Jesus had plenty to say about the relationship he and his followers were to have with the world. In John 18:36, he made it clear that his kingdom was not of this world. In John 17:14-16, he passed on this principle to his followers with these words: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.” In 2 Timothy 2:4, the Apostle Paul wrote that the soldier of Christ should not become “entangled in civilian affairs.” Thus, as disciples of Jesus, we have to figure out and follow that often thin line between being in the world but not of it.
One of life’s biggest challenges in this area for citizens of America is that of politics. Readers of Facebook hardly need to be reminded of that. As I read various posts of a political nature, I often think to myself that many who claim to be Christians come across as being more invested emotionally as citizens of America than they are as citizens of Christ’s kingdom, although Paul reminded us that our predominant citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
Michael Burns has written one of my all-time favorite books, “Crossing the Line: Culture, Race and Kingdom.” He is working on another book with a similar title: “Crossing the Line: Politics, Nationalism, and Kingdom,” which is scheduled for a 2019 release. I have quoted what he wrote about politics in his first book, and eagerly look forward to reading what he will write in his upcoming book. I have posted on both my teaching website (gordonferguson.org) and this one the following article of his that deserves a careful and prayerful reading. I suspect that it will help you examine not only your beliefs politically and biblically but will serve as a good indicator of just how emotionally invested you are in politics.
I recently read an article online which mourned over the fact that millions of people claiming to be Christian voted for the democratic party again. How could they? The article assumed that this was an outrage and went on to blame this atrocity on the lack of biblical preaching from the pulpit. It rightly asserted that a vote is not just tying yourself to what you are against but also everything that you are for. The author goes on to lay out all the reasons, primarily the issue of abortion, that makes it impossible in his mind for a Christian to identify with and even vote for a Democratic politician.
Is he correct?
For me growing up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, politics seemed simple. I didn’t care that much about them until perhaps my high school and college years, but what I did know was straightforward and uncomplicated. If you cared about obeying God’s word at all, you were a Republican. There could be little debate about that in the parts of the world that I inhabited. It seemed so obvious that I never really questioned that.
As I grew older in years and in my discipleship to Christ, I began to question where that assumption came from, especially since it didn’t seem to be such a no-brainer anymore.
Evangelicals and Politics
If you’ll allow me to speak in broad generalizations at this point, it would seem that this began in earnest in the 1970’s. Evangelical Christians (particularly White Evangelicals) had largely retreated from the public square and the marketplace of ideas in the 1920’s and ‘30’s and resigned Christianity to something of a personal and private faith that need not interact with the world at large. This led to what most evangelicals saw as a sharp decline in public morals that by the 1960’s had reached alarming lows.
Although there was some movement in political parties in the 1960’s for various reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, this began to change drastically in the late 1970’s as far as the evangelical movement in America was concerned. The Republican party began to speak out more and more about the problems that they saw in America that needed to be fixed. America’s real problem, they argued, was a moral one. The nation that was “under God” had drifted sharply from its moral moorings and needed restoration. Many who were associated with the Conservative Republican party began to call out America’s problems and as a collective, evangelicals got excited because what they were saying sounded an awful lot like naming sin. They spoke out against things like abortion, immorality, divorce, crime, and the decline of the family. The Bible has much to say about these issues and the sentiment developed that it was about time that some politicians cared.
Finally! Someone in power was speaking the language of the devout and they were calling “sin” as “sin.” In droves, those that identified as Christian made their way into the Republican camp. That became so normal that if you were Christian growing up in my world, it was assumed you were Republican. The term “Democrat” almost became synonymous with “pagan.”
What never made it on to the radar for most was the fact that the Republican party held to many other positions that were not biblically rooted and even went in the opposite direction. But that didn’t seem to register. They were correctly identifying the problem, in the eyes of these Christ followers, and so this was their political home, their team. And they became active and powerful in the blink of an eye as a voting bloc.
What also escaped their attention was that the solutions to these problems that were being offered were decidedly not Kingdom focused or biblically derived. They may have identified some of the very real problems in society, but their answers were often not Christ-centric but trusted in the power of the state. The point of this article is not to wade into specific positions or solutions of parties that are unbiblical but to look at general trends. For now, I will leave it to the reader to do their own research to fill in those specifics.
Before long, most evangelical Christians had been drawn in by the siren’s song of identifying the problems and they had yoked themselves together with a political movement. This was now their identity and their passionate cause. And if I’m honest, as I look back on that time, it starts to feel a bit like the Israelites going to Samuel to demand a king.
History Repeating Itself
If we fast forward to the last ten years, I see a similar phenomenon happening. This time, though, it is the liberal Democrat party that has started to call out the problems in society, and to the ears of a growing number of Christians, it sounds like the real sins that plague us. They denounce racial and gender injustice, intolerance for others, mistreatment of immigrants and the economically disadvantaged, and a host of other similar justice-related issues. The ears of many have perked up. The Bible has much to say about these issues and it’s about time some politicians care.
Finally! Someone in power is speaking the language of devoted Christ followers that love their fellow man and are calling “sin” as “sin.” History is repeating itself, as droves of Christians are now making their way into the Democrat camps and identifying with the issues that they advocate for the loudest. (If I’m being honest, I believe there are also many that will claim to be independent but, in their heart, they have clearly placed their loyalties on one political side or the other).
And while they have now emotionally and politically yoked themselves together with this philosophy and party, they have failed to notice or care that there are many other things that this party (just like its counterpart) stands for that are opposed to the word of God.
They too have been drawn in by the siren’s call as they heard a party denounce the sins that they hate the most and want to see done away with. But just as a generation before, they have failed in many respects to discern that most of the solutions are not rooted in biblical thinking or coming from a Kingdom perspective. And like previous generation, there is a real danger of intertwining passions and identity with a political party that is not rooted in the ethics and solutions of God’s Kingdom. There is a danger in trusting the power of the state to fix the problems in society rather than the Kingdom of God being the only true solution to the real problems of humanity. Even if a political party could suppress certain sins from society, if they do so through non-Kingdom means, then what has been gained?
The Threat of Division
At the end of the day, the two sides have made the same mistake and neither one has recognized it. To make matters worse it has created a sharp division in the body of Christ and even in many local congregations. A generation ago, most evangelicals (although there were certainly some exceptions) identified as conservative Republicans, so there wasn’t much controversy. That didn’t make it right, but it was at least peaceful (not that this is always a good thing). It’s still probably true that most evangelicals are on the conservative side of the aisle (although I am not certain of that), but a growing number have walked over to the other side and that has created a massive amount of tension in the local church.
“How can they call themselves a Christian and support the Democrat party?”
“How can they call themselves a Christian and support the Republican party?”
And in unison: “Well if you think that way politically, you can just go ahead and unfriend me on Facebook.”
Do you see the problems? It’s not just the tension and division. What if they’re both right? What if the Kingdom-focused disciple of Jesus can find no true home in the world of a two-party political system? And how can we preach the gospel of reconciliation and unity if we are divided ourselves over the things of the world?
The author of the article I mentioned at the beginning makes some good points. It is difficult to see how a kingdom-minded Christian could yoke themselves together with some of the things espoused by the left side of the aisle. What he missed is that the same is equally true for those that would yoke themselves to the right side of the aisle. God does care about abortion, but he also cares deeply about issues of biblical justice.
It presents a real conundrum for disciples. If both sides champion some of the biblical causes but also both embrace many things that are opposed to the principles of God’s kingdom and solutions that are quite often rooted in worldly power and not remotely kingdom solutions, then which party should I attach my loyalty to?
When Christians begin to yoke together with one side of the political spectrum or the other, we lose the ground of being prophetic to the culture. We become just another player in the partisan games. And it becomes easy to dismiss the gospel because there is no obvious distinction between the Kingdom of God and whatever political side we have tethered ourselves to. I believe we lose the ability to have the kind of influence on specific issues that we might have had if we had not invested our identity and passion into political partisanship.
The Kingdom of God has its own agenda in the world and utilizes weapons that are not of this world (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). Sometimes the Kingdom agenda will overlap with the rhetoric or concerns of one party and sometimes it will intersect with the rhetoric and concerns of the other party. Often, it will cut against both, and almost always the solutions of the Kingdom will vary greatly with the solutions of the world. Whichever party we consider, they are rarely rooted in the other-worldly approach that Christ callas us to as his followers. We can impact political issues without playing with the weapons of the world such as power over others. Wouldn’t it be just like God to impact the world through his people but to do so in a way that the world would never imagine could work?
Citizens of Heaven — Our Priority
The Kingdom of God will always be political from a certain angle. We are called to loyalty to Jesus as Lord. For the first Christians, that statement by itself was a strong political statement. It meant that Caesar was not Lord and that Jesus was the King of Kings. He held the highest authority. For the first three hundred years of Christianity they consistently and intentionally avoided yoking themselves together with politics. And even though they were roundly criticized for that position, they knew that it was their job to offer the world a true alternative to politics, not just one side of the political spectrum that agreed with them on some things. That is no true alternative at all. They knew that they were to stand up against injustice but not use the weapons, power, or politics of the world to fight that injustice. They grasped the reality that the Kingdom of God was the solution and they called people to come join them as they lived as an alternate society, guided by the values and standards of the Kingdom. They knew that the Kingdom of God, not political power, changed lives and communities.
I am aware that this raises many other questions such as how should Christians vote? Should we be Independents? Should we vote for the lesser evil or is that an entirely flawed way of thinking? How can a Christian fight for justice in this world? For now, I will leave those questions waiting with the hopes of considering a Kingdom approach to such important issues in my book-in-progress, “Crossing the Line: Politics, Nationalism and Kingdom.” The primary focus of this article is whether Christians should give their loyalties to any political party and trust in the solutions of that party. This is not about voting or not. It is bigger than that. It is about allegiance.
What would it look like if we understood our true identity to be citizens of the Kingdom and operated as a collective force, utilizing the resources and solutions of the Kingdom rather than tying ourselves to the two-party political fray and its weapons of choice? What if we were a true alternative to anything the world has to offer?
The early Christians resisted the temptations of latching themselves to a political philosophy for solutions. They stood up and spoke prophetically against any solutions or identification of problems that were not rooted in the new and otherworldly reality of the Kingdom. At the same time, they were working to bring the light of the new world of the Kingdom into every dark corner. Some might counter that our early brothers and sisters didn’t have the opportunity to take sides or engage in politics in the Roman Empire but that’s simply not accurate. They did and consistently chose not to for hundreds of years.
And they radically changed their world. The question is, will we change ours?
*Michael Burns is the author of Crossing the Line: Culture, Race, and Kingdom, and Crossing the Line: Politics, Nationalism, and Kingdom, which is scheduled for a 2019 release.