SBC Life Articles

Christians and the Political Arena: A Historical Review

William Wilberforce

As the 2012 presidential election approaches, one of America’s most coveted blocks of voters, evangelicals, are desirable for good reason: they have never sat on the sidelines of the public square. Throughout the ages, faithful, biblical Christians have labored within the parameters of their respective forms of government to exert godly influence and seek redemptive change in ungodly social structures and societal practices—all for the glory of God.


During the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe, John Calvin sought to build a Christ-glorifying society in Geneva and believed Romans 13 supported his effort. Though he wrongly advocated a state-run church, many of his underlying principles were consistent with Scripture.

Scottish Baptist Robert Haldane, a pastor/theologian who ministered two hundred years later, saw government as a necessary product of the Fall of Adam, a reality that is also a gift of mercy from the hand of a good and sovereign God. Christians must necessarily engage in it, he said, or it will tend toward using its power for evil purposes.

“The institution of civil government is a dispensation of mercy, and its existence is so indispensable, that the moment it ceases under one form, it re-establishes itself in another,” Haldane wrote in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans.

Perhaps the most well-known example of positive participation in the public square is William Wilberforce, who courageously warred against human trafficking as a member of British Parliament in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries. Wilberforce worked to ban the slave trade in England for twenty years until the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Baptists, too, have a rich tradition of political activism.

Four years before Wilberforce’s victory over the British slave trade, “dissenting [Baptist]ministers” fixed September 21, 1803, as a “day of fasting and prayer on account of the state of the nation,” according to an essay written by British Baptist pastor/theologian Andrew Fuller.

Another lesser-known, but nonetheless important contribution among Baptists was that of William Kiffin, who ministered in England from 1616 to 1701.

Kiffin, who earned significant wealth as a wool merchant, gained favor with King Charles II and, through this relationship, procured a measure of suffrage for Baptists and other separatists during a period of grinding persecution for ministers who dissented from the Church of England. So high was King Charles’ regard for Kiffin that he sought a large loan from the minister/merchant. Instead of a loan, which he knew the penurious king would never repay, Kiffin bankrolled the monarch with a generous donation.

Calvin, Wilberforce, Haldane, Fuller, Kiffin, and thousands of other Christians are by no means alone in their activism. Scripture itself depicts followers of Christ as contending for righteousness in the political arena: Daniel served Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar bravely and without compromise; the apostle Paul confronted the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body in Roman-occupied Israel, on matters of conscience; and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself instructed His disciples to render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.

As the United States prepares for the upcoming election, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), urged Southern Baptists and other evangelicals to continue in the tradition of positive political engagement as a matter of faithfulness to God’s Word, a matter of living out the implications of the Gospel. Issues such as abortion and the redefinition of marriage demand that believers act deliberately and courageously, he said.

“I think Romans 13 tells us it is a sin not to be registered to vote and a sin not to vote,” Land said. “We are to support the magistrate for conscience’s sake. If you are not registered to vote and you do not vote, you are not participating in the process. I think that we need to encourage our people to understand that voting and being involved in the public process is a stewardship issue. When you have the ability, you are going to be held accountable when you don’t exercise that ability in that influence in the right direction.

“For example, I don’t think abortion on demand would continue to be the law of the land if the 38-40 percent of people who identify as evangelical Christians voted on this issue instead of voting their pocketbooks or voting their loyalty to the party of their family heritage or the party of their geographic heritage.”

Land said it is possible for pastors to emphasize politics and de-emphasize the Gospel, so activism must always be subservient to preaching of the Word. Yet, pastors’ encouraging church members to vote for those candidates that best represent the Christian worldview is part of preaching and applying the whole counsel of God, he said.

“We should never be endorsing parties and candidates as churches,” Land said. “Instead of endorsing candidates, we should be looking for candidates that endorse us, endorse our beliefs and values. We should insist on moral people being our representatives and we should vote our values, our beliefs, and our convictions.”

Under Land’s leadership, the ERLC has called Southern Baptists to a 40/40 prayer vigil for ourselves, our churches, and our nation.

“I can imagine no better way to be prepared to exercise our God-given freedom to vote for the person God would have serve as our congressman, senator, governor, or president than to follow the 40/40 prayer guide. You start off with seven days of prayer for personal revival, followed by six days of prayer for church revival, then five days for revival among the church’s leadership,” he said.

Only then, in accordance with Scripture, are we prepared to pray for all public officers in the sure and certain trust that the king’s heart is like streams of water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever He chooses (Proverbs 21:1).


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  • Jeff Robinson

    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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