Throughout their history, Baptists have been strongly committed to the separation of church and state. At the same time, they have supported the rightness of the individual Christian’s involvement in governmental affairs. Their support has been more than theoretical: Baptists have often served in the military or held public office. Many Baptists think that voting for the correct political candidates is almost a moral obligation. Yet this willingness to become involved in public affair raises potential problems for Baptists, who must decide what boundaries are appropriate for political involvement by individual Christians, for Christian leaders, and for Christian churches.
The Mission of the Church
For Baptists seeking to understand their relationship to the state, a solid understanding of the church’s mission is foundational. Like some other Christians, Baptists typically distinguish the mission of the church as the church from the obligations of Christians as private individuals. They have often defined the mission of the church by appealing to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19, 20). In this text, the risen Lord Jesus commanded His disciples to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them and teaching them to observe all the things that He has commanded. If these verses can be rightly applied to the church (as most Baptists think they can), then the mission of the church is decidedly spiritual.
Another Biblical text that is important for understanding the mission of the church is Ephesians 4:11–16. In this text, the apostle Paul articulates four tests that can be used to determine the health and success of a church (Eph. 4:13). These tests include unity of the faith, unity of the full knowledge of the Son of God, mature spiritual manhood, and conformity to the full character of Christ. Since these tests define church success, they also define the church’s mission. Once again, the church’s mission is spiritual.
The New Testament assigns no political mission to the church. Nowhere is the church asked to reform civilization or to capture the social order. Nowhere is it given the job of dominating the political process. The church as the church has no political responsibility.
The church does, however, bear a moral responsibility to the world at large (Eph. 5:3–14). The apostle Paul commanded churches not to participate in the works of darkness, but to reprove them (v. 11). These works include sexual immorality, impurity, greed, filthy behavior, foolish speech, and coarse joking (vv. 3–5). Whether through conduct or direct confrontation, Christians are obligated to let the world know what God thinks of such behaviors. God uses this exposure to bring conviction of sin to worldly people and to prepare the way for the proclamation of the gospel (v. 13).
The ministry of exposing the works of darkness may be similar to the phenomenon that Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:24 and 25. There he pointed out that unbelievers may be brought under conviction of sin by hearing prophecies in the church. This occurs, he said, when the secrets of their hearts are made obvious so that they feel themselves convicted and called into account.
The gift of prophecy is no longer being given within the church, but the duty to expose and even reprove sin remains. Part of this exposure certainly depends upon Christians living their lives differently from the unsaved around them. Christians must not participate in the works of darkness. Part of this exposure may also involve deliberate verbal rebukes and challenges. Specifically, the ministry of church leaders involves an element of reproving, rebuking, and exhorting—and they are to persevere in this ministry whether it seems to be welcome or even effective (2 Tim. 4:1–5).
In sum, the mission of the church is spiritual in nature. It centers upon the proclamation of the gospel, which is clearly an element in making disciples. It involves observing the ordinances and teaching believers. But it also includes proclamation of all the counsel of God (Acts 20:27), including the exposure of those works that God considers sinful.
Thus, while the church is not called to a political mission, it is called to a moral mission. Sometimes unsaved people prefer wickedness to morality. Sometimes they write laws to protect their immoral conduct. Sometimes politicians are willing to curry favor by passing immoral laws. Under such circumstances, the church’s ministry of moral reproof will certainly run afoul of powerful political enemies. When that happens, the church must not be intimidated into abandoning its proclamation of God’s displeasure with the works of darkness. Churches and pastors must continue to treat the ministry of exposure and reproof as part of their mission. Preaching morality is not preaching politics, even when morality is being undermined within the political sphere. The church as a church may and should rebuke governors and oppose laws that are at odds with true Biblical morality.
Christian Political Responsibility
The prophet Daniel provides an example of a man of God who served within the government of unbelieving Gentile kings. Many lessons can be drawn from the nature of his service, but one in particular stands out—God judges kings, even unbelieving kings of pagan nations. When Nebuchadnezzar became proud and tried to claim credit for his own accomplishments, God broke his pride by reducing him to insanity (Dan. 4). When Belshazzar in his arrogance defiled the vessels from the temple, God immediately pronounced and executed judgment (Dan. 5). God holds kings accountable for their actions whether they are believers or not.
The obligations of Christian citizens will vary depending upon the nature of the societies within which they find themselves. Believers living under repressive and authoritarian governments may have little opportunity to influence the political process. The Western democracies, however, are constructed around the notions of limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and the popular election of officials. Western governments are bound by constitutions and are ultimately answerable to their citizens. This complex of political arrangements means that average citizens exert a direct and substantial influence over national policy. In these nations, votes matter because ordinary citizens, working together, have the power to reshape the entire national direction. Such citizens are not merely the ruled, but also the ultimate rulers.
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.
How should Christians influence their government? The first and most obvious way is through the proclamation of the gospel. The gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). The gospel transforms those who receive it, altering their identity and progressively remaking them in the image of Christ (2 Cor. 5:16–21; Col. 3:8–17). This transformation affects not only the inner life of believers, but also their social relationships (Col. 3:18–25). When the gospel begins to transform enough people within a single society, the society itself will necessarily be altered.
Preaching the gospel is the single most important way in which Christians can influence the civil order, but it is not the only way. Part of the Christian mission involves exposing and even reproving the works of darkness (Eph. 5:3–17). This ministry is not merely the business of the church, but also of individual Christians. Whether through word or deed, Christians have a responsibility to remind the unsaved world that certain ways of living are futile and destructive.
Some ministry of exposure and reproof must precede effective efforts at legislation. In Western societies, laws ultimately depend for their enforcement upon the consensus of the governed. A law that is held up to contempt will eventually be overturned, and those who try to maintain or enforce it will be viewed as oppressors. If they intend to influence society, individual Christians must capture hearts and imaginations as well as legislatures and courts. Moral reality has been worked into the very nature of the created order. Certain patterns of conduct will inevitably produce disastrous consequences for the society that tolerates or encourages them. As citizens, Christian individuals have a duty to point out these consequences and the behaviors that lead to them, showing people the connections and persuading them of the necessity of civil order in these areas.
Beginning with the United States, the Western democracies have chosen a form of order in which government is genuinely “of the people.” Consequently, to some extent, every citizen is a ruler. Those who rule cannot escape their duty by simply choosing not to pay attention to their obligations. In other words, in those nations that are governed by participation of the populace, Christians have a duty to use their voice and influence. Because they bear some responsibility for public affairs, they have a duty to seek public justice.
What can Christians do? At the least, they should refuse to support any unjust policy, even (and perhaps especially) when the policy seems financially advantageous. Second, they should consistently exercise their vote—which is not necessarily the same as voting. If no suitable candidate is available, Christians may sometimes choose not to vote, but refusing to vote should be a choice and not mere negligence. Third, many should become involved in the political process by attending their local precinct caucuses. Fourth, some might join the campaign staff of a particularly desirable candidate. Fifth, some may even choose to run for public office. Baptists believe that these are all legitimate areas of Christian involvement.
Often, questions are raised about whether pastors should become active in politics. Such questions may lead to different answers depending on the circumstances. On the one hand, pastors are also citizens and bear the responsibilities of citizens. They are not Scripturally forbidden from voting, campaigning, or even holding office. On the other hand, a couple of warnings should be issued about pastors and politics.
The first and most obvious is that pastors bear a greater responsibility than temporal government. They lead the church of God. This leadership places the care of souls upon their shoulders. They must not allow temporal concerns to blur their focus or diminish their effectiveness as shepherds of God’s flock.
Second, when pastors speak to political questions, they must do so as citizens and not as pastors. They must not carry questions of mere politics into their pulpits or ministries. Nor may they attempt to leverage their pastoral prestige into political influence. The fact that a man is a pastor gives him no right whatever to be heard on merely political issues. If pastors try to convert their pastoral authority into political prestige, they may gain a brief increase in civic influence, but they will also dilute the authority of their office, for a pastor as a pastor possesses only the authority to explain and apply the Word of God. The moment he begins to exploit his pastoral influence for the purpose of political persuasion, he demeans the Scriptures and damages the true authority of his office.
Of course, pastors have a perfect right and even a duty to address moral questions, even when those questions also happen to be political. Moral instruction is certainly under a pastor’s purview, and it is a necessity if the members of his flock are to understand their civic responsibilities. The moral preparation of God’s people may be a pastor’s single greatest contribution to their civil effectiveness.
Kevin Bauder (DMin, Trinity Evangelical School; PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is research professor of systematic theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minn. This article is an excerpt from RBP’s Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, which will soon be available from Regular Baptist Books.