Q. What does the Bible say to the church, and to the individual Christian, about the role of politics in the church?
Our church is experiencing a great deal of polarization, and even heated debate, over matters of politics. What does the Bible say to the church, and to the individual Christian, about the role of politics in the church?
You have asked a very important question regarding the political tensions and conflict which exist not only in our country, but also in our churches. There may well be other verses and principles to consider, but here are those which have come to mind. (I am relatively confident that what I write here may not be well received by some Christians.)
First and foremost, the Bible is our highest authority, and always takes precedence over any other documents, including our national constitution, as wise and as wonderful as it may be.
In recent days especially I have frequently heard Christians appealing to our national constitution as the basis for their actions and demands. Our constitution has much to say about our rights; the Bible has much to say about our responsibilities, and about giving up our rights for the sake of the gospel (see Philippians 2; Romans 14 and 15). Whenever and if ever the Bible and the Constitution are in conflict, the Bible wins.
Second, this world is not our home; heaven is:
13 All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. 15 And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16, NAU; emphasis mine).
13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16, NET).
Dear friends, I urge you as foreigners and exiles to keep away from fleshly desires that do battle against the soul (1 Peter 2:11).
Third, in this world we will have persecution.
…and some of that will be brought about by human governments:
“Then they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all the nations because of my name” (Matthew 24:9).
“You must watch out for yourselves. You will be handed over to councils and beaten in the synagogues. You will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a witness to them” (Mark 13:9).
“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage – I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
6 Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing. 7 Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).
21 After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch. 22 They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions” (Acts 14:21-22).
Fourth, God raises up kings, and puts them down, and for different purposes.
He changes times and seasons, deposing some kings and establishing others. He gives wisdom to the wise; he imparts knowledge to those with understanding (Daniel 2:21; see also 4:17, 32; 7:25; Psalm 75:6-7).
God raises up some kings (like Pharaoh) to demonstrate His great power:
14 For this time I will send all my plagues on your very self and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with plague, and you would have been destroyed from the earth. 16 But for this purpose I have caused you to stand: to show you my strength, and so that my name may be declared in all the earth (Exodus 9:14-16).
God may raise up ungodly rulers to discipline His wayward people:
47 “Because you have not served the LORD your God joyfully and wholeheartedly with the abundance of everything you have, 48 instead in hunger, thirst, nakedness, and poverty you will serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you. They will place an iron yoke on your neck until they have destroyed you (Deuteronomy 28:47-48).
God may raise up kings in order to carry out His promises to His people:
“Who commissions Cyrus, the one I appointed as shepherd to carry out all my wishes and to decree concerning Jerusalem, ‘She will be rebuilt,’ and concerning the temple, ‘It will be reconstructed’” (Isaiah 44:28).
1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order to fulfill the LORD'S message spoken through Jeremiah, the LORD stirred the mind of King Cyrus of Persia. He disseminated a proclamation throughout his entire kingdom, announcing in a written edict the following: 2 “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: ‘The LORD God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has instructed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah’” (Ezra 1:1-2).
Fifth, Satan also seeks to carry out his work through men, including political leaders.
When one reads the Book of Daniel, Isaiah 14, and Ezekiel 28, we see that behind what is occurring here on earth, there can be a satanic and fallen angel counterpart. Satan has a certain degree of influence and control over this world, and thus we should expect him to seek to achieve his purposes through political means. This is not to suggest that Satan is free to carry out his purposes without God’s permission and ultimate control, so that the outcome always furthers God’s purposes (as we see, for instance, in the Book of Job).
Sixth, pride seems to be a principal cause of failure in kings (and spiritual leaders, too).
Nebuchadnezzar is a classic example of pride (see Daniel 4), along with the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14), and the prince of Tyre (Ezekiel 28). In effect, they begin to attribute to themselves that which belongs only to God. The results can be devastating:
18 At daybreak there was great consternation among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 When Herod had searched for him and did not find him, he questioned the guards and commanded that they be led away to execution. Then Herod went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 Now Herod was having an angry quarrel with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they joined together and presented themselves before him. And after convincing Blastus, the king's personal assistant, to help them, they asked for peace, because their country's food supply was provided by the king's country. 21 On a day determined in advance, Herod put on his royal robes, sat down on the judgment seat, and made a speech to them. 22 But the crowd began to shout, "The voice of a god, and not of a man!" 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck Herod down because he did not give the glory to God, and he was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:18-23).
Seventh, the command to honor political authorities, and to submit to them as God’s agency is clear, and is not contingent upon any particular political form or philosophy.
(Democracy is almost unknown in history. In the days of Jesus and the apostles, authoritarian dictatorships were the norm, as is often the case today).
1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Romans 13:1-7).
1 Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, 2 to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men (Titus 3:1-2).
In light of 1 Peter 2:18-25, it seems apparent that Peter’s command (above) to obey human governments would include those that are oppressive.
Eighth, there are some exceptions to this command to submit to ruling authorities, but they are few and far between.
(see Daniel and his friends in Daniel (chapters 3 and 6), and Peter and John in Acts 4:17-20). But in these instances of disobedience, believers were commanded to obey human government in a way that it would require them to disobey a clear command of God.
Ninth, like it or not, the Bible does not advocate or require a democratic form of government.
This is evident in the Old Testament when God gave His law to Israel and later established a government under the rule of a king. Can you imagine governance by a majority vote as Israel’s form of government? Would Israel have passed through the Red Sea by a majority vote? The ideal government is that of a benevolent dictator, the dictatorial rule of a righteous, merciful, and faithful Good Shepherd (see Ezekiel 34; Psalm 2; John 10:11-18).
Tenth, God’s leadership style is vastly different from that of men:
25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 26 It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
Eleventh, the Book of Proverbs is written largely by a king (Solomon), who instructs future leaders how to rule:
1 The words of King Lemuel, the oracle which his mother taught him: 2 What, O my son? And what, O son of my womb? And what, O son of my vows? 3 Do not give your strength to women, Or your ways to that which destroys kings. 4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel, It is not for kings to drink wine, Or for rulers to desire strong drink, 5 For they will drink and forget what is decreed, And pervert the rights of all the afflicted. 6 Give strong drink to him who is perishing, And wine to him whose life is bitter. 7 Let him drink and forget his poverty And remember his trouble no more. 8 Open your mouth for the mute, For the rights of all the unfortunate. 9 Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy (Proverbs 31:1-9).
Note that political philosophy is not emphasized here; character is. The same can be found in the qualifications for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Twelfth, the Bible does not advocate seeking to change political regimes In our Lord’s day, neither Jesus nor any of the apostles sought to overturn or to change even a corrupt government.
My son, fear the LORD and the king; Do not associate with those who are given to change (Proverbs 24:21, NAU).
Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm" (John 18:36).
Thirteenth, a particular political philosophy is not prescribed or required in the Bible, but is rather a matter of personal conviction.
In Romans 14 and 15 Paul teaches believers that convictions are personal. Though they can be strongly held, they are not to be a source of division and debate, which undermines unity. Thus, these matters are not be debated, but are to be kept to oneself.
One more thing on this subject. I in no way am seeking to discourage concerned Christians from participating in the American political process, either as a candidate, or as a supporter. I would encourage all to vote, rather than to refuse to exercise their freedom and responsibility as a citizen of this country. Engaging in the political process allows one to express their biblical beliefs and convictions.
Fourteenth, according to Proverbs, what gives a person standing before kings and rulers is their skill and wisdom.
This was the case with Joseph in Egypt, and with Daniel in Babylon.
Do you see a person skilled in his work? He will take his position before kings; he will not take his position before obscure people (Proverbs 22:29).
It is especially noteworthy that Daniel’s influence and standing with kings spanned many years, and several administrations.
Fifteenth, one would do well to give serious thought to these words in Proverbs:
21 Fear the LORD, my child, as well as the king, and do not associate with rebels [literally those who are given to change], 22 for suddenly their destruction will overtake them, and who knows the ruinous judgment both the LORD and the king can bring? (Proverbs 24:21-22).
Sixteenth, I believe that a Christian in America today should see our political environment (as wonderful as it is) as exceptional, rather than as the norm.
Throughout the history of the world, exceedingly few Christians have had the luxury of living in a democracy, which protects the rights of Christians, and gives the degree of freedom we experience today (and claim as our right). Let us not think our situation to be the norm, because it is the exception. Indeed, a number of Scriptures dealing with ruling authorities speak in reference to a king (see Acts 9:15; 12:12; 25:13; 1 Timothy 2:2; 1 Peter 2:13, 17).
Seventeenth, I take Jesus' warning seriously, as He speaks of the dangers of the last days, and particularly that of being deceived by false messiahs:
As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, his disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Watch out that no one misleads you. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will mislead many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these things are the beginning of birth pains. 9 “Then they will hand you over to be persecuted and will kill you. You will be hated by all the nations because of my name. 10 Then many will be led into sin, and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will appear and deceive many” (Matthew 24:3-11).
In the last days, before the return of our Lord, Jesus told us that things are going to go from bad to worse. The first thing Jesus says to His disciples, who have asked Him to tell them when the kingdom will come, is to be careful that they are not deceived. Why is this such a great danger that Jesus makes His warning so emphatic? I think it is because when things get really bad (and they will), Christians will want a deliverer to rescue them, and, as a result, there will be many political “false messiahs” who will claim to fill that role. But the Messiah won’t come until after all these painful and unpleasant things take place. And when He does come, there will be no doubt that it is He. No earthly political leader is the Messiah. Therefore, let us not look to earthly leaders to save us. Let us look to Christ:
7 When the LORD saw that they humbled themselves, he gave this message to Shemaiah: “They have humbled themselves, so I will not destroy them. I will deliver them soon. My anger will not be unleashed against Jerusalem through Shishak. 8 Yet they will become his subjects, so they can experience how serving me differs from serving the surrounding nations” (2 Chronicles 12:7-8).
1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).
It might serve us well to conclude with the testimony of one of the most powerful kings that ever lived:
29 After twelve months, he happened to be walking around on the battlements of the royal palace of Babylon. 30 The king uttered these words: “Is this not the great Babylon that I have built for a royal residence by my own mighty strength and for my majestic honor?” 31 While these words were still on the king's lips, a voice came down from heaven: “It is hereby announced to you, King Nebuchadnezzar, that your kingdom has been removed from you! 32 You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven periods of time will pass by for you before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes.” 33 Now in that very moment this pronouncement about Nebuchadnezzar came true. He was driven from human society, he ate grass like oxen, and his body became damp with the dew of the sky, until his hair became long like an eagle's feathers, and his nails like a bird's claws. 34 But at the end of the appointed time I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up toward heaven, and my sanity returned to me. I extolled the Most High, and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever. For his authority is an everlasting authority, and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next. 35 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he wishes with the army of heaven and with those who inhabit the earth. No one slaps his hand and says to him, ‘What have you done?’ 36 At that time my sanity returned to me. I was restored to the honor of my kingdom, and my splendor returned to me. My ministers and my nobles were seeking me out, and I was reinstated over my kingdom. I became even greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, for all his deeds are right and his ways are just. He is able to bring down those who live in pride” (Daniel:29-37).
Therefore, let us not put our trust in men, but in God:
1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul!
2 I will praise the LORD as long as I live!
I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist!
3 Do not trust in princes, or in human beings, who cannot deliver!
4 Their life's breath departs, they return to the ground; on that day their plans die.
5 How blessed is the one whose helper is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
6 the one who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,
who remains forever faithful,
7 vindicates the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry.
The LORD releases the imprisoned.
8 The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD lifts up all who are bent over.
The LORD loves the godly.
9 The LORD protects those residing outside their native land;
he lifts up the fatherless and the widow, but he opposes the wicked.
10 The LORD rules forever, your God, O Zion, throughout the generations to come!
Praise the LORD! (Psalm 146:1-10)