30 May 2008

More on Political Activism and the Gospel

by Phil Johnson

From time to time we pull classic comments up out of an old thread's combox. This is one of those. It's my reply to someone who suggested that the gospel includes an implicit mandate for political activism:

Every movement in the entire history of the church that has regarded political activism as a legitimate facet of gospel ministry has allowed political ideology to eclipse the gospel. That's true from Constantine to Cromwell to the Liberation theologians.

Note: I haven't suggested that the church should be silent about social (or even governmental) evils; merely that we have a more vital way to remedy those evils than by lobbying for legislation.

Also: It's not that I oppose legislation that would eliminate certain expressions of the evil that rules men's hearts. I'm all for it. But our calling as a church is to announce the remedy for the evil itself. Lets not get sidetracked in the electoral process. Let the dead bury the dead. That's what I'm saying.

R_____: "Part of what makes it hard to figure out what's appropriate for the church to be involved in is the fact that policy making was so far from participatory in the NT era. There was no lobbying for Jesus and the apostles to be involved in!"

Perhaps, but so what? Jesus is rightful Lord of all. If straightening out earthly political institutions had been any part of His work, why not mount a revolution? That's what the Zealots were trying to do. That's what the disciples originally expected Jesus to do. That's what politically-zealous Christians under non-democratic governments have often tried to do—invariably employing some of the very same arguments you have hinted at.

It's significant that Jesus didn't do that. And (the beliefs of some of my postmill friends notwithstanding) He didn't command the church to commandeer the machinery of earthly politics on His behalf, either.

It is a fact of history that every time the church has dabbled in politics—including in the very best cases, such as Calvin's Geneva—the experiments have ultimately failed. Usually in disastrous ways.

Will Durant had an insightful quote about the impossibility of harnessing human governments to help accomplish the true Christian mission. This came in a context where Durant was commenting on Cromwell's failure. Durant wrote:

In public [Cromwell] maintained an unostentatious dignity; privately he indulged in amusements and jesting, even in practical jokes and occasional buffoonery. He loved music, and played the organ well. His religious piety was apparently sincere, but he took the name of the Lord (not in vain) so often in support for his purposes that many accused him of hypocrisy. Probably there was some hypocrisy in his public piety, little in the private piety that all who knew him attested. His letters and speeches are half sermons; and there is no question that he assumed too readily that God was his right hand. His private morals were impeccable, his public morals were no better than those of other rulers; he used deception or force when he thought them necessary to his major purposes. No one has yet reconciled Christianity with government.
But Jesus said it best of all: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you. . ." (Matthew 20:25-26). See the context for even more insight into what Jesus meant.

Phil's signature


étrangère said...

I agree with what you've said, but I think there is another small balancing note: that some Christians are called to be involved in politics as part of our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it (just as there are Christians in most jobs). While the Church may not be called primarily to change legislation but change hearts by the gospel, over here in the UK where most people are apathetic to political engagement, I think it's good that some Christians show they care about God's world and its people by going into politics. It won't bring God's kingdom any more than having Christian teachers, doctors, or cleaners, but in the UK churches generally don't affirm it at all!

FX Turk said...

Phil -- you said this:

Also: It's not that I oppose legislation that would eliminate certain expressions of the evil that rules men's hearts. I'm all for it. But our calling as a church is to announce the remedy for the evil itself. Lets not get sidetracked in the electoral process. Let the dead bury the dead. That's what I'm saying.

That italics part -- isn't that really the problem? That we think that if we make a law, somebody's going to get saved by our law?

See: there's no law ever that eliminated the thing it forbade. Prohibition? ha. Speed Limits? seriously. Laws against prostitution, drugs, stealing, murder, rape? Anyone?

I think this is where all the social motivations -- well-intentioned as they are -- of the politically-active go right down the tubes. They fail to remember that even the Law of God does not reform men, but only shows them how sinful they are. How much less likely, then, are the laws of man to reform other men -- even if these laws look like the law of God?

Rom 8 says, "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." The Gospel is about doing something law cannot do.

That's the thing. If Christians would see this, ... argh. The Gospel is the solution to culture and not the condiment for culture.

Love the post. It's exactly right.

Tim Pauley said...

Does our primary mission as believers to fulfill the Great Commission change simply because we live under a different political system? This strikes me as the same tendency to meddle with so many truths of scripture in order to be more “culturally relevant”.

Tim Bergen said...

I like what Dr. Ed Dobson said in his collaboration with Cal Thomas called Blinded By Might. "I now believe that the way to transform our nation has little to do with politics and everything to do with offering people the gospel."

The believer's work should be from the inside out rather than from the outside in. In other words, the task we have been given by Christ is to promote the Gospel (make, baptize and teach disciples) that changes hearts which in turn will change the political scene rather than vise versa.


Shawn said...

This, to me, seems to be addressing the easier issue; voting in a democracy, general political campaigning, etc.

Forget for the moment about electing officials and passing legislation. What about the far more challenging issue that's so often as gray as a battleship?

What I mean is what is the biblical directive on personal political action to address injustice such as the racism of the 60's and earlier, the treatment Jews in Europe leading to the Holocaust, slavery, etc.

I just posted about the death of Irena Sendler. From an early age this woman fought the creeping injustice thrust on the Jews in Poland prior to the Holocaust.

I won't repost all my thoughts and questions on that topic here (please see my blog if interested simpletonthinker.blogspot.com) but suffice it to say, the question I find it most difficult to answer is how involved should we become in personal political activism? Are individual believers ever called to focus on a specific world issue even when it will most certainly require all of their passion and energy?

John said...

Well, strip some of political/moral activism and you've stripped them of their religion. How dare you?

David A. Carlson said...

Frank (and Phil)

You misunderstand the purpose of the law if you think it is to eliminate evil.

The purpose of the law is to protect from evil. Or, in some cases, to promote the health, welfare and safety of the lands citizens.


donsands said...

"Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness"

The Church needs to exalt Christ, and this should be seperate from all other things. Completetly and utterly alone, and above all things.

Seek FIRST, proton, (in time, place, order, of impotance).

Thanks for posting on this most important lesson for the Church in our time.

olan strickland said...

"More on Political Activism and the Gospel" by Phil Johnson

Phil, you love to start fires don't you? They have a name for that!

FX Turk said...


I agree that the right purpose of government (Rom 13) is the restraint and punishment of the evildoer in order to make society a peaceable place.

I disagree that setting the agenda of the state is the mission or business of the church. Our "business" (if that word can be used for what the church is and does) is proclaiming the Gospel to all men, that some might be saved.

Saved men may vote differently than they did before they were saved. That doesn't make those votes church work.

Mike Riccardi said...

"Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness"

Amen, Don. Amen.

But how sad it is that Christians who feel the desire to engage politically in the unhelpful ways Phil and Frank have pointed out have simply redefined what it means to seek the kingdom first. In fact, they would tell you that that's exactly what they're doing by lobbying for legislation and taking steps towards the social gospel. They'll say that God's kingdom is here, and if Jesus is Lord of all then we need to... I don't even know... keep the kingdom running? make the kingdom better?

It's quite simple. When one doesn't like the notion of a Cross-centered, Gospel-driven worldview and lifestyle, but knows they can't deny those out of hand, they simply redefine "Cross" and "Gospel" to make them bigger to include the things they want to be busy with.

So we tell them to seek the kingdom first. And they say, "That's what I'm doing." Now what do we do?

donsands said...

So we tell them to seek the kingdom first. And they say, "That's what I'm doing." Now what do we do?"

Keep on seeking Christ first in everything. Keep on readin, studying, and meditating on His truth.
In my family Christ is first. In my church Christ is first. In my business Christ is first.

If I was allowed to speak before Congress I would say this country is blessed because of Christ. The Lord Jesus rules from heaven, and all authority and power is His.
God calls all men and women everywhere to repent and bow the knee to this same Lord Jesus Christ, for one day every knee will bow, and tongue confess that He is Lord of lords, and King of kings, and the Chief commander in chief of all commanders in chiefs.

He is first in the Church. We worship Him, and Him alone. He died and rose from the dead, and has brought truth, and bore record to it for all thw world to see.

"And all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved".

olan strickland said...

mike riccardi: It's quite simple. When one doesn't like the notion of a Cross-centered, Gospel-driven worldview and lifestyle, but knows they can't deny those out of hand, they simply redefine "Cross" and "Gospel" to make them bigger to include the things they want to be busy with.

Amen brother! Here in is the danger of a form or appearance of godliness that has denied the power of true godliness. And the deceptive goal at its final conclusion is a one world government based on socialism and a one world religion based religious humanism.

Political activism and religious pluralism go hand in hand in the ecumenical movement and the whole way it is portrayed as "seeking first the kingdom."

Mike said...


"See: there's no law ever that eliminated the thing it forbade. Prohibition? ha. Speed Limits? seriously. Laws against prostitution, drugs, stealing, murder, rape? Anyone?"

You're right, and that's why the law is perpetual. But even if the law of the land were removed and people were born into it, their own conscience would "be a law unto themselves" (Romans 2:14-15)

There are things that there are no laws against... Gal 5:23

That's the design of God, no?
I agree with the post.

Mike said...

I forgot to mention that you can't legislate people's hearts.

FX Turk said...

m -

yeah, I think that's what I was saying.

Simple Mann said...

Tim Bergen made a good point, and it is the same one made by the authors of "Blinded by Might" (who incidentally were instrumental in the foundation and early influence of the 'Moral Majority' movement). I was listening to a pastor on the radio just this week who was talking about a similar point. In the context of the sermon, it had to do with raising kids, but the truth of what he said applies to us all. Changing someone's behavior using outside pressure does not change their heart; and if the heart is not changed, the external behavioral changes will not last, or, if they do, new (and perhaps even less desirable) behaviors will result. It is only when someone is affected at the level of their heart that true and lasting change will take effect. No law made by man, however good its intentions may be, result in true and lasting heart change. Only the law of God as understood and interpreted through the person of Jesus Christ accomplishes this.

My two cents.
Simple Mann

David A. Carlson said...


Since you brought up Romans 13....

We would agree, I assume, that Romans 13 was written to a specific situation at a specific time.

I also assume that we would agree you can draw "eternal" truths from the teaching in Romans 13 - that is there are principles within Romans 13 that applicable across time, across types of governments, etc.

To me, the eternal truth is (or at least a major one) is 13:7- Give back to all people what is owed; taxes to whom taxes are due; revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due and honor to whom honor is due.

What we think of the government is not relevant, the type of government is not relevant, all that is relevant is that they in some way they function as appointed by God, and we are to deliver those things to them.

My question is this...

In a representative democracy, the government calls us to vote. In fact, it call us to participate, whether through elected office, or appointments to a committee (on a local level), etc. It "demands" of it's citizens this participation. Indeed, the entire system becomes "false" without that participation (false in the sense that it is no longer a representative democracy)

Does Romans 13 mean we owe participation to our representative democracy? Or does this fall outside of the eternal truths of Romans 13? Is Paul limiting us to strictly that which he specifies, or do we need to "contextualize" that eternal truth to how it applies to a different type of government than existed in that specific time and situation he wrote that?

(this assumes we both agree Paul actually wrote this section, which I believe we do also).

Steve Scott said...

I both agree and to a lesser extent disagree. Because Jesus is king, everything is political. Jesus DID come to start a political revolution, just not in the way most people think of politics. Civil politics consists almost entirely of the usurpation of other legitimate authority. Jesus came to free us to execute the authority He gives us in other areas.

The highest form of government is self-government. It is so highly regarded by God that it is the fruit of the Spirit. (Gal. 5) When the state tries to regulate me or my family by passing laws, it is declaring war on Christian liberty. Frank nailed it in his first comment when he asked if any law eliminated anything. It's sad, but the dominant religion as I see it among conservative evangelicals is salvation by law.

Your last point from Matthew 20 is right on. Being lorded over by Gentiles is NOT for us Christians. The greater context in Matt 20 of absolute private property rights bears this out. I believe that the only useful political position is the elimination of politics itself.

lawrence said...

good material...loved the Cromwell quote...

jeff said...

I feel that as a Christian I need to be most concerned with learning to govern myself and to obey authority that God has placed over me. I do believe I have a responsibility to participate in our representative republic or democracy or whatever it is. But politicians don't always act in a way that I would agree with, and if I voted for them, then I feel responsible and I find it hard to justify their behavior sometimes. As I'm sure everyone would agree. These are very challenging and interesting times in which we live. Thanks for the post and comments.

artfling said...

I agree with the comments about self government being all-important. In fact, I think tyrannical expressions of civil government come as a curse because of our lack of self government and because the church does things like goes into the entertainment business instead of helping the welfare of their members and preaching the word. Still, the church has a prophetic duty to the civil realm. The church needs to uphold biblical law, not natural law, as primary. Then she needs to force the antithesis in discussions private and public. This is political activism.

Sister Judith Hannah said...

Dear Brethren at Pyromaniacs and Friends...

Just a note from Sister Judith Hannah, once again. :)

I thought I should bring to mind the words of the Apostle Paul, as he wrote to Timothy regarding this very issue. He admonished Timothy in this manner:

No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier.

Would that not pertain to the politcal arena? What could be more entangling as the affairs of this life.... than politics?

Even better than that are the words of Our LORD. HE+ said,"My Kingdom is NOT of THIS world: If my Kindgom WERE of THIS WORLD, then would My Servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is My Kingdom NOT from hence."

Even for the protection of our very LORD HIMSELF+, we were not allowed to fight... not for HIM+ nor for anything pertaining to this temporal and illusionary world.

You see,the REAL Kingdom of GOD is that which is Eternal, in the Heavenlies, and invisible... as of yet.

But, there is coming a day when it will be made manifest. And then, all those who are found in CHRIST JESUS will ALSO be made manifest!

What a glorious Savior we serve!

So very opposite of the ways of this world!

That is why His+ followers never picketed the public baths nor other places of immorality which were rampant in their day. They didn't go to public sports arenas either, deeming them "war games" and places where the world played.

Instead, they redeemed the time to the best of their abilities.

May we all train ourselves to go and do likewise, that when HE+ comes, we may be found well pleasing unto HIM+.

+ + +
In CHRIST, our Life,
Sister Judith Hannah

Rick Frueh said...

Just a minor reading of the morphing of the Lutheran Church in Germany under Hitler will serve as a template for what usually happens through political osmosis into the church.

Politics, and American politics specifically, are a dirty, scandalous, boasting, personal invective laced, manipulative, duplicitous, self promoting, accomplishment inflated, and redundant process all of which is generated by obscene amounts of money both wasted in media fabrications and much of which finds its way into the personal coffers of the political thespians themselves.

Other than that, it's OK.

Mike said...

Rick, I agree with your 2nd paragraph of your comment.

Jim said...

Esther is a Biblical example of lobbying the govt. It seems that Christians have a responsibility to lobby govt to protect the lives of others. Today, we have a responsibility to lobby the govt to protect the lives of the unborn.

Teresita said...

Steve Scott: When the state tries to regulate me or my family by passing laws, it is declaring war on Christian liberty.

You are equivocating on the definition of law. Christians are liberated from the law of religious ordinances, such as rituals of washing hands or eating unleavened bread on Passover, etc. These were taken away and nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). However, we are still subject to the laws of the authorities which are ordained by God (Romans 13:1-4) until Christ comes again.