When it comes to politics people often have particularly strong views. Some are passionate about one specific party or one specific policy and they have strong views. Others have been around and voted over many years and have become jaded by the whole carnival and hold their jadedness vehemently. Others haven’t voted that much and are already apathetic about the process and the part they play in it and, almost paradoxically, they are boisterous about their apathy.
This article isn’t so much about anything specific in terms of parties or policies. The point of this article is to outline some of the key Biblical texts and principles that inform the Christian’s thinking about government, the Christian’s interaction with government and how the Christian goes about their role in choosing a government. And then also to outline some implications that flow out of those biblical guideposts that will inform how a Christian should vote in this, and any other, election.
So, four Biblical Principles
1) The Gospel is political
And it’s political in the sense that in the first century as soon as you began proclaiming that Jesus is Lord you were proclaiming that Caesar wasn’t. It was inherently and immediately political.
Julius Caesar had been declared to be a divine being. His adopted son Octavian – who later became known as Augustus Caesar – was therefore divi filius (son of God). Tiberius was the nest Caesar, he was Emperor during Jesus’ manhood reigning from 14 AD to 37 AD, was therefore also Son of God.
The Priene Calendar Inscription, dated 9BC, says that the birth of Augustus was the “beginning of the gospel (good news) for the world”.
The first verse of Mark’s gospel goes like this:
The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God
If Jesus is King it means that Caesar isn’t. And so it is inherently political. Jesus is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He rules us and he rules our rulers. His rule is therefore immediate and his rule is also mediated. And His Word warns rulers that their authority is given to them by him and how they use their authority will be assessed by him also.
2) There are things that are not Caesar’s
When Jesus rides into Jerusalem the week before he’s murdered it’s a tense time. It’s coming up to Passover, the city is filling up with people, political unrest is frothing and the Romans know it. As Jesus rides in on a donkey the people wave palm branches and proclaim him the King of Israel. What we might not be aware of is that palm branches were a symbol of Jewish nationalism. When they would mint illegal coins of an opposing Kingdom to the hated Roman empire they would stamp palm branches on the coins. And there they were waving them. To Rome it was like waving a red rag at a bull.
Political tension is at a fever pitch.
And then they come to him and ask:
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
It’s a trap. If he says yes the people will hate him. If he says no that’s treason, and the Romans can always find a spare cross somewhere. But it says:
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
And so Jesus makes a most amazing political statement. Some have said it is THE most amazing political statement. Not only is Jesus saying that Caesar is not at the top of the org chart he is also setting up the categories for the separation of church and state.
Caesar’s sphere exists within a greater sphere. Ultimate allegiance does not belong to Caesar. Jesus would not worship Caesar. But neither would he hate him, ignore him or slander him. He would give to him whatever is owed to him.
3) The government exists by God, from God and for God
Paul speaks at some length on governments and what they do and why they exist and how Christian should relate to them in Romans 13 where he says:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
There’s a lot of things to say about this passage, but four will do for now. First, all authorities that exist, including governments, have been established by God. Second, The role of the government is to do you good and to punish wrong. Third, secular governments – secular in the loose sense of “governments that are not ‘Christian’, whatever that means – are God’s servants. It’s possible to be a good government and do a good job of governing without being ‘Christian’ or run by Christians. Lastly, Christians should give governments what they owe them: taxes, revenue, respect and honour.
Paul has a bit more to say about governments and how Christians should relate to them in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 where he says:
I urge you then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Prayer for the government is the main way the Christian is called to interact with them. And the point is so that we can live peaceful lives of godliness. And it seems like this scenario pleases God, because in some way when the government rules well and Christians can get on living a life of godliness where we seek to do good and love those around us then we can get about the core business of holding out the gospel of life to all people.
What Jesus had done is something so radical. There is a new way for his people to occupy whatever country they were in. They didn’t have to control Rome, or hate Rome, or withdraw from Rome. They could love Rome without assimilating into Rome.
4) Loving God and Loving your Neighbour
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
This is really the principle that governs the whole of the Christian life, and so of course it should govern voting as well.
Loving God with all your mind means voting carefully. And loving your neighbour as yourself means voting carefully, because you know that how you vote affects others as well.
The Bible has lots of more to say about governments and how Christians should interact with them, but these are four key threads in that garment.
Now let’s turn to the practical implications that flow out from these four principles that will shape the HOW of voting.
Eight Implications for HOW to Vote
1) Vote for the good of others above yourself
This one comes out of the great commandment from Mark 12, but it’s all over the Bible and is really nice and explicit in Philippians 2:3-5:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.
People normally vote for issues that immediately affect them. Parents with kids vote thinking about welfare, education, the NBN etc. And in one sense that makes a lot of sense simply because we’re inherently selfish to begin with, but also because it’s a lot easier and straightforward to vote for issues that impact on myself.
But the Christian way is to do nothing, including voting, out of selfish ambition but in instead in humility to value others above yourself. It’s not about what will benefit me the most. It’s about seeking to do good for others.
2) Christianity transcends the political spectrum and is more interesting
The political spectrum of right-wing/conservative and left-wing/progressive doesn’t work for the Christian voter. On some issues Christians will be right-wing, holding to the current definition of marriage for example. And on others we will be more left-wing, seeking a more humane response to genuine refugees and asylum seekers perhaps. This means we’ll be slightly annoying to both sides but it also means your position will be more nuanced and interesting.
3) Vote for the poor and for those who can’t speak for themselves
We will have a particular heart to care for the underprivileged and the weak in our society. And so as we seek to vote for the good of others we will lean towards the others such as the poor, single mothers, the unemployed, refugees, Aboriginals, the elderly, the handicapped, children, babies, foetuses. Those who are the weak and downtrodden in out society and those who cannot speak for themselves, such as children.
4) The economy is not everything
In the current discussion it can often sound as though the economy is everything. And while it is an important issue, a government needs to know how to run a nation, the economy isn’t everything.
Jesus taught us that a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. And a nation’s life does not consist in the abundance of it’s possessions either.
Different Christians will disagree on economic policy while at the same time agreeing on the priority of the poor. One may believe the best way to help the poor is to strengthen businesses and grow the economy and therefore create jobs and the wealth will trickle down the social strata. Others may believe the best way to help the poor is to directly financially and systematically direct resources to the poor themselves. But both believe in helping the poor. The difference is in the fiscal strategy for doing so. The whole thing is a complex process.
5) Voting AS a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean voting FOR a Christian
Romans 13 shows us that a secular or non-Christian government is a completely legitimate government. Which means making sure we vote for a Christian candidate or a Christian party isn’t necessary.
It still might be a good idea, and being a Christian with a Biblical worldview might help, but it doesn’t guarantee that the candidate will be good at governing and being a politician.
We should vote for the best person for the job, and she may be a Christian but she equally may not be. And being a Christian isn’t necessary. We might vote for a Christian as the best option, but we equally might not.
6) Loving your neighbour means considering morality
It’s true that you cannot legislate righteousness, but it is equally true that God has designed the world to work a certain way and when we rebel against that created order it is painful and self-destructive. If everyone lied and murdered society just wouldn’t be as good. And so while it is complicated and disputed as to which issues of morality should be legislated and which should be left to individual freedom, this doesn’t mean that morality shouldn’t play any role.
And so as we consider what is best for others we will be considering issues like stem cells, abortion, the environment, refugees, same-sex marriage, care for the elderly and the like.
The difficulty comes because no party will perfectly represent all the issues exactly as I see them. Let alone that I myself am imperfect and it’s very likely that I don’t perfectly represent what is right on every issue either. And so it becomes a complex process of choosing between one party’s cluster of issues, some I agree with and some I don’t, and another parties cluster of issues, with different ones I agree with and others I don’t. And as we take into consideration the clusters we choose the one that we believe is, overall, the best. And this takes wisdom and a certain degree of risk.
7) Consider the Gospel
There may come a time where a political party will seek to minimise Gospel freedoms, like legislating against Christian religious assemblies for example. That would be an important factor for Christians to consider as they vote. And it would be naïve to think that such a day will never come.
8) In the end our hope doesn’t lie in political parties
Voting is a extremely important responsibility and is an expression of loving God with our mind and loving our neighbour as ourselves. But even though it’s very important it’s not THAT important. It’s not the be all and end all.
Our hope lies in the sovereign God and is expressed through prayer. In the end it is God who institutes governments and it is God who removes them. And while yes he sovereignly does it through millions of people really choosing and really voting it is still he who sovereignly does it.
Our hope does not lie in the political process expressed through the vote. And our hope doesn’t lie in our local representative but in our heavenly representative.
And so the main way a Christian influences the political process is by praying. That’s not the only way, but it is the main way.