This is the third in a series of posts during election week 2020, titled, Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement. Read the Introduction, Rule 1, and Rule 3.
Jesus is never not Lord for the Christian. To be a Christian is to confess Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords forever. Which includes every second of time and every sector of life, from what’s under our own roof to the voting booth. To confess Christ King of Kings, after all, is to make a political statement. Our lives are his and our government is his. He is over this whole operation.
The second rule for political engagement is this: engage in the political process as a Christian. That sure sounds right, but what can this possibly mean in practical terms? Are we out to set up a theocracy? Are we like Israelites in the promised land setting up God’s kingdom? Do we see American law as a means to making people obey all that Jesus commanded? From another angle, does Christianity, like Islam, build a Christian nation-state if you give it the chance?
Back to Jesus with that coin. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he communicated at least two nuanced intentions for the relationship of the state and the church (Mk. 12:16). First, there is a legitimate separation between the two spheres of authority in the new covenant age. Israel was a theocracy. That is not what Jesus outlines for his followers. Second, there is a primacy to the sphere of God’s worship. Caesar was owed taxes. But not our worship. And that was Jesus’ not so subtle religious and political claim; Caesar is not God. We might rather call them tensions rather than intentions, because that’s what they create.
This is a post about how to follow Jesus where we live within this framework he set up. We must give to God what is God’s. Which means in one way or another, we fulfill our civic responsibilities as Christians, for our whole lives are his.
What then does it mean to engage in the political process as a Christian? Here are three answers to that question: engage with your first allegiance to Christ, engage with biblically ordered Christian convictions, and engage with expectations calibrated by the promises of Christ.
First things first
Life is full of allegiances, allegiances to the companies we work for, the teams we root for, and the nations we die for. No, there is no necessary contradiction between our allegiance to Christ and our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. Nations were established by God with certain responsibilities for our good. We can be for God and for the nations in which we live. Some may wed God and country a little too tight, but that doesn’t mean we should be filing for divorce. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, he affirmed a proper national loyalty. There were Jewish zealots that taught that you could not recognize God as God and Caesar as king. Jesus corrects that notion. The King of Kings is the King of actual kings. So, worship God and be patriotic.
In a moment we’ll get to how that allegiance works itself out in the voting booth. But first things first, to engage as a Christian is to engage with our first allegiance to Jesus Christ. We may identify as Americans, but we are first and foremost and forever Christ-ians. The Apostle Paul wrote, “to all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints,” that is, to Romans who nevertheless confessed “Jesus Christ our Lord,” descended from David, raised from the dead (Rom. 1:3–7).
This first allegiance informs our view of humanity. We do not see in red and blue, though those differences are not meaningless. Rather, we see humanity in Adam or in Christ. Death reigns through the one man, life through the other (Ro. 5:14, 17). This first allegiance informs our hope. Emperors come and go, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Empires crumble, but we have received “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12:28). This first allegiance informs our understanding of history and where it is headed, putting every earthly citizenship in its place, for “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20, 21). That is, all things. Which means he is first.
Jesus is King forever and that is good news. Even better news, he is a great and gracious Lord and Master. This explains the happy allegiance of his early followers under Roman rule. The Romans restricted the preaching of the gospel, and the Apostles replied, “’Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard,’” and “’We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 4:19–20; 5:29). It was right to keep speaking, and they also couldn’t help themselves. Christ was first.
This is not a post about civil disobedience. It’s a post about how our loyalty to Christ works for everything before that. So, let’s get into that.
What we take with us into the voting booth
The second thing faithfulness requires of us is to engage with biblically ordered Christian convictions. Let’s keep this simple and focus again on the act of voting. What does it mean to honor Jesus as Lord in the voting booth? What does it mean for us to render to God what is God’s in that moment? What are the convictions that we bring to this responsibility? More could be said, but not less than two things.
Take your view of humanity into the voting booth
Everyone goes into the voting booth with a view of humanity. The question is from where it comes. The first thing Christians must take into the voting booth with us is God’s view of humanity as his special creation. Here is the plain beautiful truth about every one of us: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27). This means at least four truths precede human government.
First, humans are made in God’s image. We are not advanced animals. We do not derive our worth from our size, or our level of development, our environment, or our degree of dependencySLED. We have this dignity from our very conception, when biologically speaking as an embryo we are a fully integrated human being, until our death. We do not derive our worth from our abilities, our class, or what contribution we can make. Our worth is from God and it extends to every human.
Second, humans are created binary, male and female. This is a truth so beautiful that it comes to us in form of poetry. It couldn’t just be said; it had to be sung. This is also a biological reality that extends to every cell in the male and female body, except for the presence of female cells in the male sperm.
Third, humans are made for each other, for the two became “one flesh” in marriage. In this story of origins, Moses explained the origin of human society: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24, 25). In this, he also gave us a foundation for sexual ethics.
Fourth, a married husband and wife are responsible before God for the welfare of their children. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Gen. 1:28). Children come from a mother and a father and God’s design is for children to come into the world in a home where mom and dad are married. That the leading indicator that an individual will be poor is whether he is in a one or two parent home confirms this basic truth of nature.
All this is true before government is there. So, take your view of humanity into the voting booth. What else should we take?
Take your view of human government into the voting booth
Everyone who goes into the voting booth has a view of human government. This is shaped by the particular government of which we are a part, but also our more basic assumptions about what government is there for. The second thing Christians must take into the voting booth with us is God’s view of human government as his servant.
According to Scripture, governing authority is a derived authority, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Gen. 13:1). Government is, literally, “the servant of God,” otherwise translated, minister. Remember, “governors [are] sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1Pet. 2:14). In other words, as we believe the Scriptures, we believe that human government exists because God established the institution of government. Which means we don’t leave behind his mind on the matter as we enter the voting booth.
With our vote we should direct our government to fulfill God’s purposes for government, as best we can, given the circumstances. Often those circumstances involve less than ideal options. Remember, the electoral process is a negotiation between millions of people on who gets the power to make decisions on our behalf.
This work of directing the government with our vote involves three things.
First, we should direct the government to serve God by punishing evil. The Decalogue, or what we often call, the Ten Commandments, do not apply to modern governments in a direct fashion. But they do instruct us concerning what humans are owed and, with a little reflection, reveal to us God’s intention for humans from creation. For example, the commandment, “You shall not murder,” assumes the right of persons to live, a truth rooted in creation (Ex. 20:13). The commandment, “You shall not steal,” assumes the right of persons to property (20:15). The command, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” assumes the right of persons to due process (20:16). One of the jobs of government is to protect people and property and to punish those who violate either. Government does not have to punish everything that is sin, but a government that rewards or overlooks these things is wrong to do so.
Concerning the right to life and the government’s responsibility to punish evil, our government, and by extension the American people, are complicit in the legal and lethal murder of 60 million unborn children since Roe. This is not what the sword is for. There is forgiveness available to any of us who will come to Christ, but this remains a challenge that demands our strategic effort. Roe was a bad decision by the Supreme Court, who found a right to privacy in the constitution and decided a matter by fiat that in our constitutional system should have been decided by the people. Per our constitutional system, the question should go to the states. As with slavery, it is not a matter to relax on, even if we do choose strategic incremental avenues for its abolition. Christians may judge one avenue more strategic than another, but the question of what human government owes unborn human beings is straightforward.
Second, we should direct the government to serve God by praising what is good. This means the government should enact policies and promote a culture that normalizes good behavior. Again, here the Decalogue points us to prior creational realities to which all humanity is accountable. The command, “You shall not commit adultery,” assumes the right of married partners to the sexual faithfulness of their spouse and teaches us about the natural and moral context for human sexuality (20:14). All governments regulate human sexual behavior to one degree or another. Good government recognizes marriage for what it is and regulates marriage for the good of children and, by extension, of society at large. Government cannot legislate on the basis of a moral fiction concerning marriage without harming its people, even with good intentions. History bears this out. In a 1934 study, “Monogamy as a Condition of Social Energy,” J. D. Unwin shows his results from a study of 86 different cultures and concludes that apart from a culture of sexual marital monogamy, societies do not last: “In human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on pre-nuptial and post-nuptial continence.”
The command, “honor your father and mother,” assumes the context of the natural family with a mother and a father who are owed obedience because they are responsible (20:12). The government should promote the stability and health of the family, which involves protecting the rights of parents and holding parents to their basic responsibility to care for their children. Even the command, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” assumes that humans have a problem of envy that is destructive enough to make God’s top ten (20:17). The government should promote economic policies that reward hard work, productivity, innovation, and responsibility, and in this way channel our self-interest for the common good.
This emphasis on the truths about humanity embedded in creation is reinforced by what happens when these truths are opposed. Following humanity’s fall into sin in Genesis 3, Genesis 4 reveals the disintegration of human society with the sin of Lamech, who “took two wives” and boasted, “I have killed a man” (Gen. 4:19, 23). Life and marriage are precious and basic.
Third, we should direct the government to serve God by staying in its place. Rome imposed its religion by force, requiring the worship of Caesar as god. On that coin before Jesus was the image of Rome’s god, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of Divine Augustus.” But neither Caesar nor Tiberius nor Augustus were divine. The Roman state was pedaling in a lie and coerced its people into false worship. Several commands in the decalogue point to the basic human responsibility to worship God, “You shall have no other gods before me,” “You shall not make for yourself a carved image,” “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (20:3, 4, 7). What this means for human government requires reflection.
Why don’t we believe that America should establish Christianity as the official and required religion of Americans? There is a long tradition of thinking this kind of question through that has brought us the “freedom of religion” which we enjoy today. This freedom is a profoundly Christian commitment, and one Christians hold for their own sake but also their neighbor’s. As Robert Louis Wilken outlines in his book, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, Christians are committed to several things: freedom of religion or conscience is a right that precedes government that belongs to all human beings, conscience is a form of spiritual knowledge that brings with it an obligation to act, and human society is governed by two powers, God and the state. The state should not compel religion, nor should it prohibit religion. In other words, as our first amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That is a profoundly good commitment. Christians do right by the household of God and our neighbors of all faiths to hold America to this promise.
Two notes to close this section. First, I’ve interacted some with the Old Testament laws of ancient Israel. That has to be done carefully and I have deliberately pointed us back to truths embedded in creation. For more on applying the Old Testament law to life today, including its application to the role of government, see Stephen Wellum’s chapter on Christian ethics, in Progressive Covenantalism. Second, I have stayed away from specific policy prescriptions, even though I may have my own (hopefully) informed judgments on these things. Andy Naselli has a helpful lecture and book answering the question, “how can I love fellow Christians with different politics?”
Now, a final way we can engage politics as Christians.
Calibrating our expectations
Our final way of honoring Jesus as Lord in our politics is to engage with expectations calibrated by the promises of Christ. Take caution, courage, and comfort in these three beautiful truths.
First, as you vote, do so with a proper humility about the possibilities of human government in light of the coming and return of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ had to suffer on the cross and rise from the dead because there are some things government can’t do for us. It can’t give us meaning and it can’t take away our guilt. This is true regardless of what politicians promise to do for us. Government can’t fix our deepest problems. Insert government bureaucracy joke here. Even our country with its unparalleled prosperity and security is nevertheless, in light of all God intended for humanity, a cold and lonely place to live. Human government is instituted by God to punish evil because there is still a whole lot of evil that goes on. But in Christ we have this: the forgiveness of our sins, the removal of our guilt, and life everlasting. We are not engaging in the remaking of humanity or the elimination of all human wronging. The Lord will bring his perfect justice on the Day of Jesus’ return.
Second, as you vote, do so with a proper expectation of reproach, division, trouble, and incomparable blessing for honoring Christ in your engagement. The things we believe about human beings and what they are owed are contested ideas. We believe they are of great moral consequence, and if you follow the money so does everybody else. This matter of voting which is inherently simplistic is bound to get us in trouble with people we love. Remember Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).
Finally, as you vote, do so with eager anticipation for the coming of our Lord. Whatever current hopes we have for life here in America, even the best outcome in our best days, they cannot compare with what is to come for those who are in Christ. At the coming of our Lord all of our sorrows will be erased and all of earth’s joys will be entirely eclipsed. Remember Paul’s words, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Politics is exciting for some of us and there are victories to celebrate along the way. There is also reason for profound disappointment. But there is no disappointment in the end with Christ who is the King of Kings.
Keep all this in mind as you vote. That’s what I’m heading out to do right now.
And remember, Caesar’s image was on that coin. But you, dear friend, bear the image of your Maker. You can’t leave him behind in the voting booth, and why would you want to?