As I mentioned in the introductory post to this series, I am working on ironing out some of my thoughts on Christian faith and political engagement. I laid out several reasons why I think this is a complicated issue, but ultimately, I do believe that Scripture has much to say that should inform the way that Christians view and interact with politics. My goal is to briefly review several biblical principles that should influence Christian political views and, when appropriate, discuss these how principles interact with our current political situation.
Jesus Is Lord
I touched on this in the last post, but I believe that all Christian interaction with politics must begin here, with what is, perhaps, the central statement of Christianity: Jesus is Lord. This is an inherently political claim, and if we miss that truth, we not only start off on the wrong foot politically, but we are also disconnected theologically from the story of Christianity and the church that we read about in the New Testament.
“Lord” is an interesting word; to us, it is almost exclusively a religious term. We tend to think of it as a synonym for “God”, but really, “Lord” was a favorite title of Jesus in the early church. And it’s not primarily a religious title, either; it was a title with distinctly political overtones. “Lord” was the official title for the Roman Emperor: laws, edicts and decrees were signed “Lord Caesar.” This means that when early Christians called Jesus “Lord”, they were making a political statement: by saying that Jesus was Lord, they were simultaneously saying that Caesar was not. Jesus was the One who had absolute authority over their lives, He set the standards by which they were to live, He was the One to whom they owed primary allegiance, and it was He who sat on the throne of the universe.
As a Christian, it is really important that I remember that, regardless of who claims worldly positions of power—Nero in Rome, Napoleon in France, Hitler in Germany, or whoever wins the US Presidential election—Jesus is still Lord. His reign is secure, His victory is certain, and it is to Him that I pledge my primary allegiance, and in Him that I place my hope and trust. All of this may sound like a no-brainer to Christians, but it is easily forgotten anytime a well-meaning Christian suggests that “This is the most important election in history because X” or “If X wins the election we are in trouble because Y.”
Jesus is Lord. That reality helps me to view the human political arena in a different light, and should free me from the hysteria that plagues it.
Citizens of the Kingdom
If Jesus is Lord, that means that He has rule and authority, and the Bible describes this in terms of a “kingdom.” Jesus came preaching about His kingdom, describing what it is like and how citizens of His kingdom should live. The kingdom of God is not bound by place, time, or ethnicity, but rather, encompasses all those who have submitted to His Lordship and seek to live according to His will. It is a multi-ethnic, supra-national reality that confounds the sovereignty of earthly nation-states.
That means that Christians—citizens of God’s kingdom—living in earthly nation-states occupy a peculiar position. One ancient Christian describes it this way:
“[Christians] live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.”
In other words, Christians live all over the world, and while they may hold citizenship in any nation, their core identity should be as citizens of God’s kingdom.
I am an American, and I value my American citizenship, but my citizenship in God’s kingdom should be more central to my identity than my American-ness. That means that I should feel more kinship with a fellow Christian living in Russia, China, or Iraq than an unbelieving fellow American who lives on my own street. It also means that, from a Christian perspective, American values are not inherently good, and must be weighed against the standards of God’s kingdom.
So, for example, from a Christian perspective, “America first” policies—while they may be politically expedient and bring blessing to those residing within the borders of the United States—must inherently be viewed with skepticism. Also, the American love for (obsession with?) freedom and rights must be tempered by the kingdom value that the exercise of our rights must not come at the expense of our neighbors (1 Corinthians 8); love is more important than liberty.
As a Christian, I must seek first God’s kingdom, and apply myself to live by the values of that kingdom. When I do so, I can rest content in the knowledge that I am living as salt and light in the world and bringing glory to my Father who is in Heaven.
Love Of Neighbor
The previous value leads naturally to this one, that Christians are called to love our neighbors. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is that we love God with all that we have, and the second is like it, that we love our neighbors as ourselves. In further teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes clear that all people count as our neighbors (even our enemies!). Of course, the importance of loving our neighbors is not an idea that was novel to Christianity; it was taught in the Hebrew Bible as well. As Paul says in Galatians 5.14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Furthermore, while we are called to love everyone, the Bible teaches repeatedly that we are to give special care and attention to those who are marginalized and oppressed. The Hebrew Bible frequently discusses the need to make special provision for the triad of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner/stranger. Israelite farmers were to tend their land in such a way that they left some of their harvest for the poor. Jesus tells His followers that they will be judged for the way they treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner. Paul tells Corinthian Christians that those without honor should be treated with special honor.
This is all closely related to the idea of justice. Justice has become a charged word in our current cultural climate, but that’s too bad, because it is an important biblical concept. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word justice is closely related to the word righteousness, and a simple (but, I believe, accurate) way to understand these words is that righteousness refers to us having a right relationship with God (characterized by loving God with all that we have) and justice refers to us having a right relationship with others (characterized by loving our neighbors as ourselves).
While there may be a host of disagreements about how best to show our love for neighbor and bring about justice through good policy, Christians should absolutely be able to agree on the principle of neighborly love.
Love of neighbor and showing special concern for the marginalized and oppressed should absolutely cause us to oppose abortion and work for that tragic practice to be ended. But it should also cause us to apply the “Pro-Life” label more broadly than it often is: Christians don’t care for babies only when they are in the womb! We care for infants who need adopting. We care for children who need healthcare. We care for families living in poverty who consider abortion to be their only option. We care for men and women from poor backgrounds (or, from any backgrounds) who make bad decisions and end up in prison. We care for men, women, and children from other nations who yearn to enter our nation in search of a better life. We care for people of all races and ethnicities and lament when some suffer from inequities. We care for elderly adults who want to live dignified and valued lives.
And—don’t miss this!—we care for those who disagree with us, whether about this, or any other biblical principle.
We have already established that, as Christians, we are fundamentally citizens of a different sort of kingdom, and that Jesus is our Lord. As kingdom citizens, we live out kingdom values, and a primary kingdom value as we live in a society and interact with other people is love of neighbor.
At the same time, the reality is that I am also a citizen of the United States, and with that comes certain opportunities and responsibilities. The next several principles reflect that reality and relate to how we are to view the nation(s) in which we live and our role as “dual citizens”.
Character of Leaders
The moral perfection, abounding love, and abiding wisdom of Jesus means that Christians do not have to worry about the character of our King, but when it comes to earthly leaders, all of them have their failings and shortcomings. That doesn’t mean, however, that the moral character of leaders does not matter or should not be taken into account.
In the Hebrew Bible, we can think of men like Pharaoh in the days of Moses who, in addition to his wickedness in oppressing the Israelites in slavery, also brought untold suffering upon his own people through his pride and stubbornness. Pharaoh’s lack of moral character certainly mattered; a leader with a more pliant heart would have spared his people much pain.
But we can see even clearer examples when we look at the kings of Israel. Repeatedly, kings are evaluated in Scripture based on their faithfulness to God and whether or not they led their people toward devotion to Yahweh, or toward the worship of pagan idols. A few kings received sterling marks, others were a mixed bag, and others were condemned for their wickedness. Jeroboam receives special notoriety: as the first king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Jeroboam was given special opportunity by God but squandered it. He was known as the king who “made Israel to sin”, and became the standard by which other bad kings were measured. The principle seems clear: the Bible does not shy away from evaluating the character of kings, and associates bad moral character with bad results for the nation.
From a Christian perspective, the character of our leaders should matter, because it matters to God.
My first formative political memories came at a time when Bill Clinton was the President of the United States. While in office, President Clinton was involved in a sex scandal, and the resounding cry from conservative Christians was that Clinton’s moral failings had negative effects upon the entire nation, and rendered him unfit for office. The argument went: If this sort of thing is winked at in the White House, what message does it send our children? I was a young teenager at the time, but the argument totally made sense to me. It seemed valid.
Imagine my feelings of whiplash when 20 years later, a candidate with similar moral failings came to prominence, but now represented the opposite party. Instead of repeating the argument that had been made two decades earlier, many of the same conservative Christians were now singing a different tune: Everyone is a sinner; who are you to judge? We are electing a President, not a preacher/pastor/Pope!
This blatant hypocrisy has done so much damage to the esteem and moral authority of religious conservatives (especially in the eyes of people of my generation and younger), but beyond that, it is biblically false. The Bible simply doesn’t teach that we are powerless to evaluate moral character since everyone sins! In fact, not only does the Bible not teach that all sins are the same in God’s eyes, Jesus tells us that, while it is not our place to judge the eternal destinies of people, we are to evaluate people’s character, which can be known by their fruits.
Now, it’s certainly possible that there are times when we may find ourselves in a position where we look at two candidates and simply cannot discern any significant difference in their character. But the notion that policies matter while personal character does not is not a biblical principle.
Babylon, Not Israel
In the Hebrew Bible, God called a man name Abraham to follow Him, made a covenant with him, and promised him that his descendants would become a great nation and that all peoples of the earth would be blessed through him. Abraham’s descendants—the Israelites—are God’s chosen people, and much of the story of the Old Testament is God’s faithful love for His people despite their own faithlessness. In the New Testament, God does not abandon His people, but the story of Israel does take an exciting plot twist. Jesus—the descendant of Abraham and God in the flesh—bursts onto the scene, a King from the line of David who fulfills the law and shows just how it is that all peoples of the earth will be blessed through Abraham’s descendants: Israel itself is renewed and restored, but no longer will the identity of God’s people be determined by ethnicity, but rather by faithful allegiance to Lord Jesus.
Since it is Abraham’s spiritual descendants who comprise God’s people, in plain terms, this means that the United States of America is not the heir of the Kingdom of Israel. It is not the Kingdom of God. In fact, if we want a biblical parallel for the US, it’s not Israel; it’s Babylon. This statement, though perhaps shocking to some, is a well-known and often repeated teaching of Scripture: the kingdoms of men, which rise and fall, are distinct from God’s kingdom, which will never be destroyed. This is the point of prophecies in Daniel where one great nation after another topples into oblivion. This is the point of the Revelation of John, which, though dripping with anti-Roman imagery and sentiment, refers to “Babylon” as a way of saying here we go again: earthly kingdoms are oppressive, are in opposition to God’s kingdom, and are corrupted by the influence of the ruler of this world.
That doesn’t mean that all earthly kingdoms are equally bad, or that it is wrong to care about the nation in which you live, or that it is inherently wrong to serve in government or the armed forces. In my view, the United States of America is one of the kindest and most benevolent forms of Babylon that has ever existed; but it is still Babylon.
This realization, in addition to tempering whatever loyalty or allegiance we feel to our earthly nations (see “Citizens of the Kingdom” above), should also help us to observe those nations at arm’s length, and evaluate their history and current practices from a Christian perspective. In my case, I should not feel the need to defend everything the US does or has done; if a practice is just and brings blessing to people, I should feel free to praise it. On the other hand, if a practice is oppressive and brings harm, I should feel free to critique it.
And more than that, realizing that America is not the Kingdom of God frees me from a great deal of anxiety. As I look around in the country in which I live, I am struck by how un-Christian it is in all sorts of ways, but that’s what I should expect, because I live in Babylon. Why should I expect the country in which I live to look like the Kingdom of God? Because it’s not that. As Christians, we need to quit being surprised when lost people act like they’re lost. How else are they going to act?
Once we realize this, we can quit wringing our hands about how bad things are and get busy doing God’s business: living as part of a counter-culture kingdom and spreading it throughout the world as we introduce people to Jesus.
Seek The Welfare of the City
The fact that our primary allegiance is to another King and another kingdom does not mean that we are to disdain the “Babylons” in which we sojourn during our earthly lives. In Jeremiah 29, Jeremiah delivers a message from God to Israelites who have been taken into captivity in Babylon. He does not tell them to foment rebellion or withdraw from society and isolate themselves. Instead, he says:
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
While living in Exile, God’s people were to put down roots and do what they could to benefit the city in which they lived. We see this principle lived out in the lives of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who served as government officials in Babylon. We see it in the life of Queen Esther, who used her royal position to save her people. And although he lived in a different time period, we see the same principle lived out in the life of Joseph, who in his high position in Pharaoh’s administration served his country, saved his family, and enriched his master.
This principle is important to keep in mind, especially for people who tend to be cynical about politics (like me!). Perhaps because I see political systems as so tainted and imperfect and because I seek to place my hope in Jesus instead, it can be easy for me to disdain politics altogether, forgetting that political policies actually impact people’s lives for better or worse. The biblical testimony is that we are to seek the welfare of the society in which we live and the neighbors who live around us, and that God’s people sometimes are called to do this through political involvement.
Render to Caesar
In Matthew 22, Jesus’ enemies sought to entrap Him by asking whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. After Jesus pointed out that it was Caesar’s image that appears on coins, he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This response indicates that, while our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, we are still obligated to the state in a lesser sense. In addition to paying taxes, this means that we are to “be subject to governing authorities”, that we are to “honor the emperor”, and that we are to pray for “kings and those in authority” (Romans 13.1-7; 1 Peter 2.13-17; 1 Timothy 2.1-2).
Although there are challenging aspects to these passages, taken together, they suggest that our allegiance to Christ and His kingdom doesn’t mean that Christians are bad citizens of the nations in which we live. On the contrary, as people who love our neighbors, seek the welfare of our communities, live in subjection to our governments, and pray for and honor our leaders, Christians are ideal citizens. We live that way, though, not in blind allegiance to the state, but rather because our King tells us to do so.
As I said in the opening paragraph of this post, Scripture has much to say that should inform the way that Christians view and interact with politics, and in this post, I have tried to briefly review several relevant biblical principles. Here’s the problem, though: in the US, neither of our two major political parties consistently upholds these biblical principles, so how do we take a Christian perspective with us into the voting booth? In the final post of this series, I won’t try to give a definitive answer to that question, but I will seek to provide a brief overview and evaluation of several different voting strategies that Christians often use.
At the end of the day, voting is a matter of conscience, but I believe that thoughtful reflection on biblical principles can help us to be more confident that we are engaging in politics from a Christian perspective.
Read the entire series:
- Politics From a Christian Perspective: Introduction
- Politics From a Christian Perspective: Biblical Principles
- Politics From a Christian Perspective: Voting Strategies
 Some may want to push back against the notion of some sort of rivalry between Jesus and earthly rulers, but it is clearly present in the biblical text. Herod the Great wanted Jesus killed as an infant because He saw the prophesied “King of the Jews” as a rival. It was ultimately the accusation hurled at Pontius Pilate by Jewish leaders that if he released Jesus he was “no friend of Caesar” that motivated him to sign off on Jesus’ crucifixion. “King of the Jews” was written on Jesus’ cross as He was crucified—the charge for which He was executed.
Certainly, Jesus was and is a different sort of King than earthly rulers, but that doesn’t mean that there is no conflict between their respective claims of authority.
 Epistle to Diognetus 5.5. This anonymous, early Christian document likely dates to the second or third century AD.
 The declaration that “Jesus is Lord”—properly lived out—is a reflection of the greatest commandment.
 Republicans (including Christians) often come under fire for being “Anti-Abortion” rather than truly being “Pro-Life”. I think there is some validity to that claim, and I think Christians would do well to consciously and vocally support a consistent Pro-Life ethic, “from womb to tomb”. Having said that, I have very little patience for Democrats who lecture Republicans about their inconsistency on this point while still supporting the practice of abortion themselves. Put differently, “Pro-Life” must mean more than “Anti-Abortion”, but it cannot mean less than that.
 As I mentioned in the first post, the Kingdom of Israel represents a context distinct from our own (it was a theocracy, and Israel represented God’s chosen people), but through the lens of Israel, I think we can still learn about how God views human leadership.
 For example, as the Book of Acts makes clear, our obligation to the state is always held in relative position to our allegiance to God. When there is a conflict between the two, “we must obey God rather than men.”
 By no means is this intended to be an exhaustive list. As I was finishing up this post, it occurred to me that I could have also included creation care or generosity or stewardship—all of these are also biblical principles that interact with politics as well. And, surely, there are many other relevant biblical principles besides these. The point of this post was not to attempt to discern every biblical principle that might inform a Christian’s political perspective, but rather to prompt some reflection on a few major principles, and also to illustrate the fact that Scripture has much light to aid us before we enter into the murkiness of the political realm, if we will just avail ourselves to it.