A couple of elections back in the United States a Christian presidential candidate confided to a supporter that he attributed his rise in the polls to divine intervention. The word got out, and before long, pundits were calling him—some seriously, some facetiously—“God’s candidate.”
But does God have favorite candidates?
In recent years, religious people of all kinds have claimed that God has a stake in their earthly politics. Some people in the Middle East say that Allah wants their government to be run by clergy. In the United States, conservative religious groups try to place people in the government who will enforce their moral and religious beliefs by rule of law. Others have suggested bringing faith more publicly into culture, such as requiring prayer in public schools or posting Bible passages in public buildings.
How much is God dependent on our human political processes to see His will done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)?
The kingdom of heaven
After generations of slavery, the descendants of Abraham were spiritually, morally, and culturally immature. However, the leader He chose— a tongue-tied Hebrew adoptee from an Egyptian royal family, who had a rap sheet for murder—led them by means of His detailed directions. Like children, the Hebrew ex-slaves needed training to function as a society: hygiene, diet, justice, building codes, even family relationships. God was a hands-on Leader for them, for without His laws, rules, and constant communication, the children of Israel wouldn’t have survived.
Once they settled in Palestine, their theocracy became a monarchy. Even then, because Israel’s royal line was put in place by God, kings were expected to be spiritual as well as temporal leaders. This idea, called “the divine right of kings,” persisted for several millennia past the time when God was personally selecting and overseeing monarchs.
Whatever God’s purposes in those early years, Jesus brought a new and quite different perspective to the relationship of Christians to government.
Nothing about Jesus’ early life predisposed Him to trust in the government or its leaders. When He was just an infant, King Herod’s murderous jealousy forced Jesus’ family to flee Palestine (ironically, back to Egypt). During His ministry, government and church leaders opposed Him almost every step of the way.
Jesus had amazing abilities. He could heal people, create food, walk on water, control the weather, command audiences of thousands, and He possessed a natural charisma that drew people to Him. The common people saw in Jesus a political hope: here, at last, was a kind, just, honest, and able king!
But when they urged Jesus to seize the throne—something easily within His power—He stated a principle that still stands. He was a King, He admitted, but He also said that “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). He spoke instead of another place that He called “the kingdom of heaven” or “the kingdom of God,” describing it in homely, everyday images.
His kingdom, He said, is like a man who finds a treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). It is like a valuable pearl (verse 45), a mustard seed (verses 31, 32), a fishing net (verse 47), or yeast mixed into bread dough (verse 33). Each of Jesus’ “kingdom of heaven” parables had a different lesson, but they had one thing in common: none of them described the way things generally work in the halls of earthly power. Jesus clearly had a different kind of country in mind, and it wasn’t governed from the marble-columned, gold-domed capitols of this world.
Where then is this kingdom of which we are citizens? “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), He said. Entering it is almost like growing up again into a new you, for you must be spiritually reborn (John 3:5) with the simple faith of a child (Mark 10:15), and then confirm your citizenship by living as God wants you to live (Matthew 7:21).
Living in the world
If we can be citizens of God’s kingdom while we still live in this world, what should be our relationship to politics and earthly governments?
Jesus gave one clue when He was pointedly asked whether Jews ought to pay taxes to their hated Roman occupiers. Displaying Caesar’s profile on a Roman coin, He said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17).
Though it sounds like a simple answer, it contains a nuanced message. What belongs to Caesar? The money on which he is pictured. What belongs to God? The people made in His image (Genesis 1:26)! You belong to God, and as long as cooperating with an earthly government doesn’t interfere with your service to Him, there’s no objection to paying taxes, voting, favoring a candidate, or serving government in other ways. But should political opinion become so important to you that it eclipses your allegiance to God, then you’re on dangerous ground. Jesus said that if necessary His disciples were to leave everything to follow Him (Matthew 8:22), even entangling human relationships (Matthew 10:37), and that would include party loyalty.
Jesus refused to seize the reins of government, nor did He endorse any earthly monarch, governor, or party. He was insistently devoted to one task: preparing people for heaven by telling them of God’s invitation to salvation. Had Jesus felt that the best way to advance His message was to reform the government of Palestine, or even the Roman Empire itself, it was well within His power to do so. But He never made the slightest attempt, nor did He ever recommend it to His followers. He cared nothing about political boundaries. “Go into all the world,” He said, “and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15; emphasis added).
Then what do we make of this counsel from the apostle Paul? “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).
Paul knew that even the very best human governments rarely make it easy for Christians to do everything God has asked of them—which means there will always be things Christians can object to. A serious concern in the early church was believers going out of their way to pick fights with secular authorities. But if you’re in constant quarrels—always in court or in prison—what time and energy is left to tell the good news? Jesus predicted that Christians would be persecuted for serving Him (Matthew 24:9, 10), and Paul added that there is no merit in aiming for prison and persecution if you can avoid it by cooperating with earthly authorities as much as your principles will allow.
Standing against evil
But if Paul was saying that Christians should unquestioningly submit to everything government leaders demanded, he didn’t set a very good example! His own floggings and imprisonments for speaking the truth with power show that we aren’t to compromise our faith for the sake of getting along. He advised that “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). While Jesus tried to work within the political structures, inevitably His kingdom of heaven principles clashed with them. When there was no other choice, He submitted—not gladly, but willingly—to martyrdom.
Nineteenth century author Ellen White once wrote, “The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold; men who in their inmost souls are true and honest; men who do not fear to call sin by its right name; men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole; men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall.” This is the kind of principle that is required to live in the world while not being “of the world” (John 17:16).
Thanks to free democratic governments, many countries today let religious believers worship without interference. But in some places believers face tough choices. Wishing to keep God’s Ten Commandments, they may take a stand against participation in a war or have to decide whether to keep holy the Sabbath day of worship (Exodus 20:8–11) when doing so will cost them their jobs or an education. In some parts of the world churches are burned and Christians persecuted. That’s why Christians, no matter their nationality, plant their flag of allegiance on heaven’s shore. “I am going there to prepare a place for you,” Jesus said. “And if I go . . . I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2, 3).
Interestingly, while some of the best governments on this earth are democracies, heaven will be a monarchy— but with a perfect Monarch, One who knows how to make His subjects supremely happy!