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Politics

On what presumptions can Christians base their political engagement? There are some key questions to ask.

Read time: 10 minutes, 30 seconds

On what presumptions can Christians base their political engagement? There are some key questions to ask - Who is God? Who am I? Who are we? What is Government?

WHO IS GOD?

The theologian Chris Wright describes the mission of God in terms of his self-revelation. His primary desire is to make himself known, for he knows that this knowledge and relationship is what humans need to be fully human and thereby whole as individuals, communities or societies. This revelation is about a person, not just about his ways. This is not a purely instrumental mission. Just ‘ending poverty’ or ‘protecting the family’ are not the whole story. Ends cannot justify means with God. How we do something reflects who he is as much as the end-product. In politics as much as any other sphere, Christians can bear no fruit unless we ‘remain in him’ (John 15) in an attempt to reveal who he is.

But who is he? Again whole books have been written on the subject, so we will not replicate them here. One summary is in Tozer’s classic book, The Knowledge of the Holy. He explains that the God of scripture reveals himself as wise, infinite, sovereign, holy, three-in-one, omniscient, faithful, loving, omnipotent, self-existing, self-sufficient, just, merciful, eternal, good, gracious and omnipresent. It is quite a list. One danger with political engagement is that we focus only on the aspects of scripture or God’s character that we like, or that are acceptable to others. Focusing purely on justice is a good example of this. But his desire for governance is for the totality of his image to be portrayed by his delegated governors, not just a portion of it.

One danger with political engagement is that we focus only on the aspects of scripture or God’s character that we like, or that are acceptable to others.

Jesus was the perfect ‘image of the invisible God’ and therefore our primary access point to dig further into his character. He is an intensely political figure. His message of the Kingdom of God directly challenges all earthly powers today in the same way that he challenged the religious leaders of Israel. What we often forget is that when Jesus challenged the religious leaders of his day he was simultaneously challenging Israel’s political leaders, as they were one and the same people. There was no separation of church and state then! In fact the Jews would not even have understood the question, 'Was Jesus political?' To them he was quite clearly speaking about all of life and throwing down a challenge to all in authority.

Jesus also made it clear that he was the new temple, and this idea is also helpful to our understanding. The temple was not just the ‘spiritual’ meeting place for the Jews. It was their civic control centre or town hall. As the place where heaven met earth, it was a loud reminder that God cared about every aspect of their lives, not simply their sacrifices of worship. If Jesus is embodying this idea in himself then we can see the obvious implication that his just rule is for every sphere of society, and our lives, not just for inside the four walls of church buildings.

This reality is fleshed out by the following famous incident from his life. One day while he was teaching, a group of Pharisees tried to trap him by asking: ‘Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?’ What they are really saying is: ‘are you a revolutionary – someone opposed to Roman rule; or are you a compromiser – someone who supports Roman rule?’ This is a common trap for any Christian in politics.

The response of Jesus is devastatingly brilliant. He ignores their flattery, exposes their hypocrisy, and refuses to be tricked into giving a simplistic answer. Importantly, Jesus reminds us of the way things really are, and what’s really important.

He said: ‘Give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s’. Jesus reminds us that we should not confuse temporary earthly power with God - the eternal heavenly power. Jesus firmly places all politics, and all government under God’s authority.

Psalm 24 says that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ This clearly must include shipping forecasts, Hadron colliders, the life cycles of moths, and party politics.

This passage has been used unhelpfully in the past to drive a wedge between the secular and the sacred, between the political and the spiritual. But here is the crucial mistake. When we talk about what is ‘God’s’ and what is ‘Caesar’s’ we are not talking about two separate realms where one has jurisdiction in the sacred and one has jurisdiction in the secular.

Caesar has a small delegated area of authority within the context of God’s overall authority. He has an opinion on everything including taxes because he is in authority over all of it. Jesus reiterated this when he told Pilate that he would have no authority unless ‘it had been given to you from above’. The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr often reminds his readers that there is no such thing as ‘secular’. He says that there is only sacred and ‘de-sacralised’ or desecrated, where humanity has sucked the holiness out of something that was meant for good. But nothing can be inherently secular.

Psalm 24 says that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ This clearly must include shipping forecasts, Hadron colliders, the life cycles of moths, and party politics.

In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the world is ‘charged with the glory of God’. He interacts with humanity in an intimate way. In AD451 the church council of Chalcedon affirmed the simultaneous divinity and humanity of Christ. This gives us the model for understanding the relationship between gospel and culture. We simply cannot therefore believe in a separation between ‘religion’ and any other area of our lives.

In the words of author Jane Collier: 'There is no part of our existence, cultural, political, historical or communal which is not called, through conversion, to become the stuff of which the Kingdom of God is being fashioned.'

Continued below...

Christianity Politics

WHO AM I?

In politics, identity (and therein integrity and purpose) is too often easily transferable, up for grabs, subjective and contextual. As we have mentioned, the identity of the political tribes can be just as overpowering as the images of Caesar that commanded worship in the days of the early church. Yet they refused to bow, even when it caused them serious trouble. But lest we think that political identities are the only ones which can usurp our true identity, it is worth noting that those who do not engage may be accepting identities as consumers rather than participants – ignoring the call to be kings and priests in the new creation. Above all else - Christians need to know who we are in Christ, and who Christ is in us.

Theology not ideology must be the driver – and our theology (or the mind of Christ) must be formed by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. In the last century (the ‘secular’ century) many Christians in politics and public life were either hardened to society, or abandoned social engagement to preserve some integrity of faith, or simply compromised – secularised. We need to learn from this.

We can find unity in our diversity, even while we may disagree on particular aspects of policy and even underpinning ideologies.

Christians ask: Who am I? I’m a child of God. I am the righteousness of God in Christ. I’m saved by grace, beloved of God, and I’m on a mission. His mission. Our primary allegiance must be to the King of Kings, and not to any earthly kingdom. That is easy to say, but hard to do in a very tribal political environment. We seek the protection of a tribe, so we are tempted to toe the line. Let us instead seek the favour and protection of the ultimate authority.

WHO ARE WE?

Losing the frame of ‘what is my mission in life?’ and picking up the frame of ‘how have we been called to participate in his mission’ leads to more co-operation, less workaholism and fewer mixed motivations.

Christians are ‘the redeemed’ or ‘the church’. This should also be our identity. Luther called this ‘the most controversial doctrine in the bible’.

But this church is not a building. Christians are: 'God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.' (1 Timothy 3v15)

We are those united in Christ and we are a body: 'I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought...' (1 Corinthians 1v10)

So the more unified we are, the more Christ is embodied and therefore the more blessing ensues. This is a real challenge to Christians who are working in different political parties. We can find unity in our diversity, even while we may disagree on particular aspects of policy and even underpinning ideologies:

'God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.' (Ephesians 1v22)

'His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.' (Ephesians 3v10)

So put quite simply, the more 'salt and light' in politics, the more blessing for the nation. But Christians should never be lone rangers, separated from our brothers and sisters in the church, because God desires his wisdom to be revealed through the church.

WHAT IS GOVERNMENT?

  • A theological framework for government looks like this:
  • Authority is the exercise of power
  • All authority comes from God (you are not in authority, unless you are under authority)
  • For God, all authority exists for the purpose of government (the right ordering or our relational priorities)
  • For God all government exists for justice
  • For God all justice involves judgement AND mercy
    • God is merciful because he is love
    • God judges because he is just
      • God is just because he is holy.

Again we can see that God’s authority is as personal as it is functional. His holiness is not confined to one area of life. He craves economic holiness as much as sexual holiness. One is not more important than the other to him.

Politics is not the same as government. Politics is the method by which human societies struggle to achieve government. Government is the right ordering of our public priorities.

Politics is not the same as government. Politics is the method by which human societies struggle to achieve government. Government is the right ordering of our public priorities. In mass societies, this means what we decide to spend money and attention on, and what we don’t. The decision to tax this rather than that. To make a treaty with this country rather than that one. It is simply the process by which we organise our common lives. You could say that God may or may not be interested in politics as it is often humanly exercised, but he is as we have seen, very, very interested in government.

Politics can be idolatrous. It’s important because it affects lots of people in significant ways, but it’s not God. The secular compulsion to see a political solution to all things is wrong. Politics is limited.

Prayer is as important as practice. The Bible calls us to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2v1-3) and to remember that our warfare is primarily spiritual (Ephesians 6v11-13).

SUMMARY

On the basis of who God is, and who we are, the traditional biblical (Romans 13) view of government, and why Christians have a role is sixfold:

1. Government has been instituted by God and should reflect God’s character, conforming to his design for our relational priorities;

2. The role of government is limited and is to restrain evil, judge evil and promote the common good (law is necessarily coercive);

3. Governments can be corrupted by various idolatries;

4. Christians should be model citizens, respect government and engage with it;

5. Christian prayer, service and leadership is important for good government;

6. Christians can never give uncritical allegiance to any state or government, since their first loyalty is to the Lord Jesus Christ.