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Faith and Politics
The Bible contains contrasting images of government. One image highlights government's potential, the other its pitfalls.
In perhaps the most positive biblical statement on governing authorities, the Apostle Paul writes: "By [Christ] all things were created . . . whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him" (Col. 1:16, emphasis added). Paul then describes government as "God's servant for your good," specifically noting its role in promoting justice and preserving order (Rom. 13:1-7). In this view, government is part of God's good creation.
Other biblical references are less flattering. God warned Samuel that human rulers would conscript men and women for military and civilian service, confiscate land for personal gain, tax heavily and grant political favors to their close friends (I Sam. 8:10-20). Jesus told his disciples not to be like the rulers who "lord it over" others and act as "tyrants" (Mark 10:42). Revelation 13 is often cited as an example of government at its worst.
Early Anabaptists, according to Mennonite ethicist Keith Graber Miller, saw government "as preserving order, curbing and controlling the power of sin." Historian Theron F. Schlabach says that even by the end of the 19th century Mennonites "still put little faith in government to perform God's work."
The 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective offers a more balanced perspective. It states that "governing authorities of the world have been instituted by God for maintaining order in societies . . . [and] as servants of God are called to act justly and provide order." It goes on to say that, "nations tend to demand total allegiance. They then become idolatrous and rebellious against the will of God. Even at its best, a government cannot act completely according to the justice of God because no nation, except the church, confesses Christ's rule as its foundation."
Precisely because governing authorities frequently misuse their power, God often uses people of faith to confront, challenge and call authorities to act justly and fulfill their intended purpose. Biblical narratives are full of such stories:
Anabaptists also have a long history of witnessing to government on a variety of issues. Sixteenth century leader Menno Simons exhorted the magistrates of his day to take seriously their responsibilities "in the true fear of God, and not so cruelly to lord it over the children of God and his Word as alas, many of you have a way of doing, it seems" (Complete writings of Menno Simons, page 193). For many years, North American Mennonites have spoken to government leaders regarding religious freedom, military conscription and payment of war taxes. More recently -- often growing out of MCC's global relief and development work -- many Mennonites have spoken out against injustices that affected persons beyond the Mennonite community.
Still, before the MCC Peace Section made a decision on January 18, 1968, to open a Washington Office, numerous concerns were aired about the appropriateness of a more "official" witness on Capitol Hill. According to then Peace Section Chair, William Keeney, some people:
In the end, however, the Peace Section voted unanimously to open the Washington Office.
The New Testament describes Jesus as our advocate with God (I John 2:1-2) and the Holy Spirit as "another Advocate to be with you forever" (John 14:16). At its core, our advocacy on behalf of others grows out of an awareness of our own need for an advocate.
The theological foundation for witness to governing authorities is found in Jesus' nature, example and his teachings known as the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
The Great Commandment proclaims that "the Lord our God . . . is one" and calls us to love God completely -- with heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:29-30). The Great Commission challenges us to give witness to Christ's Lordship over all competing claims to our allegiance. This witness to the way and teachings of Christ is to be made to all peoples and nations (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). The New Testament declares that Christ is "head of every ruler and authority" (Colossians 2:10). This reality gives followers of Christ a legitimate foundation to address government.
The second half of the Great Commandment says that our love for neighbor must match our concern for our own well-being (Mark 12:31). Jesus defined neighbors as those in need -- even our enemies (Luke 10:25-37; Matthew 5:43-48). Indeed, God so identifies with those in need that the Bible equates the measure of our love for God with the way we treat "the least of these" (Matthew 25:31-46; I John 4:16-17.)
We witness by: