This is the first in a series of posts during election week 2020, titled, Give to God What Is God’s: Three Rules for (Political) Engagement. Read Rule 1, Rule 2, and Rule 3.
Don’t talk about religion and politics, they say. They can get you in trouble. Maybe that’s why the Sanhedrin asked Jesus a question that involved both, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mk. 12:14). Caesar’s image was on the coin, which repulsed the Jews. The Sanhedrin had Jesus cornered. If Jesus insisted on the tax, then he was a religious idolater. If Jesus undermined the legitimacy of the tax, then he was a political revolutionary. Jesus’ reply was brilliant: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17). In one sentence Jesus managed to talk about both religion and politics and get himself out of trouble.
We’re Christ-followers. We talk about religion all the time. Let’s talk about politics. Based on the questions I get and the questions I have myself, I think we’re hungry for help in this area. Based on some of what I see in my newsfeeds, I am quite sure we need some help in this area—from civics to civility.
Now, before I write anything more, I need to offer two caveats. First, I write to you as a pastor. I mean to emphasize both words. I’m writing to you as a pastor, as Trent in my role as the pastor for preaching and teaching. This is not an addition to our statement of faith or a new section of our membership covenant or even a word from our elders as a group. Nevertheless, this is an attempt to lead you biblically. I’m writing this to you as a pastor. It should bind your conscience in as far as it is plainly biblical, but there is also a good measure of moral reasoning in what follows. Weigh it all as a good Berean (Acts 17:11). Second, what I’m writing is an exercise in thinking biblically about big things, which is hard and fraught with risk. Consider that preachers have to be experts at a different ancient text every week, but we also have to connect that ancient text to our modern context. The Bible makes sense of everything in the world. But I am not an expert in every field in the world. So, how about a bargain?: I’ll write carefully and you read earnestly.
This is the first in a four-post series that will run from today through Wednesday, the day after the election. This started out as an outline to use over lunch with members. It evolved into an article, and now, on the eve of the election, it has matured into a four-part series. Hey, why not? Politics has our near full attention and I’d like to channel some of that for some instruction.
Let’s talk about politics
Politics can be hard to talk about for many reasons: it’s complex, it’s hard to keep up with, and it deals with matters of great consequence. So, instead of talking about politics, I want to start by talking about politics. That is, about the thing itself. What is it? Work up front on this question will payoff later in this series of posts.
Broadly speaking, politics refers to the activities associated with large group decision-making. Because every person in a group cannot reasonably engage in every decision that effects the group, politics involves the delegation of power over people and the deliberation about the scope and purpose and administration of that authority. If you follow the etymology back, it comes from the Greek word, polis, which means, city. We are citizens of a city (state, nation, etc.) in which we engage in politics, the work of deciding things together. For our purposes we will define politics as the activities involved in human government.Naturally, when we talk about people deciding things together, we are also talking about disagreement. That’s another reason talking about politics can be hard. Politics is the art and science of navigating our disagreements to a conclusion that is both maximally good and agreeable. The quality of that outcome will depend largely on the political processes involved along the way
From God, not God
It is true that politics is messy. It is also true that human governments are responsible for carrying out many great evils. The bigger the governments it seems the greater the potential for evil. But should we think of government as a necessary evil in itself? According to Jesus and the Apostles, no we should not. In fact, it is sin to do so.
When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he recognized the legitimate authority of human government and governors (Mk. 12:17). Governing authorities, Paul writes, are “appointed” and “instituted by God” (Ro. 13:1–2). They are “God’s servant for your good” (Ro. 13:1–4). How are they for our good? As Peter put it, they are “sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1Pet. 2:14). Which means we rightly honor God by honoring governing authorities. We even glorify God by pondering all of the ways in which human government makes our life good (Ro. 13:1; 1Pet. 2:13, 17). Some laws are more just than others. But there’s much to be thankful for, from local traffic laws to copyright law to federal regulations over the airline industry. It’s pretty remarkable all the bad things that never happen.
But don’t miss this: Peter probably had a second audience in mind when he wrote to Christians about the state’s job to punish evil and praise good, namely Roman civil authorities. His inspired words to the church were words for everyone concerning God’s purpose for the state, including governing authorities. That was likely Paul’s secondary purpose in his famous words to the church at Rome in Romans 13, “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” (13:4).
This dual insight is significant for how Christians approach politics. Jesus recognized both the legitimate and limited authority of human government and governors. The state is from God, but the state is not God. The state is necessary, but it is not everything. There are certain things the state must do and certain things the state must not do. We are under the state’s authority, yet, more importantly, we are together under God’s authority.
That’s important to keep in mind as we consider how we engage politically.
Three rules for political engagement
So, how should we go about engaging in the political process? That’s what I have in mind to address in this series,Give to God What Is God’s: Rules for (Political) Engagement. I have more in mind here than tone and manner, but we’ll get to that. What I have in mind is more comprehensive: a framework for thinking about, talking about, and engaging in politics. This series comes in the context of the 2020 election, indeed right on top of it. But I mean for it to stand apart from our immediate political moment.
Here are the three rules we’ll explore over the next three days:
- First, understand what you’re doing as an American. Understand your civic context and your civic responsibilities, in particular the purpose of your vote.
- Second, engage in the process as a Christian. Engage with a primary allegiance to Jesus, with biblically ordered Christian concerns, and with expectations calibrated by his promises.
- Third, reserve your greatest energies for the most lasting society, the church. The church will last forever, so let’s be better church members than political party members.
As we work through these together, let’s avoid listening for what we think everyone else needs to hear. Doing that won’t help them hear it, and you might miss what’s in here for you. Some of us are exhausted by the noise of politics and need to hear that politics is important. Others of us are exhausting ourselves (and others) in the political process and need to hear that the church is more important by a longshot. Others are losing sleep in this unique election over what it means to vote and need some help to engage with a clear conscience. In short, I’m writing for all of us because I think all of us need this.
This three-part framework is comprehensive yet easy to remember and it grounds us in biblical priorities without getting into partisan politics.
Maybe it will make talking about politics not such a hard thing after all.