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Evangelicals and the Allure of Power: Anticipating 2020

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A glaring fault line among evangelicals has opened up over whether Christians should support Donald Trump. This divide is raising larger questions: How should evangelicals relate to political power? How can they maintain a prophetic voice? When do they lose their holy distinction and become just another interest group?

On the cusp of another presidential cycle, it’s important for Christians to decide what kinds of power we should seek. To do that, we must explore the concept of power from a biblical worldview.

Power Source

Americans traveling in Europe are warned, “Your hairdryer could explode!” The different voltages and outlets make adapters and converters necessary. If a hairdryer explodes, it’s not the foreign power sources’s fault; it’s the fault of the person plugging something into the power source that doesn’t belong.

God has never been in need of power. From the opening chapter of Genesis, he is revealed as self-sufficient and all-powerful. He speaks things into being without prior materials and is the source of life itself. His word upholds the universe. He always accomplishes his will.

Yet while God is all-powerful, those bearing his image struggle to obtain power in many ways. As Christians, we are summoned to serve God and love others, relying on the Holy Spirit’s power to accomplish these ultimate aims (1 Cor. 4:20). But we also appropriately exercise power in earthly ways. In a democratic republic, citizens have power to vote for candidates, who are then given the power to govern. Christians can steward this power by wisely participating in voting and government service.

Trouble arises, though, when believers think the best way to meet their ultimate goals is through political power. They know God wants them to live righteous lives, and they want to live in a righteous society. What better way to accomplish this than with government power? But when Christians start relying solely on earthly power, they become willing to make moral compromises to maintain it. Otherwise how can they accomplish God’s will?

When Christians start relying solely on earthly power, they become willing to make moral compromises to maintain it.

But political power is not the power of the gospel. It’s not necessarily the power of God. God always accomplishes his will, and he doesn’t need Christians to morally compromise themselves to do so. Christians need to remember that they ultimately serve God and should avoid becoming too attached to earthly political power.

Nazi Germany is a classic example of the consequences of wedding the church too closely to political regimes. After losing in World War I, Christians in Germany were burdened and anxious due to various political, economic, and social changes. So the Nazi political party in the 1930s sought to soothe the Germans’ political angst. Many Christians were persuaded into linking arms with the power of the Nazis, especially given their claim to uphold “positive Christianity.” Tragically, time would soon expose this claim as counterfeit; it offered nothing to Christ and instead sacrificed millions of lives on the altar of Aryan supremacy.

These German Christians tried to bring about kingdom goals through earthly political power—and they wound up morally compromising in horrific ways.

When we try to plug the kingdom into an earthly political outlet, it doesn’t work. It might even explode.

Influence vs. Witness: Choose Wisely

When we consider the pomp and influence of celebrities—especially political figures—Jesus’s sojourn on earth is strikingly ordinary. The God-man lived in obscurity with little influence or power for most of his life. But John 6 recounts Jesus feeding a great multitude, after which his reputation picks up momentum:

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:14–15)

The scene is set. Jesus can become a king, challenge the reigning political powers, and launch this crowd into political insurrection. And yet, he exits stage left.

Jesus withdraws because the people want him to topple the present political administration. But he knows he must first wash feet. Though thousands now rally behind him, Jesus knows many of these men and women will soon become the mob screaming, “Crucify him!” While the people want to make him the elite of society, Jesus stubbornly identifies with the poor and downtrodden.

If we sacrifice witness for influence, we may get an earthly king, but we will lose the Savior. Yet if we sacrifice influence to maintain our witness, our witness becomes all the stronger, for it can only be explained by the power of God in our lives.

For contemporary Christians, following Jesus’s example doesn’t mean pulling away from political engagement, nor forfeiting opportunities to promote truth and justice. Following him does, however, mean submitting our desire for political power to the Christian mandate to bear witness to a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36).

If we sacrifice witness for influence, we may get an earthly king, but we will lose the Savior. Yet if we sacrifice influence to maintain our witness, our witness becomes all the stronger, for it can only be explained by the power of God in our lives.

Oval Office Isn’t the Throne

If evangelicalism in America wants to maintain its witness to the kingdom of a crucified Messiah, then the power of the gospel—not clamoring after power in the White House—must define its future. This gospel power both testifies to Jesus’s promise that the “last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matt. 20:16) and also validates Paul’s claim that God makes Christians strong in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9–11). Evangelical power is impotent if it fails to draw from the deep well of Holy Spirit strength that has sustained the church global for 2,000 years. The power of the Spirit often has subverted existing empires, all while energizing God’s people to seek the common good (Jer. 29:7).

No matter who wins next year, American Christians will experience various emotions after the 2020 election: disappointment, shock, and celebration, for starters. It’s likely many will proffer the cliché “God still sits on the throne” in the aftermath. Although true, considering the past three years and the current political climate, it might be more appropriate for Christians to tell each other in 2020 that God will never sit in the Oval Office, though he will judge whomever is there.

May we rely on God’s power and refuse to put our “trust in princes, in whom there is no salvation” (Ps. 146:3).

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