“I am puzzled about which Bible
people are reading when they suggest
that religion and politics don’t mix.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
A dear brother in Christ from one of our nation’s southern states recently wrote me the following, “Al, I am active in the Republican Party. Many years ago I was criticized (though not by name) in a sermon because I spent time in political activity, rather than spending all my time in church related activities. The preacher apparently believed, as David Lipscomb did, that Christians should not even vote. The attitude toward political involvement is now changing in this area, but most Christians around here still don’t take much interest in politics.” I heard a preacher declare once, “I choose not to get involved in secular politics because there is enough politics in the church to last me a lifetime!” Sadly, the negative aspects of what we term “politics” can indeed be found among the people of God as well.
Let me preface my thoughts in this article about Christians becoming involved in secular politics by saying a few words about the whole “separation of church and state” issue that we have all heard so much about in recent years, and about which there is tremendous confusion based on some rather popular misinformation. As often as one hears this phrase one would almost think it was an integral part of our U.S. Constitution. It is not. The First Amendment simply states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The words “church,” “state,” and “separation” do not even occur in this statement. The emphasis of this solemn declaration was an assurance to the people that their government would not seek to establish a national religion or dictate to the citizens the parameters of their worshipful expression. It simply declared the federal government would not seek to impose its own will upon the people with regard to any religion.
This notion of a “wall of separation” between church and state actually comes from an exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptist Association of the state of Connecticut. On October 7, 1801, the Baptists wrote Jefferson of their concerns regarding the First Amendment. They felt their “free exercise of religion,” as viewed by the federal government and as expressed in this amendment, was being presented more as “a favor granted” than as “an inalienable right.” Thus, if their freedom of religion and religious expression was government-given, rather than God-given, what assurance was there that this government would never change its mind and revoke that freedom?!
Jefferson responded to their letter of concern on January 1, 1802, and assured them that a protective wall separated the church from the state, thus assuring their freedom of religion and religious expression. He wrote, in part, “I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Jefferson had chosen those words carefully, actually seeking to establish some common ground with the Baptists (of which he was not a member) by borrowing the expression from Roger Williams, one of the leading preachers among the Baptists. Williams had previously spoken emphatically of “the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world.” Jefferson, therefore, chose to apply this concept of a protective “hedge or wall of separation” between the church and the world to the church and the state as well.
The U.S. Supreme Court echoed these words in 1947 in the case of Everson v. Board of Education. They wrote, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” This was perceived to be strictly one-directional. In other words, as used by the Baptists, the church was free to influence the world about them with their religious values, however the world was not to be permitted to enter the church and do likewise. The same one-directional concept was perceived between church and state. The principles and ethics of Christianity would certainly be welcomed as positive influences upon government, however the intrusion of government into the church would not be welcomed.
Therefore, in the early, formative years of our great nation’s history, there was no concerted effort to keep the church (or, more accurately, the influence of Christian principles) out of the affairs of state, but only an assurance that the state would not meddle with the affairs of the church. Indeed, in these early years, our founding fathers, and the government itself, were greatly affected by the teachings of the Christian faith. In the year 1799, Dr. Jedediah Morse made this rather insightful observation about the intimate, and necessary, relationship between the two: “In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom. … Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.”
Any nation which separates itself from the church, or the influence of Christian principles, is a nation destined for ruin, and when Christians seek to separate themselves from responsible involvement in the affairs of their nation, they, in my opinion, shirk their responsibility to be a leavening force for good, and in their lack of involvement actually contribute to the inevitable decline of their nation. In other words, it is my firm conviction that we, the people of God, must be active participants in every aspect of the society in which we live. How can we ever truly expect to effect responsible change if we isolate ourselves from the world about us? The Lord never prayed for His people to be taken out of the world, but that through their godly influence and example they might transform the world about them. That can only be done by those men and women willing to get out of their plush church buildings and into their communities. Yeast doesn’t work as long as it is still in the package; it must be mixed in with the dough before change occurs. The most important thing we as Christians can do to return our nation to a responsible course, and to effect responsible reform, is to truly start being the light, salt and leavening force for positive change that we are called by our God to be. That can’t be done if we are not willing to actively participate and involve ourselves in seeking to ennoble every aspect of life within our communities, and within our society at large.
In a position paper released by the Center for Biblical Bioethics it was declared that “a society cannot operate long in a moral vacuum. When people of good conscience fail to influence society with their values, then other influences will fill the gap. This has happened in America. In the past one hundred years, most fundamental Christians have left the political arena, considering it ‘worldly’ and outside the legitimate realm of Christian influence.” The result of this failure by an increasing number of disciples of Christ is that our nation is spiraling ever downward away from God, and that can only result, as history proves, in its ultimate demise. It is the conclusion of this position paper that “Christians need to be involved in the political process in order to have a positive effect on the future of our communities and our nation. It is poor citizenship and very poor Christian stewardship to permit this great nation to plunge on toward destruction by default.” William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, stated in the early 1700’s, “Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad.” That goodness, however, must permeate every corner of government, not be separated from it.
What does Scripture have to say about all of this? Some attempt to make much of the fact that nowhere in the NT writings are Christians ever urged to actively participate in politics, or to seek public office. The assumption some men draw from this fact is that such silence is thereby prohibitive. However, our integrity to Scripture, and to the principles of biblical interpretation, demand that we also acknowledge as fact that nowhere in the NT writings is such involvement and participation condemned or discouraged. Thus, to assume that such silence is necessarily prohibitive, is probably to assume far more than is exegetically warranted. Indeed, there is evidence that Christians should take an interest in ennobling the societies in which they live!
Paul’s view of government was largely positive in nature, although, like any of us, he could certainly have found many aspects of it with which he would have taken exception. He wrote to the Roman brethren that the governing authorities are God-ordained. “There is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1). He regarded such governing authorities as being “a minister of God” (vs. 4) to accomplish His purpose. Indeed, Paul regarded the rulers (whether these rulers themselves realized it or not) as “servants of God,” devoting themselves to the carrying out of His purposes in society (vs. 6). “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor” (vs. 7). Paul urged the church to pray for those in government, “in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Some see justification for “separation of church and state” in the response of Jesus to the Pharisees and Herodians who sought to trap Him in a question regarding whether one should pay the poll-tax to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17). The Lord said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus was indeed making a distinction between secular and spiritual concerns, but He was not urging our involvement in one to the total exclusion of our involvement in the other. He was, rather, advocating responsible involvement in both arenas. Yes, we can and should render unto Caesar, but we do so as godly men and women, impacting the realm of Caesar for its ultimate good, rather than allowing the realm of Caesar to impact us for evil. The passage does not say what some have attempted to make it say. Jesus is not promoting separation of “church and state,” but rather responsible, godly involvement in both.
One of the most compelling passages with regard to involvement of Christians in the political process, however, is without a doubt Romans 16:23. Here Paul is sending greetings to and conveying greetings from various Christian men and women. “Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus, a brother.” The NIV translates the passage this way: “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works…” The Greek word used is “oikonomos,” which, when used politically, referred to a “manager, steward, treasurer.” Thus, Erastus was an official of the city of Corinth (from which this powerful epistle to the Romans was written in late February or early March of 58 A.D., near the end of Paul’s third missionary journey). Greek scholars differ as to the exact position held by Erastus. “Denney defines Erastus’ position as city treasurer; Vincent, probably the administrator of the city lands; Robertson, the city manager” [Dr. Kenneth Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 1, “Romans,” p. 265]. David Lipscomb, who, as previously noted, was greatly opposed to Christians involving themselves in the affairs of state, suggested Erastus was simply the church treasurer, and not the city treasurer [A Commentary on Romans, p. 279]. This, in my view, is little more than textual manipulation and misrepresentation for the purpose of trying to validate an untenable theory. By the way, this man mentioned in Romans 16:23 is “not to be identified with the Erastus of Acts 19:22 and 2 Timothy 4:20″ [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, “Romans,” p. 457].
“Erastus was the treasurer of the city of Corinth and attended to its affairs of property. He was a person of consequence in the city” [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, p. 925]. He was “a notable figure because of his public office” [The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 169]. “He may well have been a high-ranking and influential government leader – the city treasurer. If so, he would have political power, prestige, and probably some wealth” [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 431]. It just so happens that scholars know for a fact, from archaeological discoveries in Corinth, that during this very time there was indeed a city official named Erastus. “A paving block preserves an inscription, stating that the pavement was laid at the expense of Erastus,” and it states he was the “Commissioner of Public Works” [Oscar Broneer, The Biblical Archaeologist, December, 1951]. From Romans 16:23, therefore, we know that Paul sends greetings to the saints in Rome from a city official in Corinth who holds an elected office, one invested with great responsibility and authority. Erastus is a Christian. Paul nowhere condemns his service to the city of Corinth, nor does Paul condemn his participation in the political affairs of his community. It is not even suggested he should abandon that involvement. Indeed, one may even imagine Paul is somewhat pleased that a Christian is in that position of responsibility, for, after all, Paul makes a point of mentioning (and not disapprovingly) the political position of Erastus. And after all, isn’t it far better to have a Christian in such a position than a non-Christian? If not, why not?! Thus, to the individual whose comments I shared at the beginning of this article I would simply say, “Continue involving yourself in the political process of our land … and do so as a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. Let your light shine. Be a leavening force for good. Brother, we need more like you.”