One reason Americans face complexity in applying the Bible to responsible citizenship is the fact that biblical instruction on this subject was never given to people living in democratic forms of government.
We learn many things in the Bible about how to respond to authority when living in non-participatory forms of government. And many of these truths can be applied (in principle) to all people (Romans 13:1ff; I Peter 2:13-14).
We can also look to the OT prophets and learn of God’s concern for justice and protection for those who are vulnerable.
In other places, we learn about God’s rulership over nations and his ultimate and final kingdom (Daniel 4:34-35; Acts 17:26-27;Matthew 6:10; 25:31-34).
Jesus taught his followers a personal ethic of nonresistance (although we should not make the mistake of pacifism in applying this to the ordained role of government).
But how should we think about the examples of Jesus boldly confronting corruption in the religious political system of his times? How do we take up Christlike behavior when we confront such corruption?
Although we cannot draw a direct parallel from Scripture to our political circumstances, we may be confident that responsible citizenship involves a calling to pursue a common good for our country.
The basis for this calling is found in biblical teachings about God’s common grace (see: Acts 14:14-17; 17:24-29).
In his excellent treatment of this subject, James Davison Hunter wrote,
“The gifts of God’s grace are spread abundantly among the just and unjust in ways that support and enhance the lives of all.” “… even where wisdom and morality, justice and beauty exist in fragments or in corrupted form, the believer should recognize these as qualities that, in Christ, find their complete and perfect expression. The qualities nonbelievers possess as well as the accomplishments they achieve may not be righteous in an eschatological sense, but they should be celebrated all the same because they are gifts of God’s grace” (“To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”).
In our form of government, all citizens should be permitted to bring their beliefs, morals and values to the table for debate. Those who try to marginalize the voice of Christians (or any voices) betray the principles upon which this nation was founded. Our calling must include robust, diverse and respectful dialogue and we must not shy from this on a misguided notion of higher spiritual concerns.
Even when God’s people lived under pagan dictatorship, God instructed them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Our approach to political engagement should never be framed as winning culture wars. Such language (and the demeanor that often accompanies it) is not fitting to responsible Christian engagement in a representative form of democracy. When called to engage in political process, far too many Christians fall for extremes of either passivity or the mentality of culture war.
As Christians, we should try to be as informed and engaged as possible while doing our best to be kind and considerate toward opponents. Then, as Hunter wrote, “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world,” they are “an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”
Christians must answer God’s call to dual citizenship between their earthly country and God’s kingdom. Yet our primary calling is to reach beyond temporal human needs to the greatest need of humanity – the need to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
At the end of the day (or process), we recognize that some laws of the land will conflict with our beliefs, morals or values. If laws of a government would force us to violate our convictions, we’ll find far more explicit instruction from Scripture on how to respond.
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick street
Millersville, Pa. 17551