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How Should a Christian Understand the Role of Government?

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by Charles Colson


Christianity is about much more than salvation; it speaks to all of life. “Jesus is Lord: was the earliest baptismal confession. Scripture mandates taking dominion and cultivating the soil (Gn 1) and being salt and light (Mt 5:13-16). Abraham Kuyper, former Dutch prime minister and theologian, famously said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry out ‘Mine!’”


No area of cultural engagement is more important than government and politics: We are commanded to submit to governing authorities (Rm 13); Jesus Himself said, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mt 22:21). This means Christians must be good citizens, pay taxes, obey laws, and serve (as called) in government. Augustine argued that Christians are to be the best citizens: what others do only because the law demands, we do out of love for God.


The authorities are established by God, Paul said. Hence, John Calvin accorded the magistrate’s office as having one of the most important roles in any society-- working as a servant for good (Rm 13:4). It’s a noble calling for Christians to enter public service. Contrary to common caricatures of politicians, some of the finest public servants are serious believers who live out their faith in office without compromising their convictions.


The cultural mandate means the church has an important role to play with respect to political structures-- working for justice, speaking prophetically, and of often being the conscience of society, even when this means persecution, prison, or death, as it did for many in the confessing church in Nazi Germany. Though there have been times when the church has failed in this responsibility, thankfully today it’s as its post, the strongest voice in American society in defense of life and human rights. The church is also the agency that, in this age of terrorism, prophetically holds government to the moral boundaries of the just war tradition. Though in America we observe a strict separation of church and state (the state shouldn’t establish a state church or restrict the free exercise of religion), there should never be a separation of religion and public life. The public square needs religious influence; indeed, the Christian faith has played a critical role in shaping our institutions. Reformation doctrines such as sphere sovereignty (government doesn’t rule alone; all structures-- the family, the church, private associations-- have ordained responsibilities) and the rule of law made Western liberal democracy possible. Our Founding Fathers respected the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” recognizing that without a moral consensus resting upon Judeo-Christian tradition, virtue could not be maintained and self government would fail. Noted historian will Durant wrote that he could find no case in history where a nation survived without a moral code and no case where that moral code was not informed by religious truth.


But the church must approach its public role with caution and sensitivity. Pastors and other church leaders, for example, should never make partisan endorsements of candidates (which can divide our ranks and politicize the faith) or allow themselves to be in the hip pocket of any political party. That said, the pastor should never hesitate to speak boldly from the pulpit about pressing moral concerns.


There are clear dangers in dealing with politics. Winning support of special interest groups, religious leaders can easily be impressed with the trappings of office. And later, Christians leaders could succumb to these allures. There’s a fine line here. It was wrong when, for most of the twentieth century, evangelicals stood apart from politics; so too it’s wrong to allow ourselves to be married to a political party.


Christians individually and through organizations must engage in the political process, always preserving their independence and fulfilling the prophetic office (which may mean calling friends to account). Though Christians are to be the best of citizens, our first loyalty is not the kingdom of man but to the kingdom of God.

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