscience or is it a disputable matter?
4. Know the reason for engaging in political activism: it’s about loving your neighbour
For the Christian, political activism ought to be about loving your neighbour. Just as a doctor treats the sick and a school teacher educates children, politics should be about serving the common good of the community. Of all people, Christians have reason to speak on behalf of the vulnerable, to advocate for the weak and to address injustices that are faced in our society. God has revealed his righteousness and his grace to us in the Lord Jesus. As he has loved us, so we now love others with his love. We are eager to see other people doing well, especially their eternal salvation but also their everyday needs and dignity and worth.
When Christians choose to become involved in politics, do so but without sinning and being self serving, without conflating church and state, confusing Gospel with common grace, and avoid hamstringing the consciences of others.
How do I know if my political advocacy is unwise and even ungodly?
Here are 5 warning signs:
- I spend more time signing petitions than I do praying.
- I only ever criticise one side of politics.
- People have the impression that belonging to my church means aligning with a certain political party.
- I am more passionate about politics than I am about my local church and their mission.
- I am putting my hope for society in political elections or leaders or platforms, rather than in the Gospel of Christ.