Political Participation in the New Testament

Politics and political participation are part of life in the modern Western world, especially in the United States of America. As Christians who live in America or other countries which may encourage participation in their politics, we do well to explore how Jesus, the Apostles, and early Christians engaged with the political situation of their own day.

Christians in the New Testament lived under the Roman Empire. In theory the Empire was run by the Emperor working with the Senate; in practice, the Empire was run by the Emperor as a dictatorship, subject to his individual whims.

Most provinces of the Empire were run by governors known as proconsuls (e.g. Acts 13:7). They were chosen by the Emperor and most often used their provinces to gain great personal wealth. One could make appeals to such authorities for justice or for a particular benefit, but there was no sense of voting for them or expecting to hold them accountable to some sort of standard (e.g. Acts 19:38).

It would seem that the only form of general political participation which might have remained in the Roman Empire was the preservation of local ekklesiai, or assemblies, in some Greek cities like Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:39). Such likely served like our city councils of today, given authority to handle matters of local concern, but without much real power beyond.

We thus do not have any indication from the New Testament that Jesus, the Apostles, or early Christians voted or worked to choose their leaders in any meaningful way. No such mechanism really existed during the Roman Empire.

We can know, however, Jesus’ and the Apostles’ posture toward the government.

“Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why make ye trial of me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money.”
And they brought unto him a denarius.
And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?”
They say unto him, “Caesar’s.”
Then saith he unto them, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:17-21).

Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium, and called Jesus, and said unto him, “Art thou the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Sayest thou this of thyself, or did others tell it thee concerning me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”
Pilate therefore said unto him, “Art thou a king then?”
Jesus answered, “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice” (John 18:33-37).

But Peter and the apostles answered and said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For this cause ye pay tribute also; for they are ministers of God’s service, attending continually upon this very thing. Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Romans 13:1-7).

I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your behavior seemly among the Gentiles; that, wherein they speak against you as evil-doers, they may by your good works, which they behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as sent by him for vengeance on evil-doers and for praise to them that do well. For so is the will of God, that by well-doing ye should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your freedom for a cloak of wickedness, but as bondservants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (1 Peter 2:11-17).

And [the dragon] stood upon the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads, and on his horns ten diadems, and upon his heads names of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his throne, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as though it had been smitten unto death; and his death-stroke was healed: and the whole earth wondered after the beast; and they worshipped the dragon, because he gave his authority unto the beast; and they worshipped the beast, saying, “Who is like unto the beast? and who is able to war with him?” and there was given to him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and there was given to him authority to continue forty and two months. And he opened his mouth for blasphemies against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, even them that dwell in the heaven. And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and there was given to him authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation (Revelation 13:1-7).

Jesus and the Apostles recognized the legitimacy of earthly government. Caesar was to be given what was Caesar’s; God has granted authority to earthly rulers to rule, and those who resist its power resist God (Matthew 22:17-21, Romans 13:1-2). While earthly government is legitimate, all governments are flawed; the same Roman Empire to which Jesus and the Apostles submitted, and the same emperor whom Peter expected Christians to honor is envisioned in Revelation as a beast empowered by Satan (1 Peter 2:17, Revelation 13:1-7). It is notable that Christians were never given the right to judge the government and its legitimacy; it is for them to submit to the ruling authorities, and God will be their judge in the end. We are acquainted with the moral failures, sinful excess, and terrible persecution which marked the Roman emperors and their Empire; and yet the Apostles exhorted the followers of Christ to submit to their rule.

Christians are to pay their taxes, honor both emperors and their governors, and intercede before God for them (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, 1 Peter 2:11-18). But they must not obey government over God (Acts 5:29), nor “worship the beast,” being deceived and seduced into advancing the political and economic interests of the nation-state in such ways that compromise and hinder their witness and testimony for Christ (Revelation 12:10-11, 13:1-11). Christians must recognize that the Kingdom of God in Christ is “not of this world”; their citizenship is truly and fully in heaven, and their primary loyalty must be to God and His purposes in Christ (Matthew 6:33, John 18:36, Philippians 3:20-21). God desires for all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth: such encompasses every single American but also every person under any other flag or nation on earth (1 Timothy 2:3-4).

In all of this Christians are of the Kingdom of Heaven and view the purposes of the nation-state under which they live as the other. Note in Romans 13:1-7 how the government and its officers are the “them” in contrast to “us.” We are to remember that nations come and go but the word of the Lord remains forever (Isaiah 40:6-8, 1 Peter 1:22-25). God has expected Christians to submit to the earthly rule of authorities in all sorts of nations, be they nominally “Christian,” pagan, Muslim, or secular, whether “just” or “unjust,” whether democratic, aristocratic, monarchic, or tyrannical. God has expected Christians to submit to noble and just rulers as well as terrible, bloodthirsty ideologues and megalomaniacs. But Christians are not to commend and justify evil, but resist it wherever it may arise.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith: as it is written, “But the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:16-17).

Above all things neither Jesus nor the Apostles believed that the political process or legislation were the means by which God would reform people. They put their trust not in the emperor nor in the laws of the land but in God in Christ who has provided the Gospel message. The Gospel is God’s power unto salvation; true righteousness is revealed in it in the person of Jesus Christ, not in any earthly king.

They modeled this confidence in their interaction with the government. We have no evidence to suggest Peter or Paul appealed to any governor or ruler to make laws to make it easier to live as a Christian; instead, Paul leveraged his Roman citizenship to provide him opportunities to preach the Gospel, offer a bit of political protection for Christians, and to gain an audience before Nero Caesar so as to offer witness before him regarding Jesus of Nazareth, His death, and His resurrection (Acts 16:34-40, 21:37-40, 23:11, 25:11-12).

Thus the New Testament does not provide any command, example, or necessary inference which would mandate voting or participation in the political process. Likewise, there is no explicit blanket condemnation of participation in voting or the political process, but there are warnings regarding dependence upon and accommodation to those processes. The New Testament does abundantly demonstrate the confidence of Christians in the reign of Jesus as Lord and their submission to Him; because they submit to Jesus, they proved willing to submit to the earthly authorities on account of His command. Christians did not expect the purposes of God in Christ to be accomplished through the efforts of the Roman Empire; they did give God the glory for the opportunities which the Roman Empire afforded them in preaching the Gospel, but knew that the Gospel would be spread and souls saved through the preaching of Christians, not by governmental fiat (Romans 10:11-17). May we take advantage of every opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus and uphold His Kingdom as preeminent in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Political Participation in the New Testament

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