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The Christian and the State: Keeping the Faith in an Election Season

Last Monday, Alberta Premier Alison Redford announced an election for April 23. The parties are now in full campaign mode, with buses criss-crossing the province and politicians shaking hands and kissing babies. Already the polls are predicting a tight race between the governing Tories and the upstart Wildrose Alliance, and so the names and political accusations are already flying with gusto—much to the delight of the media.

What are we to think? What is to be our attitude, as the signs go up and the speeches fill the airwaves? What should we do? Are we to retreat to the hills and disavow politics and civic engagement entirely, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do? Are we to form political pressure groups or Christian political parties to “Christianize” government? What does Christ expect of us?

I’d argue that, while the church as an organization and an institution is called to make disciples and not political inroads, the responsibility of individual Christians can be broader than that of the church. We see this truth every day in our vocations. The church has no duty or calling to rewire buildings or manage businesses, but that may well be your vocation! Our corporate mission, then, is to be distinguished from the calling of individual believers.

The church has a straightforward mandate: make disciples, through going to the ends of the earth, through baptism, and through teaching the commands of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20) The only sanction placed in its hands is corrective church discipline. Just as our Lord disavowed the use of earthly arms to bring about his Kingdom (John 18:36), so too the Scriptures place the power of life and death in the hands of rulers (Romans 13) and not those of the church. The weapons of the church are specifically not earthly, but have much more power, being able to destroy strongholds like arguments and to take even thoughts captive (2 Cor. 10:3-6). These weapons are spiritual: the Gospel and the Word of God. So the church and the state operate in different ways and with different methods. The church, as an institution, has no mandate to engage in politicking.

Yet Christians are also citizens. We are commanded to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21), and to submit to authorities, including in matters of taxation and honor (Romans 13:1-7). Paul’s own life is an example of using his political status as a Roman citizen to claim rights where it would benefit the Gospel (Acts 16, 22). One astonishing archaeological find was the discovery in Corinth of an inscription on a paving stone, crediting a city official named Erastus for laying the pavement at his own expense—astonishing because, in Romans 16, Paul writes from Corinth and conveys greetings from a city treasurer named Erastus! Clearly Christians were active in community and political life.

What, then, should be our attitude toward politics?

First, recognize the limits of politics. God ordained the civil power to keep human evil in check. The state is one of God’s means for restraining the worst of human nature. However, its power to do so is the sword—brute force. The state has no power to change those hearts. Even Israel, a theocracy given divine law, was unable to effect lasting change in the hearts of its people. How much less power would a modern, secular state have to do so!

Christians on both sides of the political spectrum can be tempted to place their hopes in the process or in legislation to bring about lasting change and make the world a better place. People on the left of the political spectrum are tempted to see government intervention and spending as offering the hope of change and of peace and wholeness. Those on the right, for their part, are tempted to see constitutions and limitations of government power and the “invisible hand” of the free market as the keys to human success and flourishing.

It doesn’t matter what your political inclinations are if you are resting your hope in legislative accomplishment or judicial fiat to bring about a better world. To place such trust in the works of men is idolatry. A conservative idolater is no better than a liberal idolater.

Yet I have to push the application one more uncomfortable step. Idolatry is not just revealed in men’s hope, but in men’s fear as well. It’s possible to place too much trust in the state or the free market; it is equally possible to fear them too much. If you think and act as if the ham-handed actions of government can remove or destroy your hope, if you think and act as if the downward slope of a bear market will shatter your security and your peace, you are equally idolatrous. I think that it’s important for Albertan Christians who are concerned about certain government bills or about the economy to remember that. Even if the government were to begin persecuting us openly, or the economy completely collapsed, God would still be on the throne.

Second, in light of the limits of the church’s mandate and of politics, fulfill your obligations to Caesar. Don’t forget that, in a democracy, the people—including believers—are collectively the rulers of the land. Now, since the church does not have a political mandate, political activity is therefore the business of Christian individuals. That lack of an organized collective presence dilutes our political influence—in much the same deliberate way, I suspect, as God diluted the military power of Gideon’s army as he reduced it to three hundred before a major battle! God’s aim was to remind Gideon that he was to trust in the power of Yahweh Sabaoth to win the battle, not the strength of human arms. Similarly, individual Christians are to trust in God’s sovereign guidance of history and of the political process rather than in their political influence.

Yet Gideon still joined the battle with those three hundred. God is the one who shapes history, but he uses human beings to do so. So believers ought to exercise their opportunity to vote. And certain Christian individuals may be called, as their vocation, to go further, to participate in politics or public service as did Erastus. We need Christians in politics just like we need Christians in the police service or in hospitals or on the construction site. There’s nothing wrong with Christians volunteering for political campaigns. There’s nothing wrong with putting a sign on your lawn for the average Christian (I do believe that Christians in public church office, like pastors and elders, have other considerations to think about, but I can’t go into that here).

And, most of all, Christians have the responsibility to play a prophetic role in society. Elections are when issues of philosophy and worldview are up for public debate. The Gospel has very real applications for all areas of life, including political issues, and believers can, like the Old Testament prophets, speak “to the king” and deliver the Word of God to their political situations.

So now, as in any other season, stand ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you. Practicediscernment and find out where the parties stand before you vote. And keep it in perspective. No matter what happens, God is on the throne.