Can We Engage in Politics?
His name was Peter, and he was there. He was in the room personally when an impassioned leader from Virginia by the name of Patrick Henry addressed critical issues. His concerns were valid, and more importantly, his perspective was biblical. He knew the numerous accounts in Scripture affirming the role of pastors and prophets in their interaction with civil government.
Even the Lord spoke truth to error regarding cultural situations.
He then wisely employed his understanding of Scripture and its timely relevance to his congregation. You see, Pastor Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg was not only involved in the local political process in Virginia; he also served as the pastor of a congregation in Woodstock, VA. In April 1776, after preaching Ecclesiastes 3:1, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” he closed his message by saying:
“In the language of the Holy Writ, there is a time for all things. There is a time to preach and a time to fight. You... are placed by Providence in the post of honor, because it is the post of danger... The eyes not only of North America and the whole British Empire, but of all Europe, are upon you. Let us be, therefore, altogether solicitous that no disorderly behavior, nothing unbecoming our characters as Americans, as citizens and Christians, be justly chargeable to us.”
He then removed his pastor’s robe, revealing his blue continental officer’s uniform. He asked the men of his church to join him in the continental army. 300 joined forming the Virginia 8th that would fight for the cause of freedom, paving the way for the freedoms we still enjoy today.
America’s founders affirmed that God was Supreme over earthly governments; to them, any attempt to separate government from godly principles would mean the death of the nation.
As George Washington wisely reminded Americans: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness—these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” [A]
In 2014 while in Jerusalem, I was with a small delegation at Temple Mount where we met a group of Israeli leaders including Uzi Landau, Israel’s Minister of Tourism. After a brief meeting, while being introduced, he asked what I did. I explained I was a Pastor from Ohio. “Oh, a pastor,” he said. “We know that if the church in America is strong then America will be good. If America is good, then Israel will be blessed!” Think just for a second about that. A member of the Israeli cabinet understood just how important the church has been and still is in America.
I am convinced that a biblical worldview clearly speaks to every area of life, including political engagement. In fact, the Bible speaks about civil government often and provides examples of faithful engagement. The Old Testament teaches us that Joseph and Daniel served in civil government, exerting influence to further the flourishing of their nations. Paul also advocates this approach: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.” And: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” As our dear friend and former General Superintendent Dr. Talmadge Johnson says often, “The world at its worst needs the church at its best.”
It’s a fact of life that politics are unavoidable. Paul’s appeal to his Roman citizenship is a model of this. In an American context, this takes on added significance because of the words prefacing the Constitution: “We the people.” In the United States, ultimate national sovereignty is entrusted to the people. This reality makes politics unavoidable for American citizens to control their political future. Because politics have real-world implications for Christian evangelism, missions and preaching the gospel, Christians ought to engage the political process, advocating for laws and policies that contribute to human flourishing.
In a very real sense, politics is one of the more important areas in which Christians demonstrate love to their neighbors. How can Christians claim to care about others and not engage the arena that most profoundly shapes basic rights and freedoms?
Government restrains evil and promotes good. Government derives its authority from God to promote good and restrain evil. Elsewhere, Paul urges that prayers be made “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life.” Paul understood the need for Christian participation in government. Good government encourages an environment conducive for people living peaceably; whereas, bad government fosters unrest and instability. Because of sin, the legitimate institution of government has, at times, been used illegitimately throughout history. However, numerous examples persist of Christians reasserting their influence and redeeming government to promote good and restrain evil.
In How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin Schmidt documents Christian influence in government. Examples include outlawing infanticide, child abandonment and gladiatorial games in ancient Rome, ending the practice of human sacrifice among European cultures, banning pedophilia and polygamy, and prohibiting the burning of widows in India. William Wilberforce, a committed Christian, was the force behind the successful effort to abolish the slave trade in England. In the United States, two-thirds of abolitionists were Christian pastors. [B]
Carl Henry rightfully stated that Christians should “work through civil authority for the advancement of justice and human good” to provide “critical illumination, personal example, and vocational leadership.” [C] Jeremiah 29:7 says, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Referring to Babylon, the prophet recognized that secular government served a legitimate purpose in God’s plan for Israel.
Today, good governments promote literacy, advance just laws, provide religious liberty, and allow churches to preach and teach.
Christian witness in the public square contributes transcendent values about moral and ethical issues. Christian withdrawal opens a moral vacuum susceptible to influences that pressure government to move outside the purview designated by God.
Politics affects government, shapes society, and influences culture. Christians must care about politics, and the easiest way to be involved is by voting. Remember, every elected official from dogcatcher to the President only reflects the values of those who vote!
You and I have been entrusted with an incredible moment of stewardship in this moment in history and especially the history of the United States of America. We have been entrusted with a season of witnessing the foundation of morality destroyed and biblical principles torn asunder and relegated to the trash heap of history by those whose inclinations are in no way biblical. I have heard it said that the fruit of our lives grows on the trees of others. May those who follow us know the fruit of freedom!
It is worth remembering that Pastor Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg went on to serve in the United States House and Senate! His brother, Pastor Fredrick Augustus Muhlenberg, served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and signed the Bill of Rights.
Can we engage in politics? We can and we must be salt and light in our nation in every way!
[A] George Washington, Address of George Washington, President of the United States, and Late Commander in Chief of the American Army, to the People of the United States, Preparatory to His Declination (Baltimore: Christopher Jackson, 1796), pp. 22-23.
[B] How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin Schmidt