This issue is the cause of much controversy in the Christian community. Each of the two extremes is represented by those who feel very strongly that their position is the “Christian” one. On one hand there are those who spend many hours writing to their Congressmen, picketing abortion clinics, campaigning for conservative candidates and using all means available to influence and improve the quality of government to conform it to the Christian worldview. At the other extreme are those who take Jesus’ words “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) as their motto, refusing to vote or get involved in any effort to affect the culture in which we live.
There is no doubt that we should be good citizens. Romans 13:1 tells us, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Christians should be exemplary in their conduct regarding the laws of the land, choosing to disobey only those laws/rules that directly contradict the revealed Word of God. Abortion, for example, may be an abomination, but no one is forced by the government to have an abortion, as is the case in China. The Chinese Christians who defy the law and refuse to have abortions are obeying the biblical commands “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19) and “you shall not murder” (Romans 13:9), thereby obeying the Word of God rather than the laws of man. But such instances are very rare in contemporary Western culture.
Perhaps the best way to understand our responsibilities in the social/cultural arena is to look to Jesus for our example. Jesus lived in one of history’s most corrupt societies. But He perfectly maintained His Father’s perspective on social and political matters, even though He lived in a society that was every bit as pagan and corrupt as today’s culture. Cruel tyrants and dictators ruled throughout the region, and the institution of slavery was firmly entrenched. Legal and economic oppression of the Jews by Rome was rampant, dwarfing anything we experience today. But even in the face of such tyranny, Jesus never issued a call for political changes, even by peaceful means. He never attempted to “capture the culture” for biblical morality. He did not come to earth to be a political or social reformer. Rather, He came to establish a new spiritual order. He came not to make the old order moral through social and governmental reform, but to make new creatures (His people) holy through the saving power of the gospel and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. He knew what many today fail to grasp: governments and institutions are made up of people. When people’s hearts are changed by Christ, godly governments and institutions will follow. If the hearts of the people are corrupt, getting them together in groups only multiplies the corruption. What we need is not better government, but better men and women in government.
So what is a Christian to do? Can Christians shun all political and social efforts to affect the culture? Certainly, if our consciences convict us to do so and as long as our motivation is pure and not an effort to appear holier than those who do choose to be involved. Pride is too often the by-product of completely withdrawing from the culture. We are to be in the world, but not of it, and part of being in the world is modeling Christ-likeness for the world and Christian love toward one another.
Can we picket, campaign, and lobby our elected leaders on issues of concern to us? Certainly, as long as we keep the ultimate goal in mind—to win people to Christ. Too often that goal and the activities described above are in conflict. Take, for example, the misguided efforts by a small fringe group from Kansas who show up at the funerals of homosexuals with signs declaring “God hates fags” and “burn in hell.” How likely is it that such cruel and vicious behavior will convince unbelievers we serve a loving and merciful God who will forgive sin? The cause of Christ is not advanced by this type of activism, no matter what the motivation. Even the most gracious efforts to “clean up the culture” will not protect or expand the cause of Christ. Ours is a spiritual battle against worldly ideologies and dogmas that are arrayed against God, and we achieve victory over them only with the weapon of Scripture. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
The picture of the Christian in the world is well illustrated by the analogy of the train station. We (Christians) are waiting in the station to board the northbound (heavenly) train. We are surrounded by people who are preparing to board the southbound train, completely unaware of its tragic destination. Should we spend our time and energy pleading with them to switch trains? Or do we merely tidy up the train station instead? The answer is obvious, and those who would tidy up the culture for the culture’s sake are not only missing the point, they are misunderstanding the reason God leaves us in the world—to be His witness to the lost and condemned. Such a mission is far more “good and profitable to men” (Titus 3:8) than any amount of social or political activism.