Are You Voting Christianly or Christendomly?

Kudos to believers who strive to vote like Christians. Some do so by electing candidates who best represent the Christian values they cherish most. Others do so by electing candidates whose overall approach to government they believe best serves the good of all. By voting in these ways, believers attempt to love and seek the peace of their neighbors.

Unfortunately, many people who are attempting to vote Christianly are actually voting Christendomly. By “Christendomly,” I mean striving to retain or recover the collaborative relationship that Christians have long enjoyed with Western governments. (See this recent Wayne Grudem column as an example.) Such collaboration began in the fourth century, when the Roman Empire went from ignoring and persecuting Christians to tolerating and eventually embracing Christianity as the state religion. Since then, believers have grown accustomed to promoting Christian values through civil mechanisms. In several places, Christianity became the mandatory state religion.

Christendom in the United States has always been more complicated. Though Christianity was never the official religion, civic leaders exercised considerable liberty in applying Christian convictions to public governance. This yielded a variety of benefits for Christians, including the protection of Sundays as a day of worship, holidays in the civic calendar, clergy presiding over civil ceremonies, chaplains in hospitals and the military, support in public education and the media, and generous tax exemptions.

Nothing in Scripture requires governments to bestow such favor. Christians simply convinced the authorities that it was in their best interest to do so. Likewise, nothing in Scripture suggests that Christians ought to work their way into positions of civic power or otherwise influence governing authorities. Nonetheless, this began happening at a certain point and has long endured.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the American experience of Christendom has been waning. Evidence of this is undeniable: desacralizing Sundays, secularizing holidays, overhauling marriage, excising Christian evangelism from chaplaincy, disparaging Christian beliefs in education and entertainment, and attempting to withdraw tax privileges from religious institutions.

It’s been demoralizing to lose our privileged status. It’s the closest thing to persecution many have experienced. But what has it to do with voting? My point is this: many Christians confuse Christianity with Christendom. For them, to vote for measures to retain or recover the vestiges of Christendom is to represent Christ—is to vote Christianly.

Yet even a cursory reading of Scripture demonstrates that Jesus and his followers made no effort to wield influence among governing authorities. This wasn’t because they were powerless to do so or convinced that the world would soon end. They saw themselves as continuing God’s work through Old Testament Israel. That work—even when Israel was numerous and powerful—never entailed infiltrating the power structures of other nations in order to wield positive influence through them.

Though God providentially placed a few exceptional Israelites in pagan power centers to protect his people from extinction (Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Esther), no Scripture equates their work with the responsibility of God’s people as a whole. Rather, God sets his people apart from the nations to do something unique through them. Whereas God uses other nations to preserve global peace and order, he uses his covenant people to establish a different kingdom that will eventually supplant all other nations.

The earliest Christians believed that governing authorities presided over an old order that was passing. They believed that Christ called the church to represent a new order that would never end. Seeking first this new order, God’s kingdom, was their mission. It was their socio-political agenda. So they established churches in every city that served as embassies of God’s kingdom. They invited all people to leave behind their old ambitions and to join them in seeking first God’s kingdom as revealed in Jesus.

To vote Christianly, then, is to participate in the electoral process in ways that seek first and bear witness to God’s alternative kingdom. To vote Christendomly is to use the electoral process to retain or recover Christian privilege. In this election, as with any election, we must resist that urge.

Comments (20)

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To me this is a case of electing the lesser of the evils.  The democrats have been the driving force behind planned parenthood and other evils including the persecution of Christians.  There is no way I could support them.

Good article except I disagree with the statements that we are not instructed to influence politics and policies.

The following passages are an example of believers influencing politicians and set an example for us to follow.

Eph. 2:10 tells us that we are to do good works in all walks of life. That would include politics and influencing politicians.
Dan. 4:7 has Daniel telling the king that he is doing wrong.
Luke 3:19 John the Baptist rebukes Herod for doing wrong.
Esther 4:16 Esther confronts the king

In Reply to Dixon (comment #28758)
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John addresses some of these examples in paragraph 8.

I agree with a few points of this article, but there’s a crucial error; this article makes a false compartmentalization of government that the bible never acknowledges. This is the false premise of the entire article. All authority has been given to God, therefore, when a government (which is simply a collection of people relied on for communal roles) does not rule righteously, those people are in opposition to God. All people everywhere are guilty of sins and must repent, including governments.

“Likewise, nothing in Scripture suggests that Christians ought to work their way into positions of civic power or otherwise influence governing authorities.” - This is not a factual statement. Scripture has expansive instruction for how those in power should act; across the epistles, throughout Proverbs, and even in Jesus’ parables. Also as example, good kings listened to the righteous prophets they had around them and listened to their rebuke when they sinned. (David, Nathan, and Bathsheba, for example, or in contrast for when they did not listen, Samuel and Saul.)

“Yet even a cursory reading of Scripture demonstrates that Jesus and his followers made no effort to wield influence among governing authorities.” - Also false; The great commission commands us to go and make disciples - not of all peoples, but of all nations. Then, in Acts 1, Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit making them witnesses to the ends of the earth; this is to everything on the earth, which includes everything, including schools and governments and offices and clubs and sports teams. The reason Jesus does not shake up the government further while he was on earth was because that was not what he came for. He came to set up the Kingdom of heaven, making the way in proper authority, for God’s people to be witnesses to the kingdoms of earth.

The big picture point is that human governments are not this “Other” that exists in competition with the government of God. They too are subject to God’s reign. Christians should not check their faith at the door when going in to work in a public office. “When the righteous rule, the people rejoice, but when the wicked reign the people groan.” Yes, it is foolish to think that government is the answer to our moral problems, and it’s outrageous to think that voting the right person in will cure us. But morals are legislated, every day. Morality is the fundamental premise of every law in existence. So would we rather an atheist, (who by nature of worldview, has no fundamental moral basis for distinguishing between right or wrong) or a mature, accountable man of God be writing our laws? The choice is clear.

Reply. To Josh Larsen….

I guess we have to agree to disagree.

In Reply to Colin Crombie (comment #28760)
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Great response, Colin!

I’m going to side with the minority commenters this time, John, and agree with your basic premise. I personally find this to be a helpful piece for me in thinking through the ramifications of my voting decisions, and I think you’re right to draw a distinction between these three words:

Christian - a personal identity
Christianity - a religious worldview
Christendom - an institutional expression of the above

I think you’re right in that we all too often conflate those three concepts, and in our failure to be precise in our terminology, we argue past each other on topics like these.

I think it’s a point that’s subtle and likely to be misunderstood, John, but I think what you’re saying here is timely and appropriate—and far clearer than the point I think you were trying to make in your last post on lesser-evil voting, where I originally took exception to your statements.

Thanks for helping us think through this thorny subject.

In Reply to Colin Crombie (comment #28760)
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Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Colin.  I totally agree with your comment on God’s sovereignty.  And certainly our faith determines our worldview.  We should not check our faith at the door, and hopefully it is in fact impossible to do.  For a politician who is a Christian, all of his or her decisions, including policy decisions, are influenced by their Christianity.  And so I love it when I see a mature, upright Christian, full of integrity, in office.

I’m still chewing over your comments about the great commission, though, and of being witnesses to the ends of the earth, and what this means for shaking up government.  I’m not sure where you’re going with this.  I guess I see two different ideas at play here.  One, witnessing and making disciples, which I think would be done by loving, respecting, and caring for all one’s constituents, promoting or legislating based on what C.S. Lewis would call the Law of Nature or decent behavior; and two, instilling Christian morality through legislation, advancing laws re-enforcing Christian morals whether or not they stand against non-Christian’s morals.  I’m concerned about the latter as a witnessing strategy and worried about the precedent it would set for a non-Christian politician.  I wonder if that’s part of what might be referred to as Christendom. 

In Reply to Dixon (comment #28758)
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Thanks for the engagement. I like that you are challenging my article using specific Scriptures. The Scriptural case that Christians are instructed to influence government is not as clear as many people think. You probably have other Scriptures in mind, but I will briefly say something about the verses you listed.

Eph 2:10 does not tell us to do good works in all walks of life. It says that Christ created us to do the good works to which God called us to do. It doesn’t say what those works are in this passage. And there is no passage in Ephesians or anywhere else that say that Jesus created us to influence politicians.

As for your other passages, one of the basic rules of hermeneutics is to distinguish between what is descriptive and prescriptive. I am well aware that there are several places in the Bible where God’s people speak to and about authorities. Esther even sleeps with one—a pagan one at that. But surely that is not instruction that Christians ought to sleep with kings or presidents or that it is acceptable to marry an unbeliever. So we have to read these stories in their contexts and ask what these Scriptures are actually teaching us.

As for Daniel, I partially address this in paragraph 8 as Josh notes. But still it is important to observe that Daniel did not run for office in the Babylonian empire so he could seek the peace of that city. He watched pagans ravage his hometown (and probably rape Israelite women) and then he was forced into exile to serve their king. While there, neither he nor his friends went out of their way to gain an audience with the king to help influence policy. All of them gained an audience with the king by disobeying the king and then being dragged before him where they stood firm and defended their faith. I can imagine this happening today as well. But this is not the same as proactively infiltrating pagan governments in order to influence the direction of pagan empires.

John the Baptist is another interesting case. To begin with we must recognize that Herod claimed to be a practicing Jew. Next, we are not told that John went to the palace to tell Herod how to rule better. All we know is that John publicly rebuked him for an illicit marriage and other wicked deeds. We should read this in light of the rest of the Scripture about John. It was likely part of John’s invitation to “repent” since the kingdom was near. If Herod wanted to be a Jew in good standing in God’s kingdom, he could not continue to act wickedly. This is not clear instruction that Christians must try to influence pagan government. To imitate John is to proclaim that their actions are not in keeping with God’s kingdom. I can image this happening today as well.

As for Esther, like Daniel, she didn’t grow up wanting to dabble in politics to influence world governments. She was an exile who was forced into a beauty pageant and made to violate her Jewish faith by marrying a Gentile. She hid her faith from the king for as long as possible. She didn’t aspire to influence how a pagan king ruled. When Mordecai told her that her time there may be a divine appointment intended to save his people from genocide, only then did she reluctantly say something – but her message focused on the Haman’s plot to kill Jews.

So while your examples show that Jews were not afraid to speak their mind when brought before an official, they are not clear biblical evidence that Christians have been called to influence pagan governing authorities the way that those who are doing their best to recover or retain Christendom have been doing.

The case of Israelite prophets speaking to Israelite rulers is a different thing all together. But I will address it in response to Colin’s post when I get to it.

In Reply to Colin Crombie (comment #28760)
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Thanks for thoughtfully engaging my article.

I agree that all governments are under God’s authority and he judges them when they oppose his purposes for them. Yet I compartmentalize between the call of God’s people and that of world governments because the Bible does. Both are under God, but they are different. God uses governing authorities to maintain peace and order over the earth – over the old order that is passing away and will be replaced by the new order of Christ. Their work is vital.

God uses his set apart people to represent the new order that he has inaugurated through Christ. The old order will be destroyed by Christ (1 Cor 15:24-25); the new one will be complete when Christ returns and lasts forever. In the NT, we are told to seek first this new order: the kingdom of God. We are told to respect governors of the old order since God uses them for the good work of keeping order and peace for now. You have not shown where Scripture says that Christians are called to infiltrate and make better the old order that is passing.

It is not enough to show that God tells Israelite rulers how to rule. He tells them how to rule God’s people. But the U.S. is not God’s people. To falsify my claim, you need to show where God commissions Christians to rule over those who are not his people. In the NT we find the opposite. In 1 Cor 5, we are told not to judge those outside the body. This chapter is about believers taking civil disputes against believers before pagan authorities. Paul tells them to handle their own cases because we are responsible for fellow believers and must leave it to God to handle nonbelievers.

Likewise, Israelite prophets focused almost exclusively on Israelite rulers. God’s people hold one another accountable to Torah. The prophets never go to kings of other nations and critique them for not obeying it. The oracles against the nations are not delivered to the nations. The prophets deliver them to fellow Israelites. Their basic message is to reassure Israel that the nations will be judged for pride, excessive militarism, and mistreatment of God’s people. Jonah’s the only one who goes to a foreign nation. He tells them Nineveh will fall in 40 days. He doesn’t encourage reforms or give instructions. It is the pagan king who learns of his message, decides what to do, and leads the reforms.

Nor do you falsify my claim that Jesus and his followers made no effort to wield influence among governing powers. Your use of the Great Commission does not follow from the actual passage. Jesus does not instruct the disciples to baptize all “nation states” or “civic institutions.” He commissions them to make disciples of people among all ethnic groups. The same can be said of the parallel commission in Acts 1. Jesus instructs them to be witnesses to people all over the earth, not to the governing bodies of every empire. The book of Acts was written to show how the HS led the early church to live out the commission of Acts 1:8. Scholars agree that this verse previews the structure of Acts. First they are witnesses in Jerusalem, then wider Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth. This witness to the ends of the earth was fulfilled in Acts by Paul and his companions’ church-planting/disciple-making ministry throughout the Roman empire. Sometimes while planting churches and making disciples they got arrested by the governing authorities and were asked to defend their faith in front of them, but their testimony focused on God’s kingdom. They made no effort to show these rulers how to run their governments. They certainly made no effort to join them in it.
 
I agree that Jesus’ role was not to show Caesar how to run the Roman Empire. But he never tells his followers to do so either. Nor do his followers do this or tell others to. No NT letter critiques God’s people for not trying to. So my basic claim stands unrefuted: Jesus and his followers made no effort to wield influence among governing powers.

I also agree that Christians should not check their faith at the door when working in public office or anywhere else. If any activity asks us to check our faith at the door, we can be sure it is not an activity God is calling us to. But the fact that we would rather have Christians ruling the western world doesn’t mean we are called in Scripture to do so. Sometimes we want things that God doesn’t give us because it’s not how he planned to bring order to his world and introduce all people to his kingdom.

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