Note: Adapted from Compassion & Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement, by Justin Giboney, Michael Wear and Chris Butler.
No one makes political decisions from a neutral position. To make a policy decision is to choose certain values and goods over others. Political decisions are inevitably informed by a certain worldview or outlook. When Christians aren’t applying biblical principles to their political opinions, their point of view is guided by other belief systems.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority in all arenas of life, including politics. This means the gospel should be the foundation and starting point of our political decisions. Our preferences, interests, and sociopolitical ideologies aren’t the ultimate authority and can’t take precedence over biblical principles. Outside ideologies and philosophies can inform us, but they should never be the masters of our political action.
The Framework: Social Justice and Moral Order
Thankfully, the Bible provides us with a clear framework for engaging our neighbors, which generally applies to politics and culture. The essence of the framework is mentioned by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4.
Paul was writing to the church of Ephesus, which was known as “the persevering church” (see Revelation 2:1-3). They had endured a lot of suffering and had false prophets who were trying to infiltrate the church with false teachings. Without the proper framework for addressing their issues, the Ephesians were at risk of being misguided into unbiblical doctrine and actions. In analyzing this situation, Paul informs the church that mature believers are not easily influenced or deceived like children. In Ephesians 4:14, he says, “then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” In other words, mature Christians are not swayed by false teachers because they have a strong relationship with God and know what they believe. They are able to apply the proper framework regardless of what popular culture, academia, or political leaders are saying. But what exactly is this framework?
In the next verse Paul says that mature believers are able to speak “the truth in love.” This might seem like a simple assertion, but it’s enormously significant. Paul is saying that in all situations, Christians must be truthful and loving at the same time. Through days of abundance, famine, or persecution, followers of Christ speak the truth in love because our beliefs aren’t determined by our circumstances. Jesus himself was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), just as the gospel requires us to be committed to both loving others – showing them grace and compassion – and standing up for biblical convictions and the truth of God’s Word. Paul’s prophetic words dismantle the false choice and reveal the error in thinking we must choose one or the other. These instructions have relevance for our lives today, including how to think about politics. Christians ought to evaluate all political issues through the love and truth of the gospel. This is a both-and proposition, not either-or. The world separates the two, but the gospel transcends the false divide and shows that we must value both.
Love and Justice
Let’s take a look at the love component of this gospel-centered framework. The gospel is saturated with a love imperative. Statements about the importance of love are woven through the Bible. Jesus even gave us a “new commandment” when he said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another” (John 13:34). In the Synoptic Gospels he adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself ” (Mark 12:31).
It’s impossible to read the Gospels without encountering Jesus’ emphasis on love. From Nicodemus and the woman at the well to the thief beside him on the cross, Jesus broke with tradition to extend kindness and mercy to sinners and saints alike (John 3:1-21; 4:4-42; Luke 23:32-43). He also taught us to care for the poor and fellowship with them as he revealed their great worth (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 14:12-14). This love imperative isn’t based on the social status of who we’re interacting with or what environment we’re in. Accordingly, it also extends to our engagement in the public square. Christian advocacy and political positions must reflect the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.
This means we must seek justice for our neighbors. Justice is about the right ordering of things, and we look to scripture to help us determine what that might look like. We know Jesus will eventually set all wrongs right, but until then he has invited us to join him in his work. Politics is an essential arena for pursuing justice. The political sphere provides us with a significant opportunity to actively love our neighbors by acknowledging their dignity and seeking their well-being through the civic process. Love for others should compel us to advocate for justice on their behalf just as we would do for ourselves. When we’re confronted with a societal problem we must consider the best solution out of love, compassion, and justice. This will cause us to defend the poor, the immigrant, and the widow, and to treat those who have committed criminal offenses with fairness. As we assess policies, we should pay special attention to how they will affect people, particularly those who are less fortunate, rather than treating public policy as a way to advance ideas without any regard for their practical impact. We should not support policy or rhetoric that demeans any group, nor view our convictions or our political power as justification for bullying any group or any person. Love and justice can never be absent from our public witness.
When the Bible Is Silent
The Bible doesn’t speak to every political issue. We might have political preferences that the Bible neither affirms nor forbids. We need to be honest about that and not use the Bible to fortify a position that faithful Christians can see differently. For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what economic system we must use, even though Christians often try to use the Bible to support a specific economic system. Different economic systems might come with different problems, but pretending that God has ordained a particular preference oversteps the bounds of scripture. We also have to be wise and discerning about our particular place, time and context.
We might make a rule for our personal life, our family or our church, but that does not necessarily make it wise to instill that same rule as public policy, particularly in a diverse society. In all cases, Christians should pursue the good of their neighbors and be able to advance their political preferences as such.
Christians can disagree on policy. We’ve provided a simple framework that allows for disagreement. Christians won’t always come to the same conclusions on every issue, but this framework gives us a lot of common ground on political matters closely tied to the love and truth of the gospel.
Adapted from Compassion & Conviction by Justin Giboney, Michael Wear, Chris Butler. Copyright (c) 2020 by Justin E. Giboney, Michael R. Wear, and Christopher Butler. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com