Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Should Christians Vote? (Part 1)

The church and the state have had a convoluted relationship throughout Christian history.  Jesus himself was killed by the authority of a secular political governor.  This same Roman Empire which crucified him as a disruptive threat would eventually give his church official sanction.  In the medieval period, the head of this Roman church would intervene in political affairs both between nations and within their borders.  Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin entwined their reform movements with their local governments.  The Anabaptists took a radically different tack, preaching hard pacifism and eschewing any political involvement.  Even “Christian” governments persecuted other religions and denominations throughout this time, from the Jews in medieval Europe to the Baptists in colonial Massachusetts.  In the twenty-first century, many Christians live in liberal democracies which have universal suffrage.  They have the option to vote for Christian candidates and choose their own leaders from among the regular populace and not the ruling elite.  But is a Christian engaging in political life entwining the church and the state?  Worse still, is Christian political involvement distracting them from the Great Commission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth?  Not at all; rather, Christians ought to engage in politics with no burden of conscience because they are stewards of the vote and political voice God has given them in modern democracies.

Some believe that Christians should have nothing at all to do with civil government—including voting—because government is evil and demonic.  They argue that Satan is the god of this world and governments are wicked, fallen manifestations of his power.  Therefore, Christians should have nothing to do with them.  Is he not after all the ruler of the powers and principalities of this world?  This is essentially the argument Greg Boyd makes in Myth of a Christian Nation.  There he argues from Luke 4:5-6[1] that Satan is the authority over the dark powers of the world.  In this verse, Satan is tempting Jesus to bow down and worship him.  He entices him by claiming that the kingdoms of the world have been given over to him; if Jesus will worship, Satan will give him authority over the world.  Thus, Boyd concludes that Satan is the ruler of the governments of the world.[2]  Christians should have nothing to do with government because it is fundamentally wicked and destructive.

Wayne Grudem addresses this argument in his book God and Politics.  He writes that the mistake of this proof-text is that Satan is probably lying to Jesus.  First, he notes that Jesus calls Satan “the father of lies”.  Christians are falling into Satan’s deception when they give him more credit than they actually should.  Second, he notes that there are specific verses which say that civil government is a gift from God and is subject to his authority, not Satan’s.  He gives the examples of Daniel 4:17, Romans 13:1-6, and 1 Peter 2:13-14 and notes that they all indicate that God is sovereign over all creation.  Even further, Grudem notes that these verses teach that worldly governments are tools of God to further his ends on earth.[3]

Daniel 4:17 teaches that God is the ultimate source of all political authority and therefore Christians should not be shy about political involvement.  The verse reads, “‘The sentence is by the decree of the watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.’”  In context, the speaker is God in a vision to King Nebuchadnezzar.  Nebuchadnezzar saw a great tree which shaded the animals, provided nests for the birds, and fed all men on the earth.  Then a watchman from heaven orders that the tree be cut down and his mind reduced to madness.  The prophet Daniel interprets this dream to mean that the great Nebuchadnezzar will be brought low and driven to madness for a time by the King of Kings.  Thus, this verse clearly teaches that God is sovereign over all civil government.

Romans 13 is an even more explicit text on the relationship of Christians and political life.  Verses 1 through 5 read, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” 

From these verses it may be seen first that God establishes and grants authority to governments.  This means that all governments have their authority ultimately derived from God.  Therefore executive decisions are carried out using power delegated to them by God.  Governments cannot be fundamentally Satanic because they were created by God.  They act to execute his will.  Second, governments rule for the sake of punishing wrong behavior and promoting good behavior.  These verses indicate that it is not wrong for the government to punish its own citizens, even using violent means (“for he does not bear the sword in vain”) to do so.  In fact, since the governor is God’s servant and is avenging God’s wrath, it would be wrong for him not to do so.  Since he is bearing the sword for God and God has given it to him to execute judgment, a pacifist official who would refuse to punish lawbreakers would be a sinner himself!  Third, the government official is God’s servant for the good of the citizens.  Therefore, Christians should have minimal conflict with governors or government officials under normal circumstances.  Both Christians and governors, even if they are wicked governors, are servants of God and have more in common in their duties than distinct.  This concept also informs how Christians should view governing.  Good government exists to serve God and the citizens, not the stated ends of a superior or the self-interest of the governor himself or the interests of a particular faction within in the state.  The good governor must regard the good of all within the political community.

Peter agrees with Paul that government is not Satanic but divine.  1 Peter 2:13-14 reads, “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”  At the end of this paragraph Peter notes one thing which Paul already did in Romans—governors are sent by God to punish evil and praise good on his behalf.  The first part of this verse is instructive; Christians must submit to the government for the sake of the Lord.  Here obedience to governmental officials is commended as obedience to God.  If those who equate government with Satanic authority are correct, how can they explain this passage?  How can a Christian be obedient to God while also being obedient to Satan?

[1] These verses read, “And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.”  This and all subsequent Scripture quotations are taken from The ESV Study Bible, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008).
[2] Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 21-22.
[3] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 37-38.

1 comment:

  1. And let's not forget God's track record of using even destructive pagan nations, like the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, to accomplish His will - to the point that Cyrus was called "anointed one" (Isaiah 45:1ff.), a term later used to describe Christ Himself.

    Good post.