Let’s Talk Politics and Religion!

Aren’t those the two things we are told never to discuss at dinner?  What is it about these areas of human life that cause so much tension and anxiety? Probably you can recall an uncomfortable conversation with a political zealot or someone who has been religiously dogmatic. Perhaps you frequently find yourself at the center of heated debates. As parents wanting to equip and teach our children to love God and love others it is critically important that we don’t avoid these topics. Why? Because for Christians religion boils down to loving God and politics is how we publicly love our neighbor as ourselves. What does God’s word say about the relation of these two most important spheres of life? How can we equip our children to thoughtfully, biblically, and graciously engage their religious and political culture?

The apostle Paul gives a cosmic, “behind-the-scenes” depiction of the gospel in his letter to Titus (Titus 3:3-7). This is the engine of our new life. It is based on our need (v.3), God the Father’s grace (v.4), God the Holy Spirit’s active power in our lives (v.5), God the Son’s willing sacrifice (v.6), and our present and continue position as co-heirs with Jesus and our future hope (v.7).

This “good news” proclamation sounds like real good news! The “religion” that results is first of all humble, since we are no different from anyone else in our great need and our inability to save ourselves (vv.3, 5b). We do not need to convict people, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11). Our job is to 1) always be ready to give a reason for our Christian hope (1 Peter 3:15), 2) teach others to follow Jesus the Risen King (Matthew 28:18-20), and 3) . . .

We are commanded to “adorn the good news” (Titus 2:10b) by living as what we are: children of God and citizens of the Kingdom of the Beloved Son. Elsewhere Paul calls us ‘ambassadors”, official representatives of what a foreign country is like. (2 Corinthians 5:20).  In Ephesians 5 he describes personal holiness and how Christian households show love and serve each other in this new life. In Titus 2:2-10 he describes how a local church—as a family of families—is to love and serve each other in a visible, unmistakably beautiful and attractive way in their local community.

Finally, Paul addresses what we primarily think of when we talk about politics. Notice that Paul does not talk about voting (that wasn’t really a thing in the Empire), he doesn’t share what bills to vote for and which companies to boycott. His assumption is that the Gospel is world-transforming because it transforms the human heart from the inside. To him, it is obviously better than anything else in producing a virtuous citizenry:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:11-14

Since this is the case, Paul continues (Titus 3:1-2) by commanding true lovers of the Savior who gave himself for us, to give ourselves for the good of our community by:

  1. cooperating with the governing authorities
  2. quickly engaging in good works that benefit the polis (city)
  3. refraining from gossip, slander, and verbal abuse toward government officials… or anyone
  4. avoiding pointless quarrels, preferring harmonious living— like you might find on social media (my way is better”, I’m right you’re wrong”, “God is on my side”).
  5. being reasonable—I have in mind James’ admonishment to be quick to listen, slow to speak.
  6. Showing conspicuous deference toward everyone (Philippians 2:3).

There you have it: a clear description of the public life of every citizen of heaven “living in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope.” There is nothing controversial there. Only things that at best will “adorn the good news” and at worst “cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” Make these 6 points your main primer for teaching your children about living a life in whatever polis you live in, city, county, state, nation. Let them be the filter for how you think about the news, how you speak with guests and family and how your family acts locally for the good of your community.

Okay, I get it, Paul doesn’t live in the time and place we do. There must be some things that he’s going to miss, right? I’m not so sure.

  • Paul lived in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, pluralistic empire that was the peak of western civilization at that time. Box checked.
  • Paul was part of a subculture that was often at odds, occasionally fatally, with the surrounding culture. Box checked.
  • Paul was a citizen who exercised his rights when it benefited the Kingdom of God. Box (hopefully) checked.

For those of you who still have “yeah, but” hanging in the back of your head, here are a few other pieces of the puzzle:

  • Persecution is an authentication of faithfulness. Christians have a foundationally unique worldview: our focus changes, our desires change, our values change (Romans 12:2). This new reality controls every aspect of our lives and, sooner or later, will bring us into conflict with any culture or society that has a different worldview. Jesus and the the New Testament writers assumed that persecution would be the natural result of following Jesus and was even a sign of faithfulness (Acts 5:41). If you are upset because of political pressures, check yourself to be sure that you are gospel-minded rather than comfort-conscious.
  • Civil authorities are empowered by God. (Romans 13:4) Just as in the church, God has empowered civil authorities to maintain order and to punish wrongdoing in this world
  • Taxes are biblical. (Romans 13:6-7) You heard me. According to Paul (and Jesus who didn’t begrudge Caesar what was his), taxes facilitate order and peace in society for the general provision and protection of the population. Are governments perfect? No. Corruption? Yes. However, a quick romp through history will demonstrate that bad government is generally preferable to anarchy. “In those days there was no king. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
  • Systems change, God’s principles don’t. Citizens of republics or democratic societies have both rights and responsibilities. Much of the inner turmoil we experience in  politics is the result of how we should use our rights and what our responsibilities are as Christians AND Citizens. In a dictatorship, we would have other concerns, but which laws will or will not pass are not among them.
  • Paul’s main point is to adorn the gospel so that others may find God’s grace. Lowering vs. raising taxes, limited immigration vs. open border, any given topic should be addressed with this key understanding. I believe that Paul has local government in mind in Titus 3:1-2. There is an assumption that the “good works” are conspicuous and local (plus Crete is an island). Local political involvement (serving the city) produces a great return and we can individually adorn the gospel and silence our detractors much more effectively. However, it is notable that Christians in the early centuries did develop a general reputation for being law-abiding, model citizens.
  • The government can never legitimately compel sinful behavior. The New Testament writers assume the general legitimacy of government. However, they also recognized that at times one may be punished for doing what is right (1 Peter 2:20-22). You may recall that Daniel and his three friends ran afoul of a pagan king’s command of idol-worship. Yet notice that in all cases, malicious resistance was never employed. Instead they entrusted themselves to God’s justice.
  • Spiritual transformation can never come from human political ideas or institutions. If getting the right president or law into place would have transformed the human heart, Jesus would not have needed to die on the cross (Romans 3:20) Living in a republic we have the right and responsibility to elect representatives and vote for laws. To the degree we are able, we should want to promote candidates and legislation that we think will benefit others in our community and serve the purposes of advancing the gospel. Ultimately however, we will have more influence in our local communities and local politics. It is in our personal relationships that we will most clearly adorn the gospel with our character. Don’t get anxious or upset over what is beyond your control or your responsibility. As in everything, submit your requests to God on behalf of your community, city and nation.
  • Our political opposition is spiritual in origin. Humans are enslaved to sin and the governing spiritual rulers of the present age (Ephesians 6:12). Whenever we find ourselves thinking in a “them versus us” context, we are operating out of a false perception of reality. “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures“. We do the work of our Father when we love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us. (Romans 5:8)
  • We must emulate Jesus by being willing to bear personal cost for the good of others, even our enemies. There may be financial costs to voting for a measure that will benefit others but impact our own finances negatively. There may be a personal cost to standing up to defend the weak and neglected. We await a glorious Savior and a certain Eternal hope. We have peace with God through our Lord, Jesus Christ. That must change how we live. Remember, Paul focuses on the manner in which we live. Can we disagree but with concern for our political opponent? Can we stand for an unpopular position without becoming self-righteous? Can we suffer a legislative defeat or a disappointing court ruling without slandering or maligning public officials? Can we jump in to help our local communities even if we disagree with policy issues in order to adorn the gospel? Can we graciously receive condemnation for our gospel-informed stance without retaliation? Can we remember that we are in a battle against spiritual entities and that the people around us are not our true enemies?

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