By Ben Cachiaras
As the 2012 elections approach, many feel there are no good options. Voting for one candidate or the other is like choosing whether you prefer to be hanged or shot.
Others feel strongly there is only one clear option and how you vote is simply a matter of whether you are smart or stupid, a choice between acting as a courageous, loyal American, or a wimpy, fascist pig. It’s clear!
I know many who are fearful about what is happening in our country, the economy, the fraying of moral fiber, the loss of freedoms we hold dear—fearful about the well-being of our children and their children. It seems there is much at stake, and this election becomes a proving ground for which philosophy of government one believes holds the best chance of saving the nation.
A growing number of people are indifferent. Polls indicate if there was a Whatever box on the ballot, masses would check it. Or maybe the whole thing makes you angry. The mud slinging, empty promises, and political rhetoric leave you politicked off.
As the political news ticker runs across the bottom of the TV screen, questions also scroll through our minds: What does the future hold? What should be our role as Christians? What should be my priorities? How would Jesus vote?
Bottom line: How should I vote?
While I would not presume to tell you whom to vote for, I do believe we can talk about how we should vote. Christ followers should carry core convictions with them—especially when they step into the voting booth. Standing on a soapbox to defend a certain candidate will only divide us. Instead, we can stand on a scriptural platform that is large enough to hold us all.
I see at least five key planks in that platform. Nailing each one into place gives all of us room enough to stand, insight into how to vote as a Christian come November, and a picture of how to live out the mission of Jesus until he comes again.
THE FIRST PLANK requires that we straddle a paradox. This is difficult for some folk. We sometimes prefer things to be simple, clear-cut, black and white. When two ideas on the surface seem to contradict each other, but both are actually true, holding both in tension takes extra energy some don’t want to expend.
We may struggle with the “both/and” thinking of paradoxes. But the Bible is filled with paradoxes, and Jesus is apparently very comfortable with them. And when it comes to the relationship of Christian people and government, the best position to take is the straddle of a paradox.
On the one hand, we are called to submit to government. Respect it, obey it, follow it, living as the best citizens we can be.
In Romans 13:1, Paul says we must “submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.”1 Instead of rebelling against governing authorities, we are to trust they are “God’s servants, sent for your good” (v. 4). He goes on to urge paying of taxes, and says, “Give respect and honor to those who are in authority” (v. 7).
Clearly, Christ followers are to submit to the government as model citizens. But then there’s the other side of the paradox: submit to government, yes, but you can never completely trust government. And if government ever requires us to go against the Word of God or the will of God or the ways of God—well, then, we must stand up, speak out, and put God first. Because that’s where our ultimate allegiance lies.
When Peter and friends were clearly told to stop preaching and healing in Jesus’ name, he knew that command went against what Christ had called him to do. He could not follow orders from those authorities and, at the same time, continue to be faithful to Christ. And so he replied in Acts 5:29 with words that capture the other side of the paradox: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Yet Jesus seemed to think we could live in the tension of this paradox. In Matthew 22 Jesus stood between political enemies attempting to trap him. The Pharisees were the nationalists who hated the idea of Roman dominance and found it unacceptable to be mixed up with pagan dogs. Their opponents, the Herodians, were the “liberals,” named after the Herod with whom they sought compromise for various reasons.
You think there’s tension on the debate floor when Republicans and Democrats talk about taxes? The Pharisees and Herodians had plenty of sparks between them, but they worked together to try to entangle Jesus in a political snare. After buttering him up with false compliments, they presented an impossibly poisonous question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (v. 17).
If Jesus said “no, you shouldn’t pay homage to the Roman government by submitting to their taxes”—he would have been arrested for rebellion and sedition. But if he said “yes, you should pay your taxes to Rome”—he risked alienating his largest group of supporters, the common people who hated being under Roman rule and who could not afford to pay exorbitant and unfair taxes. These two groups thought they had Jesus in a lose/lose situation where he would bury himself in political quicksand.
Of course, Jesus saw through their sham. His reply was not politically correct, because he exposed their hearts as hypocrites, and then he said, “Show me the money.” Jesus was handed a coin, which of course represented the government of Rome, backed by the Roman Empire. It was the currency of their culture. It stood for the things of this world. Jesus asked the name of the person whose image was stamped on that coin, and they replied, “Caesar.” Jesus then amazed them with his answer, which in turn, helps us know how to vote:
“‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God’” (v. 21).
Pay or render to Caesar the things that are of his domain—that is, a thing of this world.
Fulfill your duty to the state. Live in this world as a good citizen. Pay your taxes. Do jury duty. That’s Caesar stuff.
But Jesus went on to say, “Give to God what belongs to God.” Respect and honor government, but never at the expense of your loyalty to God. These are separate causes, and there should be no doubt which one is most important in your life. Our supreme duty is to give glory and honor to God without compromise. The state must never override the principles of our faith, and our faith must always guide us in our political and governmental dealings. If there is ever a tough choice between them, God wins.
Maybe this is what Jesus was driving at when he said, in John 17, that he didn’t want us to be taken out of the world, but to be in the world. He wanted us to be involved, not detached—but not of the world—not serving under it, held captive by it. That’s the paradox: Be in, but not of, the world. That’s how you should vote!
Before Pilate, Jesus said he was a king, but that his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). So, Paul said our true citizenship is in Heaven (Philippians 3:20), which means we will always be like aliens here, temporary residents who are never too much at home in this country, because we know we’re just passing through (1 Peter 2:11). So live in and love this land; but remember your heart is made for another homeland. Be a good citizen of the realm where you live, but seek first and foremost the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).
As you step into the voting booth this fall, keep your feet spread so you can straddle the paradox. Support the government, abide by its statutes, be a model citizen, but be sure to pledge your ultimate allegiance not to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, but to Jesus Christ and the kingdom for which he died. Respect government’s authority while revering God’s authority, ready for the moment we must obey God rather than people.
THE SECOND PLANK in the platform requires embracing a principle that allows us to hold the church together despite political differences. I’m talking about the wisdom captured in the slogan attributed to 17th-century Lutheran Rupertus Meldenius, which is the key to unity.
In essentials unity. In nonessentials liberty. In all things love.
Not only is the truth here the key to raising teenagers and staying married, it expresses the wise and humble approach needed if you happen to fellowship with other Jesus followers who are not as brilliant or right as you are.
We have quoted this slogan often. We have practiced it less often. Once we recognize that weakening the church by political divisions within is not just awkward, but sin which breaks the heart of Jesus, we may be more open to this principle.
“In essentials unity” drives us to our Christological core, requiring us to be truly Jesus-centric. It means there is a central, nonnegotiable foundation. Our problem has been extending this list to include pet projects, beyond what is the essence of faith. But the list is short, centering on the living person of Jesus¸ and what he has done on the cross. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Also, “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). These truths bind us together rather than blow us apart. They go in the ESSENTIAL box. Don’t put too much else in that box, please.
“In nonessentials liberty” recognizes there are myriad other issues that are extremely important to submit to prayer, study, and reflection, which are worthy of careful biblical investigation, and in which Christians must come to an informed decision and act accordingly. BUT within this box we allow a range of freedom, and even difference of opinion—without having to split and name-call.
If your unity is truly in the essential, living Jesus, then you don’t feel so desperate about gaining uniformity in other nonessentials, no matter how important they may be.
Some seem unable to accept that nonessential does not mean “unimportant.” As a result, too many of us have tried to shove nonessential issues into the essential category. If it’s important to me, I want it essential for you. Wrong. The core and essence of our faith is the living Jesus. It’s time to start acting like people who accept this basis of our unity, admitting that because Christians with differing viewpoints on nonessentials will meet in Heaven later, it’s just stupid to let it divide us down here right now.
We should be saddened by the tragedy of the American church that has too often settled for the sameness of uniformity or the blandness of conformity rather than striving for the beauty of unity. Jesus didn’t settle. Simon the Zealot despised the Romans; Matthew was a tax collector, in cahoots with the Roman government. Jesus called them both. I wonder if he made them room together on road trips. Jesus called a Barack Obama supporter and a Mitt Romney fan. Some liked Rush Limbaugh; others didn’t.
Did you catch that? Jesus intentionally called disciples who did not vote the same. The basis of their unity was not their political position. It was Jesus. In fact, they had little in common, except for their allegiance to Jesus. But that was enough. Their bond was stronger than political affinity can provide.
When we step past the small confines of uniformity based on color, class, and creed, and beyond the narrow strictures of conformity based on political perspective, we will find the depth and beauty of the early church, which found its unity in Jesus.
“In all things love” is the key. The same love of Jesus that held together his diverse band of 12 is also what holds us together. You may have no earthly idea how or why a fellow believer could vote differently than you. But they will. If you expend all your energy trying to convince him or her to come over to your side, you will have precious little energy left with which to love them. And the mission we are called to fulfill suffers. The love of Christ allows us to hold together with those who vote differently, because love is not proud, rude, or self-seeking.
The nation is divided over politics. The church and individual Christians must not be divided in the same way, but should choose instead to express the truth that we are one in Christ. What people desperately need is Jesus and his truth, love, forgiveness, and wholeness. When we align with a political persuasion, we may influence a few votes or help a good candidate win. But the gospel loses, and we forfeit the opportunity and responsibility to influence people in the only way that ultimately matters.
A FRIEND WALKED through one of those corn mazes in Colorado. The pathways meandered endlessly in a series of seemingly chaotic swirls. Afterward, some people were offered a helicopter ride to view the countryside. From above they were amazed to discover the maze had been planted according to a beautiful design that was a tribute to the farmer’s father. What seemed from the ground like a confusing puzzle, from a higher perspective was seen to have order and give honor.
I suspect that is how it will be for us one day as we look back on this election and the political issues of our day. Which candidates best uphold the will of God? What about the confusing maze of issues before us? The economy, terrorism, stewardship of the environment, education, concern for health care, and so on. One day, what we cannot now see or understand fully from an earthly perspective will be revealed. In proper perspective, all nations and people will come under the reign of Jesus, and it will all be revealed to bring glory to him.
So do your homework, vote for the best candidate, and let the Spirit guide your conscience as best you can. But in the end, remember it’s all just corn rows leading to God’s bigger picture.
This big-picture perspective is what Paul urges on us in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31: “The time is short. . . . This world in its present form is passing away” (New International Version). Living with this knowledge is the third plank.
The world as we know it—with what many assume are permanent, immovable fixtures—is on the way out. Living with that perspective, Paul says, influences everything you do. He acknowledges many things that occupy us in life—getting married, having sad times, happy times, buying things, and so on. But as we do these things, we realize they aren’t all there is. There is more. This activity or pursuit is not the ultimate, big thing life is all about. It’s just part of the corn maze down here.
So recognize that your vote is important, but not the ultimate thing. When things go our way in the election, we recognize it does not bring our greatest joy; and when we are disappointed by the outcome, we are not utterly demoralized, because our perspective keeps our focus on Jesus, whatever happens in the political world. He is the great thing in our lives.
What seems like a permanent institution or governmental issue today—even immovable nations and unshakeable powers—will one day cease to be. “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7, New International Version).
Losing this perspective means we lose our voice and the gospel loses its potency. In the 1980s, many Christians believed we should rely on the horses of government and the strength of the Christian moral majority to bring things around for our cause. We believed if the religious right could hold sway in Washington, and we could get the right people in office, we would gain a seat at the big boy’s table and bring in the kingdom of God and save the nation.
Well, we got a place at the big boy’s table. We became a force to be reckoned with. We held sway, controlled votes, and had influence. In many ways, we had arrived.
But the whole thing failed miserably. It didn’t save the country. We found that having Christians in charge didn’t change the hearts of people. Worse, it severely damaged the witness of the church, because the message of Jesus got lost in the shuffle. In the eyes of many, the name Christian became synonymous with a particular conservative political viewpoint. We became known for our stance on a few big issues. Instead of being big dogs, we were considered a narrow interest group, a voting bloc, a lobby. We not only lost the next election anyway, we lost credibility and the ability to represent Jesus. The church in America is still reeling as a result.
Meanwhile, the world kept on its merry course of going to Hell in a handbasket. We do not need more Christians distracted by throwing their efforts behind rescuing the moral majority. We need Christ followers who seek first the kingdom and who are afraid of no one, who do not put their trust in the chariots of politics or the horses of government. Many in Jesus’ day wanted him to change the world through the political machine. He always said no, and pointed us to the kingdom way.
THE FOURTH PLANK is about getting personally involved. How should we vote? We should vote like we are the ones who will take responsibility to help solve the problems of our world. It’s easy to vote. But voting doesn’t solve anything. Christ followers don’t consider it the government’s responsibility to fix the world, take care of people, and address society’s ills. When Jesus said, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, his finger was not pointing to government.
Imagine Jesus telling a story about a guy who was mugged by thugs, beaten, robbed, and left by the side of the road. The first passerby didn’t want to get his hands dirty, so he kept moving along. Another person, who professed to love God and who always voted the right way, came next. But instead of actually doing something, he rushed into town to participate in a demonstration about the dangers of gangs and thugs on our roads. He believed somebody ought to do something to stop them. He’s planning to call his congressional representative and complain about it because the roads are no longer safe.
Another person, who also loved God, passed by on the other side of the road because he was on his way to a conference about health-care reform. He believed people who are left bloody in ditches should have affordable medical coverage. He couldn’t stop to do anything because he was very busy with the conference.
A Christian mom, who needed to go to Bible study after taking her kids to soccer practice, didn’t have time to stop. She saw the robbed, beaten man and couldn’t help but wish the schools would do a better job of educating kids about the dangers of traveling on the road these days. She is planning to check into a safer Christian road for her kids called “Focus on the Fast Lane.”
Another God-fearing person hurried by because he believes God helps those who help themselves. He believed if that man had worked harder and been more careful, he wouldn’t have ended up in ditch. He shook his head in disgust, smugly considering himself part of the blessed who are rewarded by God for making it to town safely. He sees no merit in bailing out those who are kicked to the curb of life.
Many people passed by, each one wanting to vote for someone else who will finally do something to help the hurting man in the ditch. I think Jesus might have wondered if there were anyone who would just stop and help the man—not as a political move, but because binding up wounds is what neighbors do.
When Jesus’ disciples told him the masses were hungry and he should do something about it, Jesus looked at them and declared, “You get them something to eat.” The disciples did what they could, and God made up the difference. Disciples of Christ need to become personally involved. It’s time we stopped voting for God or anyone else to save the day. We are his people. One day there will be perfect justice. Until then, it’s just us.
Talk to insiders about what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the tornado in Joplin, Missouri. While politicians argued about who would do what, where the money would come from, and whose fault it was that more wasn’t being accomplished, Christ followers from all over the country quietly showed up, rolled up their sleeves, and brought relief. We didn’t wait for legislation or a political solution. We showed up like Jesus did: in person.
When we get personal, we go beyond voting against abortion, and open our homes to unwanted children, open our hearts and pocketbooks to young mothers struggling with the decision about keeping a baby. It doesn’t mean the political route to addressing abortion isn’t important, but rushing by the babies and mothers in the ditch on the way to vote or protest about the issue doesn’t seem right either, does it?
Remember the real wounds of our world, and that God loves to advance his agenda through his people whose lives are expressions of grace and truth. We will sooner change the world by our love than by our votes.
THE FINAL PLANK in the platform is perhaps the most important. In the end, Christ followers don’t stand on a platform; we fall to our knees. Real power is not in nuclear arms or the United Nations or American society, but in God alone.
When Paul wrote to Timothy, the Roman Empire’s emperor was the wicked, murderous Nero. He fiercely persecuted Christians, beating and killing them en masse. Nero likely was the one who took Paul’s life. And yet, Paul urged Timothy to pray for kings and those in authority for the sake of God’s people and the mission (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Edmund Burke, the 18th-century political thinker, said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We need to realize that prayer is not something we do instead of doing something, it is one of our most important ways actually to do something. We must pray that men and women filled with the Spirit’s goodness, God’s worldview, and Christ’s conviction are elected into influential positions, so they can influence the political process in ways that honor God and his mission. We must pray for the wisdom to vote in ways that are not just “good for us” and our own self-interests, but good for Jesus’ kingdom mission.
Let us pray that Christ followers in politics will maintain their integrity, priorities, and faith.
Let us pray for those we politically oppose. (If Paul can pray for Nero, we can pray for Obama or Romney.)
Let us pray for our nation, and all nations, to come to Jesus Christ as the supreme ruler and Lord.
Let us pray for Christians who are so much in the world they have
become of the world. And let us pray for those who are so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good.
Let us pray the prayer I have written below.
1All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation of the Bible, unless otherwise indicated.
Ben Cachiaras is senior pastor at Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.
A Prayer Before Voting
We are concerned and dismayed at what we see around us, O Lord. But we are not afraid because we know you are on your throne, towering supremely above the little systems of our day. Help us to see this election and world affairs from the helicopter perspective of your strength and sovereignty, which is not confused or despairing.
God, our provider, help us to live boldly with and for your Son, knowing that if we lost everything—the election, our health care, our economy, our houses, land, jobs and freedom—if we lost it all and still had you, Jesus, we would have enough. So help us pledge allegiance to you, casting our ballot as your child who by our living makes it clear that we seek first the kingdom of God. And help us trust that all else will be added as you desire, in your way, in your time.
In the name of Jesus, our ruler and leader, we pray, Amen.