Jesus expressed similar sentiments when, concerning the payment of taxes, he instructed his disciples and the Pharisees to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21). Paul urged that “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Similarly, we read that believers should “fear God, honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17). We need to keep these biblical affirmations of government in mind. Political activity, including partisan involvement, is not inherently suspect.
Of course, given the primacy of the kingdom of God over all political realms, any political involvement, including party affiliation, must be conditional and secondary. Early in their public ministry, the apostles found themselves having to choose between obeying the civic authorities in Jerusalem and obeying Jesus’ specific instructions. Twice they specifically disobeyed civic authorities (Acts 4:18-20; Acts 5:27-29). All partisan and other political activity by Christians must reflect that same priority.
Second, since in many countries the scope of governmental activity in modern times has become enormous, with almost half of the entire gross domestic product flowing through government hands at one level or another, we cannot exercise inclusive stewardship without focusing on that part of the economy. In a democracy, we have extensive opportunity to influence governmental and bureaucratic decisions. Individually and collectively believers have the ability to provide consequential input. For individuals, party membership provides a key access point. And that brings us to a cardinal truth in Christian ethics: opportunity plus ability equals accountability.
To a significant degree, membership in a political party can be seen as an opportunity to advance the greater good. That such membership can also be used for less praiseworthy purposes goes without saying—but that is a different matter. Political parties, especially in mature democracies, tend to be rather loose and amorphous entities and open to many ideas. Members usually take note of carefully articulated viewpoints. Christians can use this fact to spell out their concerns and their values. While one should not expect that the large parties, seeking to win broad electoral approval, will readily adopt specifically Christian policies, they will usually take them into consideration in developing their stances. At the very least parties want to garner Christian votes.
Third, political parties, especially the pragmatic parties constantly need the leaven Christians can provide. The need is particularly great at a time of seriously declining public and political morality and at a time when politics has become extremely important. After all, to a large extent government and the political realm have now replaced the church as the most important structure shaping society. If believers do not express God’s call for public righteousness and work to achieve it in the party organizations that shape many policies and select many decision-makers, then who will?
Throughout history, Christians have constituted a major voice in society championing justice, compassion, procedural integrity and freedom. Parties in political office and in opposition need to hear such exhortation—they need to hear it often, clearly and loudly. What better way can one imagine to communicate such values to political leaders than from within the party apparatus?
At least since the time of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and his relentless—and ultimately successful—partisan campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, an array of party members, both elected and nonelected, has demonstrated in various countries that dedicated Christians can utilize party structures to do much good. Though their voices are usually in the minority and their calls for righteousness have often been shunted aside, this is no reason for discouragement. The ultimate test in the kingdom is not success but faithfulness, and as Edmund Burke observed more than two centuries ago, “All that is essential for the triumph of evil is those good men do nothing.”
At this juncture, we need to address some basic queries. First, does not joining a political party run the risk of bringing disunity to the body of Christ? If the Christian community involved contemplates the matter carefully and prayerfully and the political activist is prudent, it almost assuredly will not do so. While the church, as a body, should not be affiliated with any political party, it must remain free to speak with credibility to all parties and to all leaders.
Individuals, for a variety of reasons ranging from particular expertise to political conviction, should be given liberty, even encouragement, to join a political party. Individuals must not, however, claim to speak on behalf of their faith group. They must never compromise the autonomy of their congregation or its leaders. They may enjoy broad support for their views, but they speak as individuals and should say so. Other Christians in the family of believers may, for good reason, choose to express Christian views in the structures of a different party. On the other hand, if a group of Christians on their own form an organization to influence or even penetrate a political party, it is their democratic and God-given right to do so.
Second, have Christians anything distinctive to contribute to political parties? Yes, not only do they by their presence represent a significant and concerned sector of society, but they also have the opportunity to ask questions that no one else is asking, articulate values that go beyond their own self-interest and uphold the common good. At all times they are prepared to remind their fellow party members that governments at all levels have a divine mandate to be “God’s servant” both as an encouragement to those who live justly and as a deterrent to those who engage in wrongdoing.
Christian party members have an exceptionally great opportunity to influence party orientations and policies when they can point to offender reconciliation activity, ministry to prison inmates, overseas volunteer assistance, appropriate distribution of agricultural surpluses, efforts to improve race relations, good farming practices, enlightened employer-employee relations and day-care and preschool programs. Political parties need to hear what Christians are doing. Christian party members can perform an important educative role.
Third, should Christians be more inclined to join one kind of party than another? No general rule can be established. At various times, however, certain parties seem to have a greater openness to Christian input than do others. It can also be argued, of course, that those parties least sympathetic to a Christian perspective are the ones in greatest need of hearing it.
Membership in a political party, as also membership in a labour union, a professional association or a farmers’ organization, should not be undertaken lightly. All of these entities can be arenas of witness and service. They all need a strong Christian presence. They are part of “all the world” into which Jesus sent us (Mark 16:15). Those believers with the ability and opportunity to be a presence in these places should not hesitate to rise to the challenge. They should do so conscientiously and gladly. They should seek counsel and should be given a blessing, at least by their small fellowship groups but ideally by the congregations to which they belong. As they maintain their priorities and practice discerning involvement, they then enter into their party’s activities to the extent that Christian servanthood permits.