In less than a year from now, Malawians will go to polls to elect their president, members of parliament, and local government leaders (councilors). As always, some of the questions that Christians have now include should Christians join politics and what role should the church play in regard to politics? In this post, I am wrestling with such questions and endeavoring to give answers that I believe are biblical.
We will do well to begin by reminding ourselves that Christ is the King over all the earth (Col. 3:16, 17). He is the one who removes kings and sets up kings (Dan. 2:21). As one Dutch Reformed theologian once observed, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
Therefore, Christians can and should join politics if the Lord calls them. They should not be afraid to accept the calling believing that politics is a dirty game as it is often said. For sure, politics like any other human institution can be full of sin at times, but Christianity is not Gnosticism, which believes that the matter or the world is evil. Christianity does not minimize the consequences of the fall on human race yet at the same time it is always hopeful of the power of the gospel and the knowledge that Christ is redeeming his creation including the fallen political systems of our world.
The Westminster Confession of Faith best captures the Bible’s teaching about a Christian’s involvement in politics: “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate (government official or politician), when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion” (Chapter 31.5). Please notice the emphasis here is that Christians who are called into politics are to maintain piety, justice and peace of their country.
But while Christians could be called to serve as politicians, the calling of the church is different. The church is never called into politics. She is called to pray for magistrates and give them godly counsel when needed to but she should never turn the pulpit into a political podium. (There is a great nuance here since when Christians join politics it could also be said in one sense that the church is in politics. But I believe that you get what I am trying to put across. The separation of the church and state is never absolute because we will always have members of the church who are also members of the state).
Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful here: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (Chapter 31.5)
It is important to notice that the confession does not completely prohibit the church from petitioning or advising the government. When the civil magistrates have asked the church for advice, the church should do so gladly and dutifully. “The Church and State may co-operate in the advancement of objects common to both; but each of them must be careful to act within its own proper sphere- the one never intermeddling with the affairs which properly belong to the province of the other.” Nonetheless, the cooperation of the State and the Church must never mean blurring the line that clearly separates the two.
That said, the next question I anticipate is: doesn’t the church ought to have a prophetic voice in society? Certainly, the church has a prophetic voice in any society; but it does not mean that she as an institution should become directly involved in the politics because that is not why Christ established his church. Christ often demonstrated that his mission was to be differentiated from that of the state. For example, Jesus refused a request of a certain man who asked him to mediate between him and his brother regarding their inheritance and specified that he was not a judge of a civil court (Luke 12:13:14). Another example is when Jesus was before Pontius Pilate. Christ refused to associate the Church with the kingdoms of this world when he clearly told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom 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,” (John 18:36).
What if the government oppresses its citizenry? Isn’t the church supposed to defend the poor and vulnerable and even be willing to pick up arms to fight against a wicked state? The Bible calls Christians to obey only the lawful commands of the magistrates. Therefore if the magistrates command what is unlawful, the church ought to stand up and declare as the early church that she will obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Nevertheless, it’s never the calling of the church to be in forefront picking up arms against the state.
The Reformers, more especially, John Calvin ably discusses how the Church should respond to “wicked and intolerable” governments. He notes that the Church which in this case means members of the visible church (whom Calvin also refers to as private citizens) should never directly pick up arms against the state but rather support other magistrates who after observing the wickedness of their government/leadership have mounted resistance. This teaching is sometimes called the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates. Calvin writes,
For if there are now any magistrates of the people appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings…I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with the duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.
The Church is not a lesser magistrate (an opposition party). The lesser magistrates, especially those who are Christians, have a responsibility to restrain the evil of unjust kings over their subjects. In cases where the greater magistrates (governing authorities) are oppressing their citizens, Christians should come behind the lesser magistrates and support, pray, and encourage them in their efforts to curb the evil or injustices from the greater magistrates. All this is to be done within the bounds of the just laws.
Robert Shaw, The Reformed faith: exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith(Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2008), 398.
Calvin,Institutes of the Christian religion.IV.XX.31