With the election advancing upon us — and all the passions it seems to be arousing — it is necessary to remind ourselves of a number of biblical truths God’s people should fix firmly in our hearts.
Politics are human, not divine.
During the Mosaic system, the opposite was true, for God, through prophetic revelation, instructed Israel’s civil authorities to structure their government in a certain way, as well as to ratify legislation and rule in a manner he alone prescribed (Deut. 17.14-20). National Israel was God’s throne, not any earthly king’s (cf. 1 Chron. 29.23).
But his kingdom is no longer “of this world” (Jn. 18.36). Certainly, as creator, the Lord still maintains providential control over the nations, using them in his own time and way (cf. Rm. 13.1ff; and see below).
Yet, as to the configuration of carnal governments (i.e., how they are structured), and as to the specific laws they ratify, the New Testament is decidedly silent.
Should the carnal government operate democratically or autocratically? Must society establish an oligarchy, a republic, or resurrect medieval feudalism?
Should free enterprise drive our economy (i.e., capitalism), or should the earthly authorities be more involved in the ownership, manufacturing, and distribution of the nation’s goods and services (e.g., social democracy, socialism, communism)?
What about federalism? Centralism? Con-federalism? Big government? Limited government? Liberal legislation? Conservative legislation? Which?
Such carnal matters exist beyond the purview of the New Testament. During the Christian era, never does God, by revelation, instruct man to form any of these types of earthly governments. Rather, these are governments that man has devised.
That said — and let all Christians grasp this vital truth — God, by providence, has used (and does use) each of these forms of man-made governments as part of his sovereign plan for our race. “Every nation of men,” says Paul — whether communist China or capitalist America; big-government North Korea or the erstwhile no-government of Somalia — “every nation of men” is permitted by God to “live on all the face of the earth.” Ultimately, he has “determined their allotted periods” for power and the “boundaries of their dwellings” — i.e., whether they expand or contract their borders (Acts 17.26). God is an international God (Ps. 22.28).
Thus, God has no singular blueprint for earthly government. He uses them all.
When earthly nations are formed or modified, therefore, though such actions are only made possible by the providential “power” of God (cf. Jn. 3.27; 19.11; 3.27; Rom. 13.1; Col. 1.16), it is man alone who is morally culpable for such political decisions.
Hence, God describes the nations of this world as the “kingdoms of men” (Dan. 5.21; 4.17, 25, 32; Acts 17.26; etc.) as distinct from the “kingdom of God” (Mt. 6.33; etc.). 1 Peter 2.13 characterizes them as imposing “ordinance(s) of man” (KJV) or, more accurately, “human institution[s]” (ESV). And when human government compels Christians to disobey the divine government, the Holy Spirit affirms this principle: “we ought to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5.29).
Unequivocally, then, the governments of this world — and the policies they ratify — are human in nature, not divine. To put it another way, while they are all God-tolerated (for without him none of them could exist—Rm. 13.1; Col. 1.16), every one of them is man-made.
In that light, to invoke divine authority as the basis of any particular political philosophy is to speak where the Lord has not spoken (cf. 1 Pt. 4.11; 1 Cor. 4.6). We must not exalt our human preferences to the level of sacred will (cf. Gal. 1.6-9; Col. 2.20-23).
Since that is so, let us be sensitive to the opinions (preferences) of others, especially to unbelievers and those who are “weak in the faith,” because “disputes over doubtful things” tend to harm our influence with them (Rm. 14.1; cf. 12.10; Jms. 3.13-18). When we are boisterous and uncompromising with our political positions, we instantly make others adversarial to us — and even shove them away from the kingdom — all to maintain a carnal opinion. This is wrong.
“Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food [i.e., human opinion] (Rm. 14.19-20)!
Christians must honor the civil authorities, not disparage them.
Let us heed the Spirit’s mandate: “Honor the king” — lit., assign value to him, show respect for him (1 Pt. 2.17). And again, “you shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” (Acts 23.5).
The kings and rulers of the New Testament era were unabashedly dictatorial in their reign, oppressive beyond reason, and, in their personal lives, rebellious against God.
Yet, though New Testament authors attempted to call them to repentance personally, they remained deferential to the rule of these men. To Paul, Governor Porcius Festus was not: “An idiot!” or “A plague!” He was: “most noble Festus” (Acts 26.25). Their godly example is worlds apart from the biting sarcasm and piercing opprobrium that many children of God today unleash on our rulers and their civil policies (e.g., “Take the traitors down!” “The clown in the White House…” etc.).
While God, who rules over all (Eph. 4.6; 1 Cor. 10.26; 1 Chron. 29.12), has every right to pronounce scathing criticisms against those in authority because they are under him (Isa 3.12, 14; Isa 56.9-13; Ps 105.14; Isa 1.23; Hos 9.15; 5.1-2; Lk. 13.32; etc.), he has given us, his people, the task of remaining subordinate to them (Rom. 13.1-2), to stay within our own “proper domain” like the angels (Jude 1.6), and, with modesty and restraint, to refrain from vilifying speech (“speak evil”) or “reviling accusations” against them (cf. 2 Pet. 2.10-11; Jude 1.8ff).
Furthermore, honoring the civil authorities means we must obey their “every ordinance” to the best of our ability (1 Pt. 2.13), provided they do not compel us to disobey God’s word, in which case non-compliance is the only act of civil disobedience the Lord ever permitted (Acts 5.29). Otherwise, even if our opinion clashes with theirs, we must submit to their rule “for the Lord’s sake.”
Too, we are obliged to pay taxes, no matter how exorbitant we regard them ("all their due" Rom. 13.6-7). Money belongs to this world — currency is Caesar’s domain (Mt. 22.21). Let him have what he requires of his own. God will yet provide (cf. 2 Cor. 9.8-9, 11, ESV)!
By way of illustration, let the American Christian especially realize this: the American Revolution, however beneficial its outcome has been to the free world, was an exercise in sin against God. The founding fathers did not follow these sacred instructions — rather, they trampled them under their feet! Instead of remaining “subject to the governing authorities” (Rm. 13.1), they revolted and broke away.
Although they were content for years to live under the rule and protection of the British monarch, when the king increased taxes and tightened his grip of power on the colonies, they refused to pay, and “dissolved the political bands” connecting them to his rule. Greed (money/taxation) and power (political representation) incited rebellion. By “resist[ing] the authority” (lit., “to arrange yourself in battle against”), they “resist[ed] the ordinance of God” and brought “judgment upon themselves” (Rm. 13.2).
Though we may appreciate the fruits of that rebellion (since God, in his “unsearchable” “wisdom and knowledge,” often causes the actions of wickedness to benefit the life of the righteous, Rm. 11.30-33; cf. Ecc. 2.26; Job 27.16-17; Prov. 28.8), let us nevertheless refuse to follow their rebellious ways.
Indeed, the kingdom Christ established did not call upon his Jewish countrymen to revolt against their pagan oppressors. As Philip Yancey put it:
“First-century Jews were doubtless looking for such an upheaval. Battle lines were clear: oppressed Jews versus the bad-guy Romans — pagans who collected taxes, trafficked in slaves, regulated religion, and quashed dissent. Under these conditions the Zealots issued a call much like Marx’s: ‘Jews, unite! Throw off your chains!’ But Jesus’ message of the kingdom had little in common with the politics of polarization…Never did he incite the oppressed to rise up and throw off their chains. In words that must have galled the Zealots, he commanded, ‘Love your enemies.’ He invoked a different kind of power: love, not coercion” (Yancey, p. 244).
Therefore, let us show the authorities respect and deference, however imperious they may become. After all, was not Nero reigning when Paul said: “He is God’s minister to you for good” (Rm. 13.4)? King George was not even in the same league with Emperor Nero on the scale of moral turpitude — never mind President Bush and/or President Obama!
Government does not exalt a nation, righteousness does.
Proverbs 14.34. Read it twice.
The mindset today prevailing — that if we just voted the right people into office, got the right laws passed, and got the right people to enforce those laws, this nation’s moral condition will improve — is balderdash. The carnal government neither determines righteousness, nor is it through carnal legislation that righteousness can be established among the people, for righteousness cannot be imposed through forcible laws.
Conversely, it is only through “the gospel” that the “righteousness of God is revealed” (Rm. 1.16-17). And it is only through “faith in Jesus Christ” that a nation of people could ever be declared righteous (Rm. 3.22).
To put this in perspective, consider this: national Israel had a government ratified by God himself — the laws of the nation came from the very mind of God. Yet, how often was that nation excoriated for its wickedness, and punished for its sins? Indubitably, righteousness did not "come through the law" of Moses, and, if not through Moses, then how could it ever come through the law of Caesar (cf. Gal. 2.16, 21)?
Thus, it is not the political system of a country that makes a nation worthy or unworthy—not the carnal government that preserves the nation.
Indeed, the wellbeing of any community or nation has never been achieved by:
“an arm of flesh” (2 Chron. 32.8; cf. Judges 7.2; Jer. 17.5; Phil. 3.3; 1 Jn. 4.4),
“great strength” (Ps. 33.16b; cf. Zech. 4.6; Isa. 10.13f),
“an army” of “many” multitudes (1 Sam. 14.6; 2 Chron. 14.11; 20.15; Ps. 33.16a),
“sword and spear” (1 Sam. 17.47; cf. Ps. 44.6),
“horses” or “chariots” (Ps. 20.7; 33.17; Hos. 1.7; Isa. 31.1),
“treasures” (Jer. 49.4; cf. Deut. 8.17),
“princes” or other political alliances (Ps. 146.3; cf. Isa. 10.20; 30.2; 31.1; 36.6; Jer. 42.19; 43.7),
human “counsel,” “plans,” or the “dictates of the heart” (Isa. 30.2; cf. Deut. 29.19; Jer. 7.24; 10.23),
or “the height of the hill” or other geographical safeguards (Jer. 49.16; cf. Oba 1.2ff; Amos 6.1; Jer. 49.4a).
Rather, nations depend upon divine aid (Ps. 33.10-22) and the holiness of the faithful (Prov. 11.10-11; Gen. 18.23-33; Ps. 9.17, 19-20; Mt. 5.13-16).
Hence, if the nations of this world are to be preserved, it will not come through political activism, but through Christian activism. The government of a nation could enact the most sensible laws mankind could ever devise, with the strongest military measures in place, the wisest fiscal policies to stimulate economic growth, and the choicest domestic program to promote physical wellbeing and personal and collective happiness, but if the people fail to embrace Christ, that government will never be strong enough, wise enough, or wealthy enough, etc., to overcome her enemies, if God should withdraw his blessing from the land (cf. 2 Kings 22.16-20). Unfortunately, the nations of the ancient world learned this lesson far too late (see "The Cup of Iniquity" for examples).
Furthermore, the government’s threat of “wrath” (i.e., corporeal punishment) against criminals, though providential in its operations (cf. Rom. 13.4-5; 1 Pet. 2.13-14), can never “produce the righteousness of God” (Jms. 1.20). Only the gospel, willingly believed and obeyed, is capable of making a nation truly “righteous” in God’s eyes (Heb. 11.7; cf. Rm. 5.1).
Let us remember, then, that we are the salt of the earth — not the government. Christians are the light of the world — not uncle Sam (cf. Mt. 5.1, 13-14). Do you want this nation’s moral compass to shift toward God? Then don’t “go down to Egypt for help” or “trust in the strength of Pharaoh” (Isa. 31.1; 30.2f)! That is the church’s responsibility (cf. Phil. 2.14-16).
Christians must not force unbelievers to abide by the Christian standard.
We “reason” with the unbeliever, attempting to “persuade” them (cf. Acts 17.2-3; 24.25; 2 Cor. 5.11). We do not employ “carnal” instruments to insist that the unbeliever conform his life to the teachings of Christ (2 Cor. 10.3-4).
Yet, there are only two ways the carnal government can establish order and maintain dominion: 1) force; and 2) the threat of force. Regardless of the political opinions we may harbor, we must keep these facts in mind.
It is one thing to believe that God uses the rulers of this world providentially to punish the evil doer (cf. Rm. 13.3-4); it is another thing entirely to insist that the civil authority must pass law(s) to compel the unbeliever to conform to the gospel message as such, or face the consequences.
On the contrary, Jesus’ kingdom isn’t like the kingdoms of this world, which must impose their will on the populace (Jn. 18.36). Rather, it is humble and forbearing. It calls evil out through persuasion, but benevolently coexists with those who refuse the invitation — even with its enemies who unjustly assault it (Mt. 5.44-48).
Certainly, the teachings of Christ are highly beneficial to a society’s civil order (e.g., do not murder, do not steal, etc.). Yet we must not conflate civility with morality. For example, if it is our opinion that the carnal government should ban and penalize murder, let it be on civil grounds, and not because “God’s word prohibits it.” The civil position is opinion (and, within reason, permissible); the theocratic position, however, has no sanction from Christ.
Are Christians morally obliged to call upon the earthly powers to penalize white lies, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, bitterness, envy, pride, false worship, false religious beliefs, false religious institutions, etc., simply because these things oppose the Christian standard?
Should atheism and other false ideologies — legalized by the protection of the first amendment in the U.S. — which have destroyed the spiritual lives of so many of our neighbors, be banned, punishable by carnal law, the first amendment either amended or repealed?
While it is wrong to reject Christianity, does that mean that, because it is immoral, Christians should therefore seek to make it a crime against the state?
The “King of kings” left us no such orders (1 Tim. 6.15).
“History shows that when the church uses the tools of the world’s kingdom, it becomes ineffectual, or as tyrannical, as any other power structure. And whenever the church has intermingled with the state (the Holy Roman Empire, Cromwell’s England, Calvin’s Geneva), the appeal of the faith suffers as well. Ironically, our respect in the world declines in proportion to how vigorously we attempt to force others to adopt our point of view” (Yancey, p. 246).
Indeed, when well-meaning Christians lobby to mandate our faith through carnal bans or commands so as to increase our influence and mold our societies, such action tends to backfire on us, and we wind up surrendering that influence instead.
Conversely, when we mold society the way Christ instructed — and the way the early church did it — there will be no power on earth capable of stopping us.
Voting is not a moral obligation.
No New Testament passage ever requires the Christian to vote, nor to participate in any way in the administration of any earthly government.
But I hear someone say: “You have no right to complain about the moral condition of the country if you don’t use your voice. So go vote!”
This attitude certainly demonstrates the best of intentions. Indeed, we must be critical of the spiritual problems plaguing our society. Every Christian should want the moral condition of their country to improve. And it is right to “seek the welfare” of our communities (Jer. 29.7). But what is the solution?
If your fellow Christian chooses, for whatever reason, not to vote — or to vote differently from you — is it reasonable to conclude that they have somehow abandoned the moral fight or given up on the improvement of society? If so, isn’t it possible that you have acquired an inordinate passion for and dependency upon human government to solve these issues? And haven’t God’s people been warned repeatedly against adopting this misguided attitude (Isa. 30.2f; cf. Isa. 31.1; etc.)?
Think about this. The Christians of the first-century did not change society through voting. But that does not mean they withdrew from the moral struggle! On the contrary, the fact that Jesus’ “kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18.36) means that Christians instead fight “the good fight” against the evils that plague our society with the fiercer “weapons” of faith (1 Tim. 6.12; Heb. 4.12; Eph. 6.17), benevolence (Rm. 12.20-21; Mt. 5.16; 1 Pt. 2.12, 15), piety (Phil. 2.15; Tit. 2.7-8), and prayer (Mt. 5.44fff; Jm. 6.16).
With this ferocious arsenal at hand, Christians turned their neighbors’ lives to God, thereby contributing to the improvement of society as a whole. Hence, by teaching and living the “doctrine of God our Savior,” we can “turn the world” right side up (Tit. 1.10-15; Acts 17.6; cf. Rm. 3.20-22), even if we never cast a single vote for a politician or for/against a government policy.
In short, it is the “voice” of Christ that makes a nation righteous (Jn. 18.37; Rev. 3.20), not the “wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing” (1 Cor. 2.6; cf. 1 Cor. 1.18-2.5).
God still rules the world.
Read these passages — Psalm 47.8; 22.28; 1 Tim. 6.15; Rev. 12.5; 19.15. How easily we forget this!
These days, so many of our neighbors seem to be going to pieces over one political policy/politician or another. Why should the Christian fret over such fleeting matters (cf. Phil. 4.6-7)? We have a ruler above it all keeping watch over this world, and especially over his own people (cf. Heb. 13.5-6)!
“I care not today what the morrow may bring,
if shadow or sunshine or rain,
The Lord I know ruleth o’er everything,
and all of my worries are vain.”
Let us be especially mindful of this: No matter what you do in a political capacity, God is the only one whose providential operations matter. You may want the nation to go in one direction politically, while God may have other plans. Sometimes those other plans result in our prosperity, thus demonstrating the futility of our political ideologies (cf. 1 Cor. 1.19). But sometimes God’s plans entail the suffering of our nation — and of ourselves along with it.
Hence, while we may want material prosperity and security for our nation, God may use the wicked rulers of this world to strip these things from us, so as to focus our lives upon his kingdom instead of the kingdoms of this world (cf. Isa. 10.5ff; Jer. 51.20; Acts 17.26-27). Who are we to stand in his way (cf. Jer. 21.1-10; Rm. 13.2)?
The nations will one day be destroyed.
Kings and nations, by divine determination, rise and fall (cf. Acts 17.26; Dan. 2.21). One day, however, he will eliminate them all (cf. 1 Cor. 15.24). In fact, since he views them as “enemies” (1 Cor. 15.25; cf. Num. 24.8) who are “less than nothing and worthless” (Isa. 40.17), he shall “strike the nations…with fierceness and wrath” (Rev. 19.15), dashing them “to pieces like the potter’s vessels” (Rev. 2.26-27). He thus uses them as a conqueror to establish his own kingdom and disposes of them as he sees fit.
If that is his attitude, how shall we view the nations of this world (cf. Jms. 4.4)? Consider the example of two of the Lord’s disciples.
Simon, “the Zealot” (Lk. 6.15) and Levi, the “tax-collector” (Lk. 5.27) were on opposite ends of the political spectrum before they followed Christ. The zealot was fiercely anti-Rome. He fought for political and religious liberty (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.6). The tax-collector, conversely, was pro-Rome. Men like Levi were flexible in their acceptance of big-government imperialism.
When Simon and Levi came to Christ, such carnal barriers fell. And these brothers of opposing political philosophies let go of their opposition to each other and peacefully joined hands for a higher cause (Lk. 9.1-6; cf. Eph 2.15-16). They understood that, ultimately, God is in charge of the ebb and flow of political power, and all their striving for one national cause or the other was futile.
Eventually, the zealots found themselves fighting against God (cf. Jer. 21.4-5; Rom. 13.2), when he used Rome as the “rod of his anger” (Isa. 10.5) to destroy Jerusalem and the surrounding region circa 66-73 A.D. (Mt 22.7; Lk 21.20ff). And the pro-Romans also found themselves fighting against God when he used the barbarians to destroy the empire four centuries later. Thus, neither Zealot-ness nor Roman-ness were God’s cause; rather, they were each human philosophies allowed by God to advance a larger agenda (whether the expansion of Christianity, or the highlighting of his judgment against sin).
In light of that, rather than “entangle” ourselves “with the affairs of this life” (2 Tim 2.4), Christians should learn to transcend politics (i.e., government philosophy). Ours is a higher calling (Col. 3.1-3).
Like Simon and Levi, therefore, let us become “free from all” (i.e., beholden to no party or philosophy or national cause) that we may become the “servant of all” (regardless of party or philosophy or national cause) to win them to Christ (1 Cor. 9.19-23). The more citizens of the heavenly kingdom there are (Phil. 3.20), the better each community and nation of man shall be!
Conversely, all the time and energy we spend venting our political opinions, vying for one politician/party or another, will one day come to "nothing" (1 Cor. 2.6). Such matters belong to a temporary world, poised to be annihilated (cf. 2 Pet. 3.10ff).
The kingdom of Christ will endure forever.
It is “the everlasting kingdom” (2 Pt. 1.11) — a “kingdom which cannot be shaken” (Heb. 12.28)!
Too many Christians are far more vocal about their political preferences than they are about teaching the gospel. “My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (Jms. 3.10)!
Whatever passions we may harbor for the kingdoms of this world, they should pale in comparison to our passion for the kingdom of Christ. In the grand scheme of things, the Lord’s nation is the only nation whose policies truly matter (cf. 1 Pt. 2.9-12), for it is the only nation that will “stand forever” (Dan 2.44).
As the election approaches, may we learn not to place our trust in the vagaries and vicissitudes of earthly politics—or in the politicians who adocate them—but in the unchanging God, “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13.8)!