In Micah 6:8, we find what has been called the Great Requirement:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Just as the Great Commandment requires us to actively love our neighbors, the Great Requirement commands us to further the cause of justice.
The first part of this requirement, “act justly,” obligates believers to take affirmative steps toward promoting justice. Like love, justice is more than merely the lack of injustice. Justice is substantive and active; it means we’re willing to give of ourselves for others. The political arena enables Christians to act justly in meaningful ways.
The prophet Isaiah describes God as a purveyor of righteousness and justice continually, and speaks to God’s expectation that his children will bring about righteousness and justice as well (Isaiah 59:14-17). Justice is a clear and prominent theme in the Old and New Testaments. Also, in both the Old and New Testament, Scripture tells us that government is ordained by God. Paul writes in Romans, “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” (Romans 13:1). Government is for our good (Romans 13:4), and there is a biblical expectation that governmental bodies ought to uphold and advance justice (Amos 5:15). The Psalms contain a prayer that governmental leaders of that time might “defend the afflicted among the people, save the children of the needy,” and “crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4).
In other words, our government is tasked by God with protecting us and rendering justice.
Moreover, while there is no biblical prescription for precisely which system of government (monarchy, liberal democracy, etc.) is best, we can trust that God has placed us in a particular time, place and context in which political decisions regularly affect our neighbors for good and for ill. Therefore, Christians should participate in the political system and do our best to ensure that society is treating people fairly and upholding healthy standards of human dignity. In Jeremiah 29:7, God calls the believer to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” We’re not islands unto ourselves; we’re affected by what goes on around us and should pray and take action out of concern for it.
Whether we’re protecting the unborn, supporting fair prison sentences, or making sure the elderly are taken care of, politics provides a forum for advocating for our neighbor’s well-being and pursuing justice. Our daily walk should be a promotion of the love and truth of the gospel (Ephesians 4:15). Treating all God’s children with human dignity through the political arena is an opportunity we should not bypass. Politics provides Christians with an opportunity to actively love our neighbors through advocacy, policymaking and civic representation. To refuse to engage in politics is to refuse to take advantage of a useful tool for God’s work.
Putting the Witness Before the Win
While politics can be used for good purposes, we shouldn’t ignore the concerns of those who fear that it can corrupt individual Christians and taint the church. Throughout history Christians have certainly misused and been used by politics. We have supported unjust institutions and failed to correct elected officials who’ve harmed people.
Christians have to be deliberate about avoiding the pitfalls of political participation. While we certainly shouldn’t plan to lose, Christians must keep in mind that we aren’t engaging primarily to win political battles or to serve our own interest (1 Corinthians 10:24; Philippians 2:3-4). We already have the ultimate victory, which is our salvation and the kingdom that God has promised (Matthew 16:19; 25:34). Nothing in this world is comparable to our inheritance in the kingdom of God. No political ideology can replace the kingdom, nor does the kingdom of God rely on our political plans and priorities. Accordingly, we should participate in politics primarily to help others and to represent our Lord and Savior in the public square. This doesn’t mean we have to ignore our own interests, but we can’t be consumed and misled by them. Adherence to Jesus’ teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount, will prevent us from approaching politics in a self-serving way.
When in conflict we should demonstrate that our public witness is more important than winning a political battle. This means that if our side has to do something unloving or corrupt to win, then it’s better for us to lose in that situation. We once heard a Christian political activist and donor express despair to a friend about the fact that his candidate lost in a presidential election. He told his friend that the lesson he learned from the loss was that “next time, we just can’t tell the people what we actually want to do.”
This is completely wrong. It’s better to lose than to sacrifice our virtue for the sake of what is politically expedient, to defend leaders’ harmful policies, or to condone immorality. It is better to lose that temporal battle. If our actions don’t glorify God and serve as the salt and the light of the world, then they are good for nothing (Matthew 5:13-16).
The knock on many Christians in politics is that we use our religion as a cover to impose our prejudices and serve ourselves. Some of this criticism is unfair and malicious, but it has been true in too many instances. Just like Amaziah the priest in the book of Amos, some Christians have forsaken the Word of God for political favors and proximity to power (Amos 7:10-17). That’s sinful because it undermines God’s purpose for our own personal benefit.
Our primary purpose in life is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. That said, Christians should also participate in political activities because they give us a significant opportunity to actively love our neighbors by promoting their well-being and defending their best interests. The Bible and history show us that God’s children can do great work in politics as long as they aren’t of politics. There will be suffering and sin in the world until Jesus’ return, but through the power of God we can make a difference and reflect the kingdom of God through the political sphere.