God’s Word is our guide in all areas of faith and practice, even in politics. That may sound nice in theory, but how does it work in action? After all, US citizens are ruled by elected representatives and not kings. What is our civic duty?
Nearly twenty years ago, while working as a television news reporter covering the Louisiana legislature, I vividly remember watching the politicians usher in a wave of gambling legislation that eventually sent several to prison, including our then-governor Edwin Edwards. Against this backdrop I wrestled with what I thought at the time was an unconventional call to the ministry—the ministry of civil government.
Following much prayer and many late-night discussions, my wife and I announced that I was going to run for public office. “You’re going to become corrupt just like the rest of them,” came one response. But let’s be honest, the sentiment that government is a corrupting influence is widely held—and not just in Louisiana. “Don’t touch politics; you’ll get dirty!”
Does it not seem a little ironic that we Christians spend so much time talking about the need for—and praying about—righteous government, but then we avoid getting involved? We have to realize that civil government is an inanimate object; it takes on the character of those in it. As William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania said, “Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them, and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad. . . .”
Okay, so how then should we, as Christians, approach “politics”?
Partisan politics should not be the focus of the church; influencing the world around us, including government, should be.
First let’s define what we mean by “politics.” Politics is the process by which our government and the policies that govern us are shaped. Unfortunately, when the word politics is used, too many people limit the definition to the partisan wrangling between competing political parties. Partisan politics should not be the focus of the church; influencing the world around us, including government, should be.
As in every other area of life, God’s Word must be our guide. Most evangelicals agree that the church’s primary duty is evangelism and discipleship, not partisan politics. But often as we follow the command of Christ to be salt and light in this fallen world (Matthew 5:13–16), we will find ourselves involved not just in eternal matters, but in matters of the here and now.
The Creator and Sustainer of the universe established civil government as an integral part of His sovereign plan (Daniel 2:21). Like the family and the church, civil government was instituted to accomplish God’s purposes. Christians should embrace the opportunity to glorify their Maker and Savior in every arena of life, including civil government.
Opportunities vary from Christian to Christian, but let me offer some practical biblical insights on ways that we can fulfill the Lord’s instructions regarding civil government.
Our trust as Christians should be in God, not man (Psalm 20:7). After almost twenty years of being involved in public policy and civil government, I understand all too well that the challenges facing us are at their core spiritual, not political. Our engagement, however, is not limited to one realm. These “spiritual” issues have implications for our communities and our country; and we, especially as Christians in Western nations like America, have an obligation to be involved.
In Matthew 22:21 Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Yes, this was a discussion about taxes, but Jesus wasn’t playing the role of H&R Block. This discussion was about a whole lot more.
Since we can determine the character of our government, we, not just the politicians, will have to give an account for the kind of government it is!
Is government only about taxes? We might be tempted to say yes, but we know government encompasses much more. In the United States, we have been given a privilege that the vast majority of those who have walked this earth have not had—the ability to have a government, as Abraham Lincoln said, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” We determine the kind of government we have by the people we elect. Since we can determine the character of our government, we, not just the politicians, will have to give an account for the kind of government it is!
Exodus 18:21 hints at the timeless principles of selecting good leaders, when this privilege is available to us: “Select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers.” In our modern computer age, it is easy to register to vote and then prayerfully evaluate the candidates.
Detailed information is readily available on various websites (such as iVote Values.org.) We need to vote wisely!
The Apostle Paul encourages believers first to pray for their leaders. To pray
wisely, we need to know what is going on in our government. He wrote, “
first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks
be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead
a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good
and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved
and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1–4).
Specifically, we are to pray for our government leaders, including for their
salvation (v. 4). I have met a number of elected officials who came to know
Christ after they were in office. As a result of our prayers, our elected officials
can lead in such a way that we will be able to live “
a quiet and peaceable life
in all godliness and reverence” (v. 2). We should stay abreast of important
political issues and pray as if our prayers will influence the future of the
nation because they can and they do.
What should we be advocating that civil government do, in terms of public policy? What authority does the Bible suggest is within the realm of civil government?
Paul speaks of the government’s responsibility to punish evildoers and instructs us, “Because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing” (Romans 13:6). While punishing evil—or more accurately, ensuring justice especially for the defenseless (Jeremiah 22:3)—should be a top priority, civil government has many more duties. Civil leaders in Israel had the authority to provide infrastructure (Deuteronomy 19:3), ensure an honest marketplace (Ezekiel 45:9–10), provide national security (Deuteronomy 20), defend private property (1 Kings 21:15, 21:19), and recognize and uphold the authority of the family (Deuteronomy 21:18–21). So we pay our taxes to promote many just causes.
But what do we do about government waste, questionable spending, or laws that promote evil? Peter provides some instruction on this one: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13–14).
The Greek word for submit means “to fall in rank under an authority.” God established government to keep order, and we are to submit to the just authority of those who govern. But, in a republic such as ours, the rulers serve the voters and must in like manner submit to the rule of law. Anyone who rebels against the rule of law is, in fact, rebelling against God (Romans 13:1–2).
Does that mean we have no recourse against unjust laws or bad government? No, it does not mean that at all. In a constitutional republic, we hold elected government officials accountable through our vote. Additionally, at times we must speak out when the government advances laws and policies that run counter to biblical truths and principles.
For a Christian, the question is not whether politics matters, but how much.
Voicing your biblical convictions can take many forms—writing elected officials, writing letters to the editor, joining rallies, attending town hall meetings, or even being a part of organized protests (a basic right under the US Bill of Rights). It could even mean being a candidate for office and opposing an unresponsive elected official.
Sometimes the number of government “wrongs” may seem overwhelming, and we may wonder how much difference one individual can make. Our responsibility is to stand up and declare publicly the transcendent truths of God’s Word that should guide the policies and laws of just nations.
You cannot fight every battle, and I don’t believe that God expects us to. However, some issues necessitate our full involvement. These are the issues clearly identified in Scripture, most commonly as behaviors that are roundly condemned and bring God’s judgment on nations. One is the shedding of innocent blood (Jeremiah 7:6). We should openly express righteous indignation at this injustice: “Killing an unborn baby made in the image of God is wrong!” Another issue tearing apart the fabric of societies around the world is redefining God’s plan for marriage, which He made clear in Genesis 2 and Christ reiterated in Mark 10:6–9. Sometimes we must let our elected representatives know: “That is enough. It needs to stop!” Otherwise, our silence could be interpreted as tacit approval.
Elected officials are not necessary evils but “God’s servants,” who, in turn, are to serve the public.
According to Romans 13, government leaders are “God’s servants.” As I mentioned, perhaps the most direct way to get involved in politics is through elected office. Scripture records many believers whom God raised up and blessed in government. Joseph helped provide food for his people. Deborah helped defend her people by inspiring God’s man to action. Esther put her life at risk, using her influence with the king to help preserve her people. And Nehemiah united the people on a project that provided them security. Elected officials are not necessary evils but “God’s servants,” who, in turn, are to serve the public.
I was privileged to serve as a legislator in the state government of Louisiana. During my eight years in office, I found plenty of opportunities to uphold biblical principles and publicly honor God. For instance, I authored the nation’s first covenant marriage law that gave couples a choice to strengthen their marriage by attending pre-marital counseling and agreeing up front that if they had difficulty during the course of the marriage they would seek additional counseling prior to divorcing. Many marriages have been saved by those speed bumps on the way to the divorce court.
Holding public office and shaping the policies of my state afforded me the opportunity to advance faith, family, and freedom in a number of tangible ways. It was a very rewarding experience. Public service does not have to be for a lifetime to be profitable.
Christians have all sorts of outlets to obey Christ’s command to “render to Caesar” and make a positive salt-and-light impact. Pray, vote, pay taxes, submit to the rule of law, advocate God-honoring laws and stand up to Caesar’s laws when they violate God’s laws. You can even serve others by being in public office.
Here is the bottom line. Regardless of political affiliation, Americans have a right to be a part of shaping their own government. As Christians, we have a responsibility to be a part of shaping our government. But we must realize that each of us ultimately answers to God for the actions we take and the votes we make.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a Christian in politics?
Keeping the clear perspective that politics will never truly change the world, only Christ changing hearts will truly effect the change needed in our world. A related challenge is to make sure that while I do not intend to flaunt my religion, I must never hide my faith.
What is the main reward of serving God through politics?
If you commit to God’s Word and if you prepare yourself and are ready to live that Word to the best of your ability, amazing things, beautiful things, things you could never think of can happen. I know that’s been the case for me. I could never imagine doing my job as Congresswoman without faith in God, and faith in His goodness.
What has been your greatest accomplishment?
I’ve found the greatest success not only in legislative success but also in terms of building relationships, moving away from political ideologies and focusing on fixing problems that were before us . . . and building the trust and relationships across the full political spectrum to get them done.
I think we make the mistake if we want to force our politics from the top down to try to impose an agenda as opposed to focusing on the Lord and serving. I've found that the greatest effectiveness has come in serving and legitimately meeting the needs of others and seeking by God’s grace to be consistent with principles that we hold to in the Word.