Good Christian publications abound at this time with good advice for believers during a national election time. It is generally (and rightly) believed that Christians in a free society should vote, speak their point of view, and even become involved in the political process where possible. None of these is wrong for the Christian living in America. We are not breaking any laws in doing so, nor are we violating any Scripture, nor acting in any way immoral. A Christian citizen should feel free to do whatever is Scriptural, legal, and moral. Consternation comes for the believer when forced to make a choice which is truly the lesser of two evils. Can I vote for a Mormon to be president of the country in which I live because he is the better, though not the perfect, choice? Could my parents vote for a Catholic? Could, and did, my ancestors vote for a Mason? Unless we have some theocratic view of the church in the age of grace, the answer should always be “yes.”
The British, though steeped in good evangelical preaching and belief, had to work hard at separating church and state because they did have a state church even though dissenters would not worship in it. Tony Sargent, in writing the biography of the great British evangelical, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said of his sermons during WWII, “They remain a pattern of how preachers should teach the Bible when their country is passing through critical times without resorting to a patriotism which abuses Scripture in the misplaced interests of nationalism.” That is an even greater challenge for us in America because our Christian heritage rightly separated church and state and yet left us also with a great tradition of Christian participation and influence in our free governing process.
We have enjoyed, at least up until now, the freedom to speak of specifically Christian virtues in our governance. Anyone who has toured the national monuments in Washington D.C. has to be amazed, and blessed, by the immersion of Biblical texts within the government halls and upon the national structures. Yet we have no Biblical promise for the church in the age of grace that it will always be this way. Indeed, more believers than not have lived without religious freedom and yet have carried on the Christian life and commission in better ways than we. We won’t have any ticket to the front row at the Bema Seat of Christ just because we are Americans. We may find ourselves far behind the greatest of Christians who come from much more difficult circumstances than ours.
But this is a two-edged sword. The loss of Christian virtue in America may come largely, even mostly, because Christians have forgotten to live as Christians. I don’t mean involved in government necessarily, but just living a Christian testimony and practicing real Christianity, letting the church be the church in a wicked and perverse generation. At the same time, however, we understand the signs of the times. We ought to remain as good at reading those as we are at reading the signs of the (political) sky. We know where this world is headed and that is down, not up. So who knows, whether we are “come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Are we willing to bless our sovereign God in that time as well?
Yet on the way down God’s sovereign road, we may be at a time when our leaders are not as “Christian” as at a previous time. We may be fighting off total anarchy or totalitarianism in a once Christian nation. We may have no other choice than the lesser of two evils. God did not tell us to honor only believing kings, but rather to pray for them that we might lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty.
What is the church in a nation?
The universal church is made up of believers in the world. Jesus is building His church until the rapture when He will call her home. The church exists from Pentecost until the rapture and exists wherever believers are in the world. Every believer has the same New Testament and the same obligation to follow it. We are to give unto Caesar the things that belong to him, including honor, taxes, prayers, and obedience. Of course, there have been those times when believers had to give unto God things that contradicted what Caesar wanted, and they did, sometimes to their detriment. Believers are both citizens of an earthly country and citizens of a heavenly country. We have our feet in both worlds.
Believers are pilgrims and strangers on the earth. We don’t expect things to go our way very often and when they do we rejoice and thank God for His goodness. Such has been the history of America for most of the time. There is no perfect nation because nations are made up of sinners. Some nations are much better than others, especially when they will apply Biblical principles to life and government. But believers will always have to put up with some degree of unbiblical and anti-biblical attitudes. Our nation is not our church. It is a mixed multitude where the percentage of true believers will always be woefully low and we should expect sinners to act and think like sinners.
The local church is where the New Testament places most of its emphasis, showing that the local church is God’s divine agency for the accomplishing of His will in the world. Though the government is also His agency, again, it is a mixed agency to govern sinners. The local church is made up of true believers and has an inspired constitution and possesses a divine Teacher who applies those truths to our lives. Local churches will exist wherever believers exist because the New Testament commands us to gather ourselves together and commit ourselves to one another. The local church has a divine commission and though existing in the world, must keep its focus on eternal things. Our real citizenship is in heaven from whence we look for a Savior and a perfect kingdom. The local church must be the church, not government though that is a divine creation, not earthly families though those are divine creations. Rather, believers become the salt and light in all other organizations. Yes, the salt has to get out of the shaker and into the world, but it better be in the shaker first, or it will be mere sand and gravel in the world.
What is the best scenario for believers?
That question has to be asked from both God’s perspective and ours. His ways are not always our ways. It is easy for us to say that God brought persecution to the early church so that they were forced to go into all the world and preach the gospel. But my father-in-law (Peter Slobodian), a Ukrainian born in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, though thankful for all that God did for those believers, never thought it was better for his people to live under such an atheistic regime. Who really wants persecution? His heart rejoiced when the iron curtain fell and the gospel could be freely preached in his homeland. Is the gospel more effective now than it was then? Only eternity will tell.
The fact of the matter is that believers will always do God’s will no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. This may cost them persecution in some places or it may allow them to be political leaders in others. History has shown that Christians have been the best citizens in every situation. We don’t steal, kill, slander, or break laws unless those laws force us to disobey God. The American experiment has been so good for Christians and their churches because its law actually forbids the government to interfere in the church’s business or to establish a rival religion. The civil authority can’t use the church to direct its affairs, and the church can’t use the civil authority to enforce its beliefs. Our history has shown what a blessing this is to the churches, the country, and the world.
God has commissioned the local church to evangelize and this we must do regardless of what country we are in or what the repercussions of that action may be. We praise those in our history who have suffered for the sake of the gospel though we still would rather not have to have it that way. Because we know it is better to have a true separation of church and state, we also know that means there must be freedom for all citizens to proselytize as well. The cults, the false religions, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, all must have the same rights as Christians to promote their faith and try to win converts to it. That is fine with us because we believe that the Word of God powered by the Holy Spirit of God will always be the most effective in the arena of ideas.
Can we live with unbelieving leaders?
Of course we can. The New Testament was written in such a situation and Biblical texts instruct us in how we should handle ourselves while living under unbelievers. There is no instruction to cause insurrection or even to protest or to be involved in the political process. There are occasional references to believers who held public office just as there are examples of believers who were soldiers. Those options are left open for believers. But the New Testament instructs us to be law abiding citizens, pay our taxes, give honor to whom honor is due, and go about living our faith with whatever results and repercussions may come our way.
The fact is that we have had few believing presidents in America. Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Seminary recently said,
So many evangelicals want to go back and claim Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln and John Adams as orthodox, evangelical Christians. The problem with that Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were great men who did fantastic things for our country, but once you start claiming them as orthodox evangelical Christians, you’re not elevating those men, you’re downgrading the Gospel into something that fits whatever they happen to hold. And you wind up with [modern-day] politicians who learn the language of evangelical faith in order to use it, in order to manipulate people into supporting them.2
Now there may be a legitimate question as to the true faith of a man like Lincoln, but Moore’s point is well taken. If every leader who ever claimed to be a Christian really was a Christian, I’m not sure I’d want to be one. There are times when it is fashionable for a politician to be a Christian and times when it’s not. That, of course, is a poor reason to make that claim. Barack Obama claims to be a Christian; Bill Clinton belonged to a Southern Baptist church as did Jimmy Carter. None, however, have shown much evidence of true Christian faith other than their own verbal testimony.
Can we vote for an unbeliever?
Of course we can. A vote for a president is not a vote for a pastor. A vote in a civil election is not a vote in a local church. In the one you are participating as a citizen of an earthly country, in the other you are voting as a citizen of heaven. As a citizen of a country I do a lot of things, choosing the best out of a number of poor options. My kids may have to go to a poor school because it is still better than the alternative. I may have to live with a home-owners association that is ungodly and poorly run but I am forced to because I live in the neighborhood. I probably will vote for the president of it though he/she is not a great choice. I may have to choose a local politician or a national politician in the same way.
Noel Smith, founder of the Baptist Bible Tribune, speaking at the Fundamental Baptist Congress in 1971, said,
Christians should not take the position that we should have none but a Christian government. I wouldn’t want to live under a government by preachers. In the first place, half of them would hang the other half before sundown—for the glory of God. And I suspect I would be on the hanging end. The best Christian on earth may know nothing about the philosophy of civil government. In government Christians have failed about as often as non-Christians.
Benjamin Franklin wasn’t a Christian. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a Christian. William Howard Taft was a Unitarian. Mr. Taft wasn’t one of our great Presidents. William Jennings Bryan said that he went into office by a majority and went out with universal consent. But Mr. Taft was an able Secretary of War, a wise administrator, and he was one of the great Chief Justices.
William Howard Taft was an American. He believed in and loved his country. He was a man of principle. He believed that the alternative to constitutionalism was exactly what we have today—anarchy.
I will vote for such men of character and patriotism, whether they are Christians or not.3
When the present presidential campaign started, I wished for a Dr. Frankenstein candidate, i.e., the brains of a Newt Gingrich, the looks of a Mitt Romney, the wit of a Herman Cain, the values of a Rick Santorum, and so forth. But the real world isn’t the TV world. I have to choose between a man who is a Mormon and a man who is a black liberation anti-colonialist. I am going to choose the Mormon. Now I despise what the Mormon church teaches about my Lord Jesus Christ—that he is the blood brother of Satan and is only progressing toward being like God the Father. And I hate the social gospel of liberation theology and the socialism of anti-colonialism. But one man, is bent on taking this country into the dark ages of European socialism and the other is not. One man looks at Christianity as part of the problem of social inequality and the other does not. One man will make it more difficult for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be taken around the world and the other will not. One man’s belief affects this country greatly, the other man’s does not. And, one of these two men will be the next president of the United States in which I and my family live. As a citizen of this earthly country, I can make a good choice for the lesser of the two poor choices.
And So . . . .
I am not espousing any imperatives for Christians when it comes to civil accountability. I do believe I have an obligation as a citizen of an earthly country to do what I can for the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. In this election cycle that means voting for one of two non-Christians. But one choice is better for the glory of God and for the gospel than the other. That choice seems obvious to me. Recently, Kevin Bauder wrote,
If God held kings accountable in biblical times, then He certainly must hold presidents, prime ministers, parliaments, congresses, and courts accountable today. More than that, he must hold individual citizens responsible to execute their political responsibilities rightly, for in the long run, officials can govern only as the people allow. Even the unsaved are accountable, but Christians, who ought to understand God’s design for nations, have a special responsibility. Even if they are a minority, they must use their influence within the public square to move their government as far as possible toward just policies—and that means policies that are just as God understands justice.4
“I exhort therefore, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men: For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Tim. 2:1-3).
Notes: 1. Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing: The Preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994) 164. 2. Thanks to the Baptist Bible Tribune for reprinting a panel discussion of seminary speakers hosted by Southern Seminary. Original source was Baptist Press, 2012. 3. Noel Smith, “The Christian and Citizenship,” The Biblical Faith of Baptists, Fundamental Baptist Congress of America, 1971, p. 106-107. 4. Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Books, 2012) 145.