October 27, 2020

A Primer in Political Theology for this Election

Many conscientious pastors, along with other Christian teachers in the churches, are trying to help our sisters and brothers in Christ discern how to act politically in good conscience. Our goal is to help the flock of God to act righteously in the voting booth and responsibly in the public square during this tumultuous and fractious election season. Believers in our churches are struggling with how to cast their votes in a way that is true in this context and right before God. And we need each other’s help to discern the mind of Christ.

Two Important Questions

In order to function properly, the conscience must first be attuned to God’s will. Second, the conscience must also be provided with adequate knowledge regarding the political options available in our context. Our problem is, therefore, twofold. The flock of Christ needs help answering two important questions. 

The first is the pragmatic question, the question to which many theologians too often immediately proceed, assuming the conscience will function properly, if we only give it the right information. The second is the judicial question, concerning the equipping of the consciences of the saints to make proper decisions, but this is more difficult and requires personal transformation as well as continuing theological maturation:

  1. The Pragmatic Question: What are the political options before me? 
  2. The Judicial Question: How would God have me address these options with a good conscience?

Dealing Honestly with the Pragmatic Question

Pursuing the first question almost entirely, many Christian leaders now seek to sway the flock of Jesus one way or another by pointing out the promises and the problems with the persons and/or policies among which we have to choose. While pursuing the pragmatic question is important, indeed necessary for moral decision making, answering the question about political personality and party policy will never be enough on its own. 

It is inadequate merely to point out the promises and problems available with the various political options, much less to focus simplistically on the problems of one side alone. If Christian teachers speak to politics, and we should, we must ensure the people of God have adequate information about important contemporary options. But to be trusted as genuine truth tellers, we must also speak with adequacy and clarity about those options. Pastors should not merely point out the problems in one party and the promises of the other, nor must we accuse one politician for his or her problems while we silently excuse or even vocally defend the other. 

However, even were we to provide full disclosure about the various political options, this alone would still prove deficient. While we must help the flock learn to discern the morals of the various political persons and party platforms, this activity is woefully insufficient on its own. Moreover, as soon as we begin wading into the weeds of the contemporary political swamp, we find that even if we have adequate information about the various options, mere knowledge of the contemporary options is not enough.

In order to help believers exercise their choices properly, we must train our people in the proper conduct of their consciences. Developing a properly formed conscience is both a grace from God and a continual work within the human being. And, within the church community, this requires more than a simple appeal to one or two favored issues that currently prick our consciences about the social context in which we live. Certain important issues may be exceptionally critical by reason of their deadly effect, but no threat to human flourishing should be dismissed as inconsequential. Every human being is created in the divine image and deserves to be treated with utmost dignity. And the ways we choose to pursue this end must be thoroughly informed by the best practical data through the theologically-informed conscience.

Dealing Adequately with the Judicial Question

How can we develop our consciences properly? We develop good consciences as we listen to the whole counsel of God and consider the various problems we face today. For those of us who are Christians, we must be careful to place ourselves theologically as well as socially. Our social location is important, for it reminds us of who we are and of the limits we face. But our theological location is also incredibly important. Because our current conversation has assumed the theological and majored on the practical, please allow me first to offer a few rules from Scripture that may help you form your own conscience properly and help your people form theirs, too.

Following are seven key theological truths from Scripture, doctrines which must be kept in mind as we who are pastors and teachers speak to our people about the political crises in our day and time. If we do this well enough, our people will be better equipped to make wise decisions not only today but in future years, and not only in the grand political crises but in all the moral crises, large or small, which we face in our ongoing social conversation. After reviewing these seven key scriptural doctrines, we must also summarily consider matters of general revelation.

Seven Key Political Doctrines

First, we are all creatures and not the Creator. God is eternal. He knows everything. He is righteous. He knows human hearts. He will always make the perfect judgment at the perfect time. Human beings were created by God, and we all have severe temporal and spatial limits as creatures. We must constantly recognize our limits of knowledge. We don’t know all the facts, and we cannot read human hearts, though we can see human actions. We are utterly dependent upon God in order to make a right judgment. Prayer toward God and integrity toward other people is our only proper response.

Second, we are all sinners and remain works in progress. There is not one perfect politician or political party on this planet. Realistically, we cannot demand perfection out of those who are manifestly imperfect. We become hypocrites the moment we demand perfection in one character while dismissing that requirement for our own character or for the character of our favored candidate. This does not mean we should turn a blind eye to flaws in persons and polities. It does mean we should be slow to judge and quick to forgive. Moreover, we must remember that evil is rooted in the heart of every person. No party has a monopoly on wickedness, and no politician is thoroughly righteous.

Third, we have one King and no other. We must worship and praise Christ publicly and privately, and we must worship him alone. There have been isolated moments in the last 13 years where I was genuinely concerned for proponents of major political parties and leaders. When churches turn their hymns and songs of praise toward politicians, parties, and nations, they dally with idolatry. It is often said that we are not voting for a pastor but for a president. Very true, but remember also we are not voting for a messiah. That role is already taken. No mere president, senator, or congressman, nor even the might and wisdom of a whole nation, will solve our real problems with full justice. We have one Lord, and his name is Jesus. Our hearts must be enthusiastic for Christ alone, as we pursue righteousness in this world.

Fourth, we must seek the welfare of our society and its inhabitants. Jeremiah reminded the exiles from Jerusalem that they must seek the welfare of the city in which they currently resided, Babylon. Babylon was not a perfect city, as no human city is perfect. Indeed, it was full of vile and vice. But so are all human cities. We might construct measures of wickedness with regard to various cities, as long as we remember that every human culture is a conglomeration of human beings and that we are all sinners deserving of death. But this is no reason for fight or flight. Rather, Jeremiah calls the people of God to advance the flourishing of those human beings who inhabit the same place they do. The Old Testament also made it clear that the weakest inhabitant must become a matter of priority for the people of God. These include the immigrant, the widow, and the abandoned child, the weak ones who have little or no voice and little or no power. Remember them when you exercise your judicial power on the ballot and in the courtroom.

Fifth, the Kingdom of Heaven is not yet here. No matter whether your favored political choice wins or not, the current political crisis is not absolute but relative. This too shall pass. Nations rise and fall. God has set their boundaries and times. This world is not our ultimate home. The author of Hebrews reminds us that Abraham was a sojourner who looked ultimately not for a city in this world but for a city whose builder and maker is God. Peter developed the metaphor of a resident alien to describe the place of the Christian in this world. This world is a passing point for us. We are responsible for helping the people we meet here to see the glorious and coming city of God rather than only the corrupted and failing cities of men. Remember to keep a proper eschatology and a proper hope. Recognize that the United States of America is not heaven.

Sixth, our primary responsibility in this age is presenting the really good news for sinners. Too often, even the most responsible Christian voice may become a wag for one politician or the other in the heated debates of our day. We can dress up our practical position as a matter of absolute political crisis or as a matter of studied principle. But, eventually, even the most principled voice risks coming off as too beholden to one political party or another. We may slip either by what we are saying explicitly, or by a change in tone when we speak of one option, or by our unwillingness to criticize the obvious evil in our preferred candidate or party. Alas, those who, by reason of conscience, disagree with our assessments, will be less likely to listen to us as we try to turn back to our primary conversation. Remember that the good news that Jesus Christ died for all sinners, which includes every political actor, is too important to get shunted to the side by our political passions. 

Seventh, whatever else, exercise grace toward everyone. As important as this election may be, nothing is as important as the one who is made in the image of God. Even if a person has done great evil, he or she still possesses an inherent dignity. Please, please, please refrain from diminishing their humanity in any form or fashion. Yes, speak truth, but speak it with grace. As my friend, Bruce Ashford, has said, “Truth without grace makes us political bullies and jerks. Grace without truth makes us political wimps and non-entities. Truth and grace together allows us to exhibit that great strength and witness that Christ himself exhibited.” And, as another friend, Bart Barber, recently pledged, we should pray for the winner of the election, no matter who that person is. And we should speak with civility at all times about him or her and about their opponents.

The Way of Jesus vs. The Way of the World

Let’s conclude this very short primer in political theology with a reminder that the way of Christ is not the way of the world. Though we must participate in a real world rather than an ideal world, Christ calls us to exhibit an ideal behavior which will catch the attention of a watching and soul-starving world. Our world’s rulers dominate people and exercise tyranny over them. However, as my senior pastor, Mark Forrest, recently reminded our church, Jesus also said, “it shall not be this way among you.” We are not called to exercise dominion over others but to serve others, with towels about our waists, ready to give our own blood in loving service to other precious image bearers, following the example and command of our Lord Jesus.

Serving also requires listening. Human consciences are formed best by Scripture, but they are also formed through listening to God’s general revelation, by common grace in and through nature and human logic. The conscience reflects divine law adequately enough to hold us accountable before God. However, the conscience may be misinformed, even seared. This is as true with regard to cultures as with individuals. Sadly, horrific sins like abortion and racism can become accepted cultural norms through custom and/or law. 

Happily, the misinformed conscience may be corrected in part through careful listening to others. Listening well takes a humble heart. Mutual and respectful listening can open doors which should never have been shut, doors others may not see in their own hearts, doors we may not see in our own hearts. So, listen to the other side of the political divide. Listen with genuine attention. Listen with gracious spiritual discernment. Listen to truth with love before you speak truth with love.

Finally, when you have to do so, make your political choice the best you can. Follow your conscience, but make sure your conscience hears God well. Listen to Scripture first and foremost, but also listen to one another. “Conscience” (Greek syneidesis, Latin conscientia) means “to think with,” and we must think with God first, but we also learn to think with one another. After all, Paul said, “We have the mind of Christ.” Paul did not say, “I,” but “we.” The plural is significant.

Whoever you think you should vote for, Christian leader, remember these several truths from Scripture. If you will keep Christ's Kingdom priorities and Kingdom ways as your own, your people will have better developed consciences. And you will have a more dynamic and successful ministry where it really counts, in lives changed by the good news that Jesus loves sinners. This is the real good news for every last single one of us, no matter what our politics.

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