There are many Christians who will not participate in politics because they believe (or have been taught to believe) that politics is outside the realm of what constitutes a Christian worldview. “Politics is dirty,” “Jesus didn’t get mixed up in politics,” “Politics is about law, and Christianity is about grace,” “Government is not our savior; Jesus is,” “Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world,” “The Christian’s only task is to preach the gospel.”
There are other more nuanced reasons offered for non-involvement that sound super-spiritual. The following example is the article “The Salt of the Earth” written by Phil Johnson. Johnson begins his article by citing the following verses:
“You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:13-16).
Then he offers these comments:
“That text is often cited as if it were a mandate for the church to engage in political activism — lobbying, rallying voters, organizing protests, and harnessing the evangelical movement for political clout. I recently heard a well-known evangelical leader say, “We need to make our voices heard in the voting booth, or we’re not being salt and light the way Jesus commanded.”
“That view is pervasive. Say the phrase ‘salt and light,’ and the typical evangelical starts talking politics as if by Pavlovian reflex.
“But look at Jesus’ statement carefully in its context. He was not drumming up boycotts, protests, or a political campaign. He was calling His disciples to holy living.”
Let’s take Johnson’s comment that Jesus was “calling His disciples to holy living.” He makes a good point that all Christians can agree on. But where do we go to learn about holy living and how broad and comprehensive holy living is? Does it include politics, economics, raising children, church life, walking your dog, crossing the street, playing baseball, teaching a Sunday school class, pasturing a church, doing evangelism, creating music and art, developing a computer program?
Johnson can’t say from the verses he cites since Jesus doesn’t give any details. Nothing is included or left out. Johnson is reading into the verses things that aren’t there. Or I should say that he is leaving out items that are found elsewhere in Scripture.
The writer to the Hebrews does something similar to what we read in Matthew 5. He tells his readers that by this point in their Christian walk they should be “teachers,” but now they “need again for someone to teach [them] the elementary principles of the oracles of God,” needing “milk and not solid food” (Heb. 5:12-13). He goes on to write that it’s through practice that their senses are trained to “discern good and evil” (5:14). Similar to Jesus’ words in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that Johnson references, there are no particulars. There is no need for them since earlier he wrote the following:
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
There is nothing in this passage that indicates that the realm of politics – civil government – is excluded since when the whole Bible is read, there is a great deal said about the subject of governmental politics. This is supported by the apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Of course, as we read on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions a number of moral particulars, but these three chapters do not exhaust what it means to live a holy life, especially when we read the above passages from Hebrews and 2 Timothy.
Why can’t we shine the bright light of all of God’s Word (Ps. 119:105) on the world — including civil government (described as “a minister of God”: Rom. 13:1–7) — like we do for self-government (“self-control”: Prov. 25:28), church government (“an overseer must be above reproach”: 1 Tim. 3:2), business (“just weights and measures”: Lev. 19:36), journalism (“do not bear false witness”: Ex. 20:16), and everything else in life?
Consider these words from John MacArthur. I’m bringing MacArthur into the discussion because Johnson was the Executive Director of Grace to You, a Christian tape and radio ministry that features the preaching ministry of John MacArthur. Phil Johnson has been closely associated with MacArthur since 1981 and edits most of MacArthur’s major books. The following is from “You Are the Light of the World,” a sermon that MacArthur preached on Matthew 5:14-16:
“I think God wants us to confront the world. Just because the world persecutes us, reviles us, and says all manner of evil against us falsely, just because it seems impossible that, in a country where the Constitution says no law could ever be passed that takes away any of the freedom of religion at all from anybody, we’re facing the fact that you can’t have a Bible study in your house without a permit. I really don’t think that it will get any easier. I don’t think that just because the world makes it tough on us that we should crawl in a hole or keep our mouths shut or hide. We should be like verse 13 [of Matt. 5], salt and light in the world.”
MacArthur references the Constitution and that its original purpose was that “no law could ever be passed that takes away” anyone’s freedom of religion. This seems to be a reference to the First Amendment. How did the First Amendment get into the Constitution? It was Christians who worked for it. They weren’t satisfied with the text of the Constitution as it was drafted in 1787, so they pushed for a Bill of Rights to limit the power and authority of the newly constituted national civil government even more than the Constitution itself did.
The First Amendment is a political statement designed to keep Congress from interfering with religion at the state level. Following Johnson’s logic, Christians who lobbied for a constitutional provision that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” was, to use his words, “lording it over” people, exercising “political dominion,” and making “society righteous through legislation.”
I suspect that most people would praise our Christian founders for putting into law the protections listed in the First Amendment to ensure that churches can speak, write, and assemble about religion (all found in the amendment). That same First Amendment also gives citizens the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Might not that include “boycotts, protests, or a political campaign”?
We’re not subjects of Rome. “Render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar” (Matt. 22) only applies to us in principle since we don’t live under Caesar. If anything, the Constitution is our Caesar, and it gives us the right and responsibility to boycott, protest, and campaign to change our government by changing those elected to office those who violated their sworn oath of office and legislate contrary to the Constitution.
People like Phil Johnson are living off borrowed capital. They denounce Christian involvement in politics but reap the benefits of generations of Christians that made it possible for them to enjoy the freedoms they have in this nation to preach the gospel unhindered. If we lose that freedom, it will be because Christians like Johnson and those who share his philosophy advise the church that to push for certain legislative remedies is an attempt to make “society righteous through legislation.”
That’s like saying working to pass a law to make buying and selling slaves illegal is an attempt to make society righteous through legislation. The purpose of the law is to protect people from being bought and sold like stolen cattle (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). Must we wait for the nation to become righteous before such a law is passed? Not according to the Bible:
“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted” (1 Tim. 1:8–11).
If everybody had to be righteous before a law was passed, we could never pass a law and slavery might still be legal. The passage and enforcement of laws keep most unrighteous people from acting out their unrighteousness because they know that painful sanctions are meted out for lawbreakers.
This is not to say that all immorality can be curtailed by passing laws or that there should be a law for every unrighteous deed. Even the Bible doesn’t go that far. Prohibition is an example of trying to remedy a lack of self-control through legislation. By biblical standards, drunkenness is a sin (Prov. 20:1; 23:31-35; Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:18; 1 Thess. 5:7), but there is no call in the Bible to legislate against drinking alcohol.
Our duty as citizens is to see that civil government stays within its jurisdictional boundaries. This is exactly what Paul did when he questioned the authority of a civil official regarding his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:23-30).
“But when [the Roman soldiers] stretched him out with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?’”
If it was right for Paul to “protest” this single violation of his rights as a Roman citizen, why is it wrong to protest constitutional violations given the fact that Constitution itself gives us the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances”?
Phil Johnson is mismanaging the comprehensiveness of the Bible’s message to speak to all of life by limiting the meaning of holy living to personal holiness. Holy living is not a narrow enterprise. It encompasses all of life. The British poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) makes the point better than I can:
“[T]here is an aspect in which we can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture. . . . It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have — until recently — been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. . . . If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.1
The entire Bible speaks to the subject of politics just like it speaks to everything else. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Professor of Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam, summarized this truth with these words: “[N]o single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: “Mine!’”2
If holiness means “Thou Shalt not steal” for you and me, then it also means the same thing for you and me if we decide to become a civil official. Politics, actually “civil government,” is not morally neutral territory just like self-, family, and church governments are not morally neutral. If we follow Johnson’s reasoning, we can’t speak out against a civil minister when he violates his oath to uphold the Constitution. Would we do the same with a husband who violates his marriage oath or a minister of the gospel who violates his ordination vows? Of course, we wouldn’t. There are procedures to deal with these violations. The same is true in the civil realm. In includes organizing people to oppose civil oath violators to remove them from office.
“Jesus blessed people who were willing to be oppressed and disenfranchised for righteousness’ sake — peacemakers, not protesters; poor in spirit, not proud; people who are persecuted, not the pompous and power-mongers.”
So if thugs break into Johnson’s home and burn it down, what should he do? What if they beat and rape his wife and steal all his stuff? If the chief of police and the mayor don’t do anything about it, is Johnson telling Christians that they should not protest but just take the persecution “for righteousness’ sake”? Would he be considered “proud,” “pompous” and a “power monger” to rally his neighbors to vote the mayor out of office in the next election? The civil magistrate has the power of the sword (Rom. 13:1-4). Without limits on the civil minister’s authority and power, that sword can do a lot of harm to a lot of people.
I suppose as Christians like Corrie ten Boom (1893–1983) and her family were being dragged off to the concentration camp for helping Jews escape from the Nazis, their fellow-Christians should have told them, “This is what you get for not being willing to be oppressed and disenfranchised for righteousness’ sake. You should have made peace with the Nazis not protest against them. Persecution is the Christian’s lot in life.”
If Christians had been involved in government decades before, Germany would never have had an Adolf Hitler. In 19th-century Germany, a distinction was made between the realm of public policy managed by the State and the domain of private morality under the province of the gospel. Religion was the sphere of the inner personal life, while things public came under the jurisdiction of the “worldly powers.” Redemption was fully the province of the church while the civil sphere was solely the province of the State. “Religion was a private matter that concerned itself with the personal and moral development of the individual. The external order — nature, scientific knowledge, statecraft — operated on the basis of its own internal logic and discernable laws.”3
Christians were told that the church’s sole concern was the spiritual life of the believer. “The Erlangen church historian Hermann Jorda declared in 1917 that the state, the natural order of God, followed its own autonomous laws while the kingdom of God was concerned with the soul and operated separately on the basis of the morality of the gospel.”4.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
T.S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948). ↩
Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty” (1880) in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488. ↩
Richard V. Pierard, “Why Did Protestants Welcome Hitler?,” Fides et Historia (North Newton, KS: The Conference on Faith and History), X:2 (Spring 1978), 13. ↩
Pierard, “Why Did Protestants Welcome Hitler?,” 14. ↩