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FIRST-PERSON: A theology of political participation

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Government, according to the Scripture, is a divinely ordained institution. Its importance in society is secondary to the primary institution, which is the home. By the same token, government parallels the church. Whereas in the divine economy the church is primarily to order and discipline the affairs of born-gain believers, in society as a whole the government exists as a method of resisting evil on the one hand and promoting good on the other.

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:13-17)

Christians, too, are to be in subjection to these authorities as Jesus Himself made clear when He said, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). The subjection to the powers that exist in government, even governments that are evil, is a matter of Christian example. As a result of this general deportment, it is not uncommon even for unsympathetic rulers to admit that Christians generally are the best of citizens creating the most peaceful conditions in any society. However, there are those rare occasions when Christians find themselves in a position where they must demure from that which a government demands, choosing to follow the authority of Christ when it is in direct contradiction to the authority of government.

It is here that the Christian must tread with great care. In light of the Holocaust, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s example of being a part of a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler certainly appears to have been not only an acceptable decision, but a commendable one. Based on Romans 13, governments clearly have the right to bear the sword; this seems to be biblical ratification of the right of a nation to defend itself against aggressors and also the right of a society to exact judgment in the form of capital punishment.

But the question here is a different one. Does the Christian himself have the right, as in Bonhoeffer’s case, to become involved in a violent protest against one’s own government? It seems to me that this is where the Christian is obligated to move with the greatest care of all.

The principal of Acts 5:29 that “we ought to obey God rather than men” does make allowance in rare situations for the Christian to indulge even in violent protest. Surely this was the conclusion of the American colonists at the time of the Declaration of Independence and the war for independence in this country. Once again though, American colonists faced a question not so much of Christian protest against an existing government. Instead theirs was a question of whether to seek independence from a repressive regime. The fact that some and perhaps many colonists were Christians means that individually they had to assess these matters for themselves.

No particular form of government is prescribed in Scripture. However, the basis upon which a democracy proceeds is that a free and responsible people will always be the most productive people. Such freedom, as is provided in a genuine democracy, will inevitably produce those circumstances that make it possible for citizens to realize their full capacity to know, experience, and imitate God.

Indeed, the principle of democracy seems to me to be embodied in the local church through the doctrine of the priesthood of believers. If the Holy Spirit of God genuinely indwells each believer, then each individual believer should be entrusted with the ability to make the right kinds of decisions to enhance his or her own life, the life of their family, and, indeed, of the world.

Years ago, as a young preacher, I took the view that politics was one domain, and religion was an entirely different one. My responsibility as a pastor was to lead people to faith in Christ, teach them about Christ, and grow the church as a witness within a degenerate world. In that persuasion, I have not changed across the years. I am still convinced that the most valuable thing any Christian can do is to be involved in leading people to Christ and building up the church of God.

Nevertheless, culture wars, politics, and government are areas to which we simply may not turn a deaf ear or blind eye. Eddy McAteer of the then well-known Religious Roundtable was influential in my life in taking me to Washington, D.C. for a briefing in which incontrovertible evidence of the devastation of pornography upon our society was set forth. When I viewed young women being kidnapped, raped and then literally murdered on screen in films prepared in South America for distribution through the underworld in this country, I realized that it was no longer enough for me to avoid the culture wars, politics, and government. Around 1978, I became involved in these culture wars and have not ceased my involvement since.

The fact is that Christians must be salt and light. They cannot live in the world and fail to be both salt and light except at the expense of dishonoring the Lord. Nevertheless, it remains true that the most monumental change in the social order is always wrought in the heart of individual men and women when they are led to repent of their sins and place their faith in Christ. That has to remain the major emphasis of the church.
Paige Patterson serves as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article first appeared in the Southwestern News.

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  • Paige Patterson