The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, Part 2: The Case for Activism

In my first post on this topic we looked at the two dominant sides of the current debate on Christians and political involvement. Now we must look at the biblical evidence for both and see why each side believes as it does.

Before we begin to look at the case for political activism among Christians, let’s take the time to remember an important truth: this is not a “pillar of the faith” of historical, orthodox Christianity.* In my opinion this is not a matter to withhold Christian fellowship over if two people disagree. We must always remember to “keep the main thing the main thing” and focus on our unity with other Christians rather than our differences.

That said, this debate has caused a great deal of emotion on both sides. Unfortunately, the anger has generated a lot of heat, but not much light.

So why do some Christians feel so passionately about the need of Christians to fight our cultural decline and uphold standards of morality and decency in the world? Simply put, they believe that they are God’s children who must reflect His character and stand for His reputation in His world.

Let’s be clear that most in this camp are not theonomists. In other words, most do not think that the Old Testament Law is binding on society today, and few are trying to usher in the earthly reign of Jesus via legislation.

What they are saying, though, is that it brings God glory for people, even those who are not Christians, to act morally. For a great defense of Christian activism, read this excellent post by John Frame. I can’t encourage you enough to start with that post; Dr. Frame is a noted author and it is a good work. Go read it.

Consider also this quote from John Piper:

Justice is God’s creation. Honesty is God’s design. Integrity is the work of God – even in unbelievers – just like their head and heart and hands and feet are his work…The honesty and justice of unbelievers is like a seashell washed up on the beach. There’s no life in it. But it does have a kind of beauty…Since the partial external conformity of unbelievers to God’s designs of justice and honesty does in one way delight the heart of God, it was right for William Wilberforce to devote twenty years of his life in Parliament to the abolition of English slave trading, even though the great majority of those merchants who gave up the trade did it under constraint and not for any holy reasons at all. It was the work of God’s grace that rid England of the barbarisms of the African slave trade. And therefore the Lord looked down with delight on February 22, 1807, when the House of Commons passed the decisive bill. The same will be true when persevering pro-life forces bring an end to wanton, legalized child-killing in America….My prayer is that the truth of God’s pleasure in public justice will inspire many in our day to take up the mantle of William Wilberforce and wear it into battle against the manifold injustices of our day. (The Pleasure of God, 263)

There are also many verses in Scripture that speak of God’s desire for all people to act morally. Consider Proverbs 14:34, which says “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” Since sin is a disgrace to any people, it stands to reason that for the dignity of America and its people that Christians should advocate for morality.

Jesus also tells us in Matthew 5:14 that “You are the light of the world.” Christians are told that they shine God’s light into the world, and one way we can do that is by advocating for morality. Failure to live out our morals and advocate for political power and against sin is a failure to act as the salt and light of the world, which Jesus commanded Christians to be.

Another biblical argument comes out of Proverbs 24:11-12. In those verses, the author laments those who don’t stop a death when they knew it was happening, because God will judge their inaction. So to avoid God’s judgment, a Christian must get involved (and most pointedly here in the effort to end legalized abortion).

Christians who align themselves with the concept of social activism also see America as a unique opportunity to affect our culture via politics. In most countries and throughout history the average person has had no say in the laws of their country. In America, though, we practice a Federal Republic form of government (along with a few other modern countries), which empowers citizens to govern and change society. Since we have the ability, if we fail to act then we commit the sin of omission.

Next, we will consider the arguments behind those who believe that political activism is misguided, and that the church should stay out of political matters.

*In my opinion, the pillars of the faith that I am willing to take a major stand for are, (1) The authority and inerrancy of Scripture; (2) The full humanity and deity of Jesus Christ; (3) The Trinity, i.e. that God is one in essence and three in Person; (4) that eternal life is received as a gift from God on the basis of faith alone in Christ alone. Other than those, everything else is at least open for discussion and understanding.

The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man, Part 1: The Positions

Is God glorified by politics? Well, as the old joke goes politics comes from a Latin root, with “poli” meaning “many” and “tics” being blood sucking parasites. So should we separate the secular from the sacred or live out our faith in the public square with our votes?

Though I don’t really intend this blog to become a “Dear Abby,” I had a friend email me and ask a question that is, in my opinion, a major concern for American evangelical Christians:

How do I respond to other Christians who say we are not to be concerned with the political climate and what’s going on with the politicians because “God is in control no matter what”? I find that apathetic, personally, and while I agree that God IS in control, I don’t think He wants us to sit on our morals and do nothing…

This is a big question, so first let’s consider the various ideas within the broad umbrella of evangelical Christianity. In future posts we will consider the points for and against political activism from a biblical perspective.

Since the 1970’s, evangelical Christianity has been very involved in the political arena. In 1979 Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in response to Roe v. Wade, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan. If you want a respectful moment of silence and a tear in a conservative Bible church, mention Ronnie.* The hallmarks of this movement have been to “bring back Christian values to America.” The ideals are an end to abortion, the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, and the end of promiscuous sexuality and immorality in alcohol and drug use.

In their view, the church is God’s agent of moral restraint in His world. The church must get involved and preach against sin, actively being involved in opposing ungodly behavior. A failure to act is sin, because allowing sin is an affront to the holiness of God. We bring God’s standards to our world, in the process showing the world its sinfulness and need for a savior. This portion of evangelical Christianity is overwhelmingly Republican in political leaning.

This is not an issue that only affects more liberal strains of Christianity. This issue just came to the forefront in the Southern Baptist Convention (which our church is affiliated with), where the “old guard” and the “young guns” are in a fight for the focus of the organization. (check this post by iMonk for a synopsis) When the largest Protestant denomination in the world is having at it, you know the issue is not minor!

Those in the mold of Morris Chapman, who led the SBC in aligning with the GOP and the “Moral Majority” movement associated with Jerry Falwell and James Dobson is being strongly challenged by a “new breed” of Baptist. Frank Page, newly elected President of SBC, as well as Ed Stetzer and others are drafting a vision of the future of the denomination that has a lot less political activism and a lot more “holistic ministry” (if you like the direction) or “social gospel” (if you do not).

Similar issues are being debated outside of SBC too. Some Christians view political activism as an integral part of being a disciple of Christ (as witnessed by Liberty University dropping their Democratic Club from official recognition) and view political conservatism as the sine qua non of Christianity.

Some Christians, though, are tired of the bickering with the secular society we live in. While some are perhaps giving up, others have decided that politics are not the appropriate arena to try to change our country. Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and the Acts 29 network have decided not to criticize the culture but understand and witness to it. They will not advocate social issues, but rather their focus is on preaching and living the gospel and changing individuals.

Rather than focusing on changing the politics of America, their agenda is one-on-one. In their view, society is ungodly because it is depraved, in need of the gospel and not morality. They understand depravity as preventing society from getting better, and therefore are less interested in issues of same sex marriage and abortion and more interested in issues of social justice. You will find homeless shelters and Habitat for Humanity more than protests and gun rights. In the last election a much greater percentage of these people voted for Obama than McCain.

So this is where the lines are drawn. While these two camps in Christianity are becoming more recognizable, we have to remember that before 1979 and the founding of the Moral Majority, Christian political activism was nonexistent since prohibition.

So the debate is not cut and dried. There are people committed to Jesus Christ on both sides. They are living for Christ and seeking how to translate the gospel into their culture, and evangelical Christianity is in the midst of an identity crisis over this issue.

What about you? Where do you find yourself right now? In the next two posts we will consider the biblical evidence for each side, and then I will probably post a fourth post explaining my own understanding. For now, though, I would encourage comments on how you personally view political involvement from a biblical framework.

As always, please be kind in commenting…

*For clarity, I am personally a big fan of “The Gipper” and wish we could have him back to work again. Alas, he is home with the Lord now.