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Talking Politics: The ‘Who’ and ‘What’

October 15, 2020 | Jay T. Smith

There will be a few of YTI’s supporters who do not believe that we should chime in on the subject of politics. Certainly, one of our liberal American initiatives has been to ensure the separation of church and state since at least the 1960s. On the other hand, recent political developments have my conservative friends fighting for the right to promote political discourse in the church. It seems appropriate that YTI should weigh in then, not on the “who” of our U.S. politics, but rather the “how”—how Christians should approach governance—and the “what”—what issues should be important to Christians for governance.

I must, however, define what I believe should be the Christian’s starting point: the absolute primacy of the Kingdom of God—its virtues, its mission. These are where the Christian’s ultimate loyalty is due. If, as Christians, we cannot agree on this point, then we have no common ground to move forward. You can stop here. However, if we can agree on this starting point, then let’s proceed and examine the “how” and the “what.”

The “How”: Kingdom First

First, how should Christians approach governance? Understanding the Bible as the “sole rule of our faith,” we tend to quote two different passages of Scripture as our guide. In Matthew 22:21 and Luke 20:25, Jesus very clearly says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (NASB95). So, we use this statement to support the division between how we view politics and how we practice our faith. Interestingly, in the final week of Jesus’s life, the Jewish religious leaders claim that Jesus is an enemy of Caesar (see John 19 for this narrative!)

The second Scripture text, and the one to which we most often refer, is Romans 13:1: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (NASB95). As modern Christians living in a democratic republic, we tend to interpret this passage as a blind subservience to whatever government is in place. However, to interpret these passages outside of the original context completely skews what is actually being said. There were no elections in the Roman Empire. The emperor ruled by force and taxed his provinces heavily in order to have the capital necessary to run the empire. Jesus essentially says, pay the taxes. Paul is saying, during the rule of one of the most horrific emperors to have ever ruled, Nero, that rather than protest the rule of a despot, it is better to live in peace according to God’s rule, and in obedience to the laws of the empire.

You might notice the similarity to what Jesus and Paul are saying—because Christians live in the world, we respect the fact that governance, no matter how imperfect, is necessary. Yet, the Kingdom of God remains our primary allegiance and is what empowers our ability to live in obedience to worldly governance. The “how” is Kingdom first.

In a democratic republic such as the United States, where all citizens have an opportunity, and dare I say responsibility, to be involved in governance by voting, speaking our opinions, and running for office in representation of the people, our approach is no different. Kingdom first: loyalty to Christ first; loyalty to the teachings of Christ and the cultivation of the life and love of the Holy Spirit within us.

The “What”: Blessing Others As Much As We Bless Ourselves

In regards to the “what” of our politics then, the “wisdom” of our faith, nurtured by the teaching of the Gospels, inspires and directs our political judgments, choices, and actions. Passages of Scripture such as the Beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew 5, the Great Commandment of Luke 10:25-27, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, the exercise of love in 1 Corinthians 13, and the admonishment of Galatians 2:20, which identifies who we are in Christ, guide our “what.” Our “what” is dictated by the new who we are in Christ.

The “what” issues are those which, first, are directly addressed in the New Testament and are prescriptive for how we live in relation to others. What we believe about Jesus affects how we understand domestic and foreign relations. How does the Old Testament address the foreigner and the alien? How does the Bible address poverty? Justice? Peace? Suffering? We must prayerfully address all these issues with our vote and service. The very fallen human predispositions to hate, dislike, personal opinion, and personal wealth inclinations must be put into submission to the call and direction of Jesus.

Second, we address issues that support the peace and prosperity of all people. The first “what” requires love, grace, and forgiveness. It’s not easy to live in relationship with other people, especially people with whom we do not agree. The second requires true wisdom and God’s strength. We must ask the question, “How can my vote, my service, support the peace and prosperity of not only my fellow Americans, but of the world that is influenced by Americans?”

Jesus is the Messiah for the Israelite, the Roman, and the Phoenician—not just the American, but also the African, Mexican, and Chinese. The Kingdom is broader and more authoritative than just our country. As Christians, we need to revisit what it means to be a “light”—blessing, living truth, and love—to the nations. It is time for us to look at our politics and find how we can bless others as much as we seek to bless ourselves.

Does that mean that we need to “give away the farm?” Does that mean we need to open our borders to everyone without careful reflection? Does that mean we need to send troops to every country in the world that asks for our assistance? Well, no. It means we need to pray and consider carefully how our faith speaks to these issues, and elect leaders who will be just as reflective and intentional.

Maintaining a Faith Perspective

As we look towards the 2020 election, we must reconsider our faith perspective and how candidates honestly, truthfully reflect that position. Character will always reflect the truth. A platform, a promise, or a program will only ever be as good as the character behind it. According to Proverbs, “He who conceals hatred has lying lips, and he who spreads slander is a fool.” As Christians, the Kingdom comes before and dictates how we engage politics:

You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?’” or “What will we wear for clothing?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
— MATTHEW 6:30-33 (NASB95)

Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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