Are these our options? Political idolatry on the one hand and political silence on the other? Shall we presume to protect the gospel’s relevance by cordoning it off from certain areas of our life? The Church all over the world — not just in the West — has real problems figuring out how to press the gospel into every corner of the cultural room, as it were, without it getting walked all over. I do think the Word of God helps us navigate these things.
Peter offers help:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 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. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
— 1 Peter 2:11-17
What basic outline does this passage offer us for seeing the Church’s place in the politicized world? I see three basic hallmarks of the Church’s witness:
1. Respectable and respectful participants
2. Bold prophets
3. Faithful proclaimers
First, Peter reminds the brethren that their citizenship is in heaven (“sojourners and exiles”). This world is not our home, so we should not live like our ultimate treasure is anything temporary, whether it be good or bad or neutral. As it pertains to the Christian and politics, “abstain from the passions of the flesh” is really important. We are used to thinking of drunkenness and sexual immorality and the like in relation to that phrase, but it is equally applicable to political zealotry. Too many of us indulge the passions of the flesh when it comes to treating our candidates like messiahs, the other candidates like devils, and assuming laws and leaders and our land itself is the hope of the world. All of this is passing away, and we ought to treat it like it is.
And yet Peter is not necessarily advocating a withdrawal from the system. He is advocating honorable citizenship, a participation that commends the gospel of the kingdom. The level of political participation will vary Christian to Christian, culture to culture, as conscience and conviction demands. Certainly there is no biblical legality for voting or not voting, politicking or not politicking. Let us be ruled by the Spirit in the matters on which the Scriptures are silent. But whether we vote or don’t vote, campaign or don’t campaign, let us do all things to the glory of God. This means at the very least, living upright, honorable, charitable, respectful lives as witness to our real citizenship. It also means not buying into the political idolatry of any side, playing tit for tat, spinning the truth or lying or embracing hypocrisy or whitewashing our problematic candidates. It means refraining from rhetoric that reveals we worship false gods. Let’s be respectable and respectful participants.
Secondly, Peter encourages the brethren to be subject to the human governmental and civic institutions “for the Lord’s sake” (cf. Paul’s words in Romans 13:1-7). So we obey the laws that do not violate God’s laws, and we do so with the commendation of Christ in mind. So when we have to pay our taxes, we pay our taxes with Christ in mind. And if we vote, we vote with Christ in mind. Vote, but vote as if you are not voting.
“Live as people who are free,” Peter says. We will not be tied to any particular political or legislative outcomes as if our ultimate hope or devastation are tied to them. We will not let our affections be owned by who is in the State House or the White House.
“Live as servants of God,” Peter says, and here we get another shade to what it means to live as people who are free in a politicized world. It means participating respectfully and respectably, but it also means living as those whose ultimate allegiance is to God and not men. In Acts 5:27-29, when the apostles are brought before the authorities to remind them that they have handed down the law restricting their freedom to preach the gospel, the answer they provide is not mute submission. They say, “We must obey God rather than men.” We are beholden ultimately to God, not our political party or the American government, so when we are called to violate God’s commands we cannot obey. Indeed, when we see systemic sins and injustices promoted and protected by the powers that be, as servants of God we are required to be bold prophets.
The Bible provides quite a history of the unique role of God’s community speaking truth to power. Think Moses to Pharaoh, Nathan to David, Daniel and friends to Nebuchadzezzar, the prophets to the kings, John the Baptist to Herod, and the apostles to everybody in saying “Jesus is Lord” in the day of the Caesars. No, they did not conflate the kingdom of God with the kingdom of the world, and no, they did not conflate gospel with legislation, but they were not silent about the kingdom’s opposition to injustice and immorality. And churchmen of conscience have maintained this same responsibility time and time again throughout history, acting and speaking directly to say the gospel’s “No” to the political world’s gross injustices.
The reforms throughout history as it pertains to slavery, civil rights, orphans, care for the poor, AIDS in Africa, and now abortion and sex trafficking were and are gospel issues requiring the moral compass of the Church to speak boldly and prophetically. We can most certainly deny that the gospel is everything while maintaining that the gospel helps us know how to think and talk about everything.
Peter closes this way, “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Notice the parallels between “everyone” and “the emperor.” They are due honor. The Church is distinguished as being owed love, not because all others do not deserve love but because the household of faith, as the family that endures eternally, receives a special loving allegiance above the world and its rulers. The gates of hell will prevail against the gates of cultures and kingdoms. But not the church. And Peter roots it all — familial love for the brethren, the honor kind of love for everybody else — in “fear of God.” Where is our reverence due? Where is our worship due? Where are our affections due? The gracious God who loves us, saves us, redeems us, secures us, and promises us the glory to come. Therefore we will be faithful proclaimers of this God and his kingdom through stubborn fixation on his gospel. The gospel is our plumb line for discerning between activism and apathy in all things.
We resolve to be honorable citizens in this world because we are citizens of another, and we resolve to speak truth to power boldly because we must obey God rather than men, and we resolve to know nothing except Christ and him crucified, because he is the hope of the politically idolatrous world.