I don’t know much about the politics of other nations, but one of the persistent idolatries I notice in American politics is the constant and unquestioning worship of and loyalty to partisan ideology. I would like to argue in this post that absolute allegiance to any political party is antithetical to the Christian core creed, “Jesus is Lord.”
Let’s start with some background on the Early Church. The Early Church was brutally persecuted and oppressed by its governing authority. We have many stories of early Christians who were martyred because they refused to bow the knee to Caesar. The creed of the Roman world was that Caesar was Lord and God. To deny this was to be an “atheist” in the Roman mind. And so the early Christians were actually called “atheists” because they refused to bow the knee to Caesar. One of the most striking and vivid stories from the Early Church is that of Polycarp, second century Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp was an old man when he was captured by the authorities and brought to the arena. The proconsul said to him, “Swear then, now, and I will let you go; revile Christ.” To this, Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me wrong; how, then, can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour!” Polycarp was burned at the stake after refusing to bow the knee to Caesar. This is just one of many, many similar stories of fortitude and faith under fire.
So, if early Christians were so brutally persecuted by the Roman government, surely this must mean that they refused to submit to the government in all things, right? Well, no, in fact. One of the finest passages in the New Testament regarding a Christian’s relationship with the government is found in Romans 13:1-5, where Paul writes:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience (NIV).
In the context of a brutal, oppressive regime that demands idol worship, Paul’s words are really quite shocking. If you are an American and you think you are experiencing persecution, what you are experiencing ain’t nothin’ compared to what the Early Church faced! No one is threatening to have lions tear your flesh from your bones in front of a cheering, murderous audience. No one is sentencing you to public annihilation if you refuse to say an idol is God. So, surely we can agree that if Paul’s words apply to such a world as that of the Early Church, they certainly apply to us today in a country that enjoys significant freedom.
Paul actually is saying that even in the most brutal regime, Christians are responsible to show respect, to not rebel against their governing authorities, and to pay taxes. Paul even goes further and says that since authorities are instituted by God that they should not be feared, but rather be respected as arbiters of justice. Although in Paul’s world the authorities often did not properly use the sword, surely there were times when their sword was used to execute justice. All governments are infected by evil and sin and will use their authority imperfectly, but because they are the authorities God has set in place, they are to be respected. What a wild idea! I try to imagine my American self living in ancient Rome and not joining some sort of revolution. It is difficult to imagine. I try to picture myself do everything possible to submit to and respect an authority so infected by evil. Could I obey and respect an evil government except when it called me to disobey God? And when I had to resist, could I do so in a peaceful and respectful manner, rather than with pride and entitlement? Such a constraint goes against every fiber of my being.
But such a constraint is utterly Biblical. You see, Paul was not concerned with providing the Church with earthly power and dominion. He was concerned with the spreading of the Gospel and maintaining the credibility of Christian witness. He realized that God uses situations of weakness to show His strength. Our Savior entered the world humbly and asks that His followers walk in His footsteps in the same manner. When Christians get intoxicated by political power (or any other kind of earthly power), we too easily lose our credibility before a watching world. We make the same mistake most Jewish people made at Jesus’ first coming: we expect a military hero who will give us a physical kingdom on earth. Like James and John, we jockey for important political positions. We don’t think we matter or are being given our “due” unless we are in power.
How does this damage our witness? The unchurched look at the Church of Jesus Christ and say to themselves, “Those Christians are part of all of the cynical power-mongering that everybody else is doing. But they’re even worse because they pretend they aren’t that way. They’re judgmental and they ignore their own faults. They never listen and spend all their time proclaiming how they are right.”
The Religious Right has often been criticized this way and such criticism is sometimes fair. But the Religious Left can be similarly misaligned. Both groups, Republicans and Democrats, begin to ally themselves so strongly with one political party that they begin to declare their absolute allegiance to that party. It almost always begins with good intentions: for example, the Left’s concern for the poor or the Right’s concern to protect the lives of the elderly and unborn. But power becomes intoxicating and instead of holding one’s political party accountable, most people begin to simply affirm it in everything it espouses, to declare their candidates fundamentally good and the opposition’s fundamentally evil, to refuse to break from party talking points, to ally themselves with evil tactics, to embrace rage when they don’t get their way. Once we start to make a political party the boss of us no matter what it espouses or does, we start moving away from the creed, “Jesus is Lord.”
For this reason, I have sometimes registered with one party or another in order to have an influence on political primaries, but I no longer consider myself a Republican or a Democrat (or any other party, for that matter). I want my freedom to resist evil wherever it is found. And there is evil to be found in both political parties. I also want my freedom to support good wherever it is found. And it too is found in both political parties. There are no perfect votes or perfect solutions in a broken, sinful world, but I still try to do the best I can to vote in line with Biblical values. Biblical values mean concerning myself with all of what Scripture says about society. For example, they include both the concern that society care for its poor (such as in Old Testament laws which required people to leave some of their food for the poor and needy) and that society care for the vulnerable gift of life (as in Psalm 139 which describes how God knits together a baby in its mother’s womb). One party is more concerned with the former and one party is more concerned with the latter. God is concerned with both.
Does this mean you have to take the same approach I have taken? Not necessarily. I don’t think it is by nature idolatrous to register and organize with a particular political party. Sometimes great good can be accomplished by joining together with other like-minded people. But there are perils of joining a political party too. If you do so, recognize that the insidious temptation to seek power at all costs will arise. Recognize how easy it will be to start believing every cynical political line fed to you and how comfortable you may become in a singular worldly mindset. Recognize the temptation to demonize your opponents. Recognize that every day you are going to need to stay in the Scriptures and let them form you. Be willing to make political allies unhappy when you refuse to declare either Republicans or Democrats as Lord. Be willing to make people angry when you declare Jesus alone is Lord.
But just as the early Christian martyrs brought many of those in the ancient world to faith, be prepared for God to use your powerful witness to bring change in people’s lives. What would it look like if every Christian in America just stopped posting partisan rants on their Facebook page? What would it look like if we stopped writing partisan books, making partisan movies, appearing on split-screen pundit shows? What if we stopped demanding our “rights” and starting trusting God to work in people’s hearts as we humbly serve them and share the story of how God saved each of us (just another poor miserable sinner)? I think the world would be shocked by such an approach. It might take a while for people to notice; the world is awfully used to us Christians being one of the loudest, angriest voices in the news. But I wonder if they would be hungry to see what has changed our lives. I wonder if it could even bring revival. What do you think?