English: Portrait of a Gentleman (Mr. Wilberforce) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the wake of the Kermit Gosnell “Slaughter-gate” trial (and the appalling disinterest of many), there is a need for Christians to be reminded of our function as a pillar and support of the truth–a reminder of our calling to be salt and light in an otherwise dead and listless world. The post below is a little lengthy for a typical blog post, but it is of vital importance for Christians seeking to answer the question of whether we ought to be “politically” active. Issues of human life transcend political parties.
The following principles are derived from Romans 13. The debt of love the Christian owes to others necessitates a level of involvement with the government. There are at least four ways this obligation to love directs the Christian toward some involvement with government.
First, above all else, the Christian is obligated (and delighted) to love God (Matt 22:38). If our hearts are given to love God, will we not wish for His goodness to be on display? Will we not long to see men give him the honor due him? If we are instructed to pay honor to those ordained by God to serve in authority, how much more do we pay honor to Him from whom their authority is derived? The Christian longs to see God honored by all men, including men and women in positions of governance instituted by, bound to, and established ultimately for the glory of God. Our love for God will include a longing to see Him exalted in all aspects of civil life: art, music, education, science, and government. He is worthy of such exaltation by all men. Though the pagan unbelievers will refuse to exalt Him, the church will surely so purely love Him that she will not fail to seek His glory in all the earth (including in the practice of government).
Second, the Christian is obligated to express his debt of love to governing authorities. Love for God and love for neighbors means that the Christian loves those in positions of authority over him. This love may take different forms in varying contexts, but it will always mean loving in the biblical sense of the word. Biblical love is a love that honors God above all else and seeks the good of others. It seems to me, in relation to governing authorities, that this love for God and for others will mean confronting governing authorities in areas which they are rebelling against God. Governing authorities are put in place by God. God has a certain standard by which all men (even kings) will be judged.
Christians, in their on-going devotion to God, ought to remind leaders of such things—seeking to see God glorified by all men (remember this is why John the Baptist lost his head). In so doing, Christians are loving those in authority. How loving would it be to remain silent while men set themselves on the destructive path of opposing God’s purposes? Rulers in authority are not final authorities. They will answer to God. Pure love will not shrink back from declaring this reality, even as Christ did not shrink from declaring it to his earthly judge, Pilate: You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above, Jn 19:11.
Proper love expressed to those in authority may take either of two forms: humble service or humble disobedience. The former example can be found in Paul’s admonition to Timothy, 1 Tim 2:1-2,
First of all then I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
The latter finds expression in the actions of Peter and John as recorded by Luke in Acts 4. In this chapter, Peter and John obey the laws of the land and seek to live a godly life. A part of living that godly life meant to them that they had to share the good news with others. When this sharing of the good news was ordered out of bounds by the powers that be, Peter and John had to resolve a dilemma: Should they do what the legitimate authorities demanded, or should they do what God has called them to do? The resolution was no small matter. Two proper authorities were calling for their allegiance. Given such a reality, the two men—for the sake of conscience and in a thorough form of love—determined they could not stop speaking the good news they had seen and heard:
“Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge.” For their part, Peter and John (just as for Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego before them) chose to pay homage to God rather than to man when pushed to choose between the two. Love for God must always come first. In expressing such a devotion to the Living God, the men were, to be sure, loving those in authority as well.
This brings us to the third obligation of love bearing upon participation in government. Namely, Christians owe their fellow man a debt of love. This, I believe, is incredibly important. Primarily, this obligation concerns the right handling of the word of God. The Christian must be serious about proclaiming the gospel to the uttermost regions of the earth, including to the neighbor next door as occasions permit. Gospel penetration is the means by which God is glorified and His laws are kept. This obligation of preaching the gospel is primary and fundamental for the faithful Christian; this fact, however, is no final proof that the matter ought to end there for the Christian. Christians love their fellow men and must not wish harm to come to them. Christians—as the pillar and support of truth—must seek good for all men. The best good, of course, is Christ Himself (hence our preaching). But are there not other legitimate goods for which Christians ought to work very hard?
In a former generation of English Christians, William Wilberforce gave his life to see slavery end in England. With a firm conviction that the glory of God was at stake in the practice of enslaving humans as chattel property, Wilberforce with John Newton and others devoted their energy to ending such an evil practice, a practice that denied slaves their status as being created in the image of God and insisted, instead, that they were more nearly related to the beasts of the jungle than to the Living God. Should Wilberforce have sought election to parliament? Ought he—under the debt of love—to have been so politically active? In seeking to see slaves free, did Wilberforce and Newton subject the gospel to enslavement by a political movement? No, they did not. Rather, because of the gospel, they began a political movement and stayed with it to the end that men were set free to the glory of God. Slavery was ended in England, and the movement was fueled for its fight in America.
And what about William Carey? Should William Carey have simply stuck to his task of preaching the gospel in India while the evils of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia abounded to the destruction of countless souls? It was Carey’s sincere Christian conviction that the debt of love he owed had something to say to these things. As Timothy George records it,
“Carey admonished would-be missionaries that they should ‘take every opportunity of doing…good’ to the people among whom they intended to serve. As we have seen, Carey never forgot that his primary mission was to proclaim God’s redemptive message of salvation to lost sinners. This did not mean, however, that he lived out his ministry in a ‘gospel ghetto’ sequestered from the real hurts of humanity or the structural evils of Indian society. Quite to the contrary. [sic] Carey and the Serampore missionaries threw themselves into social reform activities precisely because their commitment to Jesus Christ compelled them to do so,” (George, Faithful Witness, 149).
Carey found that his conscience would not allow him to remain silent while human beings were being slaughtered needlessly. God’s image bearers were cast out, destroyed, and discarded with little regard. This disregard for humanity was particularly acute in India in the practice of sati, a ritual in which a new widow would be burned alive with the body of her deceased husband in an effort to assure the blessings of the gods over the family. Rather than shrinking back from this gruesome culture, Carey investigated the Hindu scriptures and showed the governing authorities that such practices were not mandated. He publicized and spoke out against all of the cruel practices because of his debt of love. What ought he to have done?
What about us? Like Carey, we must maintain the priority of the preaching of the gospel. About that, there can be no doubt. Did Jesus Himself not do more than preach the gospel? Did He not also live it? Did he not challenge authority where it was putting burdens on people too hard for them to bear, as in Matthew 23:4? Biblically speaking, love—along with the biblical imperative to do good before the government—calls the Christian to speak the truth, challenging authorities when they oppose the will of God and taking up the cause of the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the elderly, the unborn. We might wish to think it more sanitary and acceptable to God not to intermingle the gospel with government, but government is God’s idea. And I wonder what our silence might say? When, as the people of God, we say nothing to the world as they slaughter infants and quietly murder the elderly, what are we saying? It is often said that silence is golden. Might it not also be deadly?
Finally, the fourth debt of love taken from Romans 16 is the love we owe to ourselves. Love, by its nature, is given over to another. Yet, as when Jesus gives the greatest commandments to love (Matthew 22:37-39), the commandment to love is predicated upon the reality of self love. Self love does not have to be nurtured as does love for God and love for others. Self-love simply needs to be transformed and enlarged. We have love for ourselves from the beginning of our lives. What we need to learn is how our love for ourselves involves others and, more importantly, God.
Can we understand the joy of love if we fail to express it to the watching world? The practical rewards of loving others are not to be overlooked. Showing love to women seeking abortions makes a better life for us. When we exercise the above mentioned “loves” properly, we are properly loving ourselves and gaining a better life for ourselves (and for our neighbors).
As John Jefferson Davis puts it, “Civil laws that are consistent with the teachings of Scripture point society to a higher standard of righteousness, which is fulfilled only in Jesus Christ. Such laws remain a worthy object of Christian concern and social action,” (Evangelical Ethics, 26).
For these reasons, which I believe are biblical, I cannot imagine that we can withdraw from the political process entirely. I do not think that would pay proper honor to God’s established authorities over us, and I do not think that it would at all honor God. Rather, I think the work before us is to determine what shape our involvement with those in authority will take. What are the best ways for us to be involved?
We are in a position in which we must help our people think through these issues and understand them biblically. Silence is not an option. Neither is withdrawal. I understand that we must be careful to preserve the primacy and supremacy of the gospel. Indeed, I believe the message of Jesus Christ—the gospel—has everything to say to culture in disarray. In all things, I know that we must exalt Christ and glorify the living God. So, my prayer is that we will work together to do just that—to do good and to fulfill our debt of love.