Politics & Pilgrims: Are The Two Compatible?

Grant Melville

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I hope the brethren will bear with me while I post a thread on a topic which is already under discussion elsewhere. The following article, which I wrote in 2013, may have some bearing on the issue. I hope, rather than simply reinforcing two sides in their opposite opinions, in might provide clarity for some on what I believe is an important question of divine truth.

I reproduce the article as it first appeared, unedited. Some of the expressions and language are perhaps more extreme than I would use now, but I leave it as it is.

Politics and Pilgrims: Are the Two Compatible?

The question of whether or not Christians should be involved in politics is one which seems to provoke very little debate in Christendom today. It would appear that scant thought has been given to the matter, and this is hardly surprising, considering the lamentable state of the public profession. I’d like to raise this question with individual readers, the majority of whom will have the right to participate in the political system of their countries by voting and also stand for election.

I feel that I needn’t explain to my intelligent readers that the course of this world is toward destruction, that it is evil and opposed to God. In Ephesians 2 v 2, the apostle refers to the “… ruler of the authority of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience…” Some well-intentioned but sadly deceived believers hold that, through the work of evangelism, the world will be steadily improved until it reaches a suitable state of morality, whereupon the Lord will return. This idea of continual improvement flies in the face of plain scripture, and the whole of the Word of God gives us a picture of the moral bankruptcy of the world and its systems. We have plain scripture to tell us that we, believers in the Lord Jesus, have been redeemed out of this “present evil world” (Galatians 1 v 4) and that the direction of it is fatal (Proverbs 14 v 12). We have to personally come out from the world – in a moral way – if we are to conduct ourselves suitably and enjoy the blessings of present salvation (2 Corinthians 6 v 17). The principle of separation from the world should be well-known to the most ill-taught of believers. Many find it testing – I find it testing, very much so. But it is vital to the enjoyment of our present salvation. The Lord said “Ye are my friends if ye practise whatever I command you.” (John 15 v 14). It has been said that the salvation of Christ is unconditional, but the friendship of Christ is conditional. I cannot claim to be a friend of Jesus if I don’t keep His commandments. I want to be a friend of Christ.

Having established that, firstly, the world is evil, and secondly, we must be separated from it, what are we to make of its politics? Scripture tells us to be subject to the authorities (see Romans 13 v 1, Titus 3 v 1, 1 Peter 2 v 13-14), and to render to them what is required by the law (Mark 12 v 17). Nowhere are we instructed to participate in government. Indeed, the pernicious effects of an uncontrollable democratic force can be seen all around us at the present time, as the prophecy of Daniel 2 v 41-44 describes. The feet and toes of iron and clay, strong and brittle mixed together, represent rapidly evolving modern democracy. The authority of government is weakened by this mixture of rulers and ruled in the business of government. The events of recent weeks, months and years show the increasingly insubordinate nature of the people of world. Anti-government protests, demonstrations and riots are becoming a common occurrence in many areas of the world. Furthermore, legislation in democratic nations is increasingly being shaped the immoral and self-willed mandate of their infidel people. Secularism is rife and the attempts of its proponents to erase even the outward display of Christianity from public life are meeting increasing success. Seeing that this is so, many Christians would argue that we need to fight these tendencies through the channels of government by participating in politics. I will now go on to examine that view.

I will say, first and foremost, that God undoubtedly has people in all areas of society, in all professions and walks of life. There are Christian politicians, and we should be thankful for what restraining influence they are able to exert over the course of evil in high places, and the way that they serve God’s people in their activities. A prominent example of such people are those US senators who advocate on behalf of the persecuted Church. Thank God for them, and may He preserve them. But, is this the best position from which they can serve God and protect His interests? I would suggest that it isn’t.

At various times and in various places, we see examples of how Christians are being harmed by the assumption of temporal power in Christendom. A notable example of the anti-scriptural and ungodly lust for temporal power has always stood before us in the form of the Roman Catholic Church. This is the error taken to extremes, and the results, detrimental in so many ways, can be clearly seen. In past Nazi Germany and present communist China, members of the Roman Catholic Church and its clergy are being persecuted for their refusal relinquish the belief that the pope is the ultimate authority, not the government. One can, of course, be sympathetic with these sincere - if misguided - persons, who defended and continue defend what they hold to be sacred, at the cost of their freedom and in some cases, their lives. This tenacity has cost these people a great deal, but for what? They aren't defending the sovereignty of the Christ, but rather that of a temporal religious ruler - a thing never contemplated in scripture, and which goes against it in fact. The pope, if he believes the word of God, should encourage those over whom he claims pastoral care to submit to the authorities in all things, as far as conscience allows. But, the conscience of the Roman Catholic is burdened by man-made rules, laws and superstitions which drive him out of the sphere of safety in subjection to the authorities when this isn't required of him. Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that Christians in China who attend house-churches are facing similar persecution, but this, I believe, is persecution for righteousness sake, not for the sake of a mere earthly religion. Likewise, many believers were persecuted in Nazi Germany because they resisted the authorities - quite rightly, because they weren't willing to collude with evil and and condone murder. Eschewing temporal power does not, of course, guarantee freedom from persecution for the believer, but it goes a long way to safeguarding that peace, as we walk within the boundaries of scripture and - as far as conscience permits - the law of the land.

That is, of course, an example of temporal religious power being exercised in the political sphere - an unholy mixture if there ever was one. But what of 'pure' politics? What of citizens voting to elect political candidates who vow to protect family values? Surely, this is a positive exercise of democratic power on the part of the Christian? On the face of it, it would appear so. But, when we meddle with politics, we meddle with a capricious force and walk off the grounds of scripture and onto uncertain ground. For example, say that I cast my vote for a candidate and a party which promises to respect and uphold the values which I would like to see in wider society. My favoured candidate wins the election. But, when they get into power, they find that their idealism gives way to pragmatism. Perhaps they feel that they must compromise a little in the short term in order to effect change in the long term. As a result, they drop that staunch defence of moral values in order to keep a hold on power. Perhaps they forget, in the long term, the principles with which they set out. These things happen in politics. Perhaps this is an overly cynical view. It is born of continual - yet probably spiritually unprofitable - observation of politics in the United Kingdom, of many compromises, u-turns, and instances of very poor moral judgement on the part of our leaders. But, whether you believe I am overly cynical or not, I feel that you can't deny that there's no surety in politics, and our Surety has not asked us to defend His rights by getting involved in it. As far as I'm concerned, my Man is always in power and my petitions are heard, day or night.

In January of this year, the Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, delivered a lecture at Portcullis House, Westminster. Mr Nazir-Ali and I would undoubtedly disagree on a number of fundamental issues, but he said some sound things in his discourse on the increasing erosion of the rights and freedoms of Christians. One of the things he said was this: "Christianity teaches that it is by giving up power that you change the world. Islam teaches that it is by taking power that you change the world." What a contrast we have here, between the true faith and the infidel religion. One is the heavenly course and way of walking, the other is the earthly. The former characterises the true profession of Christianity. As the apostle Paul says in the inspired word: "Since Jews indeed ask for signs, and Greeks seek wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews an offence, and to nations foolishness; but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ God's power and God's wisdom." (1 Corinthians 1 v 22-24). What does the religious and the secular world see as is looks at Christianity and the Christian? It comes across a stumbling block on one hand and an object of derision on the other. In the eyes of the world, what weakness was displayed on the cross! Christ, slain! But to the believer, there is seen the power and wisdom of God. The world sees Christianity as the butt of jokes and an easy target, while it fears the growing power of Islam and the outright violence of Islamism. The power of God - although manifested all around the unbeliever, in the mighty works of creation, in God's dealings with man, in sending His only-begotten Son into the world, and the testimony of the Christ in the believer - is invisible to him. The unbeliever sees scheming, deception and violence as things which get him power and allow him to shape the world. He may legitimise these methods by so-called 'rationalism', secular humanist dogmas and 'objective moral truths', but they remain what they are: instruments of Satan. Where do we see this hypocrisy more than in the most powerful nation on earth, the United States of America? Many American believers cling patriotically to the assertion that the constitution of the nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values. This basis on Judeo-Christian values, commendable though it may be, failed to prevent slavery, civil war, the practice of thinly disguised and much denied imperialism, and the present rapid moral decline and rise of secularism in the nation.

Mr Nazir-Ali's statement that we can change the world needs to be treated carefully. I agree with it though. As I stated earlier, the belief that we can improve the state of the world by evangelisation is erroneous. That's not to say, however, that believers have no effect on the world. Indeed, scripture indicates that after the Church is taken from the earth to be with the Lord, the chaos of the Tribulation immediately ensues. This is the result of the removal of divine restraint of evil on the earth - temporarily, of course, prior to the return of the Lord to assume His rightful Headship in that sphere for the millennial period - and the removal of believers from earth, indwelt as we are by the Holy Spirit. We have power and influence over the world. It is not of ourselves, of course, but because of the Spirit of God within us. Matthew 5 tells us that believers are the salt of the earth and light to the world, as we are characterised by the One who brought savour to a savourless scene of moral failure, and is the Light of the world. Thisis power. God's power. What other power do we need? None else can have any moral effect on us, or on the world around us, because our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against principalities, against authorities, against the universal lords of this darkness, against spiritual power of wickedness in the heavenlies (Ephesians 6 v 12). We have the full armour of God to withstand the efforts of these principalities, these authorities, this darkness, this spiritual power of wickedness. Not a partial armour, to be supplemented with temporal arms and temporal strength, but full armour.

It is my personal conviction that if we participate in politics we are acting wrongly. The motivation we have for doing so undoubtedly varies. If it is for selfish reasons, in order to get a party into power which will take less of our income in taxes for example, or which will increase spending in an area which we are particularly interested, then that's self-will. Self-will leads us astray. What might be good for us might not be good for our neighbour. If I vote for a party which will cut my taxes, spending on the welfare of the poor might be cut too, and I would be culpable for it, in part. Equally, if we do it for what we consider moral reasons, to combat some liberalising legislation on abortion, or the use of recreational drugs, or pornography, for example, then we are equally at fault. If I use my earthly democratic rights to defend heavenly principles, I am stepping out of dependence on God, and into dependence on myself and the political system. I am saying that I believe it's more likely that morality will be defended by my taking matters into my own hands, rather than getting down on my knees and praying about it. I am saying that I don't need the armour of God, because I have the flak-jacket of my constitutional rights to protect me and my liberty.

And yet, perhaps neither of the above reasons - getting what our natural selves desire, or trying to defend the principles of our faith - is the reason why we would get involved in politics. Perhaps we, having rejected that idea that we can improve the world by evangelising, get further into confusion and error by thinking that we can improve the world by legislating morality, but forcing moral values on an immoral world. I don't think I can adequate express the futility of such a course of action, so I leave it to the homely and awkward (but nonetheless true) words of that much-used servant of the Lord, John Nelson Darby, sometime in the 19th century. He had this to say on the subject of trains running on a Sunday, replying to arguments that such services were necessary for transportation of the sick and other such noble undertakings:

"The poor, everyone labouring during the week, should insist on the Sabbath [so-called]: it is essentially his own day. For the same reason, if my vote decided it (and happily for me I have none, and would have or use one), not a train should run on Lord's Day. As to excursions, they are a thorough curse to all engaged in them. I cannot help: I leave them there.

"But as to Sunday trains, I do not believe they are for sole reasons to meet cases of necessity and mercy, as men speak; they are to make money. If it be alleged that the requirements of Society oblige it, what are requirements of Society but haste to be rich, and an imperious claiming of the right to have one's own way? One understands very well that, railroads monopolising the roads, there is a kind of supposed obligation to meet the case of those who could have travelled at any rate; but if obliged, they can hire something to go. No, it is facility and cheapness they want; it is money and will. They are as free to travel as they were before. I have nothing to do with these things, and never intend to have to do with them. The world goes its own way, and I am not of it. The allegations of Christians about it I have to answer; and I do not accept them, or the accommodating Christianity to what is termed progress. The Christian has to form his own ways, and not expect to mend the world. There is no moral gain in its progress. We have telegraph and railway, very convenient no doubt; but are children more obedient, men happier, servants more faithful and devoted, homes and families more cherished? Is there more trust and genial confidence among men, more honesty in business, more kindly feeling between master and man, employer and employed? Let everyone answer in his own heart. You have more facilities in the money-making, but more anxiety and restlessness in making it; more luxury and show, but not more affection and peace."

Extract quoted in and reproduced from 'John Nelson Darby: a Biography' by W.G. Turner (1926)

What more is there to say? I can only express the hope that all believers in the Lord Jesus - and I take this to myself first and foremost, because I need the lesson more than anyone - would be more dependent on Him for the realising of godly hopes and desires. Is our hope and expectation to "mend the world" as J.N.D. said, or is it the soon coming of our beloved Lord to take us to be with Himself? If we hope for progress and morality in the world, we'll be disappointed. If we hope, at any and every moment, for the Sun of righteousness to arise with healing in His wings (Malachi 4 v 2*) to mark the end of this dark night, then we will be preserved and kept in fresh and living expectation. That hope will never be disappointed. On the contrary, it will be realised in rapture.

* This scripture, as I understand it, applies to the restoration of Israel, rather than to the Rapture, but I hope the reader will bear with me as I use it in this context, because the imagery of it is so delightful, and I think it can have a figurative application to us and our present hope. I would absolutely be subject to correction in this, as in all things.