“It’s never been this bad before.”
If you’re anything like me, you’ve caught yourself saying those words more than a few times during our most recent election cycle. Our choices seemed impossible; our newscasts seemed untrustworthy. Even now, months following the inauguration, it’s tempting to listen to the news with a mounting sense of panic. With every new development, with every piece of “click-bait” that surfaces on our radar, we increasingly find ourselves pushed toward either fear for our future or outrage toward our political adversaries. “It’s never been this bad before,” we continually insist, and behind this statement lies a set of assumptions of how the world is ordered.
In an era of “fake news” and political panic, we must be men and women of deep, Christian principles. For without principles, we can only react to the play-by-play, our hopes hanging on the secular prophets who ask us to “stay tuned” for the next in an endless sequence of new developments.
How does the gospel rescue us from a world of fear and division? What is the relationship between God’s kingdom and human government?
HONOR YOUR LEADERS
Paul would have been no stranger to a climate of political instability. Likewise, Paul’s first readers would have been all too familiar with both the triumphs and shame of the Roman Emperor Nero, who ruled from 54-68 A.D. So it’s significant for us, that Paul includes politics in his larger discussion on what it means to live as a follower of Jesus:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)
Since the days of Noah, human governments have had two responsibilities: to punish evil and to promote good. In the New Testament in particular, this and other writings emphasize a responsibility to “honor” civic government (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-4).
The Greek terms here are unambiguous: the words that Paul uses are exclusively used for human authorities. So yes; Paul is saying that Christ’s followers are to show “honor” and “respect” to human authorities.
On what basis? Paul is equally clear on this point: human government is a direct extension of the will of God. The book of Daniel tells us that God “removes kings and sets up kings” (Daniel 2:21). Solomon likewise tells us that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1).
But wait, you might ask, what about ungodly men? Historically speaking, the Bible has affirmed that even ungodly men can be used for God’s ultimate purposes, such as when King Cyrus was deemed God’s “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1).
Granted, this doesn’t mean our civic leaders receive a “blank check” for their policies or for their character. We can find multiple examples in the Bible where men and women of God defied their leaders for Godly purposes—such as when Daniel’s companions refused to bow to the image of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. But it does mean that as followers of Jesus, our allegiance to God’s kingdom transforms the way we engage in the political arena here on earth.
LIVING AS DUAL CITIZENS
One of the primary ways that the gospel transforms our political engagement is by re-ordering our priorities. We are “dual citizens,” so to speak—inhabiting the “City of Man” even as we place our trust in the “City of God.” This is why Paul says that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
Ancient thinkers have historically framed this in terms of “immediate” and “ultimate” hopes. Our ultimate hope is in God—His love, His kingdom, His sovereign control. Yet because we are also citizens of the present age, we place immediate hope in God’s gifts to us. For instance, we trust God’s sovereign control to keep us safe on the highway (ultimate hope), but we still buckle our seatbelts and drive safely (immediate hope). Likewise, though we place our ultimate hope in God’s expanding kingdom, we still have immediate, earthly allegiances—such as those we find in politics.
This, of course, is where we struggle. Understanding how our “dual citizenship” is meant to function isn’t always easy. Yet the sheer amount of political division we’ve witnessed even in recent months suggests that we can do better, and if evangelical Christianity is to have any sort of future we must help one another—especially the next generation—in connecting our personal faith and the public sphere.
To that end, I submit the following applications:
- Recalibrate your hope
Political idolatry begins when we allow the immediate hope of politics to become our ultimate hope for security, satisfaction, and comfort. If you find yourself excessively agitated by today’s political climate, ask yourself: am I trusting that God is in control in this situation? “It’s never been this bad,” you might say—but even if that were true, is God any less in control?
Likewise, if you find yourself apathetic toward the field of politics, ask yourself: is my detachment from politics preventing me from loving my neighbor? The policies of the City of Man have moral implications. To make an idol out of politics is to deny one’s heavenly citizenship; to ignore politics entirely is to deny one’s earthly opportunities.
- Pray for President Trump
This, of course, is true of any leader, though our most prominent leader as of this date is President Trump. We will not like every politician. That’s not the point. Paul exhorts us to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We may pray that they make wise decisions, and we may pray that they grow to become men and women of God.
This means that ultimately we desire that our leaders succeed. Yes; even the ones we dislike. It’s tempting, I realize, to wish for their failure, because when this happens we get great pleasure out of saying: “I told you so!” But this is just pride. As followers of Jesus, prayer should be our first impulse, not gloating or a childish political rant.
- Abstain from “outrage porn”
In an age where journalistic success is measured in the number of “clicks” you receive, the strategy often employed is to stir your audience with anger. It’s what writer Ryan Holiday calls “outrage porn:” the headlines that grab our attention, and the videos we share with our friends.
“Outrage has slowly eaten online media from the inside out. What was once a righteous and necessary force—a check on softball reporting inside old media—is now a corrupt and lazy vice. The outrage you see isn’t real, it isn’t sincere. In fact, it is the opposite. It’s shallow, it’s superficial and it’s selfish.”
Today’s political journalism often serves to cultivate anger toward our present situation, or anxiety toward our future. Christ-follower, if you struggle with either of these emotions, you may need a break from technology and the non-stop news cycle that has you so worked up.
The night He was betrayed, Jesus told His followers: “take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). If the cross already represents God’s victory, we can take comfort that no political scandal can disrupt God’s plans.
- Listen to your neighbors
In an age of identity politics, we’re often guilty of drawing divisions between “us” and “them.” But not everyone who voted for Trump is a bigot, nor is everyone who opposed him a “snowflake.” In the book of James, he instructs God’s people to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Is it possible—just possible—that your political adversaries might be people you can learn something from? Is it possible for us to dialogue with one another without trying to “convert” one another to our political views?
- Do something good
Finally, even in Paul’s day political instability could not stop the spread of the gospel. Here in America, we experience relatively little persecution—especially when we compare our setting to places in the world where Christianity carries a death sentence.
When God’s people lived in exile in Babylon, God implored them to “seek the good of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). And so can we. Serving one another, serving our community, promoting God’s goodness in any way we are able—these tasks and relationships produce a better, stronger society. You can be a part of that; there’s no need to wait until next time you’re at the voting booth.
In an age of division, love becomes revolutionary. As followers of Christ, we are citizens of this city only briefly, but citizens of God’s city forever. Let’s allow this light to shine through in all that we do.
 Ryan Holiday, “Outrage Porn: How the Need for ‘Perpetual Indignation’ Manufactures Phony Offense.” The Observer, February 26, 2014. Available online at http://observer.com/2014/02/outrage-porn-how-the-need-for-perpetual-indignation-manufactures-phony-offense/