Get Involved in Politics, But Don’t Get Immersed in Politics
Larry Lin | JANUARY 9, 2019 | 10 MIN READ
Editor’s note: This article was first published on Reformed Margins, an online platform for Reformed Christian thinkers from various ethnic minority backgrounds to join in the broader Reformed and Evangelical conversations. It has been republished here with permission from the author.
I moved to the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area in 2012. Prior to the move, I had followed politics sporadically, but I wasn’t too engaged.
After 2012, partially due to the political climate of where I lived, and partially due to some of the relationships I was developing, I started to slowly explore the world of politics in depth. I started to listen to politics-related radio and politics-related podcasts. I started to read politics-related articles and politics-related books. And as a Christian, I started to explore how the Christian faith and politics intersect one another.
How should my faith inform my political stances? Why do I often find myself at opposite ends of the political spectrum with others who are Christians? How can I dialogue in Christian ways about political issues with people who may disagree with me? And as a pastor, when is it okay and when is it not okay to vocalize my opinions?
But perhaps more fundamentally, how politically active should I be as a Christian in the first place? Is political activism part of God’s calling for the Christian, or is it a distraction from the true mission of the church?
In this post, I will aim to pull out some relevant biblical passages to make two simple points:
Get involved in politics
But don’t get immersed in politics
Get Involved in Politics
In Jeremiah 29:5–7, God tells the Israelites, who were living in exile in the enemy city of Babylon, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
The Israelites could have clustered together and collectively decided to be unconcerned about Babylon. But instead, God commanded them to be invested where they were, and he told them to work for the welfare of the city.
I believe that this principle – that the people of God should work for the welfare of the greater culture–carries over into the New Testament.
In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus intentionally uses the example of an ethnic outsider to demonstrate that we are to not only love the neighbors within our own tribe, but we are also called to love on the outside (Luke 10:29–37). That is also why Paul writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). While we as Christians are to serve the church, the church also exists to serve the surrounding culture.
“Okay, I agree that we need to serve the surrounding culture,” one may say, “But does it necessarily mean that we need to get involved in politics?”
I believe that exercising biblical wisdom in light of the biblical narrative warrants the answer, “Yes.”
In biblical times, most people were not able to engage in politics, simply because most people lived under monarchies and thus had no governing authority. But there are in fact several cases in the Bible where people of influence did get involved with politics.
Shiphrah and Puah, when ordered by the king of Egypt to kill all Hebrew babies who were male, “feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Exod 1:17). They were in positions of influence, and they were called to carry out a political command, and they refused to follow through. It wasn’t that they were trying to be political–it was that their faith in God necessitated taking a political stance.
Other examples in this category include Daniel choosing to pray three times a day (Dan 6:10), and the early apostles choosing to preach Christ despite being commanded not to do so (Acts 5:29). In all of these scenarios, the characters involved could not faithfully follow God without being political. Political involvement was a natural consequence of them simply living out their faith.
But I want to take it one step further. The Bible does not only include people taking political stances, but it even includes people creating political policies in secular governments. Joseph, upon becoming second-in-command in Egypt, created a national food collection and distribution program (Gen 41:37–57). Nehemiah, in his role as the cupbearer to the king of Persia, successfully requested money and supplies to build the walls of Jerusalem (Neh 2:1–8). Esther, in her role as queen of Persia, helped to create a decree that prevented the genocide of the Jews throughout the empire (Esth 8).
Joseph, Nehemiah, and Esther all found themselves in scenarios where they had political power in secular governments. But instead of ignoring their political power, they chose to exercise God-given wisdom in their God-given positions to make political decisions.
In the grand narrative of Scripture, Joseph, Nehemiah, and Esther were a minority. Most people did not have the political power that they had, so we don’t know what most people in the Scriptures would have done in those shoes. But the examples that they have set are precedents for all leaders of secular governments to follow.
The United States is a democracy, and in a democracy, the government is ruled by the people. Therefore, all U.S. citizens have political power. We may not have as much political power as Queen Esther, but we still have more political power than most people in the Bible did. And I would argue, therefore, that the examples of Joseph, Nehemiah, and Esther are examples for us to follow. Instead of ignoring our political power, we can must also exercise God-given wisdom in our God-given positions to make political decisions.
Let’s put it another way. The church exists not only to serve itself but to serve others. The church exists partially to work for the welfare of the surrounding culture. This can happen at the micro-level–through personal evangelism, through ministries to the homeless, etc. But this can also happen at the systemic level–through political engagement. Politics allows people to seek the welfare of the city, or to do good to everyone, at the systemic level.
The biblical understanding of stewardship, therefore, applies not only to our management of our time, money, and talents, but it also applies to our democratic voting ability.
Therefore, as Christians, I believe that it is good to learn about the political system, to apply biblical wisdom to the issues, to weigh candidates, to seek to persuade others, and to vote.
But how exactly do we vote? After all, different Christians will prioritize different political issues and will support different political parties. Unfortunately, this conversation is filled with complexity and nuance, and I don’t have time to address that here. I would just encourage you to have humble conversations about politics with Christians who are different from you, and then draw from the Bible, your experiences, and your convictions, and then vote what you feel is good for our country.
But Don’t Get Immersed in Politics
Although I believe Christians are called to be involved in politics, there can be danger in being too immersed in politics.
One of the main motivations for an over-immersion in politics is fear. When Christians place too much hope in their country of citizenship, and when that country is moving in a direction they find disagreeable, they cannot help but fear. But the Bible is clear that the fear of man can be driven out by the fear of God.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, ‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’
From the dawn of history, kings of all stripes and politicians of all political parties have sought to thwart God’s plans. But God sits up in heaven and laughs, because he knows that ultimately he will have his way. There is nothing that our country’s leaders can do that can threaten God.
Daniel also had a similar revelation in Daniel 7. Daniel and his people had been living in exile under enemy occupation, and they had been hoping that one day God would rescue them and restore them to their land. In this story, Daniel has a dream, in which he saw four beasts, each representing a different foreign king. But although all of these beasts were terrifying and powerful, they were no match for the Ancient of Days, the Son of Man who sits in judgment and rules with an everlasting dominion.
The message of Daniel’s vision is that the kingdom of God is more powerful and more eternal than any kingdom of humankind. Although the actions of human leaders may seem authoritative and frightening in the moment, God will have his way in the end, and he will establish his rule.
This perspective is much needed today. Sometimes when we are being worked up over the politics of our country, we can forget that there is something more important than our country, and that is the kingdom of God. I imagine that the Jews in Jesus’ day must have needed this reminder often.
In Matthew 15:15–22, some religious leaders ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” In response, Jesus says, to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In this exchange, people asked Jesus a political question (“is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”), and he gave them a direct response to that political question (“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”). But he doesn’t stop there. He then draws their attention to an even more important matter–to render to God the things that are God’s. In essence, Jesus is saying, “Yes it’s important to engage with politics of the Roman Empire. But what’s more important is to engage with the politics of God’s kingdom.”
In the midst of all of the drama of American politics, let us never forget that our true citizenship is not as citizens of any geopolitical country but of heaven. Therefore, we do need to imitate the paralyzing worry and fear of others, but we can remember though our country may fall, the church will not.
So yes, I encourage you to get involved in politics. It is critically important for Christians to exercise their God-given political power to serve our country. But as we learn, dialogue, campaign, and vote, let us remember that the most important questions that we as Christians need to answer in life are not the ballot questions, but they are the spiritual questions in the kingdom of God.
Larry was born and raised in San Jose, CA and serves as a pastor at The Village Church in Baltimore, MD. He has a B.S. from Cornell University and a M.Div. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Larry is the husband to Van-Kim and the father of one daughter, and he enjoys songwriting, basketball, Wikipedia, and conversations about politics and culture.