The Christian Calling to Citizenship

When Stephen Colbert appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air” earlier this month to promote his new book America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t, the comic title wasn’t his only nod to confusion. Colbert professed perplexity that evangelical Christians “have to base all [their] political decisions on absolute biblical truths that must not be denied” in a political arena where such truths often are denied.

It wasn’t clear whether the Roman Catholic satirist or his on-air character actually was befuddled. It is clear, however, that many evangelicals are genuinely confused about just the issue Colbert raised: how to apply biblical principles to politics in an increasingly pluralist culture. Should we aim to regain majority political support for a biblical worldview? Should we focus on cultural renewal and stop pressing a Christian viewpoint politically?

Questions framed at the level of strategy and tactic, however, already have zoomed in too close to the confusion to consider adequately the fundamental biblical principles that should guide Christian civic engagement. A biblical worldview ought to produce a distinct political apologetic about why and how to engage in politics for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.

Christian Citizenship: What and Why?

Whether daunted by the complexity of the issues, reacting to partisan rancor, or dubious about the value of the political process generally, many believers simply keep their distance from politics. But disengagement is not appropriate—or even possible. The exercise of citizenship is a matter of stewardship for the Christian.

Citizenship is one of our callings. When the subject of calling comes up, we tend to think first of the occupation that fills the bulk of our time, but our callings also include other roles, relationships, and responsibilities. Our first call is to glorify and enjoy God, and our everyday callings are the ways we pursue that end. For example, one of my callings is working in public policy, but others include being a church member, sister, neighbor, and citizen of Virginia and the United States. Stewardship of these relationships and responsibilities means directing them to God’s glory.

The blessing of living in a self-governing society carries particular responsibility. In a free society, citizenship involves a wide range of decisions that require much reflection. Good stewardship in this case requires at least a basic understanding of civics and issues of debate, but a Christian’s grasp of the matter ought to go beyond an 11th-grade government curriculum. A biblical worldview should shape our diagnosis of the problems politics seeks to address and our vision of how to resolve them.

That begins by understanding the integration of politics with the rest of life. Politics isn’t just election season and what happens in Congress. It’s not primarily about the endless debate on Fox News or MSNBC. Politics is about the way we order our lives together, and servants of the Creator and Lord of the universe make a vital contribution to that endeavor. Politics is the way we figure out how to meet everyday needs, solve problems, and sort out our differences. It’s about harmonizing diverse interests and building consensus about what’s worth pursuing as a society. We work out issues in all kinds of forums—from family room to boardroom to congressional hearing room, each with its own authority structure, each exercising a variety of roles and responsibilities.

We ought to approach all these arenas with a coherent biblical worldview. It is necessary and proper for Christians to enter the public square with a biblically shaped perspective. This is not unique. Everyone brings fundamental assumptions to public discourse, whether they call those commitments “religious” or not. Voting is an exercise in expressing a worldview. Every public policy expresses a moral judgment about what is good, from seat belt laws to tax reform to the definition of marriage. To apply a Christian worldview to such questions of public policy isn’t self-interested. It’s serving our neighbor.

After all, we serve the God who defines the common good. The first cultural task God gave human beings was to order society and care for creation in a way that reflects his design for human flourishing. Applying that charge in our American public policy context today means seeking consensus that reflects that design. We use reason to persuade, recognizing that competing presuppositions sometimes may cloud the capacity to reason together. Even so, we appeal confidently to the best interest of the other on the basis of our beliefs because we know that God has placed eternity in the hearts of all human beings—a longing for the transcendent, for fulfillment, for wholeness.

Christian Citizenship: How?

Christian citizenship begins with solid systematic theology. A political philosophy is most secure when it rests on the bedrock of biblical anthropology. A biblical worldview provides a unique vantage point on the individual as image of God and on institutions ordained by God for certain roles and responsibilities in society. What we believe about the nature and purpose of human beings shapes our perspective on public policy, from abortion to welfare to international relations. What we know about the roles and responsibilities of family, church, and government influences our understanding of the society ordered toward true human flourishing.

One way to think about human flourishing is in terms of right relationships, among both individuals and institutions. Human beings are made for relationships, and we can think of this relational capacity in four dimensions: a person’s relationship with God, self, others, and the material world. Brokenness in any of these areas mars human flourishing and often ripples into other areas, starting a cycle of relational breakdown. A fatherless child, for example, is more likely to have a child of her own outside marriage. A gambling addict’s misuse of money may cause family hardship or disruption.

The cultural mandate makes each of us responsible to strive for wholeness—shalom—for our neighbors in all these relational dimensions. We do so through individual relationships and through our participation in various social institutions, especially the family, church, and government. God has ordained these institutions with distinctive responsibilities that help meet the needs of individuals and communities. Looking at political questions through this institutional lens can help us discern more clearly how to think about government’s particular role versus other institutions.

Throughout Scripture, the family has the primary role in human society. The family is responsible for the many needs—material, relational, emotional, and spiritual—of all its members. Intimate, loving, permanent relationships provide accountability and comprehensive care.

No individual is an island, nor is any family. Some needs exceed the family’s capacity, and other social institutions help to meet those. The church is equipped to meet a broad range of needs, and particularly transcendent needs that go beyond material well-being.

Government is established by God’s common grace for the good of fallen humanity. Its charge is to keep the peace through the rule of law and the use of force to punish evildoers. Much of government’s role in maintaining a just society is to protect the space in which other institutions such as the family and church pursue their respective roles and responsibilities.

The capacity for human relationships expresses itself in many other ways as well—in businesses, Boy Scout troops, and book clubs, for example. Family, church, government, business, and civil society institutions all play a part in meeting needs, solving problems and cultivating human flourishing.

We should seek public policy that respects these institutional roles, with incentives that reflect the reality of human nature. Take the question of domestic poverty, for example. The government safety net provides material resources for those in need, but poverty in America goes much deeper than material need. Poverty remains unacceptably high despite $1 trillion annually in government spending on antipoverty programs. For too long we have overlooked the relational character of poverty: among poor families with children, 71 percent are headed by a single parent. Children in these households are more likely to repeat the cycle of dependence on welfare as adults.

Tackling poverty requires responses from multiple institutions to restore a culture of marriage and to reform the government welfare system. The safety net should help those truly in need. Able-bodied welfare recipients should be required to work or prepare for work. For public policy to do otherwise would be to deny the human dignity of those whom welfare is supposed to serve.

Marriage reduces the probability of child poverty by 80 percent. Churches have enormous relational capital to help rebuild a healthy marriage culture. This begins with sound preaching on the theological as well as public significance of marriage. A congregation animated by the Bible’s extraordinary vision of marriage should swell with creative ideas for outreach to neighbors suffering from the collapse of the institution.

Government policy also shapes the culture of marriage. One of the reasons to oppose same-sex marriage is that it would further disconnect childbearing from marriage and codify the absence of a mother or a father in a child’s life. No-fault divorce laws ought to be reformed, and marriage penalties should be eliminated in the welfare system.

Sorting Out Our Lives Together

Politics brings together fallen human beings with transcendent longings to sort out our temporal lives together. Christians are called not just to engage in but to ennoble that endeavor. With a biblical understanding of the nature and purpose of human beings as individuals and in God-ordained institutions, Christians are equipped to pursue human flourishing in its fullest sense.

As citizens of a self-governing society, one of our callings is to steward the rights and responsibilities of our political order. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Some are called to public policy; some have an avocational passion for politics proper. But all are called to basic stewardship of the gift of political freedom and the goal of true human flourishing.

Developing a basic framework about individual flourishing through relational wholeness and about institutional roles is a good place to begin pursuing our lifelong calling of citizenship.


One resource that provides further investigation of this relational/institutional framework is Seek Social Justice, a DVD study guide produced by The Heritage Foundation, WORLD Magazine, and Compass Cinema.

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  • Thomas

    Related to political involvement as a part of our citizenship, I strongly recommend the current series Randy Alcorn is doing about the 2012 election on his blog — .

  • rothbard

    How can a Christian support a nation-state that practices whole-sale genocide? Are the hundreds of thousands of dead innocents killed by the US govt. in the Middle East not valid human life?

    How can you support this government that has expanded the only remotely-just state functions, justice and defense? Do you approve of the welfare state that has displaced the church? Do you approve of how the state has pushed itself into every single area of our lives?

    If so, then go ahead and support them and do your “civic duty”, if not, then please stop supporting these immoral political actors with your exercising of your precious “civic duty”.

    The results of your “civic duty” have been destroying the lives of people since the Israelites first begged God for a ruler and he told them it was a bad idea. (II Sam. 8)

    No, I am sorry but I must strongly disagree, you will not bring peace or do good through the violent power of the state.

    Voluntaryism is the only truly Biblically-compatible philosophy of society. If your method of advancing the morality of society comes part-and-parcel with immoral use of unjustified force, then you have some rethinking to do.

    • AStev

      rothbard, your argument assumes that an individual is partially responsible for the actions of those they vote for, and you suggest that they should abstain from voting. This is actually an argument in favor of monarchy, not “voluntaryism”.

      Incidentally, the Bible does show a society with no ruler over it, and it is a dismal picture. The entire book of Judges describes a period where “there was no king in Israel” and “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

      • Matthew

        If the pre-king era of Israel is so dismal, why does God become angry with Israel when they beg for a king in 1 Samuel 8? And give such a dismal warning about what a king will do to them.

        • Robert

          God was the direct ruler of Israel in the pre-king era. This is why He was angry with their desire for a human ruler.

    • Andrew

      Would have to say I agree – my take is: pay your taxes and pray for your leaders, make your voice heard on affairs of conscience but don’t get yourself entangled in these ‘Civilian Affairs’. We cannot expect the state to solve societal problems, these problems are primarily moral in nature and the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for their change.

      • Robert

        Matthew, was ending slavery a “civilian affair?” I think it was, and therefore cannot see how I should disentangle myself from such affairs. As long as goods can be achieved through such activity, I take it that some of us have moral obligations to do so (those of us gifted that way, passionate about the pursuit, and called.)

    • Matthew

      I think, to be a little more optimistic, the article makes a good plea to develop our political views through a biblical worldview. And, I think, it accurately states “A biblical worldview provides a unique vantage point on the individual as [an?] image of God and on institutions ordained by God for certain roles and responsibilities in society.”

      The bible gives a pretty straightforward definition of the roles and responsibilities of the “governing authorities” in Romans 13. That being to “bear the sword” against evil. From that, it is easy to conclude that nearly all federal government programs and spending do not meet that requirement and are outside what a government should be doing. Most domestic programs do not involve “bearing the sword”. And, while foreign policy certainly “bears the sword”, it is rarely if ever against evil.

      All that to say, while I agree with you that the article fails to draw the obvious conclusions, I think the premise it advocates makes it easy to reach the correct conclusions. So it can be useful to help people realize no mainstream political view is close to a biblical worldview of politics.

      Also, I do not think the bible implies that the current nation-state should have a monopoly on the role of governing authorities. But that is a different tangent.

      • Robert

        Matthew, it’s a pretty strong claim to say that no mainstream political view is close to a biblical worldview. It’s false, but even if it were true, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be engaged in attempting to pursue goods through the political process. One of those goods is to change what you take to be wrong with the political process.

    • Ross

      If you have a problem with things the government does then shouldn’t you be involved to help change it? That is the privilege of being in a democratic country.

      You are mistaken in confusing involvement with “support”.

      If all Christians were to stop voting and refrain from involvement in politics at all levels, do you think that would make the country better or worse? (and of course there are other things that Christians can and should do to improve society, including sharing the gospel and volunteering)

      • Matthew

        “If all Christians were to stop voting”? Better. This would bring about the collapse of the Republican party and the end of the pseudo-two party system.

        There is zero support for actual Christian values from either of the two parties. It is all pandering and lies. Until Christians withdraw their naive support, nothing will get better through political involvement.

        • Robert

          This is too simplistic of a view to be of any help to the Christian in thinking about her role in political goods. Do not confuse “the source of” someone’s values with the goodness of them. Many people have values consistent with Christianity that are not themselves believers. The role of government is the perfect example of where such a conversation can happen. Perhaps my neighbor might not agree about the justification for a free society; ie. the dignity of human persons conferred by a Loving Creator. But that does not mean that when she affirms the good of freedom she is wrong. In fact, I’d argue that all political discourse is of this variety, because it is not the role of government to affect saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Government is an instrumental, or pragmatic, means toward an end. Finally, it is also perfectly ok to compromise in pragmatic goods. Otherwise you fail to achieve any. Stop voting and the spirit of the age determines who gets elected. You may think that’s ok, but I call it cowardice and stepping out of the way for very great evils to obtain in our society. There is nothing virtuous about that. If you truly believe that both candidates/parties/options are equally evil, then I can only challenge you to re-examine what moral goods are and how they are achieved. Jesus will transform non-believers in both totalitarian regimes and free ones. But this does not mean that all political ideas are morally equal.

  • Steve Cornell

    This is a helpful summary. I passed it on to a few others. Some time ago, I wrote about our national movement from a culture of honor to a culture of law ( I think you’ll find this interesting.

    From a spiritual/theological perspective, we take matters to a deeper level by approaching transformation as a need for ontological change (inner regeneration) that includes a strong teleological focus (hope and a future beyond the temporal world) (see: Titus 3:3-7; II Corinthians 4:16-18).

    Ontological, of course, is concerned with one’s being not just behavior and
    teleological is a word that has to with “end” or “fulfillment.” It looks beyond the temporal to the final.

    This model for change expands from horizontal influences based in Act/Consequence to vertical interventions of Being/Behavior/Consequence/Future.

    The teleological dimension of transformation is God’s provision of hope and purpose — things that intuitively matter at some level to rational people and that shape a Christian understanding of influences like culture and politics. Christian thinking and living cannot happen apart from the telos.

    External mechanisms of influence and change (laws, customs, cultures and politics) will not address the depth of the human problem. On a Christian view, these external pressures are necessary (even divinely ordained) but not adequate. So we insist that making external adjustments like putting the “right” party in political office or changing laws and policies will not address our deepest needs.

    Christians recognize a need for ontological transformation (regeneration), but readily confess that we cannot produce this change in ourselves or in others. We need to be reconciled to God to become a “new creation” in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). And while this transformation doesn’t erase or eradicate the flesh/sin nature, it changes the focal point for transformation from law to grace and from flesh to Spirit. From a Christian perspective, these are matters that are foundational to culture and political agents of change. But I am not suggesting that we must impose these on culture and politics — this is impossible. Nor am I suggesting that other goods can’t be offered unless the spiritual is included.

    But transformation of human existence (both individually and in community), from a Christian perspective must prioritize the ontological dimension (i. e. “being,” not just behavior).

    Those who are deeply concerned about transformation must apply their thoughts and concerns to the Church. The Church (as God’s new community) is not merely an organization but an organism. In some ontologically organic way, each believer (upon faith in Christ) is immersed into a living community or body of believers to form God’s new society.

    Each local Church is made up of people who have experienced and are experiencing ontological transformation — though outwardly perishing, yet inwardly being renewed day by day — with a shared teleological vision — “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).

    What kind of community is possible (or should be expected) when ontologically changed believers are immersed by one Spirit into organic life together in the Spirit?

    Should these communities (local Churches) be exemplars of the kind of ideal toward which human flourishing happens at its best?

    • steveH

      Steve, you’ve nailed it. Christians should be dropping their heavy investment in state and national politics, and be heavily investing in the Kingdom, the church. Bill Hybels out it well. :The local church is the hope of the world”, by which he meant the local church is where the Kingdom of Christ touches and heals this world. We cannot expect the government to do this, because they are not equipped for it.

      Romans 13 makes it clear that the government is placed in power by God to maintain order. Contrast that with the previous chapter, which describes the attributes of a Christ follower, and you will see that Paul did not intend for Christians to become involved in the governing process at all. In fact, until Constantine, it was the pretty much unanimous stance of the early church fathers that any person in government who became a Christian would have to leave their job or posting.

      In short, any justification of Christian involvement in politics besides a prophetic role from Scripture is sound byte Scripture, plucking convenient text from here and there. One CANNOT find any part of Scripture that, in the light of Christ’s coming, death and resurrection, means we should ever become involved in politics.

    • Robert

      Steve, and steveH, I can’t help but think you are not interacting with the article above. The author made a cogent case for the usefulness of various institutions for the purpose of human flourishing. She did not say that government was the sole actor. She said that it has a role; that role is to get out of the way of the church, and to promote specific goods that allow this to happen. No one disagrees that transformation through Jesus Christ is the only One able to begin and finish human flourishing through His Resurrection and the Holy Spirit living within us. It is false to state that because of this we should be uninvolved in any other attempts at moral goods. Though only Jesus can effect and finish flourishing, there must be other actions that support that end. To argue otherwise denies that political pursuits we all consider paradigmatic examples of goodness were a waste of time. Ending slavery is the strongest example that comes to mind. I’m a eudaimonist, so fully embrace your view of being/becoming. This affirms our role as being/becoming the type of people who pursue human flourishing by fighting for the freedom of slaves or by affirming, even if it means unto war, the goodness of a government founded principally on the dignity of human persons that is conferred upon them just because they are His creation.

      Further, I’ll present a counter-argument to your position. You seem to argue that we should be uninvolved in politics in any other role than as prophets. This position entails that there are no goods obtained other than in that role. This seems obviously false. steveH, you declare that government has a God-given role to maintain order. This entails, very obviously, that if we have the opportunity, then we are obligated to act in such a way that supports that God-given role. I would argue that even given your very thin view of God’s role for government, that obligations other than prophecy are required of believers. Therefore I take it that we do have other roles. Many are outlined above. Minimally, we have a duty to vote. Depending on our shape, convictions, and God-given passion, we are called to engage civic discourse at whatever level of engagement those features determine appropriate. I, for instance, have a strong sense of vocational calling to affect political goals. My wife doesn’t. These are just a few problems that I see in your view, and would challenge you to address the depth of the article above, which is by no means a “sound byte” application of scripture. This article presents a cogent argument that moral theology should inform our political theology, and then gives very practical applications of that political theology.

      • Steve Cornell


        You seem to be responding to the response to me not to my comment. Read my comment again and you’ll see that I did suggest an either/or approach to this subject. I believe that God-ordained three institutions —for the good of humanity:

        1. Family— for nurturing and molding the character of marriages and children (Eph. 5:18-30; 6:1; Col. 3:18-21)
        2. Government— for punishing evildoers and commending those who do good (Gen. 9:6;Rom. 13:1-6:I Pe. 2:13-14)
        3. Church– as salt and light to the World and base for disciple-making (Matt. 5:13-16; Col. 4:5-6; Matt. 28:18-20).

        When the first two agents of influence (home and government) are failing, the church feels a greater need for her salt and light role in the world.

  • Uncle Samuel

    Steve, that is great.
    Regarding the original article.
    “The blessing of living in a self-governing society carries particular responsibility.”

    I agree but I detect a false premise, as confirmed by the following paragraph :)

    “Politics is the way we figure out how to meet everyday needs, solve problems, and sort out our differences. It’s about harmonizing diverse interests and building consensus about what’s worth pursuing as a society. We work out issues in all kinds of forums—from family room to boardroom to congressional hearing room, each with its own authority structure, each exercising a variety of roles and responsibilities.”

    The system described is both immoral and inelegant.

    The immorality is clear from the presumed position of master and slave between the “society at large” and the individual member. Before you shout “Render Unto Caeser” or “ROMANS 13″, read about Naboth’s Vineyard 1 Kings 21. Governments are not sovereign over the people who live in their territory. To assume the authority of the state in all affairs is the essence of slavery.

    The inelegance stems from the clumsy method of arriving at consensus, and then imposing that consensus on dissenters. This is the sort of “lording over” which Jesus warns his disciples against (Matthew 20:25, Mark 10:42, Luke 2:15.) This is the clumsy development model of totalitarian rule which drove the Soviet states into poverty. It is the development method of M$ Windows, which is why 83% of Super-Computers run Linux. Like M$ Windows, the production of law and order (the sword to punish evildoers from Romans 13) based on coercion only continues because of user lock-in.

    1 Corinthians Chapter 6 provides an insightful snapshot of how the early church viewed participation in the legal structure. As does Romans 12:9-13:10.

    Many Christians see the political arena as a place to duke it out for Jesus. They argue that “morals” are important and that “we” should enforce them with the sword of the state. As I recall Jesus told his disciples to go and preach his Message and when folks aren’t receptive to “shake the dust off [their] feet” (Matthew 10:14, Mark 6:11, Luke 9:5).

    • Robert

      Uncle Samuel, you did not read the same article as me. This is a very clear view of how we should participate in the legal structure that is consistent with scripture. The author made a case that is unobjectionable. All laws enforce a value. Believers need to be clear about which values they pursue legislative affirmation of, and need to have reasons other than “that’s wrong.” She also made a clear case for a distinction of roles between different institutions that have the responsibility to achieve those goals. She did not argue for state-as-means to all goods. This article stated this. So again, you either read a different article, or you didn’t understand it. I’d suggest a re-read.

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  • Robert

    My comment above at 1:38pm said, “No one disagrees that transformation through Jesus Christ is the only One able to begin and finish human flourishing through His Resurrection and the Holy Spirit living within us.”

    That should read, “No one disagrees that transformation is only possible through Jesus Christ. He is the only One able to effect and finish human flourishing through His Resurrection and the Holy Spirit living within us.”

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