In the wake of the shocking events that took place in Washington last week, here is Murray Campbell’s advice on when (and when not to) get involved in political matters. This article is an updated version of a post originally written for 9Marks Journal in Autumn 2020.
I want to offer four theological and pastoral suggestions for Australian Christians as they consider their approach to political activism.
1. Be clear who you are serving: Jesus is Lord of all
Jesus is Lord both over creation and over the Church. There is no domain over which he does not rule—and in which we will not be held accountable.
In his name the nations will put their hope. (Matt 12:21)
Jesus is Lord both over creation and over the Church, “All things were made by him and for him”. There is no domain over which he does not rule—and in which we will not be held accountable. Is there a blade of grass or family home or hall of power where the Lordship of Christ has no jurisdiction?
He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:14)
Christianity is now considered by many as a danger that needs to be silenced
Authoritarian secularism is on the rise in Australia, especially in my State of Victoria. Aussies have traditionally had a laissez-faire relationship with churches, respecting their role and voice in the public square, even if they often chose to ignore it. This has been effectively dismantled over the past decade. Where churches were once politely acknowledged in society, Christianity is now considered by many as a danger that needs to be silenced, or at the very least, controlled. There exist few constitutional and legal protections for religious institutions in Australia. Ironically, this growing social mood to push religion out of the public square is often accompanied by a growing agenda to increase Governmental control over religious freedoms, even to influence what religious organisations may and may not teach on controversial issues, including marriage and human sexuality.
Should Christians listen to these calls and abandon the public square and remove themselves from the world of politics? I certainly understand why many Christian feel like withdrawing, and there are fair arguments for doing so. However, I want to contend that if Jesus is Lord over all, and if God’s ways remain good, and if Governments are put in place by God for the wellbeing of society, then (at least some) Christians should remain active in politics and societal engagement.
2. Be clear about the domain into which you are speaking: the distinction between church and state
Jesus is Lord of all, but not everything is the church and the kingdom of God. On the one hand, we want to avoid hardline secularist bans on public expressions of religion. But we also need to avoid conflating church with State and civil society with God’s Kingdom. When Christians confuse Christianity with nationalism, and the Christian message with a brand of politics, the results of this can be catastrophic.
The separation is not absolute. For example, Churches are commanded by God to pray for the Government (1 Timothy 2:1-2)—an imperative that/ isn’t conditioned by our political preferences or by the decisions made in our favour. It’s good to remind ourselves that Paul was writing at a time where there was no democracy and little toleration of Christians—and yet he tells the church to pray for those authorities. It is still a powerful testimony when we do so.
There is a relationship between church and state, but they are nonetheless two separate domains with different purposes and aims.
Scripture calls us to submit-to and obey governing authorities, not because we necessarily agree with their policies, but because God has put them in place and also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:1-6). It is also the case that on one occasion the Apostle Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal to the Emperor. In other words, there is a relationship between church and state, but they are nonetheless two separate domains with different purposes and aims.
For this reason, churches mustn’t give the impression that they are in the pocket of any given political party. The Church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, not to the Liberal or Labour Party. A Christian may choose to join a political party, but a church should not. Nor should the pulpit be used to influence peoples’ vote or to unduly bind the conscience. When churches do this, it confuses both Christians and non Christians about our message and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ: Instead of providing an alternative to our increasingly polarised world and being the one place where true unity can be found and expressed, churches then end up adding to the problem. Trying to force Jesus to stand under any socio-political umbrella is wrong; maybe he would prefer to be out in the rain!
At my own church, we never hand out political material and generally avoid promoting petitions and marches. However, we understand that individual Christians may choose to be involved in politics or to engage in social issues. While each member of the church supports and joins in the church’s mission, it is also the case that believers have God-given opportunities to serve Christ in other ways that are outside the church: among these is involvement in political activity.
3. What’s your message? Understanding the distinction between gospel and common grace
As an Australian citizen, I share the same set of rights and responsibilities as other Australians. I have the opportunity to voice concerns about social policy and moral issues. However, not everything is the Gospel and not every political cause is directly related to the mission of the church.
I would counsel Christians who are interested in engaging in the public square to understand what the gospel is (and isn’t) and what should be defined as God’s common grace to society. I appreciate that this task isn’t always straightforward. Defining the issue theologically is a help when it comes to assessing zeal, time, and effort. It provides the necessary framework for understanding political concerns and for weighing up their importance. It helps us work out whether we are dealing with an issue of righteousness, conscience, or legitimate dispute.
4. Know the reason for engaging in political activism: it’s about loving your neighbour
For the Christian, political activism ought to be about loving your neighbour.
For the Christian, political activism ought to be about loving your neighbour. Just as a doctor treats the sick and a school teacher educates children, politics should be about serving the common good of the community. Of all people, Christians have reason to speak on behalf of the vulnerable, to advocate for the weak and to address injustices that are faced in our society. God has revealed his righteousness and his grace to us in the Lord Jesus. As he has loved us, so we now love others with his love. We are eager to see other people doing well, especially their eternal salvation but also their everyday needs and dignity and worth.
When Christians choose to become involved in politics, we must be careful to do so without sinning and being self-serving; without conflating church and state; without confusing the gospel with common grace; without placing limits on legitimate differences of conscience.
How do I know if my political advocacy is unwise and even ungodly?
Here are 5 warning signs:
- I spend more time signing petitions than I do praying.
- I only ever criticise one side of politics.
- People have the impression that belonging to my church means aligning with a certain political party.
- I am more passionate about politics than I am about my local church and their mission.
- I am putting my hope for society in political elections or leaders or platforms, rather than in the Gospel of Christ.