The Church’s Responsibility in the Public Debate
By Stephen Daniels
North Carolina Family Policy Council
What is the church’s duty when it comes to public policy and elections? This is a question that has generated much debate both within the church and within the broader culture. Should the church speak out on social issues like abortion and homosexuality, or steer clear of them and remain focused on evangelism and acts of charity? The former is sometimes dismissed as inappropriate or at least peripheral to the work of the church, but should it be?
Church involvement in the public policy arena can include: priests and pastors speaking to their congregations about public policy issues, churches encouraging their congregants to take a stand on the issues, and churches, in a nonpartisan manner, encouraging congregants to exercise their right to vote. The role of the church in the realm of government should not be underestimated or ignored, either for the corporate body or for individual Christians. It is the duty of Christians to speak for truth, not only by spreading the gospel but also by creating a society whose laws enshrine truth, thus drawing people to Christ and enabling Christians to live out the gospel freely.
Church involvement in the public policy arena is sometimes dismissed by critics who object to participation in the secular world of politics. After all, the perception of some is that politics involves a messy and often volatile collision of political views that is unbecoming for the church. But a distinction must be made between a church speaking about policy issues that may become political and a church becoming political. For purposes of this discussion we will define “public policy” as the making of laws and “political campaign activity” as the process of selecting or favoring one particular person or group of people to elected public office. Participation in the public debate does not require a church to become involved in political campaign activity. In fact, the church, as an institution, is limited by law in the way that it can cross this line into the political side of the debate because of regulations on the amount of action that can be taken in lobbying and political campaigning while maintaining its tax-exempt status (see subsequent article). Instead of being involved in political campaign activity, churches are to speak to those involved in politics so that their values are heard and understood.
One of the most outspoken critics of church involvement has been columnist Cal Thomas. He asks, “Should those who are set apart to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ descend to a lower kingdom so that they resemble the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal of the legions now competing for temporal power?”1 Another critic is John McArthur who states, “There is no biblical mandate for us to spend our time, money, and energy in matters of civil government. We are to be the conscience of the nation through godly living and faithful preaching. We do not confront the nation through political pressure, but through the Word of God. We are to preach against sin and the evils of our time.”2
These voices, and others like them, make the point that the church’s time and resources are best used to advance the gospel and not to get involved in issues of government. The church, they say, must only concern itself with reaching the lost and cultivating the spiritual lives of believers. Few would debate the church’s call to evangelize society,3 and few would debate that it is one of the most important roles of the church. Unfortunately, some dismiss social and political activism as contradictory to this work.
Many, however, hold the view that speaking out for biblical truth in public policy complements-and does not hinder-the church’s effort to spread the gospel. 1 Timothy 2:1-4 says, “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”4
Paul is saying that government is helpful in maintaining a society that is orderly and therefore open to the gospel. Martin Luther also thought along these lines, teaching that one of the functions of law was to constrain those outside the church so that they would be prevented from being as bad as they could be. This constraint helped to make the world safer for the church to proclaim the gospel. It is therefore important for the church to be heard in the realm of government so that laws and policies that are hostile to religion and religious freedom do not hinder the jobs of evangelism and charity. This passage also admonishes believers to pray for “kings and all who are in authority,” which includes our top government officials and the thousands of men and women on every level of government who are making decisions that affect citizens’ lives.
Established by God
God creates governments. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says, “There is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.”5 This alone is reason to warrant the church’s attention. An institution created by God is an institution with which His church should be concerned and connected. Noted author and speaker Chuck Colson puts it this way: “The doctrine of creation tells us the state is ordained by God; it is not a necessary evil but a good part of God’s creation. Therefore, participation in political life is a moral obligation. Christians must always seek justice and civil order, striving to be ‘the best of citizens,’ as Augustine put it, because we do for love of God what others do only because they are coerced by law.”6
The Bible also makes it clear that people have a responsibility to be involved in the affairs of government. Jesus, when asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”7 The word “render” used in this passage indicates a sense of duty and obligation.8 Most people interpret this verse to mean only that they have a duty to pay taxes, but their responsibility is much greater in a representative republic like the United States where the people themselves are “Caesar.” Rendering “to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” in a representative republic requires Christians to participate in formulating laws and electing our representatives to government.
One note of caution: submission to the governing authorities does not mean absolute allegiance. The church is to hold the government’s actions accountable to God’s standards. As the Apostle Peter said, when confronted by inconsistency between God’s law and man’s, “We must obey God rather than men.”9
A society whose laws reflect biblical truth is a society more inclined to hear the message of the church, because the direction of a society, including the values encouraged or discouraged by the government, can affect how difficult or easy it is for the church to call people to righteousness. Consider the following: A society more willing to accept sexual promiscuity, pornography and family breakdown, for example, will be less inclined to accept the church’s teachings on sexual purity and marital fidelity. A society that is more tolerant of alcohol and gambling will be less open to the church’s message of moderation, productive work, and trust in God.
These issues and many others are affected by the policies adopted by local, state and federal governments. And the government’s direction is influenced by the voices that it hears. Thus, it is imperative that churches speak out from the pulpit and in the public square, because it is part of the church’s duty to examine the culture and to take the steps necessary to make sure the principles of God’s truth are practiced in the realm of government and to guarantee that truth is heard in the public policy arena.
This is important because there are many other voices ready and willing to proclaim their beliefs about society and public policy. And very often, their message is in direct contradiction to biblical values. If churches do not speak out in the public policy arena, there will be a crucial voice missing from the debate. People of faith must be heard in order for the government to properly reflect biblical values. America’s second President, John Adams, recognized this when he said: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. … Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”10
Called to Love
Showing compassion for others is summed up well in Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”11 And this idea of loving others is understood to mean looking out for the best interest of others, not just among family and friends, but among the broader culture as well (caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, etc.). Loving one’s neighbor also means caring about the elected officials who make, interpret or enforce the laws and paying attention to the laws themselves. Public policies can and do have an effect on people’s lives, as the following examples demonstrate: Gambling brings social, economic and familial ruin as the consequences of addiction take hold. Preventing continued gambling expansion can prevent further harm to people’s lives.
Abstinence education involves teaching students that sexual activity within the confines of marriage insures safety from unwanted pregnancy, the medical effects of sexually transmitted disease, and the heartbreak of broken relationships.
Upholding the God-ordained institution of marriage as the union of one man and one woman ensures that his plan for family is preserved and cultural stability is maintained.
Abortion has wrought the tragic and overwhelming loss of unborn life (over 3,500 unborn children are killed by abortion each day, over 48,590,000 in the years since Roe v. Wade was decided).12 It also has devastating physical and psychological consequences for women.13
These issues, and there are many others, illustrate how public policies affect real people and real lives. Is it compassionate to ignore public policy issues, or to consider them inconsequential to the work of the church? Certainly not, if the command to “love your neighbor” applies to everyone. It is compassionate to advocate for public policies that promote behavior that is consistent with biblical standards of living, because God’s ways insure happier and healthier lives.
Noted theologian John R. W. Stott has this to say: “What, then, is the biblical basis for social concern? Why should Christians get involved? In the end there are only two possible attitudes which Christians can adopt towards the world: Escape and Engagement… ‘Escape’ means turning our backs on the world in rejection, washing our hands of it…and steeling our hearts against its agonized cries for help. In contrast, ‘engagement’ means turning our faces towards the world in compassion, getting our hands dirty, sore and worn in its service, and feeling deep within us the stirring of the love of which cannot be contained.14 … If we truly love our neighbors, and because of their worth desire to serve them, we shall be concerned for their total welfare, the well-being of their soul, their body and their community. And our concern will lead to practical programmes.”15
The church has always played a critical role in shaping and influencing the direction of society. The command to “love your neighbor” includes caring about what public policies are implemented and how those policies affect the lives of other people. These laws can be influenced by biblical standards or they can be influenced by beliefs that contradict the Bible. Who better than churches to speak about these issues in their own communities and to encourage their congregants to be involved in the political process, as well? If the church is not involved in shaping public policy and electing those who make laws, society will become a more hostile environment in which Christians are hindered from speaking the truth and freely living out their lives in a manner that honors and pleases God.
- Thomas, Cal. “Have We Settled for Caesar?” Christianity Today. 6 September 1999.
- MacArthur, John. “The Christian and Government: The Christian’s Responsibility to Government-Part 1.” Study Guide. Available online at http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/sg45-97.htm.
- Matthew 28:16-20.
- New American Standard Bible (NASB).
- See Romans 13:1-7, NASB.
- Colson, Chuck. “The State of the Nation: Why Christians Should Be in Politics.” Breakpoint Commentary. 20 September 1999.
- Mark 12:17, NASB.
- The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon. Greek word “apodidomi” defined: 1. to pay off, discharge what is due a) a debt, wages, tribute, taxes, produce due; b) things promised under oath; c) conjugal duty; d) to render account; 2. to give back, restore.
- Acts 5:29, NASB.
- Federer, William J. America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations. Coppell: FAME Publishing, Inc. 2000. Pgs. 10-11.
- Matthew 22:39, NASB. Luther saw the constraining role of the law in this way. By keeping people from being as bad as they can be, the law demonstrates love for them.
- “Abortion in the United States: Statistics and Trends.” National Right to Life. Available online at www.nrlc.org/abortion/facts/abortionstats.html.
- Broen, Anne Nordal, et. al. “The course of mental health after miscarriage and induced abortion: a longitudinal, five-year follow-up study.” 3 BMC Medicine. 12 Dec. 2005; Smith, Peter J. “Study Shows Abortion Takes Toll on Adolescent Mental Health.“ Lifesite News.com/. http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2006/aug/06081805.html. 18 Aug. 2006; ElHage, Alysse Michelle and Edgar S. Douglas, M.D. “The After-Effects of Abortion.” NCFPC Findings. Jan. 2003.
- Stott, John R.W. Involvement: Being a Responsible Christian in a Non-Christian Society. New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company 1985. Pgs 34-35.
- Ibid. Pg. 41.
This article was used by permission of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. To visit their web site, go to: www.ncfamily.org