This study examines one of several wrong views of Church and State: The idea that believers should be involved in evangelism only and not politics.
The short of what’s wrong with this view is this: if every believer adhered to this somewhat popular Evangelical teaching, there would be no believers in office! There would be no salt and light influence in a representative form of government.
I used to give credence to this camp, but that began to change some years ago when I personally witnessed the leading advocate of this position, a mega church pastor in Southern California, rally his congregation to come out for a City Council meeting where the decision would be made whether the Christian college he was the president of, would be granted a land use permit to construct a memorial chapel in his name. This glaring incongruity collided with my growing realization that I could not minister to believers in the California Capitol if deep down I believed they were out of step with God’s will — having become involved in the political process in a representative form of civil government. I realize both of these are anecdotal arguments, nonetheless those experiences opened me up to thinking through to the other side of this debate and to study the Word on this matter with a lessened predisposition.
Today I come down on the side that believers are to be involved in politics versus being against it, or isolated from it. What follows are the biblical arguments for participation in the State in ways beyond evangelism.
The fact that believers should affect the world in which they live (versus isolate themselves from it) is evident from the Sermon on the Mount. Note Matthew 5:13-16:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
When Jesus lights a lamp — when He brings an individual to true saving faith in Himself — what results is a person who will give light1 to all who are in the house. This is not difficult to decipher from this passage. The word house (v.15) is another way of expressing two previously-used words in the passage. This simply means a believer will affect people on the earth (v. 13a), people in the world (v. 14a). This passage teaches that it is normative for believers to affect the physical earth/world or “land” in which they live in the here and now.
But notice the progression of this passage: Verses 13-16 as quoted above, come after verses 1-12, which are commonly known as Jesus’s Beatitudes. The Beatitudes teach concise virtues (listed in the opening portion of His Sermon on the Mount) that are emblematic of His mature followers; i.e. character qualities such as gentleness (5:5), righteousness (5:6, 10), mercifulness (5:7), purity (5:8), etc. Per the progressive nature of this passage, one’s manifestations of salt and light (similitude’s expressing the idea that believers are to be preservers and illuminators in the earth/world) will be in direct proportion to the degree these previously listed characteristics inhabit the believer. The point is this: over the long run, one cannot affect his surroundings in a godly way unless he first possesses godly character.
WHO ONE IS AND HOW ONE AFFECTS HIS WORLD ARE INTRINSICALLY INTERTWINED
Such an interpretation of the meaning of this passage is supported by the following key grammatical understandings. First, the twice-used verbs at the beginning of verses 13 and 14 are You are (humeis este). These verbs are present active indicatives in the Greek language. That is in contrast to them being imperative verbs, or put another way, commands from Jesus. This is a subtle but important distinction. It means one is Christ-influencing in culture (agents of the preservation and illumination of truth) to the degree they are mature in the Savior. Jesus is not saying, “Be salt and light!” Rather, He is teaching that to the degree one internally manifests Christ-likeness is the degree to which one will externally affect his world, or in the case of the Capital Community, its people and its laws.
Why is this so important? Jesus is not saying “you must be salt and light!” Jesus is not speaking in the imperative here. Rather the use of you are means this: you are preserving and illuminating in society to the degree you are beattitudinal! You are is based on what Jesus has already said in the Sermon on the Mount! Indicative of beattitudinal character — always connected to Christlike maturity — is preservation and illumination manifestations in the world today! There is no way around this plain meaning and connection in this passage. Such is the cadence of this passage.
Secondly, notice in the original language, the beginning of the next verse, verse 16. The adverb at the start of the passage further evidences the idea of Jesus’ sequential thinking relative to what He has previously delineated. Let (outws) means “in this way” or “as follows.” I.e. one’s light is to shine in this way. The verb shine (lampatw) is an imperative, meaning God is commanding you: in other words, our light must shine in this way. And what is that way? That others see your godly character and your resulting cultural preservation and illumination. What results is that others glorify your father who is in heaven. That’s to say, following this formula, you become a powerful witness in a fallen world! Here is a graphic summation:
Personal spiritual maturation will be indicated by one’s cultural participation which then testifies of God in an on-looking world. This progression reveals the biblical formula for having an effective testimony — glorifying God — in a fallen word.
Summarily of the introduction, to those who say, “The believer should only be about evangelism in the political arena” this passage evidences their omission of a vital and necessary step: Cultural participation in the world is a necessary ingredient to becoming an effective witness (cf. 1Cor. 9:21-23)!
CAN ANY EVANGELIST BE EFFECTIVE WHO SHUNS CONNECTING TO ANOTHER’S WORLD?2
The thought that one should be all about evangelism with no cultural engagement is a biblical misnomer. Matthew 5 does not support that idea; Jesus Himself does not support that idea. This passage lends to correcting such thinking. One cannot eliminate the necessary need for the believer to be a preserver and illuminator on the earth and in the world if he desires to be a good evangelist.
As if this introductory argument were insufficient, what follows are eight additional biblically supported reasons as to why believers should be involved in politics.
II. EVANGELISM ONLY IS TOO NARROW AN UNDERSTANDING OF THE MISSION OF JESUS
In the Great Commission passage of Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus commands His followers to teach others more than just the truths of the Gospel (as primary and important as that is to the mission of Jesus). He teaches believers to go way beyond evangelism and make disciples. How is the believer to do that? By “…teaching [others] to observe all that I commanded you.” Paul echoes the necessary breadth of instruction above and beyond the truths of the Gospel when he said to the Ephesian Elders, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). Paul said regarding all of his biblical writings, The things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. (1Cor. 14:37). Peter said regarding his “more than salvation teachings”: that you should remember… the commandments of the Lord and Savior spoken by your Apostles (2Peter 3:2). Accordingly, Jesus wants others to know all of His instruction. That means He wants His followers to learn about Marriage, Family, Church, Commerce, and Government. Such is required to make disciples (which is the main command of the Great Commission). Conclusively, while the primacy of Jesus’ mission is to convert the lost, the entirety of His message encompasses making disciples.
That the believer should only evangelize political leaders (and not get involved in politics) represents ultra-myopic thinking. It follows that the evangelist would need to counsel his convert to immediately leave office! If an evangelist won every elected leader to Christ the government would have to shut down!
So, what does Jesus teach — what is the whole counsel of God (NKJV) — regarding Civil Government? Among other things this: He Himself created it (Gen. 1:26; Col. 1:16); He ordained it (Rom. 13:1); He sustains it (Col. 1:17); and it is intended to moralize a fallen world (Rom. 13:4). In addition to His saving grace, Jesus’ purposes, compelled by a heart of compassion for the lost (Mt. 9:36), manifest common grace and restraining grace to all of His creation through this ordained institution (cf. Mt. 5:45b). How great is His love!
The aforementioned descriptors and supporting passages clearly reveal that Jesus has a purpose for the Institution of Government that is in addition to evangelism. Accordingly, when one of the leading advocates for the “All evangelism, no politics” viewpoint states:
[Jesus] did not come to earth to make the old creation moral through social and governmental reform but to make new creatures (His people) holy through the saving power of the gospel and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.3
He is propagating too narrow an understanding of the mission of Jesus! What this author says does not represent the whole counsel of God relative to His purposes for His institution of Civil Government! As primary the role of evangelism is by the believer to Government, there must always be the aforementioned broader understanding of Jesus’ teachings regarding this institution. The believer must be about teaching all that Scripture says about Civil Government and even more specifically, teaching these truths to Civil Government leaders!
In a parallel and expansive sense, to say that Jesus’ overall purpose and mission was solely about salvation is to imply that Jesus possesses no instruction about Marriage, Family, Church, or Commerce either.
Another error of this same influential Christian author is his tendency to spiritualize away the importance of good Civil Government relative to the propagation of the Gospel.
The ideal human government can ultimately do nothing to advance God’s kingdom, and the worst, most despotic worldly government in the end cannot halt the power of the Holy Spirit or the spread of God’s Word.4
In an ultimate sense and in view of the grandeur and sovereignty of God what is said here is true. But is this a tenable argument for non-involvement in Civil Government by believers? One does not have to be much of a student of current geopolitics, world history, or historic missions to know that Middle Eastern countries, North Korea, Cuba and Russia, among others, have suppressed the growth of the Body of Christ to a much greater degree than non-suppressive countries. How many missionaries have come forth relative to the cause of Christ from the aforementioned lands? Practically speaking why have 90% of world missions in the past century been funded by America? Should believers be involved in politics if for no other reason than to keep missionary-sending countries missionary sending countries for the purposes of spreading God’s Word? The ideal country can advance God’s Kingdom more so than a non-ideal country.
GOOD GOVERNMENT IS THEREFORE IMPORTANT TO ACHIEVE AND MAINTAIN IF FOR NO OTHER REASON THAN THE FULFILLMENT OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
The present and historic impetus for much of the fulfillment of the Great Commission stems from countries that honor freedom. That means the believer’s role in sustaining a country’s health and well-being is a noble and important task and is certainly in keeping with all that Jesus commanded us.
To illustrate one of many possible results from living by too narrow an understanding of the mission of Jesus, radio preachers must now edit their radio broadcasts in Canada so as to not include any mention of Romans 1. This life-changing book addresses the severity of sin, the principle of justification, the importance of faith, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, among many other major issues of faith. This is due to new Canadian laws influenced not by Christians. What will become of the great radio ministries in America that have so affected our culture for good and evangelized the lost5 if the laws, unaffected by Christian influence, also begin to prohibit the Church from evangelizing here?
GOVERNMENTS INDEED DO FACILITATE OR ELSE HINDER THE ADVANCE OF GOD’S KINGDOM
Again, and worth repeating, should believers be involved in Civil Government if only for the sake of the Great Commission? Yes! Church leaders should applaud, respect, support, sustain, prepare and elect more Christian political leaders to work hard (amongst other things) to preserve the preachers’ freedoms to propagate the Gospel.
CHRISTIAN LEGISLATORS WHOM I KNOW VIEW THEMSELVES IN A PARTNERSHIP WITH PASTORS.
SHOULD NOT PASTORS VIEW THEMSELVES IN PARTNERSHIP WITH CHRISTIAN LEGISLATORS?
Should the Church raise up young men and women to run for office with the same passion and enthusiasm that it places on raising up godly pastors, wives, husbands, children and businessmen? Absolutely, yes!
III. THE MISSION OF JESUS INCLUDES A TRANSFORMATION OF SOCIETY
If teaching them to observe all that I commanded you is the overall purpose for Christ coming to earth,6 as previously seen (the Gospel ministry being a vital part of that [cf. 1Cor. 15:3-6] and the starting point to making disciples), then the mission of Jesus has an eye toward and includes the transformation of Marriages, Families, Commerce, and Governments. The mission of Jesus has a sum total intent on transforming societies, or as they are called in the Great Commission passage, nations (ethnos). The Great Commission passage is clear: believers are to effect nations! Those who advocate too narrow a view of Jesus’ mission are forced to interpret ethnos to mean “people groups” so as to comport the passage to their viewpoint of non-Civil Government involvement. But, for those who hold a bigger view of Jesus’ mission, individual evangelism is inescapable, but so is affecting nations for good.
IV. WHICH PARTS OF THE BIBLE SHOULD THE CHURCH NOT PREACH ABOUT?
It follows from the previous points that the pastor or believer who holds to a “Do evangelism not politics” limited understanding of Jesus’ mission must decide what portions of the Bible he or she should teach. Does one omit teaching from Genesis 9:5-6, John 19:11, Acts 25:11, Romans 13:1-7 or 1Peter 2:13-14 since they have to do with believers impacting Government? Does one avoid teaching about Joseph’s influence on Pharaoh’s government, or Daniels’ on Nebuchadnezzar’s government? By way of extension, if one “just preaches the Gospel” should one avoid teaching on Marriage and Family? What parts of the whole counsel of God should the Bible teacher omit? Foisting too narrow an understanding of the mission of Jesus inevitably leads to editing what portions of Scripture you will teach or omit — and a huge ensuing incongruity in light of 2Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching…and Acts 20:27, “declaring to you the whole purpose of God.”
V. GOD LEAVES CHRISTIANS HERE ON EARTH BOTH TO DO EVANGELISM AND TO DO GOOD FOR OTHERS
After one is saved (God tends to leave His saints on earth after He saves them) what is the believer to do? Should he or she only evangelize others the remainder of their earthly life? What about Matthew 22:39, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself?” This command is listed 6 other times in the New Testament. Like the Great Commission command, this is a command from Jesus as well! The spirit of this commandment demands that I consider these kinds of issues: making sure the law punishes thieves who could rob my neighbor otherwise; working to create and enforce laws pertaining to internet privacy to protect my neighbors from hackers who would otherwise steal their credit card information; creating policies that ensure that those who educate my neighbor’s child cannot teach them thing that are evil. How could these policies that are so compatible with the mandates of Scripture be accomplished if not by Christians involved in policy making? Galatians 6:10 states to believers, So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially those who are of the household of faith. Ephesians 2:10 further sites societal responsibility, when it says, For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
“WHY SHOULD CHURCHES TEACH THEIR PEOPLE HOW TO DO GOOD WORKS IN HOSPITALS AND IN SCHOOLS, AND IN BUSINESSES AND IN NEIGHBORHOODS, BUT NOT IN GOVERNMENT?”7
The biblical connection between loving one’s neighbor and being involved in Civil Government is strong.
VI. GOD ESTABLISHED BOTH THE CHURCH AND THE STATE TO RESTRAIN EVIL
When a believer wins someone to Christ such internal regeneration should quell evil in the heart of the convert (cf. 2Cor. 5:17). However, history and present observation indicate that not everyone comes to Christ, nor are those who do completely and immediately sanctified in their manifest actions. Accordingly, God has instituted, in addition to the Church, Civil Government to restrain evil by the use of force and punishment in a fallen world. Romans 13:4 is clear about this wherein Paul states (speaking of Government), . . . but if you do what is evil be afraid, for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on one who practices evil. 1Peter 2:13-14 states similarly, Submit yourselves . . . to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers . . .8 God mediates His reign by vesting His authority in and through Civil Government (Rom. 13:1) in order to restrain evil in a fallen world. Whereas the Church is God’s conduit of saving grace, the State is God’s conduit of restraining grace. Such a realization necessitates the believer’s involvement in Civil Government since it is part of Jesus’ overall mission.
One other point here is worth mention. Christian isolationists often harbor ideological superiority: as if the authority of the Church is over the authority of the State. The Church is not over the State; conversely the Church too needs to submit to the State. The glaring historical and embarrassing American illustration of this is the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The abolition of slavery came not from the Institution of the Church via evangelism. It was the State that birthed a human being’s freedom from another person’s ownership. Sometimes the State restrains evil more effectively than does the Church!
Keep in mind too, that it was not the punctuality of the Church leaders that gave us the canonization of the New Testament. It was not until Constantine in the early 4th century demanded it from Eusebius that the Church got around to sewing the 27 books together!
It stands to reason therefore that believers should respect the unique role of the State (and not harbor condescending attitudes towards it) and be involved in Civil Government lest they end up inheriting a lawless country, and wherein they most likely lose their religious freedoms.
CHRISTIANS HAVE INFLUENCED THE STATE POSITIVELY THROUGHOUT HISTORY
There are at least three categories of historical influence of believers on the State. These accounts are numerous and well documented by authors Schmidt9 and Colson10 in their wonderful respective works. Here is a summary:
A. The Dignity of Mankind
The historic spread of Christian influence on the State has been responsible for many victories: Its influence outlawed infanticide, child abandonment and abortion in the Roman Empire (374); it prohibited the burning alive of widows in India (1829); it ended slavery in the British Empire (1840); it stopped the binding of women’s feet in China (1912); and it outlawed racial discrimination in America. These are but a few of the historic contributions of Christians engaged in politics.
B. The Constitutions of Mankind
Christians were influential in the writing of the Magna Carta in England in 1215, the Declaration of Independence in America in 1776, and the Constitution of the United State in 1787. These are the most important documents in the history of governments known to mankind. All were significantly influenced by believers and are the bases, not only of prosperous countries, but the ensuing Christian mission movement worldwide. These advanced views of government have birthed individual freedoms, justice, freedom of religion, and the separation of Church and State.
C. The Education of Mankind
Believers have greatly influenced the development of higher education in America.
OF THE 182 COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES IN AMERICA IN 1932, 92% HAD BEEN FOUNDED BY CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS
Such influence has led to the advancement of a society theretofore unknown in world history, a society that has accelerated the Great Commission to levels of accomplishment equal to that of the first century Church.
These are but a few illustrations of Christian influence on the State. Therefore, when a prominent Christian author reasons in 2000, “God does not call the church to influence the culture by promoting legislation and court rulings that advance a scriptural point of view” and “Using temporal methods to promote legislative and judicial change . . . is not our calling — and has no eternal value”11 one wonders how he can arrive at such a narrow understanding of the mission of Jesus. In his much earlier commentary on Matthew 5:13-16, (1985) this author said, “. . . Christians can have a powerful influence on the welfare of the world.”12 And therein he quotes Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said, “[What saved England was that] . . . The political situation was affected, and the great Acts of Parliament which were passed in the last century were mostly due to the fact that there were such large numbers of individual Christians found in the land.”13 Unfortunately, in the year 2000, this same writer, wrote a book to attempt to influence pastors to avoid governmental involvement (ref. endnote #3). History, as well as the contextual argument of Matthew 5:1-16 (presented in the introductory section) favors this author’s more biblical 1985 position.
VIII. DOESN’T THE BIBLE SAY THAT PERSECUTION IS COMING?
When studying eschatology, the doctrine of future biblical events, one could reason “Since things are going to get worse in the end times (cf. Matt. 24:9-12; 21-22; 2Tim. 3:1-5) why should anyone attempt to improve government today? The answer is simple: In the meantime, the believer is to be “salt and light” (Mt. 5:13-15); “love your neighbor” (Mt. 22:39), and do good works (Ep. 2:10) in addition to evangelizing the lost (Mt. 5:16). One cannot disobey the clear commands of God in the here and now in lieu of end-time passages.
THE FATALISTIC FUTURE OF THE WORLD PROVIDES NO EXCUSE FOR SOCIETAL LETHARGY IN THE PRESENT
Scripture explicitly mentions that no one knows the exact time of His Second Coming (Mt. 24:36; 25:13), therefore the believer should influence Civil Government for good as long as he or she is able.
IX. WILL POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT DISTRACT BELIEVERS FROM THE MAIN TASK OF PREACHING THE GOSPEL?
The question isn’t whether political involvement by the Church will divert energy away from preaching the Gospel, if indeed God has called the believer to be salt and light as a predicate for evangelism, which He has.
For these reasons the “Do evangelism, not politics” understanding of the Christian life is incorrect. Believers should be involved in politics in ways similar to their involvement in making their marriage better, their family better, their business better, or their church better. Running for office, serving in Civil Government is no less spiritual than going into full time ministry.
1This is also a present active indicative verb.
2 In 1Corinthians 9:22b the Apostle Paul states, “I have become all things to all men so that I may by all means save some.” This is an appropriate supporting passage relative to this scriptural understanding of cultural involvement. Paul was willing to get involved in the lives, professions (including the political arena, e.g. Phil. 1:13, conf. 4:22; cf. Acts 26:88ff.) and cultures of others without compromising biblical truth in order to evangelize the lost. How can today’s Church evangelize politicians if it is unwilling to connect with politicians?
3 MacArthur, John Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) p 11-12. It is worth noting MacArthur’s exposition of Romans 13:1-7 in 1994 wherein he states respective of ordination and moralization: “Human government is ordained by God for the benefit of society . . . In order to promote and protect the good in society human government must punish the evil.” (MacArthur, John The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 9-16 [Chicago: Moody, 1994] p 218, 225) Implicit in his comments are his seeming admission to a broader role of the mission of Jesus (cf. Col. 1:16). Unfortunately, his later incongruous thinking (“Do evangelism, not politics”) has influenced many.
4Ibid., p 7
5 Many leading Christian thinkers believe one of the major reasons America has not gone the way of Europe is due to the presence and power of Christian radio.
6 Said another way, did Christ come to save or make disciples? The Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20 indicates the later. Christ did not end His ministry commanding His followers to evangelize, but rather to make disciples.
7 Grudem, Wayne Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) p 48. Note I am utilizing Dr. Grudem’s respective chapter outline (with its much appreciated comprehensiveness) in this study with his permission.
8 The one exception to obedience to the authority of the State is when civil authority would necessitate disobedience to God’s Word (cf. Exo. 1:17; Dan. 3:16-18; 6:7, 10; Acts 4:19).
9 Schmidt, Alvin How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004)
10 Colson, Charles God and Government: An Insider’s View on the Boundaries between Faith and Politics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007). Previously published as Kingdoms in Conflict)
11 Ibid., p 130; 15
12 MacArthur, John The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1985) p 243
13 Lloyd-Jones, Martyn Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1971), 1:157 (as quoted in MacArthur, John Why Government Can’t Save You: An Alternative to Political Activism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000)