If you’re living in the West, it’s almost impossible to avoid the question of politics. It’s good, therefore, to ask how our Christian faith should shape our approach. But this is a complicated question, as the way we experience politics in a democracy is very different than New Testament believers, who lived with very little agency or power to choose their leaders and shape their communities. Nevertheless, we can deduce some general principles about our posture in the world. Here are five key principles for Christians and politics:
1. Understand that Christianity itself is inherently political.
Quite often, well-meaning Christians will often say that they don’t want to “be political.” Pastors will often say they want the church to be a “politics-free zone.” If by that we mean we don’t want party talking points incorporated into sermons, or our church lobbies to be turned into canvassing centers, or our pastors to publicly endorse various candidates, that’s good policy. But that might be partisanship we’re talking about, not politics, because Christianity itself is political.
In the first century, when followers of Jesus declared Christ king and claimed there was no other God before him, it was deeply political. It meant Jesus wouldn’t share the stage with the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods and goddesses. It meant Christians wouldn’t participate in the ritual religious rites and practices so engrained in Roman life. It meant that to follow Jesus was to practice a different kind of ethic—in their sexual lives, in their business dealings, in the way they ordered their homes. This would make Christians stand out and often made them the object of derision, scorn, and persecution. Today, you can’t really preach the gospel and not be political. If you’re committed to teaching and practicing the word of God, inevitably the text of Scripture will cut against some of the idols of the age. It will speak a word to social structures and cultural practices. It will pierce you to the heart, regardless of where you land politically.
2. Understand what it means for a Christian to properly relate to the state.
The Scripture is clear on the role of government. Romans 13 tells us that every public official in every office has his or her power based on the authority given by God. It’s a stewardship and a trust, and everyone in public office will be held accountable. This reminds us of two important things: First, even bad leaders are not outside of God’s sovereign control. This was comforting to Christians in the first century, and it also should be comforting to us today.
Second, in a representative republic like in the United States, where power is shared not only by those in charge but also by those who vote them in, we voters will be held responsible for how we stewarded our power. This is why I don’t believe a Christian can afford to be completely disentangled from the political system. This doesn’t mean every person has to obsessively follow the news or run for office, but we should use our voice and vote in ways that honor Christ.
3. Understand what it means to love our neighbors.
From Old to New Testament, we’re commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we live in a government where we’re given a voice and a vote, can we really say we’re loving our neighbors fully if we don’t use our power to shape the social structures that affect our neighbors’ flourishing? We can’t.
So, for instance, how can we adequately love our unborn neighbors if we have an opportunity to speak up for them but are silent? How can we love our impoverished neighbors if we don’t speak up for them either? Can we say we love future generations of the church if we don’t help put in place policies that can ensure their freedom to worship? We are, of course, limited in what we can do, and every person has a different calling as it relates to politics. However, it would be hard to say we’re fulfilling this Great Commandment if we fail to do our part. Loving our vulnerable neighbors means using whatever power and agency we have to speak up on their behalf.
4. Understand that politics is useful but not ultimate.
Engaging in politics is necessary in a society ordered like ours, where we have opportunity for direct engagement in shaping our communities and our nation. And yet while we should get involved, at times, in parties and institutions and in making voting decisions, we should do this knowing that all of this is temporal. We will never be at home in any earthly institution, because we are sojourners and strangers. So while we might see fit to run for office under a party banner or join the local party or be active in think tanks and organizations and movements, we should hold these loosely, never letting our allegiance to an earthly institution take priority over our allegiance to the kingdom of God.
There will always be some dissonance between our movement and the mission of God. And we should go into these spaces seeking to bring the light of the gospel to bear, seeking to change them in small ways. What’s more, knowing that all earthly institutions are temporal frees us from disappointment at the pace of change around the world. We know that as much as we advocate for the vulnerable, as much as we seek to bring righteousness to bear on our communities, we will never experience utopia until Jesus returns to fully consummate his kingdom. Until then, we work at the margins, participating with Christ in the renewal and restoration of creation.
5. Understand that civility and courage are friends and not enemies.
The Apostle Peter tells us in 1 Peter 3:15 that we should “have an answer for every person for the hope that lies within us.” Christians are called to stand up and stand firm—language that is used quite often in the New Testament—against wickedness and untruth. To be a follower of Jesus is to be out of step with the world, in some ways.
And yet, not only is God concerned with what we say, but also how we say it. Peter urges us to speak in a distinctly Christian way: “with gentleness and kindness” (1 Pet. 3:15). Courage is not always about being the loudest person in the room. Courage is not about insulting and triggering and poking our enemies. Courage is stating the truth without malice and meanness. Politics affords us many opportunities to be uncivil and be rewarded for insults. But Christians should speak truth in love. We can be both courageous and civil at the same time, and in doing so, point others toward the kingdom of Christ.