The political season is upon us, and soon we’ll be casting our votes for our chosen political candidates. Some Christians, however, wonder whether we should be involved in politics at all. They think politics are “worldly,” and we’re only faithful to engage the world through evangelism and missions. Other Christians seem obsessively interested in politics, and seem to think that if we win the important political battles, we’re advancing the kingdom of God.
But I submit that Christians need to avoid two extremes in their thinking about politics. At one extreme, Christians put too much confidence in politics. To those at this extreme, Psalm 146:3 warns, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” At the other extreme, some Christians refuse to be involved in politics at all. But Proverbs 29:4 says, “By justice a king builds up a land” (cf. 20:8, 26). Scripture clearly teaches that national rulers should rule according to God’s justice. Thus, Christians shouldn’t put their hope in politics, but neither should they withdraw political engagement.
The first clear biblical instructions about government appear in the Noahic covenant, which is sometimes called the “covenant of common grace.” This covenant wasn’t merely made with Noah, but with the whole world. In the Noahic covenant, God gave mankind plants and animals for food, implying that He expects people to work for their food in human society. He also issued a law prohibiting murder and prescribing the death penalty for murderers. Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.” The Hebrew verb “shall be shed” should be read in the jussive mood, a third person command, which is prescriptive of what should happen, not merely descriptive of what does happen. The Noahic covenant, therefore, clearly teaches that God requires a certain legal submission from all human societies.
Throughout the Old Testament, we find God’s people wisely calling Gentile rulers to govern according to God’s standards. For example, Daniel boldly warned Nebuchadnezzar, “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed” (Dan 4:27). Elsewhere, Scripture is clear that Christians are to lovingly seek the good of their neighbors. Jeremiah instructed the Jewish exiles in Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf” (Jer 29:7). While evangelism and missions certainly seek the highest good of “the city,” political engagement seeks to preserve social order and human flourishing for the good of “the city.”
Other Old Testament prophets called down God’s judgment, not only upon Israel, but also upon Gentile nations and their political rulers for their unrighteousness. This shows that God has always been concerned with the political behaviors of the nations. For example, Isaiah warned of God’s judgment upon Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Cush, and Egypt (Isaiah 13-23) for sinful warfare, deceptive economic practices, oppression, and various violations of justice. Similar prophetic judgments appear in other places of the Old Testament: Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-32; Amos 1-2; Obadiah; Jonah; Nahum; Habakkuk 2 (a taunt song against the Babylonians for violating God’s moral law); Zephaniah 2.
When we come to the New Testament, God’s expectation of Gentile rulers doesn’t change. John the Baptist rightly confronted king Herod “for all the evil things that Herod had done” in his rule (Lk 3:18-20), where “evil” is defined by God. Paul wisely instructed the Roman governor Felix “about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). Romans 13:4 says that the government is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer,” where the “wrongdoer” is identified by God’s own social commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet, and any other commandment” (Rom 13:9). 1 Peter 2:13 says the government is “sent by Him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good,” again, where social “evil” and social “good” are defined by God Himself in His Word.
In sum, the Bible teaches that unbelieving rulers and Gentile nations are responsible to God. Psalm 2:10-11 says, “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way.” As citizens of the United States, let us seek political leaders who will “be wise” and “be warned” in their offices.