A frequently asked question these days relates to the role of the church in civic society. Even as Christians debate the issues of abortion, immigration, war, and health care — different perspectives within the church (oftentimes in conflict with one another) seem to emerge. Should individual Christians and the Christian community (i.e. – the Church) have a voice in the political dialogue?
Some Christians may argue that the church needs to be disconnected from the state, forming a counter-cultural community that focuses exclusively on the exhibition of piety and holiness. Others may argue that the church needs to become deeply invested in the state in order to bring about God’s kingdom specifically in the United States. I present these two extreme perspectives fully realizing that most will not fall on the extremes, but somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, where we fall on the political involvement spectrum may be determined by our personal political leanings and the administration in power at the time.
For example, if we disagree with the government on a number of issues (such as prayer in schools, sexual ethics) our tendency may be to withdraw from society at large in order to form sub-cultures that stand in opposition to the world. Or we may find ourselves in agreement with the state on a number of issues (the use of war, a certain type of social conservatism) and therefore, decide to fully invest in a particular party that advocates for these issues. Our involvement in the state may be determined by the level of agreement we have with the political party in power.
Romans 13:1ff is often used to justify a passive role for the church in relation to the state. An extreme application of “being subject to the governing authorities established by God” may be the loss of the prophetic role of the church and the church allowing carte blanche to the government authorities. However, given the wide range of possibility in types of government, could being subject and honoring the existing governing authorities take different forms and expressions? For example, could supporting a democratic system of government involve action rather than inaction?
What does support look like? In the Old Testament you can follow two different strains of political involvement. The first set of examples is found in the Biblical prophets, like Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea. These prophets are ultimate outsiders, speaking prophetically and challenging the establishment. Prophets are covenant enforcers, who call the nation of Israel, God’s people to live up to the standards of God’s covenant. There are also the Biblical examples of Nehemiah, Daniel, and Joseph. These men are insiders who actually wield a direct influence upon the government powers. What is interesting to me is that the challenges raised by the prophets are against their own people while those who are government insiders are actually working in the context of foreign powers — serving the governments of Egypt, Persia, Babylon (about as hostile as you can get to the agenda of YHWH’s people). Maybe support takes on different forms and different times. Maybe the main role of God’s people is to be subject to government by bringing God’s perspective to bear on even the most secular of institutions.