Should Christians engage in Politics?
Christian Students and Political Activity: What does the Bible really have to say about politics?
Why should a Christian student in the Christian Union be concerned with politics? The chances are that you have probably asked yourself this question, or else been asked it before. There are many other opportunities that would attract a student while studying at university, and public contentment with politics and politicians is at a historic low. One key driver of such a low view of politics is the belief that so little is achievable in public life. One quote that sums this assumption up quite well, is summarised by the Labour MP for Newport East, Paul Flynn, in his book How to be an MP:
“The belief that all political careers end in failure is based on the myth that all MPs hope to become Prime Minister. They do not. Happiness is keeping as small a space as possible between hope and achievement. Paradise is when they coincide.”[i]
It does not paint the prettiest picture of the capacity for individuals to make a difference in political life: you either fail, or massively reduce your expectations. It’s understandable with the choice framed in this way that students may conclude they cannot be useful in political life, and that Christians serving in politics makes no practical difference. A more extreme view would even be that no good can come from politics, and it is best to avoid it altogether. It turns out that this view is not at all consistent with what the Bible has to teach about politics and governance. Far from urging us to flee from this arena, Scripture shows us that governance can be a force for good, and that it important for Christians to make their voice heard and counted in the public square.
Right at the very start of the Bible, God gives the creation mandate to Adam and Eve: to go forth into the world, to be fruitful and increase in number, and to have dominion over creation.[ii] In God’s good creation it was intended that mankind, created in the image of God, should be the stewards of this creation and give glory to God through increasing the fruitfulness of the planet. To put it another way, good governance was always intended to be a part of creation, whereby the will of mankind and the will of God would not be in opposition to each other, but rather mankind’s will and efforts would reflect God’s own will for the earth to be fruitful. Tragically, it is not very long before this perfect model falls. In choosing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve invert the relationship of rule – rather than created serving creator, God’s creations expect creation to serve them. Rather than placing first and foremost God’s desire for creation to be fruitful, the seed of selfishness means that mankind now seeks to maximise their own personal advantage, regardless of the cost to creation or to others.
We see a glimpse of this in the story of the Tower of Babel. The city of Babel determined to build “a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”[iii] This focus on gathering to one place rather than dispersing is in direct contrast to the creation mandate to bring the whole earth under good stewardship. Moreover, their efforts to make a name by reaching the heavens are exposed by the folly that “the Lord came down to see the city”[iv] – they could not hope by their own efforts to reach the perfect dominion of God! The story concludes with God confusing their languages, recognising that if left to their own devices, nothing would stand against the desires of their fallen hearts. It is for good reason that the Apostle Paul would later write in his letter to the Romans: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.”[v] As with much of our good world, governance has fallen with mankind.
Of course, it would be easy to draw a line at this point and conclude that governance was good in Eden, but now it is inherently corrupt and irredeemably fallen. Some believers do draw this conclusion, and would encourage the church to withdraw from the arena of government until Christ’s return. This however is inconsistent with the whole message of Scripture, in which Jesus our redeemer has reconciled all things to God the Father, and made us ambassadors for His kingdom. The Old Testament scriptures speak consistently of the redeemer to come, and the Kingdom of Israel and kings such as David are pictures that point ahead to Christ and His Kingdom, bringing the good reign of God to creation. Through Jesus’ victory over the power of the evil one at the cross, he is able to give us the Great Commission: “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”[vi] The comparison with the creation mandate of Genesis is striking; God’s authority is reasserted, and mankind is reminded of the commission to go out to the entire world. The command ‘to make disciples’ while having the immediate and important application of bringing men and women to faith in Christ, also has the application of bringing dominion to the earth, as people’s hearts turn from seeking their own gain to seeking the will of God.
Not only does Christ claim authority over the whole earth, but earthly civil authority is itself God given. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he writes that all things, including powers, thrones, and authorities, were created by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, and cannot exist apart from Him.[vii] For this reason, Jesus is able to say even when on trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate that the power he possesses to put Jesus on trial would not be his unless “given to you from above.”[viii] Even the persecuted church was reminded in Paul’s letter to the Romans that “there is no authority except that which God has established,”[ix] and that the civil authorities exist for their good. Peter would write the same thing in his first letter,[x] which is absolutely incredible when you consider the hardship inflicted upon the early church by the authorities.
One frequent counter-argument is to refer to the occasion in which Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees on whether the Jews should pay the poll-tax to Caesar.[xi] Jesus’ reply, to ‘give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’ has found common usage even outside of the church, and has been used to advocate a division between the secular and the sacred. As we have read above however, it is clear that all authority, including Caesar’s, belongs to God! We are reminded once more that the creation mandate is that humanity, made in the image of God, is created to govern as God would govern, but has no authority save what God Himself has given mankind. The conclusion of scripture is clear therefore. Governance itself is not a result of the fall, but an agent for human flourishing. Like everything else in creation however, it is subject to the fall, but being redeemed through the agency of Christ and His kingdom. Scripture does not give us a mandate to withdraw from public life, but instead to model the perfect governance that was intended in creation, and which we are empowered for through the indwelling of the Spirit.
What does this look like in practical terms for the CU student who finds political life attractive? First and foremost, it means that becoming involved in politics and governance, whether as a legislator, a civil servant, or through other political agencies such as NGOs or Think Tanks, is a legitimate calling to have as a follower of Christ. That being so, it also means that such students need the support and prayers of their friends as they enter this area of life – they are heading into a difficult mission field, and one in which it is easy for the fallen nature of government to change them, rather than the believer bringing change to fallen government. We must remember that the temptation remains to withdraw from public life, made all the more understandable when government does not act in our interests, or we see Christians in public life fall short. Affirming that governance itself is a good, God given gift, and that Christians can play a role in bringing Christ’s lordship to areas of governance is an important first step.
We must be careful of course to recognise that this world is still fallen. The church faced immediate persecution by the religious and civil authorities, so we must avoid an over realised eschatology that fails to recognise that perfect governance will not come until Christ himself returns to establish His eternal kingdom. We must be equally careful however not to presume that makes our efforts powerless or in vain, nor that it makes governance worthless. On several occasions the church is exhorted to pray for the same authorities that made their life difficult, which means that politically minded students can lead their peers in how to pray for government, or for the great political issues of the day.
Two instructions given by Jesus are especially helpful when we consider how to engage in political life. In both cases, Jesus has given his followers a commission and is sending them out. For the Christian student who steps out into political life, it is perhaps easy to be excited by the commission, but natural to be fearful of what that means in practical terms, and especially in what to say. In Luke’s gospel Jesus meets this concern directly, and instructs his disciples that when they are brought before rulers and authorities: ‘do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.’[xii] This need not be restricted to church leaders defending the gospel publicly; the believer who finds themselves in public life is also there to be Christ’s advocate. His instructions both encourage us not to be afraid about the challenges that lie ahead in political life, reminding us that He will provide all we need; but also serve as a reminder of our need to depend upon Him and His Spirit as we do so.
The second instruction more explicitly recognises the challenge of stepping into an uncomfortable environment. In sending out his disciples, Jesus said: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”[xiii] This is an excellent guiding principle of Christians who face political situations – which need not actually be limited to the realm of governance! If governance is the act of taking leadership decisions, then politics is the act of managing the competing ambitions and aspirations of the humans involved in that decision. Our fallen nature means that where human factors ought not to matter, they sadly do – whether this is the need to keep members of your organisation happy by advocating a policy you are personally not comfortable with, to not being able to speak about everything you are passionate about, so that you are better able to advance the aims you are most passionate about. To fallen humanity, politics can be like playing a game of Monopoly where one of the players is disregarding the rules. What ought to be a free and fair competition can be pitched off course by the cheating player casually appropriating money from the bank! Jesus’ instruction recognises that he sends us among wolves and into dangers. Note that he gives two commands to be held in perfect tension – a shrewdness that means we are alert to schemes and not so easily tripped up by them, while at the same time preserving an innocence that means that we do not ourselves become wolf-like in the process.
Not every student will be called to a life in politics, but everyone can support those students that do have that God given call by recognising that governance is God’s good gift to humanity. Stepping into the challenging environment of political life is far from easy, and these students need more than just our prayers; they also need support and encouragement that they are speaking for Christ when they go into this environment, whether they are standing to be a sabbatical officer, to applying to work with a Member of Parliament, to taking entrance tests for the Civil Service. With governing institutions shaping more and more of everyday life, it is increasingly vital that Christians are making their voice heard in the public square. As Baroness Cox, founder of Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust and a crossbench member of the House of Lords has said: “I cannot do everything, but I must not do nothing.” Politics Network aims to ensure that Christian students are prepared to glorify God as they bring their contribution to the public square.