4 Theological Principles for Christian Political Activism
Engaging in political activism as a Christian is complex. As in many other topics, context matters. So let me explain myself. I’m an Australian pastor of a church in Melbourne, which is quite different than Manhattan, Memphis, or Miami. So some of my comments might need to be recalibrated for your context. If I were pastoring elsewhere, I assume I would have different emphases. But whether we’re in the Great Southland or some other part of the globe, one thing is certain: conversations about religion and politics are fraught. Though I recognize the potential dangers, I do believe there’s a place for Christian activism in the political sphere.
I want to offer four theological and pastoral suggestions for why and how Christians can be political activists.
1. Be clear whom you are serving: Jesus is Lord of all.
“In his name the nations will put their hope” (Matt 12:21).
Jesus is Lord over creation and the church: “All things were made by him and for him.” There’s no domain over which he does not rule. In every home and every hall of power, Christ has ultimate jurisdiction:
He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan. 7:14)
Authoritarian secularism is on the rise in Australia, especially in my state of Victoria. Aussies have traditionally had a laissez-faire relationship with churches, respecting their role and voice in the public square, even if they often chose to ignore it. But over the past decade, this cordial relationship has been effectively dismantled. Churches were once politely acknowledged in society, but now Christianity is considered by many as a danger that needs to be silenced—or, at the very least, controlled. Unfortunately, Australia has few constitutional and legal protections for religious institutions. Religion has been pushed out of the public square, and on its way out there’s been a growing agenda to increase governmental control over religious freedoms. This includes restricting what religious organizations may and may not teach on controversial issues, particularly marriage and human sexuality.
Should Christians, therefore, abandon the public square and remove themselves from the world of politics? I understand why many Christian feel like withdrawing, and there are fair arguments for doing so. But I want to contend that if Jesus is Lord over all, and if governments are put in place by God for the wellbeing of society, then at least some Christians should remain active in politics and societal engagement.
2. Be clear about the domain into which you are speaking: the distinction between the church and state.
We should never confuse the state with the church or the kingdom of God. Too often, Christians mistakenly fuse Christianity with nationalism or the Christian message with a particular brand of politics; the results can be catastrophic.
At the same time, God tells us how the church should relate to the state. Churches are commanded to pray for the government (1 Tim. 2:1–2). This imperative isn’t conditioned by our political preferences or by government decisions made in our favor. After all, Paul wrote at a time when there were no democratic societies and the government was largely intolerant of Christians.
Scripture also calls us to submit to and obey governing authorities, not because we agree with their policies but because God has put them in place (Rom. 13:1–6). Clearly, church and state, though separate domains, must relate to one another, even though the church recognizes the ultimate lordship of Christ over government authority.
For this reason, the church must not belong to, represent, or campaign for any political party. The church belongs only to the Lord Jesus Christ, not to the Liberal Party or the Labour Party (Australia’s two major political parties). A Christian may choose to join a political party, but a church should not. Though once in a while a pastor might have to say, “No, a Christian cannot walk down that path,” ordinarily the pulpit shouldn’t be used bind consciences to vote along party lines. When a church does this, we confuse both Christians and non-Christians alike about our message and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Instead of providing an alternative to our increasingly polarized world—instead of being the one place where true unity can be found and expressed—churches can end up reinforcing misconceptions about Christianity. Trying to squeeze Jesus under any socio-political umbrella is wrong; maybe he would prefer to stand out in the rain!
For example, at my own church, we never hand out political material, and we rarely promote petitions or marches. At the same time, we understand that individual Christians may choose to be involved in politics or promote social policies. While each member of the church supports and joins in the church’s mission, believers have God-given opportunities to serve Christ in other ways outside the church: among these is involvement in political activity.
3. What’s your message? Understanding the distinction between the gospel and common grace.
As an Australian citizen, I share the same set of rights and responsibilities as other Australians. I have the opportunity to voice concerns about social policy and moral issues. But not everything is the gospel, and not every political cause is directly related to the mission of the church.
Christians who are interested in engaging in the public square need to understand what the gospel is and isn’t. They need to distinguish God’s common grace from his saving grace. Defining social activism theologically provides us the necessary framework for understanding political concerns and weighing their importance. While there may be circumstances where a church renders judgment on a political matter, in most situations, such judgments are a matter of discernment for believers as they wisely apply biblical principles to political issues.
4. Know the reason for engaging in political activism: it’s about loving your neighbor.
For Christians, political activism ought to be about loving your neighbor. Just as a doctor treats the sick and a school teacher educates children, politics should be about serving the common good. Of all people, Christians have reason to speak on behalf of the vulnerable, to advocate for the weak, and to address injustices that are faced in our society. God has revealed his righteousness and his grace to us in the Lord Jesus. As he has loved us, so we now love others. We should be eager to see other people flourish. Not only should we care about their eternal salvation but also about their everyday needs.
How do I know if my political advocacy is unwise and even ungodly?
Here are five warning signs:
- I spend more time signing petitions than I do praying.
- I only criticize one side of the political spectrum.
- People have the impression that belonging to my church means aligning with a certain political party.
- I’m more passionate about politics than I am about my local church and their mission.
- I’m putting my hope for society in political elections or leaders or platforms, rather than in the gospel of Christ.
“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).