What is a Christian's Role in Society?
Ever since Peter and John were arrested for preaching Christ in Jerusalem, the relationship of Christians to the state has been an issue for believers. How are we to balance our duties toward the state with our status as citizens of the Kingdom of God? This is a particularly demanding question in a representative democracy, where all citizens have a say in who will govern them. Given the role of identity politics in the current electoral cycle, it is important for believers to think about the biblical understanding of Christian identity and its relationship to modern politics.
The Christian’s primary allegiance is always to Jesus Christ. Christians proclaim Him Lord, recognize Him as their legitimate King, and live as citizens of His kingdom first and foremost. The demands of human government are always secondary to the demands of Christ and His Kingdom—as the lives of countless martyrs and the persecuted church past and present attest.
Further, within the Kingdom, we are all equals as adopted brothers and sisters. Not only do we share the image of God—the source of human worth in Scripture—with all people, but within the Kingdom we are also all morally and spiritually equal as sinners saved by grace. In the Kingdom, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28). The Christian’s primary identity and allegiance is as a follower of Christ. Period.
And that means that anytime we value anything more than the image of God that we share with all people, we quite literally insult God to his face. When we place anything within the church ahead of our common identity as citizens of the Kingdom, we are denying the Gospel, which places us all in one body under Christ, our living head. All distinctions between people are irrelevant in the Kingdom. And this means there is never any ground for racism, whether pro-white or pro-black or pro-“color,” or for sexism, whether pro-male or pro-female.
This is a bit more controversial, but there is no ground for being classists either, whether pro-rich or pro-poor. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David, Solomon, Joseph of Arimathea, Zacchaeus, a number of Jesus’ patrons, and several of Paul’s converts were all wealthy. Others were poor. Both the prosperity gospel and liberation theology are distortions of the biblical view of wealth and poverty: Neither wealth properly acquired and spent nor poverty has any relevance for entering the Kingdom. (For a more complete discussion of this, see my lecture given at the Action Institute).
In the Kingdom, all divisions, whether of race, gender, or class, are erased by our common need for salvation and the One who saved each of us despite who we are, not because of it.
So, for Christians, our primary identity is as co-equal citizens of the Kingdom of God; we also recognize our equality with our non-Christian neighbors because our worth is based on the image of God we share, in light of which all other distinctions fade into irrelevance. But what does this say about our political involvement? As citizens of the Kingdom of God, how should we bring our primary identity to bear on the politics of this world?
The basic principle is that although we are strangers and aliens in this world, we are nonetheless to seek the good of our country, even when we face oppression in it. In Jeremiah 29, God told the people deported as slaves to Babylon, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
The New Testament gives us similar instructions. Paul tells us that we are to obey the governing authorities because they are constituted by God (Romans 13:1), that we are to be subject to rulers and to be peaceable and gentle (Titus 3:1-2), and, as he instructs a young pastor, that we should pray for those in government so we may lead tranquil and quiet lives in reverence and godliness (1 Timothy 2:1-4). All of these instructions were given when the Roman Empire sponsored games that killed people for public entertainment, conducted infanticide on a massive scale, enslaved countless people, and was generally anything but benevolent.
Does this mean that we should not try to change injustice within society? Absolutely not! The prophets are full of warnings that God will judge even pagan kingdoms for their sins; and if we are to seek the welfare of our country, it means we need to act as salt and light to try to bring the country toward righteousness.
The first recorded Christian petition to the Roman government, made in the midst of persecution, called for the end of abortion and infanticide as state-sanctioned murder. In a representative democracy, we as citizens have an even greater responsibility to bring our concerns before the government and to elect officials that will address them.
At the same time, we cannot use raw political power to get our way. Rather:
Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
We are not to rely on power politics, but on winning the war of ideas by convincing our neighbors of what is good for the country. Only as we build grassroots support can long-term change occur in society, and that is how we are to influence the direction of our country. It is a long, slow, frustrating process, and it requires patient, steadfast commitment, but it is the way God works in the world.
Glenn Sunshine is chairman of the history department of Central Connecticut State University and a faculty member for BreakPoint's Centurions program.
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