(Originally appeared in Chalcedon Report: Faith for All of Life, October 1, 2004)
Imagine a Roman Empire, in the 1st century, in which the public officials — from the emperor on down to the local tax collector — are elected by universal suffrage. Even the slaves vote.
Imagine 1st century Christians having these opportunities:
- To run for office, any office, themselves.
- To sign petitions for candidates, who would need a certain number of signatures to be eligible to run.
- To join the power structures of the major political parties, starting with the neighborhood seats on the local executive committees and going all the way to the top.
- To serve on screening committees that interview the would-be candidates, weeding out the unsuitable.
- To attend their parties’ conventions, for cities, prefectures, provinces, where they could meet the candidates, question them, and vote on whether to advance them to the primary elections.
- Finally, to vote in primary and general elections, and to work for their favored candidates by signing up new voters, canvassing their neighborhoods, contributing labor and money to the campaign, etc.
Imagine, further, that most of the voters in the empire are Christians, or at least profess to be. What would St. Paul say to them? How would he advise them to exercise their citizenship?
A Climate for Christ
In this imaginary Roman Empire, we assume that the age of church foundation and persecution has already been completed. Paul is still alive, still writing epistles.
Would Paul advise the Christians to opt out of the political process? Would he tell them to disengage, while the pagan minority elects emperors like Nero, governors like Pontius Pilate, high priests like Caiaphas? Legislators who would demand that Christians worship the emperor or die?
The apostles and the entire Christian community already have standing orders from their Lord and King, Jesus Christ, to “teach all nations...to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt. 28: 19-20). Bearing in mind this Great Commission, would Paul have advised Christians to elect officials who would foster an environment favorable to this mission?
Imagine how much easier it would be to carry out the Great Commission if committed Christians wrote and administered the laws, sat as the judges who interpreted the laws, operated the schools, and staffed the bureaucracies.
Ambassadors for Christ
Paul couldn’t have imagined such an empire. Under the providence of God, the world wasn’t ready for it. In the real world, Christians had to be tempered in the forge of persecution, barbarian invasion, civil war, and reformation — a process still going on today.
Paul couldn’t have imagined such a political system, and we don’t have to: we live in one. We, the Christian citizens of America, have opportunities that Paul never dreamed of.
What have we done with them?
“Humanistic sociology,” Chalcedon founder R.J. Rushdoony wrote, “arose because the churches had abandoned the faith of the prophets and apostles. By their pietism, they had surrendered the world to the enemy....”
Paul called Christians to be “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20), and commented on the impossibility of completely separating ourselves from the ungodly: “for then must ye needs to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:10).
One way for us to be effective ambassadors is to shoulder our duties as citizens. In Romans 13, Paul told Christians how to be good citizens of the Roman Empire in the 1 st century. Americas political institutions are completely different, and so are the duties of American citizens. But surely Paul would counsel us to be good citizens within the parameters of our American Constitution.
God, who ordains all worldly powers, has ordained the American political system with its almost limitless opportunities for citizen participation. To opt out of it, to choose not to take advantage of these opportunities, is to spurn the gift of God.
We often complain that there are no truly Christian candidates for us to vote for. Whose fault is that?
American politics is built from the ground up. Do we join our neighborhood committees? Do we take up the challenge to participate in candidate selection at every level? Citizenship doesn’t begin and end with voting in an election — and some of us don’t even bother to do that.
It’s a long climb, up a long ladder, from deciding to run for office to getting one’s name on the ballot. Christians ought to be involved at every step.
Like all grass-roots efforts, this takes a lot of work by a lot of ordinary people. It takes time to learn the ropes, build an organization, and succeed. Sometimes success only comes after a string of failures, some of them heart-breaking. But should that daunt Christians?
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.