With another presidential election year drawing near, Iowans again have found themselves in the midst of the fray. Candidates criss-cross the state giving speeches, shaking hands, and looking for the caucus-goers that may vault them to the presidency. As Christians, we certainly have an opportunity to play a role in this presidential-election process, as well is in politics overall. But, are Christians called to be involved in the political realm, and if so, what should that look like?
Throughout the last two millennia, politics and the church have been intertwined in a variety of roles. Beginning with early church history, Christians were harshly persecuted by the Roman governing authorities. However, a few hundred years later, Constantine became the first Christian Emperor and began to use his authority in support of the church. As Europe developed in the centuries following, wars were fought, states were established, kings were crowned, and treaties were forged, often with a significant level of influence and power flowing from the church.
The church had become so involved in politics and nation-building over the years that by the 18th century the lines between church and state were not merely blurry; in many places the church was the state. This led to some individuals searching for religious freedom from the church. They found that opportunity in a new land known as America. After a few generations, the settlers of this new land won their freedom from England and formed a government unlike any that existed in the European nations they had come from. One of the tenets of this government was the separation of church and state in the corporate sense that was commonplace in Europe. However, many of the founders and early leaders were religious, and their individual faith played a role in their politics.
Fast forward to today: Christians have the ability to freely engage in the political realm on an individual level. What are we to make of this opportunity? While there have been many different attempts to answer this question, let’s take a look at the concept of Sphere Sovereignty, introduced by Abraham Kuyper in the early 20th Century.
Abraham Kuyper was a Dutch theologian who served as Prime Minister from 1901-1905.1 He developed the idea of sphere sovereignty, in which he posits that all of creation is divinely ordered by God, including the societal communities in which we participate. Each of these communities, or spheres, has their own specific purpose, such as worship, family, education, civil government, and so on. He argues that each of these spheres is uniquely important in the overall created order, and that none of them should infringe upon the ability of another sphere to accomplish its divinely ordered purpose.2 Underscoring the importance of each sphere of creation, Kuyper states, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”3
If we accept the statement that Christ is indeed Lord over all, then as Christians we must take seriously the opportunity to participate in the sphere of politics. At the same time, it is important to remember that government is only one sphere in societal order, equal to all other spheres under Christ’s domain. So what does this practically look like for Christians today?
Start by becoming informed about things going on locally, in your own community. From there, you can progress to involvement in the state and federal levels. Ask questions of candidates. Challenge them on what they stand for, and why they stand for it. The more local a candidate is, the easier it is to engage with him or her. However, if you are reading this in Iowa or another early state in the Presidential process, you have an opportunity that very few others do. Don’t waste it! Iowans play an important role in vetting presidential candidates and have access to them on an individual basis that few other voters have. Finally, don’t stop with watching others. God may be calling you to get involved yourself. That might mean running for elected office, or perhaps serving on a board or committee.
If you do choose to participate in the political realm, don’t take it for granted. Remember, for most of the last 2,000 years it was nearly impossible for a Christian, or anyone else, outside of the elite ruling class to participate. Whether you are running for office yourself or engaging those who are running for office, think about how Christians can have influence in the political realm. Christians often decline to engage in politics because they think of it as being a dirty business, rife with questionable ethics and backroom deals revolving around money and power. In far too many cases it is. But remember, it is also part of the societal order ordained by God. Through Christian involvement in the political realm we can begin the sanctification process, working toward an earthly government which fulfills its God-ordained role in the Kingdom.
On the other hand, Christians who engage in politics often forget the limits of the political sphere. Remember, Kuyper argues that no sphere should infringe upon the ability of another sphere to accomplish its divinely ordered purpose. Christians should not try to do too much in the political realm, or to make it larger than all other spheres of society. When the government tries to fulfill the divinely ordained obligations of church, family, education, or anything else, it is over-stepping its own divinely ordained bounds, even if it does so with the best of intentions.
We are uniquely blessed in this time in history to be able to participate in the political sphere. But remember, it is only one sphere of many, all of which play an important role in the created order. Thank God that he has invited us to participate in his Kingdom work.
Return to iAt throughout this week to read more on Christians’ engagement in politics. If you live near Sioux Center, Iowa, also consider attending the Iowa Conference on Presidential Politics on October 29-31, 2015.
Bratt, James D. Abraham Kuyper, Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.) 320-321 ↩
Bratt, 130-148 ↩
Bratt, 195 ↩
What are your thoughts about this topic?We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.
Thanks Mick for this articulate short essay. It provides a remembrance of the historical significance of the church and state and the blessings of sphere sovereignty. You learned your lessons well at Orange City Christian, Unity and Northwestern! This piece should be printed in the local and state-wide newspapers. Thanks!