It’s no secret that American politics have become more and more polarized, sensationalized, and adversarial over the past few presidential election cycles. With the mid-term elections fully upon us, things don’t seem to be improving. I find it easy for us to drift between two extremes. We often become disenchanted and disengage, or we fight for change and get caught up in the inflammatory debate that seems so normal around us.
The early church was no stranger to the anxiety that political power, intrigue, corruption, and oppression can cause—they were faced with governing authorities who were controlled by public opinion, they were subject to godless and oppressive laws, and found themselves the subject of tyranny that cost many of them their lives. The first description of the conflict between church and state is recorded for us in Acts 4:1-31, and we would do well to learn a few lessons from them. There are six things we need to remember.
- We should be the best citizens. The volatility of our political climate today gives us the opportunity to demonstrate something different and beautiful in what has become an ugly area of American life. In Acts 4 Peter and John model what the New Testament instructs of us. We are called to pray for, and live with respect, honor, and submission towards our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-4, Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17). We are called to fulfill our duties as citizens, to seek the benefit of the nation we are in, pay taxes and follow the customs of the land (Jeremiah 29:7; Romans 13:7). For us today, one of those customs would include voting in a way that is thoughtful and consistent with a truly Christian worldview.
- We should be the best citizens…to a point. Having sworn allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord, our submission to our nation has it’s limits. In Acts 4:19-20 we see the famous words that teach this: “19…Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Their ultimate authority wasn’t in the laws of the land, or the whims of their leaders, but it rested with Jesus Christ himself. When Peter and John were commanded NOT to do something that God had commanded them TO do they continued to do so at risk of their own life. When Daniel was ordered to DO something that God had commanded NOT to do, he graciously refused, at risk of his own life (Daniel 6:12-13). Francis Schaeffer puts it this way: “The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state.”
- Our hope is in the reign of Christ not a political platform. After Peter and John refused to follow the command of the Sanhedrin, they were threatened (Acts 4:21). When the church heard about this, immediately responded by praying to God portions of two different Psalms (Acts 4:24-30). The first is Psalm 146:
Psalm 146:3–10 (NASB95)
3 Do not trust in princes,
In mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.
4 His spirit departs, he returns to the earth;
In that very day his thoughts perish.
5 How blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the Lord his God,
6 Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and all that is in them;
Who keeps faith forever;
7 Who executes justice for the oppressed;
Who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free.
8 The Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
The Lord raises up those who are bowed down;
The Lord loves the righteous;
9 The Lord protects the strangers;
He supports the fatherless and the widow,
But He thwarts the way of the wicked.
10 The Lord will reign forever, Your God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the Lord!
We are not to trust in princes, but it is those whose hope is in the Lord God that will be blessed. It’s amazing to me how many of the hot issues of the day are issues that the Lord feels deeply about and acts on. How much of the angst and anger that many feel around the elections stem for placing too much hope in our republic than in Jesus Christ? He’s the one who keeps faith forever, he’s the faithful king. Hope in him.
- All human government is inclined to oppose Jesus Christ. The second Psalm that the church prayed is Psalm 2 (quoted in Acts 4:23-26). In Psalm 2 the kings of the earth are shown as gathered up against Jesus the Messiah. The church recognized that they were facing the same thing. In Acts 4:27 they pray, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel…” The peoples of this world, and their leaders, were gathered against Jesus. The same is true today. The notion of a “Christian nation” is a false hope until Jesus returns, and “God and Country” are a sad substitute for “Christ and Kingdom.” Russell Moore puts it this way, “The church of Jesus Christ ought to be the last people to fall for hucksters and demagogues. After all, the church bears the Spirit of God, who gifts the Body with discernment and wisdom. But too often we do…It would be a tragedy to get the right president, the right Congress, and the wrong Christ. That’s a very bad trade off.”
- God is in complete control. Psalm 2 doesn’t only speak about the kings of the earth rising up against God, but it speaks of God’s response to them. “He who sits in the heavens laughs, The Lord scoffs at them” (Psalm 2:4). God is not frightened by the rebellion of the nations, and the early church reflected this in their prayer. After identifying how the people of Israel and the nations, and their leaders, Herod and Pilate, all opposed Jesus, they complete the sentence in Acts 4:28 with these words: “to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” God’s plan is not only unaffected, but is actually carried forward by the rebellion of the nations. The church only requested two things (Acts 4:29). The first was, “…And now Lord, take note of their threats.” For them, just knowing that God was in complete control, and that he was aware of their situation was enough. They could trust him to manage the affairs of state.
- Keep the main thing the main thing. The second request showed that the church was committed to keeping their mission the priority. It was, “…grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence.” They didn’t pray for their safety, or their comfort, or even for their leaders to change their mind. They prayed for boldness. Their primary concern was the reputation of Jesus Christ and the mission of the gospel in this world. How often does our passion around political things betray that we are more concerned about our candidate making it into office rather than we are about our neighbor making it into the kingdom?
As we enter into the elections, and emerge out the other side of them, may we take these lessons to heart. Peter summarizes it this way:
Honor all people,
love the brotherhood,
honor the king.
1 Peter 2:17