Previous | Next

Spring 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 1 · pp. 34–41 

The Christian in Politics: Some Basic Problems

John H. Redekop

The sixteen problems described below derive, in part, from several basic assumptions. First, while most of the issues pertain to any society, I am assuming a democratic political setting. Second, although all Christian political activists would encounter the same sorts of issues, this analysis focuses on partisan involvement, primarily participation in elections. Third, my analysis is based on an Anabaptist perspective which ushers in several additional dilemmas, especially concerning the use of violence. Fourth, since every Christian is both citizen and disciple, I am assuming that there is an interest in addressing both individual lostness and societal problems.

Politics press the Christian toward compromises. Can a disciple keep his integrity there?

In assessing the basic differences associated with political activism, one should not ignore the larger questions of church-state relations. They are dealt with more fully elsewhere. Probably the best treatment is found in Thomas Sanders’ Protestant Concepts of Church and State. 1 A dated but still useful essay by Elmer Neufeld provides, among other things, a succinct summary of the widely discussed categories delineated by H. Richard Niebuhr and John C. Bennett. 2 A typical “challenge,” in popular style, to “be a Christian in politics,” particularly in American politics in which church and state co-operate, is Paul G. Elbrecht’s The Christian Encounters Politics and Government. Elbrecht asserts:

For God and country, Christian lives need to be in His service 24 hours a day, every day. This is the Christian calling, opportunity, and {35} privilege. In the person of the Christian, church and state meet. 3

In this essay, I wish to challenge many of the widely held notions espoused by Elbrecht and his kind. However, many of the problems described below apply to most of the other positions which Elbrecht outlines in his elementary survey. Further, without denying the uniqueness of the political arena, it is acknowledged that many of the same ethical difficulties are also encountered by Christians committed to expressing authentic Christianity in business, labor, “professional” and other settings. Finally, I realize that the sixteen problems are not mutually exclusive and each constitutes a particular facet or fomulation of the larger issue.


1. What does it mean to say that Jesus is Lord of the political realm?

A person’s answer to this question largely determines whether political activism is seen as obedient servanthood or as a questionable pursuit. The explanations are diverse and numerous. They cannot all be right. Paul Marshall, arguing from a Reformed perspective, asserts that:

Political authority is not an area apart from the gospel, but can be an area of ministry just as much as any office in the church. This authority is not a thing separate from the reign of Jesus Christ but is itself a manifestation of the authority of the “King of Kings.”

He adds, “The state is what God through Jesus Christ has set up to maintain justice. Its officers are as much ministers of God as are prophets and priests.” 4

John Howard Yoder sees things differently. While acknowledging that “both the lordship of Christ over the world and His headship in the church are of grace, though they are not distinct,” he emphasizes “the absolute priority of church over state in the plan of God. The church is herself a society.” 5

Any Christian political activist has to decide whether political activity constitutes Christian service, and is therefore an acceptable calling, or whether it is essentially outside the Great Commission and should therefore be avoided.

2. Do Christians have any right to let their consciences over-ride the majority view of their constituents?

While this problem is not unique to Christian politicians, they presumably will encounter it frequently because their firmly held ethical values generally reflect minority views. Many elected representatives have hesitated to “inflict” their views on their constituents. Almost two centuries ago Edmund Burke spelled out the logical response that elected officials have a basic right to act according to their own principles provided that, prior to being elected, they have explained to the electors their particular value system. On fundamental moral matters the representative’s judgment and conscience take precedence over local and even national majority preference. {36} Voting on issues such as capital punishment, abortion, prohibition, censorship, and many other ethical questions would be affected. Of course, the resulting political cost might be high.

3. Do Christians have the right to force someone else to turn the other cheek?

Here we encounter a great dilemma. Even if politicians delineated their ethical stance in advance, there are two problems. Christian leaders have no right to sacrifice something that is not their own. They have no mandate to try to move beyond justice and attempt to “extort” a love ethic from their constituents. They may request it, but they must not try to require it! Further, by definition, unless Christian sacrifice is voluntary it is not Christian. Accordingly, any effort to coerce love and sacrifice is intrinsically unchristian and constitutes authoritarianism.

4. How can Christian partisans run for office without compromising or fracturing the church of which they are a part?

Given the fact that virtually all full-time electoral offices involve partisan politics and given the widely-held view that the organized church should remain separate from particular political causes, it follows that electioneering church members have a problem. There is no easy solution. Robert Eells suggests the formation of “extra-church voluntary associations or coalitions of believers who are united for political purposes.” 6 Paul Marshall observes that “unless a party is committed to giving political expression to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can never ultimately feel comfortable with its view of what will solve human problems.” 7 He is right. Christian politicians can make no final commitment to anything that is sub-Christian. Since there are no bona fide Christian political parties of consequence anywhere (and certainly no one party which all Christians could readily support), it follows that all partisan commitment by Christians must be cautious and conditional.

Even if partisan activity is qualified, the possibility of compromising or fracturing the church remains. Political activists can minimize the problem by being considerate and tactful, by practising respect for those who disagree, by affirming the propriety of alternative ideologies, and by stressing their openness to further insight. They cannot, however, eliminate the problem entirely. They and their Christian communities must learn to live with it. They must learn to affirm one another even when they differ.

5. Do Christian political activists have a responsibility to promote Christian designations and symbols in politics?

Many politicians obviously believe that they do. For example, in the early 1980’s the Hon. Jake Epp, a distinguished member of the Canadian House of Commons, put forth much effort to get a reference to God inserted into the revised Canadian constitution. For his untiring efforts he was widely acclaimed among Canadian Christians.

In the United States there is a long and continuing tradition concerning the fusion of Christian symbolism with politics. In recent decades the following are especially noteworthy. In June, 1954, Congress inserted “One nation {37} under God” into the pledge of allegiance. In 1955 “In God We Trust” became mandatory for all U.S. currency and in 1956 Congress declared it to be the national motto. A National Prayer Room for politicians was opened on Capitol Hill in 1955.

John B. Anderson, prominent Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, reflected this general concern when he said, “What we are talking about, quite frankly, is the need to rediscover and rearticulate what is often called our “civic religion.” 8

Not all political activists and academics concur with the desirability of promoting civic religion or religious symbols. Donald Kaufman, for example, refers to “a romance in our land—an illicit church-state love affair.” “Civil religion,” he adds, “has deceived us to believe that in rendering to the nation we are also rendering unto God.” Indeed, “to tell the nations of the world that God blesses America is to deny that God so loved the whole world.” 9 Christian politicians need to come to terms with this troubling phenomenon.

6. Since governments deal mainly in negative endeavors, can Christian politicians really achieve significant positive results?

The problem is twofold. Governments deal with externalities and behaviour, while Christians are concerned mainly with values, beliefs and motivation. Governments do not assess motivation. Further, governments are kept busy restraining evil, “putting out fires,” dealing with a vast assortment of crises, and trying to control social antagonisms and cleavages. Christians, however, have a prior commitment to “do good,” to express love in positive ways. Can Christian politicians really do much that is truly Christian in the political arena? Is it the best vehicle for expressing their commission?

7. How can political activists give preference to their country but simultaneously endorse the brotherhood of all?

This problem is not unique to politicians but it is more consequential for them than for others. After all, those who operate the helm are expected to put preservation of the ship of state above any other “good.” Thus hypernationalism is expected of elected politicians. But for Christians, given their commitment to subjection but not the unqualified obedience, any country can be a motherland and any motherland a foreign country. 10 It has well been emphasized by an Anabaptist activist that “our peace churches’ forefathers didn’t refuse the oath because of the language, but rather because it implied a commitment they found idolatrous.” 11 Christians must not succumb to the temptation of hypernationalism.

8. Should Christian politicians seek to legislate morality?

Paul Marshall makes much of the “cultural mandate” which Christian politicians, and others, need to carry out. He acknowledges, however, that any attempt to legislate against all sin would produce a totalitarian state. Hence, the more general justice concerns should always take precedence. 12 Attempting to resolve the problem, Paul Henry, a prominent Republican politician in Michigan who also identifies with the Reformed perspective, {38} argues that in these matters, “justice becomes the servant of love.” 13 Addressing the issue of legislating morality, John Howard Yoder writes that “those who in this way seek to gain power to implement their religious vision have chosen (probably consciously) a strategy hardly reconcilable with that of the New Testament church.” 14 Paul Henry, while not sharing Yoder’s hesitancy, cautions that “while Christians must speak and act forthrightly on social and political issues, they must at the same time guard against moral arrogance in presuming to speak the mind of God as it pertains to contemporary problems.” 15 In sum, should Christian politicians strive to legislate humanitarian values but refrain from advocating the enactment of specifically Christian values? This is a major dilemma.

9. Should Christian politicians function primarily as prophets or as priests? Can they be both?

At issue here is the question of being a critic or a defender of the state in general or of a government in particular. Is it possible to follow Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men,” while simultaneously swearing (or affirming) to uphold a constitution? Can one discharge official political duties while maintaining sufficient detachment to express credible criticism? The task is not easy; some observers imply that it is impossible. 16

10. Can Christians be active in political decision-making without being responsible for the resulting decisions?

This question has troubled Christian activists for many generations. There has been widespread disagreement. Bob Goudzwaard insists that “whether we like it or not, we bear co-responsibility for one another’s lot and thus for the structuration of our society.” He argues that there is an inherent responsibility and that the real question is not if but how we fulfill our role. 17 Johannes Verkuyl says that God “expects us to be concerned in a way that involves us in co-responsibility and, sometimes, guilt.” 18 But one can also argue that in politics Christians should present a witness not a strategy, and that, for example, Christians can properly denounce the demonic willingness to use the ultimate weapon without sharing in the guilt of any specific governmental decision. Of course, such a stance is virtually impossible for a cabinet member or other senior government supporter. Accordingly, it could be argued that Christians can function better in an opposition party than in a governing party. The problem is complex.

11. Does political involvement require inevitable compromises with the evils of the world?

Clearly politics involves compromise but so does business activity and participation in organized labor and professional associations. Compromise is essential to a civilized society. The crucial question is whether compromise involves yielding on essential ethical tenets. When it does, the Christians must draw the line. If there is no other acceptable alternative, they must resign from their positions. Of course, that standard applies to all others, but for Christians this dilemma is highly visible and may occur relatively frequently. {39}

12. Is there a particular Christian political agenda which Christians should seek to implement?

Walter Klaassen, representing a particular segment of scholars, argues that there is no such agenda. 19 In his early writings Yoder concurred, emphasizing that God has only one acceptable ethic and that Christians have no biblical basis for suggesting that something less than that ethic is God’s ideal for government. 20 Citing passages such as Luke 4:18, 19 and Matthew 28:18-20, Marshall disagrees: “the disciples must teach the nations to observe all” that Jesus has commanded. The Christian Gospel “includes proclamation to the nations about obedience to God.” 21 In an appendix to his recent book the noted Reformed political activist, Gerald Vandezande, seems to agree and has set forth detailed Christian norms for governments. 22 A carefully reasoned, sometimes sympathetic, analysis of a biblically-based agenda for secular government is provided by Yoder in his later writings, especially in The Politics of Jesus.

Many difficulties remain. About all that experts can generally agree on is that governments, by and large, make virtually no effort to enact a Christian agenda and that whether or not we think they should do so is determined largely by our theological traditions.


Several problems associated with political activism are more or less peculiar to, or at least peculiarly significant for, Anabaptists. I shall mention four.

1. How can Christians committed to an ethic of non-violence be part of a political apparatus fundamentally dependent on reliance on violence in both the military and civilian realms?

Does the love ethic ever permit killing? Can Christian politicians who claim to hold to only the love ethic find any justification to do as political agents what they could otherwise not do? Walter Klaassen argues the negative. Quoting Hans Denck, he states that “No Christian who makes his boast in his Lord is allowed to use and rule by violence.” 23 He presents a strong case.

2. Can an Anabaptist politician ever identify with militarism?

In his various writings, Ernie Regehr has helped us to understand that militarism is more than the merely logical use of the military. 24 Militarism is the illegitimate use of the military according even to the standards of sub-Christian government. Its opposite is “civilianism,” not pacifism. Even supposing that an Anabaptist political activist could come to terms with reliance on violence, it would be very difficult to condone the militarism which permeates much of our political structure. For aspiring Anabaptist politicians, especially if they have administrative authority, the problem is thorny, all the {40} more so if militarism rests on nuclear weapons systems.

3. How can Anabaptist Christians get involved in politics without drawing in the community of believers of which they are a vital part?

John A. Lapp sharpens the question for us: “As there is no such thing as an individualistic Chrisitianity, neither for the Christian can there be such a thing as an individualistic politics.” 25 The problem is large. At the very least it would be necessary for the separated community of Anabaptists to participate in any discernment concerning a possible political career for one of its members.

4. Given the claims of government, as well as its large and expanding role, how can Christians simultaneously be part of a separated pilgrim people and commit themselves to major political activism?

Can a person, with integrity, give allegiance to two distinct societies? Can one be simultaneously a divinely “called out” person, part of a called out community, and a bona fide party participant? Can one serve these two masters? At the very least it is problematic; perhaps it is impossible. And yet we must concede that the political system in fact benefits much from those whose theology of love, peace, and service makes them its least likely participants.

The problems are consequential. As increasing numbers of Christians, including Anabaptists, become involved in political arenas, even at national levels, we need to deal with them more seriously. 26 For many Anabaptists, practice is diverting more and more from profession. Many seem to have difficulty identifying operational guidelines. To ignore this serious situation will precipitate more confusion, more contradiction, and more error.


  1. Thomas G. Sanders, Protestant Concepts of Church and State (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964).
  2. Elmer Neufeld, “Christian Responsibility in the Political Situation,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 33 (1958):3-24.
  3. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965), p. 9.
  4. Paul Marshall, Thine is the Kingdom. A Biblical Perspective on the Nature of Government and Politics Today (Basingstoke, Hants.: Marshall Morgan Scott, 1984), pp. 46,47.
  5. The Christian Witness to the State (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), pp. 12, 17. {41}
  6. “What is Christian Politics?” The Christian Patriot (November, 1973), p. 3. See also Paul B. Henry. Politics for Evangelicals (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1974), chapter 4.
  7. Marshall, p. 83.
  8. John B. Anderson, Vision and Betrayal in America (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1975), p. 55. See also John H. Redekop, The American Far Right (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), especially chapter 2.
  9. Donald B. Kraybill, Our Star-Spangled Faith (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976), pp. 19, 26, 192.
  10. See Kraybill, chapter 10.
  11. Urbane Peachey, “Electoral Politics: Myths and Realities,” MCC Peace Section Newsletter, VII/5 (1976):3.
  12. Marshall, pp. 83-89. For the “cultural mandate,” see chapter 2.
  13. Paul B. Henry, Politics for Evangelicals (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1974), p. 123.
  14. The Christian Witness to the State (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), p. 27.
  15. Henry, p. 94. See also Robert D. Linder and Richard V. Pierard, Politics: A Case for Social Action (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1973).
  16. See Kraybill, chapters 3 and 4, as well as Robert Clouse, Robert Linder, and Richard Pierard, eds., The Cross and the Flag (Carol Stream, IL: Creation House, 1972).
  17. Bob Goudzwaard, A Christian Political Option (Toronto: Wedge, 1972), pp.2-3.
  18. Johannes Verkuyl and H.G. Schulte Nordholt, Responsible Revolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 8.
  19. Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Waterloo: Conrad Press, 1973), ch. 6.
  20. Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State, esp. chs. 6 and 7.
  21. Marshall, p. 36.
  22. Christians in the Crisis (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1984), pp. 211-222.
  23. Klaassen, ibid., p. 50.
  24. See, for example, his What is Militarism? (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section, 1976), and his Making a Killing: Canada’s Arms Industry (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975).
  25. John A. Lapp, “The Christian and Politics”, MCC Peace Section Newsletter VII/5 (October, 1976):5.
  26. For an analysis of Mennonite political activism see John H. Redekop, “Mennonites and Politics in Canada and the United States,” Journal of Mennonite Studies I (1983):79-105.
John Redekop teaches political science at Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, and serves as Moderator of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

Previous | Next