Baptists and Anabaptists differ in their attitude toward government. Anabaptists refuse to hold public office, serve in the military, or swear oaths. Baptists do all of these. Anabaptists view the political sphere as the domain of unbelievers. Baptists see themselves as citizens of two kingdoms: an earthly and a heavenly. This theory carries implications for their understanding of political responsibility for both individuals and churches.
Individual Christian Political Involvement
During Jesus’ ministry, certain repentant people sought His direction (Luke 3:12–14). Some were publicans, renegade tax collectors notorious for their corruption. Others were soldiers, experts in a profession infamous for its brutality. Jesus did not tell either publicans or soldiers to leave their positions. Instead, He redefined how they were to fulfill their responsibilities: tax collectors should exact no more than the law authorized, and soldiers should be content with their wages and refuse to strong-arm the innocent.
Jesus did not call His disciples to abandon positions of political power but to live as His disciples within those positions. Zacchaeus, for example, grew rich as a crooked official. After meeting Jesus, he made reparations for the wrong he had done, but nothing indicates that he left his post (Luke 19:1–10). Likewise, nothing indicates that the Philippian jailer quit his job after his midnight conversion (Acts 16:31–36). Paul said that people should remain in the same vocation they were in before they were called to salvation (1 Cor. 7:20)—with no exceptions for political office.
In Western democracies, political responsibility is part of citizenship. Officials are chosen and policies established by the electorate. Through representation, each citizen participates in public decisions. At minimum, citizens are responsible for choosing their representatives. Even when it is necessary, refusing to vote still affects the ultimate decision. No citizen is exempted from rightly exercising those powers that all citizens share.
In Western democracies, Christians share the same privileges and duties as other citizens. They must bring their Christian discipleship and their heavenly citizenship to bear on their earthly decisions. Their heavenly King will someday judge how well they have fulfilled their responsibilities toward their earthly governments. They must find Biblical ways to satisfy their obligations toward their earthly governments.
Churches and Politics
The New Testament assumes a distinction between the duty of churches and the duties of church members. Individual church members are also citizens who have civic responsibilities, but how should churches relate to earthly political structures? Baptists have answered this question differently. Some churches have been very reluctant to address political questions. Other times, Baptist pastors have used their pulpits to provide political leadership. Nevertheless, in their confessions of faith Baptists have articulated Biblical principles that define the church’s role in the world. Specifically, they have stated that the church is a spiritual body whose membership should consist only of people who have been united to Christ. When these members gather as a church, their purpose is the fellowship and proclamation of the gospel, the administration of the ordinances, the teaching and preaching of God’s Word, and the worship of the true and living God.
This vision is fully in keeping with New Testament teaching on the mission of the church. For example, Ephesians 4 sees the church as united by great spiritual realities (vv. 1–6). Within the church, certain individuals given by Christ equip the saints for the work of ministry to build up the Body of Christ (vv. 7–12). When this work is accomplished, the church grows toward unity, maturity, and Christlikeness, experiencing spiritual stability and growth in love (vv. 13–16).
The spirituality of the church does not leave room for the church to engage in political campaigns or controversies. Endorsing political candidates is certainly beneath its calling. Yet that is not the end of the story.
Paul goes on in Ephesians to contrast Christian ways of living with worldly ways. For Paul, “works of darkness” should never characterize Christians. Instead, Christians should expose or reprove the unfruitful practices of the unbelieving world (Eph. 5:3–14). In other words, part of the church’s spiritual mission is to teach Biblical morality. The church is not faithful to its spiritual mission if it is not addressing moral issues.
At times sinful people try to use laws to protect their sin. Consequently, moral issues may become political issues. While the church must not address any issue that is merely political, it must address moral issues, even if they become political. Through its preaching and teaching, the church must expound and advance Biblical morality among its members, and this morality should expose the sinful behavior of the lost.
The church does not have a political mission, but it does have a duty to make disciples. Discipleship includes accurately applying all that Jesus taught, whether personally or through His apostles. The church does not train politicians any more than it trains accountants, lawyers, or farmers—but it does help its members to see how their Christianity comes to bear upon these callings. Since all believers are called to be responsible citizens, the church must help them to see how their Christianity affects their individual political involvement.
Christians have experienced varying degrees of repression from their governments. Many governments have become hostile toward Christianity and Biblical morality. This situation raises the question of civil disobedience: when is a Christian justified in disobeying the law?
First, Christians should remember that the Bible requires submission to all lawful authority. Romans 13:1–7 clearly says that God has ordained civil rulers to secure the good of an ordered society. Liberty is important, but liberty is impossible when anarchy holds sway. Even a bad government is better than no government at all. As a rule, Christians must submit even to flawed and sinful regimes.
Yet this rule has at least two exceptions. The first and most obvious is when civil authorities either require people to do what God forbids or forbid people to do what God requires. That is when Christians ought to echo the words of Peter and John, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
The Bible also indicates that civil disobedience is permissible under at least one other circumstance. That circumstance is that civil authorities are themselves in violation of the law. For example, the opponents of Israel employed legal trickery to stop the reconstruction of the Jewish temple (Ezra 4:1–5, 24). Nevertheless, under the prophetic exhortation of Haggai and Zechariah, the Jews resumed the building (Ezra 5:1, 2). When governor Tatnai challenged the builders, they appealed directly to the emperor (Ezra 5:3–17). Interestingly, they did not appeal to divine authority but to Cyrus’s previous decree. The emperor searched the imperial records and discovered that Cyrus had indeed issued such a decree, which, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, was still in force (Ezra 6:1–5). In response, Darius forbade Tatnai to harass the Jews (Ezra 6:6–13). Here is a clear illustration that the civil authorities are bound by the law and cannot arbitrarily set it aside.
A comparable episode occurred when Paul and Silas were illegally arrested, beaten, and imprisoned by the city rulers of Philippi (Acts 16:35–40). The next morning, these city rulers sent the police to order Paul and Silas out of town. Rather than submitting and leaving quietly, Paul claimed his rights as a Roman citizen. He insisted the city rulers come and escort him out—an act that was tantamount to an apology. Realizing they had violated the law, the city rulers did exactly what Paul demanded. The rulers of the city were bound by the law, which they could not arbitrarily set aside.
Human laws have no right to contradict God’s law. When Christians are required to act contrary to conscience, they must disobey. Furthermore, judges and legislators must not violate the laws of the land. Lower laws must always conform to higher laws. When laws are imposed in violation of legal protections, then Christians may disobey. In neither case, however, should disobedience be the first recourse. Christians’ immediate response to unjust laws should be to call upon God for help and to petition the lawful authorities to correct the onerous requirements.
Governments will not always respond to appeals, and they will not usually greet disobedience kindly. The temporal consequences of civil disobedience may be severe. If Christians choose to disobey, they must be willing to accept the penalties. They must not feel that God has abandoned them, but instead they should praise His name and commit themselves to Him (1 Peter 4:12–19).
The most basic duty of Christian citizens is to make wise and Biblical decisions when they vote. Consequently, churches must prepare their members for voting—not by telling them whom to vote for, but by helping them grasp the right criteria. The rule is that matters of public morality are more fundamental than matters of personal prosperity, prudence, or preference.
Some object that Christians should not try to legislate morality, but all legislation is the legislation of morality. If a law is not backed up by some sort of moral “ought,” then it is purely arbitrary and, therefore, tyrannical. Still, it is true that Christians should not legislate every aspect of Biblical morality (what kind of law could compel gratitude?). The only moral principles that should find their way into law are those that are necessary for the natural well-being of society and that can be justified without appealing directly to special revelation.
Most political races involve some issues that are not moral in nature. Christians may care about these issues, but nonmoral concerns should never take priority over moral ones. What are some of these nonmoral issues?
One is the candidate’s religious beliefs and affiliation. Whether or not a candidate is a Christian does not determine how well that candidate will serve in public office. Christians might better vote for an unbeliever with good policies than to vote for a fellow-saint whose policies are naïve or misguided.
Other nonmoral issues abound. Governments do not have a moral duty to manage the economy. Governments do not have a moral responsibility to create jobs. They do not have a moral duty to expand the wealth of the nation. They do not have a moral obligation to supply the financial or medical needs of their citizens. They do not have a moral mandate to ensure equality of condition. Governments do not even have a moral imperative to educate children.
Citizens might wish that their governments would do some or all of these things for them. At best, however, these issues are matters of convenience. They must not become the primary criteria for voting. Rather, Christians must emphasize Biblical and moral concerns. Here are some of the moral issues that American Christians should think about when voting in the early 21st century.
Reputation for integrity. The Bible teaches that when the wicked rule, the people mourn (Prov. 29:2). The personal character of political candidates is fundamental to their ability to serve in office. Candidates who cannot be trusted cannot govern well. Particularly important is a candidate’s sworn word. For example, candidates who will violate their marriage oaths are more likely to violate their oaths of office.
Right to life. From the time that government was established (probably Genesis 9:6), its most important duty has been to protect innocent lives. Civil authorities must use their power to defend those who are too weak to defend themselves. No one is more innocent than the unborn, who are clearly presented as human persons in Scripture (e.g., Ps. 51:5). No candidate is worth a vote who will not work to end the holocaust of abortion.
Rule of law. The Bible teaches that law binds civil authorities. Any law that contradicts God’s law is, of course, unjust (Acts 5:29). More than that, rulers are bound by the laws of the land that they rule (Ezra 5:13; 6:1–7; Acts 16:36–38). In the United States, the Constitution is the highest law of the land. But a Constitution that can mean whatever five justices want it to mean is exactly the same as no Constitution at all. Christians should support candidates who will read the Constitution for what it says, not for what they think it should say. Most of all, Christians should support candidates who will appoint or confirm only judges who will abide by the meaning of the Constitution itself.
Restraint of evil. One of the most important functions of government is to restrain evil (Rom. 13:3, 4). Externally, this means that the government must both maintain a strong defense against national enemies and control the country’s borders against intrusion. Internally, it means that government must enforce retributive justice against criminals. Order precedes liberty; where order collapses, liberty dies.
Respect for property. The right to private property is protected by God Himself (Exod. 20:15). Few rights are more fundamental than this, for whoever seizes property seizes the means of life. In itself, wealth is a blessing from God and is not immoral (though it may be immorally gained or used). Governments are wrong to disintegrate the accumulation of wealth through “progressive” taxes on income, estates, and capital. Christians should support candidates who will resist the pressure to make the government an expression of envy and an agent of economic redistribution.
Right to self-defense. The Bible views murder as a profound evil (Gen. 9:6; Exod. 20:13). Consequently, no one has a duty to submit to murder. Personal self-defense is a fundamental right. The defense of one’s family is a duty. The right of personal defense is empty, however, if the means of self-defense are illegal. The right to “keep and bear arms” is not merely constitutional but also Biblical. Christians should support candidates who will support this right.
Recovery of moral responsibility. God makes able-bodied people responsible for their own welfare (2 Thess. 3:10). He has ordained that people of every station should work to earn their living. He has also ordained institutions such as family (including extended family) and church (a second family for believers) to help people who are overcome by circumstances outside of their control. Biblically, these institutions provide both help and accountability. Casting government in the role of provider inevitably uncouples assistance from accountability and, consequently, is deeply immoral. It is especially dangerous when the government’s activity displaces the role of the family and negates its responsibility.
Recognition of Israel. God has canceled neither His blessing for those who bless Israel nor His curse for those who do not (Gen. 12:3). While the modern state of Israel is not equal to the Biblical Israel, it is an overlapping category. Christian respect for and friendship toward Jewish people ought to include support for the existence, autonomy, and liberty of Israel.
Responsible use of creation. God has given humans dominion over creation and has authorized humanity to subdue the natural world (Gen. 1:26–28). Pristine preservation of nature is the opposite of what God intends. We must use creation responsibly. While we do not wish to pollute or defile the created order, we recognize that the earth has been made for humans to use. Contemporary environmentalism often thwarts this divine design and should not be assisted or advanced by governmental regulation or policy.
The Toughest Choices
Sometimes no candidate takes a fully moral position on all issues. When that happens, how should Christians vote? At least two answers can be given to this question.
The first is the “lesser of two evils” answer, which says that Christians should vote for the best available candidate. A variation on this answer is to vote for the candidate who has the best chance of defeating the worst candidate. Those who give this answer believe that by voting for the lesser of two evils, they are voting for less evil. They also tend to believe that not voting for the better candidate is equivalent to voting for the worse candidate.
The second answer is that the lesser of two evils is still an evil, and Christians must never choose evil. Those who hold this position believe that choosing and voting are distinct acts. One may choose not to vote when all choices are evil—abstention is a deliberate and sometimes morally necessary choice. They also deny that refusing to vote for the better candidate is the same as voting for the worse candidate; an abstention counts as a vote against both.
Christian voters may feel frustrated when no candidate truly represents Biblical morality. They may even refuse to vote for that particular office. What they should remember, however, is that nearly every election involves more than one office. Christians are responsible to make wise and Biblical choices in each case. By voting for those offices that they can, Christians may help to offset the damage that gets done by the offices for which they cannot vote.
The absence of a moral alternative means that responsible Christians must begin to think about organizing their opposition to whichever candidate is elected. Arguably, the worst candidate might be the preferable one. The issues would be clearer and the opposition would be easier to unite.
Principles are not strategies. Principles never change, but strategies must be adapted to fit situations. Principled people can disagree about strategies. Nevertheless, good strategies must never violate Biblical principles. Because they are citizens of two kingdoms, Christians must be thoroughly grounded in the principles of one kingdom so they can advance faithful strategies in their civic responsibility to the other.
Kevin Bauder (DMin, Trinity Evangelical School; PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is research professor of systematic theology at Central Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minn.