by Jojo Ruba
Last week, I examined the issue of Christian participation in politics, particularly in light of criticism from Christians like Pastor John MacArthur who are also doing their best to be biblically faithful.
I pointed out that many critics of Christians in politics often do so using straw man arguments: for example, creating a false dichotomy between evangelism and political behaviour. They don't seem to understand that no one is saying political engagement "saves" souls. We are saying that government can make it easier to share truth.
Worse, they don't even comprehend the meaning of "politics." MacArthur's book, Why Government Can't Save You,[i] seems based exclusively on a reaction to American politics and has little to do with the political persecution of Christians in China, Cuba and North Korea, among dozens of other places around the world. This myopia ignores the fact that democratic countries, especially in North America, were often built by Christians who wanted to protect their religious liberties. A country where there are free speech rights and religious liberties wouldn't censor evangelism or ban Bibles! Moreover, the argument ignores the fact that in democracies, citizens are responsible for laws, a privilege most Christians throughout history have not shared. If we want to respect our government, then we need to recognize that the Constitution tells us we are the government. In other words, Christians, just like all Canadians, are already involved in politics just by living here.
When Should Christians Participate?
Another problem with those who argue that faith and politics don't mix is that they don't have a proper understanding of the Christian worldview. If we believe that God is sovereign over every aspect of our lives, then we believe God is also sovereign over our governments.
Unfortunately, most Canadians today would think that statement is theocratic. They view Christian political activism as a way to "impose" our religion on others. Ironically, John MacArthur makes the same mistake in his book. That fear is silly.
The vast majority of Christians throughout history have never forced their faith on others through the law. Why? Because we don't believe anyone who converts through the sword is likely a Christian! It's the reason why we are called "evangelical" Christians: we focus on evangelizing rather than converting non-believers by force.
MacArthur suggests that when we create laws that govern moral behaviour, we are expecting non-Christians to act like Christians. But again, this view ignores basic truths. Government already forces moral behaviour on its citizens! If a government is good, it will force its citizens to behave in a good way. I use the word "force" because government uses sticks as well as carrots to alter its citizens' behaviour. That's why rapists go to jail or why speed limits are enforced. Good laws would protect the innocent, prevent theft, and allow for basic rights, such as the right to work for one's wages. But all these basic principles are biblical ones! In other words, government can't force people to become believers or force their ideology on its citizens, but when it is good, it will often make people comply with biblically compatible behaviour.
How Should Christians Approach Politics?
That's why we can insist that our governments be good governments. These governments should protect fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association; not because they save people, but because they are God-given. A good government would respect God-given rights and not take them away.
Even the Apostle Paul demanded his political rights when he was thrown in jail without a trial. As a Roman citizen, the government guaranteed his right to see a judge, something the Macedonian magistrates feared when they unjustly punished him.[ii] So even in a non-democratic country like Rome, Paul insisted that his political rights be protected. That doesn't sound like someone saying we shouldn't care or shouldn't concern ourselves with the political process. Rather, if we understand Scripture, it's clear we can't abandon political activism. Some believers are actually called to serve the public and serve God as politicians—see Daniel or Nehemiah, Esther or King David. That's even more true in a democratic state. All of us in a democratic state are responsible for our government and so we need to learn how to govern properly.
So how do we approach politics without becoming theocrats? Our organization isn't a political one, but we do want to be able to provide some clear thinking on how Christians should approach issues, including our role in the political arena. I suggest three questions we should ask that provide guidelines for what we can do politically:
- Is it good? In other words, is the political goal we are pursuing or activity we want to do morally good? Does it help people? Is it compatible with Scripture? As Christians, our political activity should be restricted to advocating for, and acting in accordance with, what the Bible teaches. Of course some subjects are more morally neutral—should we spend money on a bridge or a school, for example. But even those decisions should be made with godly wisdom about how we should spend our money.
- Is it proper? As Christians, we recognize that societal problems should be solved using different tools. Even the Old Testament laws had a division of roles between the different tribes and between Moses and the elders. In the same way, federal, provincial, and municipal governments have different roles to play. We also need to accept that some problems simply can't be solved by government. Families, private businesses, and churches are also responsible for finding solutions to our problems. A proper Christian understanding of our political responsibility will always ask who can best solve the problem, if the problem can be solved by us at all.
- Is it just? In a theocratic state, such as that of the Old Testament Jews, where everyone is supposed to believe in the same God, laws could be made that reinforced both social order and religious beliefs. But since we don't live in a theocratic state, we can't expect everyone to live according to Christian rules. C. S. Lewis explores this when he writes about why Christians shouldn't use the law to ban divorce, even if it is a practice we find biblically unacceptable.[iii]
But that doesn't mean we can't advocate for laws that benefit every member of our society. Laws against spousal abuse, rape, and murder are also found in the Old Testament theocratic laws, yet no one questions that we should have these laws in our own democracies. When we advocate for laws, then, we need to do so not to simply alter someone's behaviour or as a way to "impose" our morality on others. Rather, we need to advocate for pro-life laws or laws against same-sex marriage because we care for our neighbours. We aren't trying to impose Christian laws on others, but laws that will benefit the entire society.
Rendering to God
When broaching the topic of politics and faith, many often bring up the story of the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus by asking if the Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. Jesus responds by saying render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar to and to God the things that are of God.[iv] Advocates of no political action claim Jesus is dividing the roles of the church and the secular state. Therefore, Christians should not be involved in politics. I disagree. The passage makes clear that even as we should follow human laws, we do so because we recognize God's sovereignty first. We follow human laws because we first follow God. After all, doesn't God own everything, and so when we render to God what is God's, wouldn't that include our government?
[i] John MacArthur, Why Government Can't Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2000).
[ii] Acts 16.
[iv] Matt. 22:18-22.