By Jim Denison, Op-ed Contributor
William Wilberforce experienced a spiritual rebirth on Easter 1786 that led him to discover his life’s purpose. As he wrote later in his diary, “My walk is a public one. My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.”
He soon came to see the horrors of the English slave trade and became so convicted that he wrote, “Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its absolution.”
He was vilified by pro-slavery forces and blocked repeatedly in Parliament. However, the persistent and sacrificial efforts of Wilberforce and his associates finally led to the abolishing of the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire. Historian G. M. Trevelyan later called this “one of the turning events in the history of the world.”
As Wilberforce’s story illustrates, God can use Christians in politics for profound and transformational good.
Merriam-Webster defines “politics” as “the art or science of government.” The word comes from the Greek polis, meaning “city.” It has its roots in Aristotle’s classic work, Politika, which introduced the Greek term politika, meaning “affairs of the cities.”
Anthropologists generally recognize four kinds of political systems:
The band: a small family group consisting of no more than thirty to fifty individuals.
The tribe: a group consisting of many families with social institutions such as chiefs or elders. They are more permanent than bands.
The chiefdom: more complex than a tribe or a band society, they have a centralized authority structure and institutional leadership.
The sovereign state: a state with a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to relate to other sovereign states.
For the purposes of this paper, we will focus on biblical insights with regard to the “sovereign state” of the United States.
What does God’s word say to us in the midst of the 2020 election?
What insights can help Christians relate more effectively to our culture as salt and light?
How can we make a difference in this season and act in ways that empower our witness when the election is over?
Let’s consider three biblical facts.
One: God calls and uses political leaders
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed, “Politicians have no leisure, because they are always aiming at something beyond political life itself, power and glory, or happiness.” Russian Premiere Nikita Khrushchev made a similar point: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”
It is tempting for Christians to stay “above” politics and out of the fray. In this day of “cancel culture” and 24/7 media coverage, in a nation that feels more divided and divisive than ever, it is understandable for good people to sit on the sidelines.
However, as Plato noted, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
The Bible makes clear that, despite the stigma often associated with politics, God calls and uses political leaders. Consider three dimensions of this call.
God uses leaders who partner with him. The Bible is replete with stories of political leaders called and used by God to work with him in advancing his kingdom on earth. Let’s review four such examples.
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers at the age of seventeen. Thirteen years later, he became what we might call the “prime minister” of Egypt, the world’s greatest superpower.
His rise to power was no accident: when he was in prison, God gave him the ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, thus predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine (Genesis 41:1–36). As a result, “Pharaoh said to his servants, ‘Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?’” (v. 38).
Pharaoh then appointed Joseph to political office: “You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you” (v. 40). This description means Joseph was appointed “grand vizier” or prime minister of Egypt.
In this role, he was instrumental in saving the Egyptian people and his own family from starvation, preserving the Jewish nation through whom the Messiah would come one day.
Two: Israel’s leaders
God called Moses to lead his people out of Egyptian slavery (Exodus 3) and then Joshua to follow next (Joshua 1:1–2). The Lord then “raised up judges, who saved [the nation] out of the hand of those who plundered them” (Judges 2:16). God later designated Saul to be Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 9:15–17) and David to be his successor (1 Samuel 16:12–13).
The book of Esther tells us about the plot of Haman against God’s people in Persia. After this nefarious plot was exposed, “the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai” (Esther 8:2). This action advanced Mordecai to the position of first minister of the king with authority akin to that of Joseph centuries earlier.
As a result, “Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, and with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple” (v. 15). Soon “the fear of Mordecai” fell on “all the officials of the provinces and the satraps and the governors and the royal agents” of the land (Esther 9:3). This was because “Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful” (v. 4).
Consequently, Mordecai’s leadership enabled the Jews to defend themselves from their enemies, again preserving the nation through whom the Messiah would come.
Four: Daniel and his friends
Daniel and his friends were Jewish exiles in Babylon. Scripture says that “God gave them learning and skill in all literature and wisdom, and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams” (Daniel 1:17). As a result, the king elevated them to positions of political authority.
Then, when Daniel (like Joseph) interpreted the king’s dreams, “the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48).
Clearly, God calls some people into political service. We see this fact not only in Scripture but across history as well.
According to Pew Research Center, nearly all US presidents have been identified with the Christian faith. Eleven were Episcopalian; nine were Presbyterian; four were Baptist; four were Unitarian; three were Methodist; three were members of the Christian church; two were members of the Disciples of Christ; two were Dutch Reformed; two were Quaker; one was Catholic; and one was a Congregationalist. Only Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln had no formal church affiliation.
William Wilberforce’s Christian faith led him to fight within Parliament for the abolition of the slave trade in England. Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon was the only active clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister before he assumed political leadership of the civil rights movement.
It is clear that God calls some people into political service and uses them in this role.
God uses leaders who oppose Him
Generations after Joseph’s death, another Pharaoh who saw the Jewish people as a threat rose to power (Exodus 1:8–12) and “ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves” (v. 13).
In response, God raised up Moses to oppose Pharaoh and free his people from slavery. God then used Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” to bring about the Exodus. As a result, “Israel saw the great power that the Lord used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31).
The Lord used King Herod’s attempt to murder the baby Jesus to fulfill biblical prophecy regarding his Son’s flight to Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15). He likewise used opposition from Jewish authorities in Jerusalem to bring his Son to the cross as our Savior.
After Roman magistrates in Philippi gave orders for Paul and Silas to be beaten and imprisoned (Acts 16:22–24), God redeemed their suffering by leading their jailer and his family to Christ (vv. 25–34). The Lord used opposition from a Roman government official to bring Paul to Rome (Acts 25:12). He used Rome’s exile of John to Patmos to give us the book of Revelation (cf. Revelation 1:9).
As a contemporary example, Christianity has exploded in China in the decades after Communist leaders took over in 1949. Today, China is the world’s largest producer of Bibles. There are more Christians than members of the Communist Party in China. According to one scholar, “On any given Sunday, there are almost certainly more Protestants in church in China than in all of Europe.“
And no one knows with certainty the size of the “underground” church in China. When I was in Beijing several years ago, I met with a group of pastors who serve such congregations. Their stories about divine protection and evangelistic multiplication read like the book of Acts.
I have been privileged to travel to Cuba ten times over the years. The spiritual awakening occurring in this Communist country is truly inspiring. On my first visit, I told one of the Cuban pastors that I was sorry for the persecution he and his people were facing and that I was praying for such opposition to lessen. He asked me not to continue with such intercession, explaining that persecution was strengthening his people and purifying their faith.
Then he added that he and many other Cubans were praying for persecution to increase in the US for the same reasons.
God uses leaders who don’t know they are being used
The Persian king under whom Mordecai served issued an edict stating that “the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them” (Esther 8:11). We have no biblical evidence that the king knew he was working to preserve God’s chosen people through whom our Savior would come, but he was.
When Paul’s enemies brought him before the court in Corinth, the proconsul Gallio set him free, enabling the apostle’s continued ministry (Acts 18:12–16). When a riot led by idolaters broke out in Ephesus, “some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of [Paul’s], sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater” (Acts 19:31). The “Asiarchs” were custodians of the imperial Roman cult in Asia and people of high political rank.
The crowd dragged Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions, into the theater. However, the “town clerk” (the chief administrative officer in Ephesus) “quieted the crowd” and persuaded them to disperse (vv. 35, 41).
When Paul returned to Jerusalem, another riot broke out. However, “the tribune of the cohort” intervened (Acts 21:31). He was commander of a thousand soldiers and a person of significant authority in the city. He preserved Paul’s life and enabled the furtherance of his ministry.
The Jewish authorities then plotted to take Paul’s life, but his nephew warned him and then brought word to the tribune. This official then provided protection for Paul and sent him along with an explanatory letter to Felix the governor in Caesarea (Acts 23:17–35).
Felix later heard Paul’s case and refused to turn him over to his adversaries (Acts 24:22–23). His successor, Festus, refused a request for Paul to be returned to Jerusalem, not knowing that his enemies “were planning an ambush to kill him on the way” (Acts 25:3). Festus then honored Paul’s appeal to Caesar and provided him transportation and security to Rome (Acts 27:1).
The Bible teaches that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1). No matter what circumstances seem to say, “kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (Psalm 22:28).
As a result, we can know that God is using leaders whether they know they are being used or not. John Calvin was right: “It is a most blessed thing to be subject to the sovereignty of God.”
Two: God is calling us to participate in politics
I have been privileged over the years to know several Christians in political leadership, both as their pastor and as their friend. One of the frequent concerns I have heard them express is the common misperception that Christians have done all they need to do if they elect Christians to office.
The fact is, voting is vital, but it is just the beginning of our biblical responsibility with regard to politics.
It is true that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), but it is also true that we are to be good stewards of our time on earth. The Lord told his exiled people in Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:5–7).
As the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13–14), the flourishing of our world is, in part, our responsibility. If I have the only light in a dark room, its darkness is my fault. Caring for our culture and engaging in its political processes is part of good citizenship for God’s people.
To that end, consider four practical imperatives for Christians.
As we have seen, voting is an essential responsibility for all Americans and for all Christians.
We should learn all we can about the candidates and their positions, especially in the context of biblical principles. We should ask God to guide us in casting our ballots.
The Voting Assistance Center at MyFaithVotes.org offers a wealth of helpful resources to this end, covering federal, state, and local candidates.
And we should encourage everyone we can to vote as well.
Are you asking God to prepare you to vote this fall?
Engage with legislators
One of the values of representative democracy is the degree to which our leaders are responsible to those who elect them. Several political leaders have shared with me the fact that even a few citizens who make their views known on pending legislation can make an enormous difference.
You can contact your congressional representatives (it is best to speak to them or their aides personally rather than sending emails or leaving voice mails that can be ignored). You can go to meetings organized by leaders in your community. You can organize groups to speak with your representatives about issues important to you.
And you can volunteer for candidates and causes. You can knock on doors, make fundraising calls, and organize voter-registration drives. (For more, see “How to Participate in Politics“.)
Are you asking God to show you if and how he wants you to be involved personally in our political process?
Serve in public office
As we have seen, God calls men and women into political service and uses their work for his glory and our good.
I am convinced, in fact, that God is calling more Christians into public service today than are answering his call.
Have you asked God if he is calling you into such service?
Paul’s word to Timothy is God’s word to us: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1–2).
We are to pray for our leaders whether we agree with them or not; in fact, the less we agree, the more we should intercede. We should pray not just for the president and national leaders but for state and local leaders as well.
Do you know the names of your city council?
Are you praying for them and for your mayor?
For your governor and state officials?
For the president and his cabinet?
Three: We must serve our highest authority
A survey of biblical teaching with regard to politics would not be complete without a discussion of religious liberty.
As noted in my paper, “What does the Bible say about religious liberty?“, Scripture calls us to obey and support our governing authorities:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).
“This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:6–7 NIV).
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Timothy 2:1–2 NIV; cf. Titus 3:1–2).
However, we are also to obey and serve our Lord:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs. 1:7).
“You kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10–12 NIV).
“By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth” (Proverbs 8:15–16 NIV).
Jesus gave us the foundational principle for relating the two: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
The balance between Christ and Caesar is captured in Peter’s admonition:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. . . . Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13–14, 17).
Note that we are to “honor” the emperor, but we are to “fear” only God. This means that if we must choose, we must choose our highest authority.
We should come to this position only if we must, first seeking every means to obey the secular authorities while remaining true to our Lord. But there are times when we must declare with the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
In 2017, Chinese officials began ordering Christians to replace images of Jesus in their homes with posters of President Xi Jinping. I know believers in Cuba who have been told that they would have better jobs for themselves and schools for their children if they would renounce their commitment to Christ.
Even when we must oppose political leaders, we must do so in the character of Christ. It is imperative that we seek the empowering of the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18) in order to manifest the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22–23).
We need to go to those with whom we disagree, speaking to them rather than about them (cf. Matthew 18:15). And we must never say about them what we would not say to them.
We must refuse slander (cf. Psalm 101:5) and deceit (Exodus 20:16), “speaking the truth in love” always (Ephesians 4:15). It is urgent to remember that we represent the Lord in all we say and do.
George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, “The propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained.”
What if the spiritual future of our country depended upon the degree to which God’s people incarnate and advance “the eternal rules of order and right” in our day?