I don’t remember exactly which religiously based political statement spurred that particular post (there are too many to count!); but it ended up generating a much livelier response than I anticipated. Most people were quick to recognize that I was criticizing the tendency of some modern-day Christians to overly intermingle faith and politics. Some people heartily agreed with me while others vehemently disagreed. After a bit of friendly debate, my friend Chris Linzey decided to write a blog post in critique of my original criticism. So, since he called me out publicly, I figured it was only fitting that I should return the polemical favor and offer a corrective to his critique of my original criticism. Just kidding. This is less of a direct response to Chris and more of an opportunity for me to clarify why I posted what I posted and elaborate a bit further. My thanks to Chris, though, because I definitely wouldn’t have written this had he not challenged me. Iron sharpens iron.
The question we are seeking to answer is what role, if any, should Christians have in the political process? Should Christians vote? Should Christians run for public office? Should Christians legislate Christian principles in a nation where not everyone is Christian?
I propose that at least a partial answer to this question can be found by looking at the example of Jesus and the early Church. (Warning: this is a little long. Click here to jump straight to a recap and the main point.)
As you probably know, both Jesus’s ministry and the movement that came to be called “Christianity” began in the first century AD in the region of Judea which, at that time, was under the political and military control of Rome. The very fact that God’s people were subject to foreign rule was unacceptable to many of the religiously devout Judeans. They were expecting and hoping that God would send them a deliverer, a political and military leader who would liberate them from foreign oppression and reestablish a nation where God’s Law would reign supreme. (Scholars refer to this as “messianic expectation,” you can use that term to impress your friends.) When Jesus enters the scene, however, he does nothing of the sort. Jesus doesn’t rally armies and overthrow the Roman government and he doesn’t establish a political theocracy that forces everyone to obey the Mosaic Law. Instead, Jesus spends a lot of time teaching people that God is more interested in their hearts than he is in their behavior and that their behavior is really just an indicator of what is in their hearts anyway. Jesus invites other people to follow him and to join him in his ministry to the afflicted and the oppressed. He doesn’t run for office, he doesn’t lobby the Roman government, and he even tells people that they should pay their taxes to Rome! Some deliverer Jesus was! We do get some indications that Jesus knows he is king, but his kingship is totally different than the kingships the world was used to. Some of the Judean religious leaders who rejected Jesus (maybe because he was such an unexpected and, in their minds, disappointing messiah) used his claims to kingship as an excuse to force the Roman officials to execute him for supposed treason. Of course this was really a trumped-up charge; if Jesus really had come to overthrow Rome, he would have done it. About three days later, Jesus was raised from the dead. His closest followers were ecstatic (after they got done being afraid, of course). His resurrection proved that he really was the Messiah, and certainly NOW he would establish God’s kingdom on Earth (which obviously meant overthrowing Rome), or so they thought.
So when they had come together [after his resurrection], they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus patiently told them that they still didn’t quite get it and that he had different plans for them.
He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
So basically Jesus said, “I’m sending you out into the world to tell them about me and you will help them become my disciples just like I did for you.” No talk of politics, no talk of legislation, just powerful witnesses in word and lifestyle.
And thus the Church was born. Jesus’s followers obeyed his commands and they went into the world talking about who Jesus was and what Jesus had done and they invited people to join them in following Jesus and they established communities of Jesus-followers that continued to grow and multiply. By the end of the first century, there were communities of these Jesus-followers not just in Judea, but also all throughout modern-day Turkey, Greece, Italy (including Rome!) and possibly even into Spain! This expansion of the Church happened during a time in which the church had absolutely no political power or influence. In fact, becoming a Christian often came at a great cost. Becoming a follower of Jesus could cost you your family, your livelihood, and sometimes, even your life. And yet, somehow, this new movement continued to grow. There was something about the way these Christians lived, the way they loved each other, which ATTRACTED other people to them. The book of Acts seems to indicate that the more fierce the persecution, the faster the Church expanded. Once again, let me emphasize that all of this happened long before Christians had any real political power or influence; long before they could enforce “biblical principles” through legislation.
Several centuries later, under the emperor Constantine, Christianity became an officially recognized religion, and before long it became politically advantageous to become a Christian. In other words, people would “convert” to Christianity not because they actually believed, but because it would help them get ahead in the world. As Christianity grew in political power and influence, Christians began to force their beliefs upon other people in a way that was previously unprecedented and Christianity lost much of its attractive power. Some of the worst atrocities ever committed in Christ’s name were committed by Christians who had political power and influence.
For those of you who skipped to the short version, here is a short recap. Jesus was an unexpected messiah who operated not from a standpoint of political power, but from a standpoint of relational and attractive power. Likewise, the early church flourished and grew using relational and attractive power in a politically hostile environment long before it ever had any real political influence and power. When it finally did gain political influence and power, it was often used in terribly un-Christlike ways. The moral of the story seems to be that the more political power the Christians attain, the less effective we become at doing what we were actually called to do: ATTRACTING people and WINNING their hearts by living and loving in a NOTICEABLY DIFFERENT way than the world.
Many of those who critiqued my original post noted that the times have changed and our culture and political system now are completely different than they were in the first century. The first century Church didn’t live in a democratic republic where they actually had a voice in the political process. Surely if they had, it is argued, they would have exercised their right to vote and instill Christian values. After all, as one of my detractors (*COUGH*Chris Linzey*COUGH*) has stated, “We DO legislate morality. The only question is: WHOSE morality are we going to legislate?” In other words, every form of government is representative of SOMEONE’S form of morality, so if we get a say, why not have it be Christian morality? This makes sense on the surface, but there is something inherently wrong with that idea. Christian morality is only intended for Christians. Clubhouse rules only apply to those who are in the club. God doesn’t expect non-Christians to live like Christians. This gets back to the whole idea of heart and behavior. God is more interested in our heart than he is in our behavior. He knows that if our hearts change then our behavior will follow. When we legislate distinctly Christian principles (more on this phrase later), we are forcing non-Christians adhere to a standard that was intended for Christians and we bypass the heart and move straight to behavior. Additionally, by forcing others to obey Christian principles through legislation, the church loses one of its most powerful witnesses, its power to ATTRACT by virtue of being DISTINCT. The apostle Paul told the Christians at Philippi that their Christian conduct “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” would cause them to “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). Lights shine brightest in the dark. Perhaps comparative darkness of Roman political system is what made the light of Christianity so attractive. This seems to be a recurring theme in the New Testament.
What’s more, by legislating Christian behavior, we are judging those who fail to live accordingly (even though they never agreed to live that way). Yes, it is judgment, because if they disobey the legislation they are breaking the law and they will face a judge in court and be punished. The apostle Paul talks about something very similar in his first letter to the Jesus-followers in the ancient city of Corinth. Apparently one of the Christians there had been engaged in some pretty scandalous sexual activity that was unacceptable for a person who claimed to be a follower of Christ. Paul passes judgment on this man’s behavior, but he does so precisely because this man already identified himself as a Christian and thereby WILLINGLY ACCEPTED Christian morality. Paul goes on to write this very important statement.
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.
-1 Corinthians 5:12-13a
The moral of the story here? We are not to judge non-Christians by Christian standards. That, however, that is exactly what we do when we legislate distinctly Christian principles.
Earlier I mentioned that I would elaborate on the phrase “distinctly Christian principles.” I believe that a line can be drawn between principles that are distinctly Christian and principles that point to universal human rights and the common good. (Some people say that any principle that points to the common good is, by definition, a Christian principle. While I understand and appreciate where that sentiment, I think it’s a somewhat misleading and ultimately unhelpful platitude.) For example, murder, theft, and rape are almost universally condemned, not only by nearly every major religious group but also by people who are not religious. (Yes, there are some exceptions, but the exceptions basically prove the rule.) It is for this reason that I do not have a problem with legislation that prohibits such behavior; I don’t believe they are distinctly Christian principles. I also don’t have a problem with Christians participating in a government that works to advance universal human rights and the common good, so long as they are not forcing people to conform to distinctly Christian principles. Of course, distinguishing which principles are distinctly Christian and which point to universal human rights and the common good is a subject for a different post.
For me, this is the bottom line: The church will be most effective doing what it was designed to do if we focus more on MODELING the way of Christ and WINNING others’ hearts by being ATTRACTIVE and RELATIONAL than if we try to FORCE non-Christians to live like Christians through LEGISLATION.
For those of you who have been keeping up with this friendly debate between my friend Chris Linzey and myself, he has posted a rebuttal to my blog post; you can read it here. Following are a few of my thoughts in response to his rebuttal.
Actually, I agree with much of what Chris wrote in his rebuttal. My main issue is that he seemed to draw inferences from what I wrote and then rebut those inferences. In other words, his rebuttal seemed to focus less on what I actually said and more on what he assumed I meant by what I said. The problem I have is that his inferences aren’t an accurate reflection of what I meant by what I said. So, in effect, Chris was knocking down a straw man. I do, however, realize that burden to be clear lies on the communicator and so I take responsibility for my lack of clarity and I will attempt to clear up some misunderstandings here.
In my article I make it very clear that Jesus didn’t run for office or participate in the Roman government or initiate a new political system of his own. It seems that Chris inferred (and maybe you did too) that I was saying that since Jesus didn’t work for the government then Christian’s shouldn’t either and since Jesus was an itinerant preacher than that’s what all Christians need to be as well. That is certainly not what I intended by what I said; I apologize if that wasn’t clear. Chris writes the following
People are told to behave righteously as believers whatever their jobs might be. Do you work for the government? Great! Be a Christian on your job. There is nothing wrong with government work. There is nothing wrong with believers being part of the system. We are simply called to do it in a God-honoring way. While Jesus didn’t run for office, we can.
I wholeheartedly agree. We have evidence that there were governmental officials and soldiers of various ranks who became followers of Jesus in the early years of the movement and there is no indication that Jesus or Paul ever told them that they had to stop working for the government. I myself am a Chaplain Candidate in the Indiana Army National Guard, so it would be pretty hypocritical of me to say that Christians can’t work for the government (or even run for office). Please let me clarify by saying that I don’t see a problem with Christians participating in government so long as they do not use the government as a means of forcing Christian principles on non-Christians.
This has been my primary concern along, the imposition of distinctly Christian principles on non-Christians. Chris is right to point out that I have not provided a clear delineation between “distinctly Christian principles” and “universal human rights.” The reason for that is simple: it’s complicated. There is no clear list of what constitutes a distinctly Christian principle and what constitutes a universal human right. I believe this is the heart of the disagreement between Chris and me. I do, however, think the disagreement is more apparent than real and more a matter of semantics than a matter of principle. I actually think that, in principle, Chris agrees with me more than he disagrees me. Let’s start with some super clear examples, I am confident that Chris would agree with me that the government should not be used to force non-Christians to be baptized or to pay tithes to a local Christian church or to recite the Lord’s Prayer in school. These are clearly “distinctly Christian principles” and I am confident that Chris would not advocate enacting legislation that forces them upon non-Christians.
Now let’s get a little bit more ambiguous. Chris and I both agree that legislation prohibiting and punishing murder is a good idea. I argue that this principle upholds a universal human right. Although I can understand why Chris (or someone else) may argue that it is a Christian principle, I don’t think it is a distinctly Christian principle. Just about any reasonable person agrees that murder is a hindrance to a well-functioning society. The same could be said about rape, kidnapping, theft, etc.
Now to get into some really murky waters: sexual ethics. To what extent should the government be able to legislate our sex lives? This has become a (fifty shades of) gray area for a lot of people, including many Christians. I can think of arguments on both sides of this; I will not attempt to provide an answer here, maybe in a future post.
Let me close with a very clear example of where we have used legislation to force distinctly Christian principles on non-Christians. In the state where I live alcohol sales on Sunday are prohibited by law. This is a distinctly Christian principle, even though there are many Christians who disagree with it! Even if you believe that Christians should not drink alcohol on Sundays, or ever, you have no business forcing that belief on people who don’t hold that religious conviction through legislation.
Once again, for me, this is the bottom line: The church will be most effective doing what it was designed to do if we focus more on MODELING the way of Christ and WINNING others’ hearts by being ATTRACTIVE and RELATIONAL than if we try to FORCE non-Christians to live like Christians through LEGISLATION.