Although our nation sets aside one day—July 4—to celebrate our freedom, a Christian’s ability to participate in civic government without fear of persecution is cause for celebration throughout the year.
This is especially the case in a time of legal fundamentalism, in which a variety of nations are tightening religious freedom. In France, a bill threatens to ban Muslim burqas; in Iran, a newly-signed law regulates men’s haircuts (this applies to Christians, too). In Britain, hate-crime laws limit street evangelism; throughout Asia and Africa, persecution of Christians and Muslims is still commonplace.
We in America take our freedom for granted all too often. We should consider how to engage politics with a sense of gratitude and humility. One informative scriptural text on the subject comes from Romans 13.
On the surface, a reading of Romans 13 seems to simply advocate obedience to the government. Paul writes, “Let every person be subject for the governing authorities, for there is no authority except for God.” In isolation, this text seems to be pretty cut-and-dry.
Our church history reveals, however, that when Christians apply Romans 13 without considering the larger context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the text can be misused. In the early Church, Romans 13 motivated Christians to fight in Rome’s army and the crusades, which led to bloodshed and senseless violence. In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s clergy used Romans 13 to sanction injustices towards Jews, justifying Holocaust.
Romans 13 is not as clear as we might think. Whenever Paul wrote about a Christian community’s engagement in the political sphere (Romans 13 included) there was one goal in mind—to inspire churches to be a witness to the governing authorities, not to simply follow the government blindly. Paul wanted Christians to remind the authorities that God is really in charge of everything.
The alternative rhythm of church life, the unique beat of the Christian journey declares that the Lordship of Christ is real and active even when our political leaders don’t believe it to be so.
But if local churches are called to be a witness, then what is the nature of that witness? What testimony is a church supposed to communicate?
Every church communicates a public witness and civic ethic. Churches that are “not political,” for instance, communicate that the Gospel has nothing to say to public policy and social justice; other churches tackle issues that are important to those particular congregations.
In my home church in South Florida, we were big supporters of marriage enrichment and the pro-life movement. Our church almost went bankrupt while paying legal costs incurred by our many protests. Other churches in the area, meanwhile, invested heavily in HIV advocacy, a major issue in Broward County. Many churches took up a cause.
The question, then, is this: What kind of testimony do you want your church to give? Is it a testimony of hate, fear, punditry, or partisanship? Or is it a testimony that voices God’s power and compassion in all creation? The Bible says that “God so loved the world”; and we pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Again, Romans 13 is informative. A closer look reveals that Paul couched Christian political engagement in the larger ethic of compassion. Note the verses littered throughout Romans 12: “Let love be genuine” (v. 9); “extend hospitality to strangers” (v. 12); “Bless those who persecute you” (v. 13). Romans 13:8 says, “Love one another, for the one who loves fulfills the law”; and 14:7 declares: “We do not live to ourselves…If we live, we live to the Lord.”
So it seems that the Bible tells us of what tune to sing when it comes to providing a public witness. Last week at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Baptist historian Bill Leonard reminded us, “Don’t ask whether your church is thriving or in decline, growing or dying. Instead, ask whether your church has a witness and a call to conscience.” Don’t take this witness for granted; your freedom allows you to participate in it fully.