“Nothing was more alien to them than politics.”
So wrote the early church father Tertullian regarding the Christians of his day. Some Christians probably did hold public office and serve in the Roman army, but according to church historian Philip Schaff, Christians in general refrained from participation in civil government until after the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity (at least, some brand of it, but that’s another story). They were law-abiding, when the laws did not conflict with scripture, but by and large they did not otherwise participate in government. Of course, under the Roman Empire, opportunities for participating in government were much fewer than they are in America. Still, we modern American Christians, looking back on the early church from the perspective of our own acute awareness of the duty to go out and cast our vote, are likely to say that in that respect the early church just got it wrong.
Or did it? Well, yes and no. Because they did not have the opportunities we do, they did not have the responsibility of using those opportunities for God’s glory and the good of mankind as we do. We have the opportunity to take a hand in directing our country’s policies by voting, and so we have a responsibility to do so in a wise and godly way. Yet clearly members of the early church usually did not avail themselves of such opportunities as they did have to participate in government. Were they wrong in this? No.
We need to learn from our older brothers in the early church what it means to maintain a clear witness for Christ when the society around us becomes overwhelmingly wicked. Participation in the Roman government usually meant participation in evil, including idolatrous religious rites. The Christians of the early church did not see themselves as justified in taking on themselves the guilt of participation in such sin in order to accomplish the uncertain good they might do by participating in government. They would have been amazed if anyone had claimed that by their nonparticipation they became guilty of the evils others would then do in the government. It was more important to keep a clear testimony for Christ than to achieve some nebulous increment of good government.
How does this apply to us? There may come a time when even such minor participation in government as voting could involve us in wrongdoing that would blight our testimony and bring reproach on the name of Christ. It’s more important for us as Christians to obey God and live out His holiness in our lives than it is for us to accomplish some uncertain good in government by voting for evil. Our testimony for Christ is more important than that. It’s more important than a lot of things. Our testimony for Christ is more important than winning. It’s more important than escaping some danger we might fear. It’s more important than reducing our taxes, or having a thriving economy and lots of jobs.
It’s a given that we’ll always have to choose between or among candidates who are imperfect in policy and character. Naturally we try to choose the best available, and sometimes good people may disagree about which one that is. But at some point a line is crossed, and a candidate is no longer just imperfect but absolutely unacceptable–a candidate who is outright evil in policy and/or character. He might be a socialist or some other kind of statist, or he might simply be a notorious and high-handed sinner who openly and unrepentantly lives a scandalous life. Whether we like it or not, voting for such a candidate would mean condoning his sins, and Christians ought not to do that, even if the other candidate seems worse.
We have a potential situation like that shaping up in front of us right now. Donald Trump currently owns casinos and strip clubs. He uses profane and abusive speech, boasts of his adulteries, and says he has never asked God’s forgiveness because he didn’t need it. These are not offenses from an early stage of life, but his current practices. Whether we like it or not, if we vote for Trump we condone his sin and send the message that we, who name the name of Christ, are unconcerned about righteousness. This has nothing to do with “electing a pastor” and everything to do with valuing character and respecting God’s law.
If Trump wins the Republican nomination, he will probably be facing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a statist with character that may be as bad as or even worse than Trump’s. If it comes to that, there will be great temptation and pressure to try to save ourselves from Clinton by voting for Trump. We as Christians must not do that. We must keep our testimony clean by refusing to vote for either candidate, just as our forefathers in the faith refused to participate in idolatrous religious rites.
Happily, for the present at least, we do have an excellent choice in Senator Ted Cruz, a man of strong Christian character whose policies are the best we’ve seen in decades. By voting for Ted Cruz, we have at least one more opportunity to have a voice in our government without abandoning our Christian principles.