The Christian's role in government

How should a Christian vote? In a democratic society in which laws are made by elected legislators responding to public opinion, may a Christian promote laws that reflect his biblical belief system? For example, may a Christian seek to enact laws that protect traditional marriage? Or must a Christian put aside his own beliefs and try to think like an atheist when electing a representative or responding to an opinion poll? Can promoting sound principles of justice and governance deteriorate into forcing the conscience of one's neighbors on religious matters? These are perplexing questions on which committed Christians often disagree. Let us isolate some relevant principles.

1. Government has a Legitimate Role in Enforcing Morality

Romans chapter thirteen contains the main biblical passage on how Christians should relate to government:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Rom. 13:1-7. 

Peter said essentially the same thing as Paul:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him [the emperor] to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 1 Peter 2:13-14. 

And according to Solomon, who was himself a king, kings hate wrongdoing, and a wise ruler will do his best to weed out and get rid of wrongdoers:

Kings detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness.” Prov. 16:12
A wise king winnows out the wicked; he drives the threshing wheel over them.” Prov. 20:26. 

Biblically, governments exist to enforce morality—to enforce principles of right and wrong—by commending those who do good and punishing those who do wrong. This is why Christians should both submit to government and pay their taxes. 

It is sometimes asserted that “you can't legislate morality,” but this notion is contrary to very plain biblical authority, as well as being a false assessment of the aims of modern government. Often, those who assert the inability to legislate morality are thinking of sexual morality, but even where it concerns this narrow issue, few dispute the right of government to make and enforce laws against prostitution, rape, sex with minors, voyeurism/invasion of privacy, sexual harassment, indecent exposure/public nudity, the knowing transmission of AIDS or a venereal disease, etc. In fact, legislating and enforcing morality in many different areas—including but by no means limited to sexual morality—is a primary goal of government. 

2. No Society can Exist Without Implementing Divine Principles of Morality

The moral law contained in the Ten Commandments comes from the mind of God and contains principles applicable to all people, principles that are necessary to civil government:

“The law was not spoken at this time exclusively for the benefit of the Hebrews. . . . it was to be held as a sacred trust for the whole world. The precepts of the Decalogue are adapted to all mankind, and they were given for the instruction and government of all. Ten precepts, brief, comprehensive, and authoritative, cover the duty of man to God and to his fellow man; and all based upon the great fundamental principle of love.” Patriarchs & Prophets, p. 305. 

Every society must have laws based upon principles found in the Ten Commandments, specifically those commandments which specify man's duties to his fellow man. Every nation has laws similar to “thou shalt not kill.” In our society, the punishment for killing varies proportionately to the moral culpability involved. If purely accidental, only money damages are assessed. If the killing was reckless, such as by a drunk driver, there is a criminal sanction; if intentional but not premeditated, a yet more severe punishment; and the most severe criminal punishment, sometimes including the death penalty, is imposed when the killing was premeditated. 

Likewise, every society has laws against bearing false witness. There are laws against perjury—lying during sworn testimony—but there are also many different laws intended to compel parties to commercial transactions to make full, truthful disclosure of relevant facts. There are numerous laws—against theft, embezzlement, burglary, robbery, etc.—that are based upon “thou shalt not steal.” Laws against fraud combine the principle of not lying with the principle of not stealing, to outlaw lying for the purpose of obtaining money or property. 

3. The Example of Ellen White

Ellen White was not averse to improving the world through legislation. She had a great burden for temperance reform, and urged Adventists to vote against alcohol:

“The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote—in favor of prohibition and total abstinence.” R&H, November 8, 1881; Daughters of God, 123.2 (emphasis added)

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1873 to agitate against alcohol and tobacco. Its efforts resulted in many cities and counties voting to be “dry.” Along with the Anti-Saloon League and the Prohibition Party, it lobbied for prohibiting the sale of alcohol. Ellen White urged Adventists to join with the WCTU where we could do so, because we shared a common goal—closing the saloon:

“The [WCTU] is an organization with whose efforts for the spread of temperance principles we can heartily unite. The light has been given me that we are not to stand aloof from them, but, while there is to be no sacrifice of principle on our part, as far as possible we are to unite with them in laboring for temperance reforms.... We are to work with them when we can, and we can assuredly do this on the question of utterly closing the saloon.” R&H, June 18, 1908; Daughters of God, 125.3 (emphasis added)

A clear implication is that Adventists need not apologize for advocating that government implement biblical (Eph. 5:18; Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35; Isaiah 5:11, 22) principles of reform. In the case of prohibition of alcohol, the reform was designed to prevent a long train of evils—licentiousness, violence, domestic abuse, poverty and squalor, and accidental death and injury—that inevitably follow in the wake of alcohol abuse.

4. Government Must Not Force Religious Belief or Observance

Although governments enforce morality, government may not enforce belief in, or worship of, God. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's” Mat. 22:21. Here, Jesus teaches that there is a sphere that civil authorities legitimately regulate, but another and separate sphere that belongs to God alone, into which earthly princes have no right to intrude. 

The Christian church historically has struggled with this principle. Imperial Rome combined the religious power with the civil power; the Roman Emperor was given both civil (princeps senatus, consul) and religious (pontifex maximus) titles, and was vested with both civil and religious authority, which led to the persecution of the early Christian Church. After the empire's fall, the Roman Catholic Church adopted the imperial model; the popes exercised both civil and religious authority, which led to the ferocious persecution of dissenters during the long ages of Papal domination. 

The Reformers realized that the legacy of Rome was defective, and argued for separate spheres of authority for church and state. The Westminster Confession (1646), while stating that Christians have a duty to obey (Rom. 13; 1 Peter 2:13-17) and pray for (1 Tim. 2:1-2) the civil authorities, also made very clear that the civil authorities must not interfere with religion:

Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and Sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet . . . it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the Church . . . without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, . . . no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession of belief.

This Reformation principle eventually blossomed, at least in the United States, into an insistence on complete separation of church and state, with no religion being established as the official state religion. Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists have been particularly firm in arguing that there must be no coercion in the worship of God. In 1920, George Washington Truett, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas for almost half a century, preached from the steps of the United States Capitol to over 10,000 listeners, stating: 

It is the natural and fundamental and indefeasible right of every human being to worship God or not, according to the dictates of His conscience, and, as long as he does not infringe upon the rights of others, he is to be held accountable alone to God for all religious beliefs and practices. Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty....Toleration is a gift from man, while liberty is a gift from God....God wants free worshipers and no other kind.

5. Putting it All Together

Governments do enforce morality. They may legitimately implement biblical principles of morality. They may seek to stamp out through legislation social evils such as slavery and enslaving habits like drug and alcohol dependence. But governments may not force the conscience in regard to religious beliefs or observances. 

These are also the basic guidelines for the political activity of a Christian participating in a democratic form of government such as a republic or representative democracy. A Christian voter or elected representative may legitimately seek to have the government enact and enforce principles of justice, principles of morality, principles of health and sanitary reform—even when these were first set out in the Holy Scriptures. However, a Christian voter or representative must never seek to enact legislation that will mandate belief in or worship of God, or enforce any sectarian religious observance. 

As a rough approximation, the first four commandments, which prescribe the Christian's duty towards his God, may not be enforced by law, because to do so would force the conscience. “Righteousness exalts a nation,” wrote Solomon, “but sin condemns any people.” Prov. 14:34. Righteousness is the path to national prosperity and greatness, but it cannot be achieved by forcing the conscience of the citizenry. That path, history has repeatedly shown, leads only to persecution, injustice and misery.

But the last six commandments, which describe principles of morality—the duty of man to his fellow man—may legitimately be translated into laws and regulations of civil government. Where possible, Christians should seek to have divine principles of morality and justice enshrined in the laws of their nation. There is a greater than human wisdom behind Scripture; the Creator, when He issued guidelines for the conduct of His creatures, understood what best would secure their welfare and happiness. 


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