In our last article, we looked at a Christian’s duty to the State. The State was defined as an institution that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given jurisdiction. A Christian’s duty to the state, as derived from Scripture, is to submit to the State (the ‘governing authorities’) because in doing so, the Christian is submitting to God. To submit to the State essentially means the Christian strives to be a “model” citizen – he shows respect to the State, gives the State what is due, submits to its laws and rules as long as they don’t conflict with God’s revealed will in his word. That’s a summary of the last article.
In this article, I wish to look at the concept of politics and activism as it relates to Christian living. If the Christian is to submit to the State, does that mean the Christian is to be a “cheerleader” for the State? Does that mean the Christian must blindly follow the State no matter what it does? Can the Christian be engaged in the political arena? Can the Christian be a political activist? These are some of the questions we’ll try to answer in this article.
Before getting into those questions, I want to look at a passage of Scripture to get our bearings for discussion. The Apostle Paul, in writing to the church in Corinth, says:
Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7:20-24; emphasis added)
The passage comes from a larger section of Scripture in which Paul is answering questions to the Corinthian church regarding marriage and divorce. The idea here is that Christians should not actively seek to upset the current order once they’ve become Christians. As it relates to marriage and divorce, if a person becomes a Christian while his or her spouse remains an unbeliever, Paul’s advice to that person is to stay in that marriage. God has called you to that situation, so seek to be a godly person in the situation in which you were called. Paul expands this application to all calls of life in general in the passage under consideration: “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.”
Paul then goes on to say, “Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it.” I don’t want to get into all the nuances of slavery; suffice it to say that slavery was a way of life in Roman culture and it was not like American slavery of the 18th and 19th century. The point Paul is making is that being a slave and being a Christian are not mutually exclusive. In other of Paul’s letters, he exhorts slaves to be obedient to their masters as a mark of Christian behavior. But, for our purposes, Paul includes that parenthetical comment: “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” In other words, if the opportunity is available to gain your freedom, then take it; freedom is preferable to slavery.
One possible take away from this passage is that Christians can (and should) work for the betterment of society – either through the political process or through political activism. The extent that a Christian can do this is dependent upon the socio-political structures in place. For example, in the Roman Empire, there was little opportunity to work for real social change. However, in the United States, which is a democratic-republic, there is a much greater opportunity to work within the system to make society a better place.
(Caveat: I am not suggesting the purpose of the Church is to improve society through political means. The Church has a mission statement and that is the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). However, individual Christians may discern a call on their lives to be statesman. This is perfectly in line with Christian practice.)
What direction or form should Christian political activism take? There are basically two forms political activism (of any variety) can take: 1) Change the political landscape to promote policy that favors outcomes you wish to see; or 2) Change the political landscape to promote individual liberty and freedom.
There are some Christians who would choose option one, and they can come from the left end of the political spectrum or the right end of the political spectrum. From the political left, Christians may believe that the government should do more to alleviate poverty, hunger, homelessness and other social inequalities. From the political right, Christians may believe the government should do more to promote a more moral society and prohibit actions and behavior that is both morally wrong and destructive to society. In either case, the Christian is advocating for more government involvement – more involvement from the State.
As noted above, the State is the institution which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given jurisdiction. For the State to implement their plans, they must institute force. To implement the agenda of the political left, the government needs to enact a tax plan to generate the necessary revenue to carry out its plan. It also needs to create a bureaucracy to administer the agenda. Finally it needs an apparatus to enforce its policies and punish violators. Those who advocate this role for government are essentially saying that the State has the right to take from someone and give it to another.
Similarly, to implement the agenda of the political right, the State must enact laws that prohibit certain behaviors that some find objectionable and create policies that promote behaviors that some find favorable. The former can be done through law enforcement, whereas the latter can be done through tax incentives, propaganda, etc. In either case, the State is forcing people to behave a certain way, which they may not wish to behave if not for the threat of punishment.
Whether from the left or from the right, to use the power of the State to enact a political agenda not only means using force to promote that agenda, but it also grants powers to the State that can (and will) be abused in the future. From the perspective of the United States, neither of these agendas can find support in the Constitution, which is the highest law of the land.
I believe it is neither desirable nor acceptable to use the power of the State to enact a political agenda, no matter how well intentioned that agenda is. It is never right to force someone to do something either charitable or moral. I would advocate a direction for political activism that promotes the limitation of the power of the State and gives more freedom to the individual. A just, moral and charitable society never comes from a “top-down” approach through the strong arm of the State. Rather it comes from a “bottom-up” approach as people become more just, moral and charitable. The freest societies are the best societies.
Next: Christianity and the State – Liberty and Morality