In today’s culture, publicly speaking about ethical and political issues is usually frowned upon. This can be especially true in many churches as well. Pastors will rarely address controversial issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, or social justice because they don’t want to be “political” in church or “cause division.”
Christians rightly know that ethical and political issues are controversial and can lead to division or heated arguments. In several passages of Scripture, Paul warns against those who would cause division (Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, Titus 3:9-11). One such passage in 2 Timothy 2:23-25 reads,
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness…
So, out of a right desire to avoid “foolish, ignorant controversies,” those in the church tend to avoid speaking about any controversial issue at all.
Yet, is this a correct interpretation of such passages? Does God call us to avoid all controversial topics in church? Hardly. Avoiding controversy is impossible as a Christian. The gospel is controversial. Jesus and his teachings are controversial. Most Christians know and understand this, yet they would not assert that they ought not teach, preach, or witness about Jesus and the gospel on the grounds of being controversial. Paul is not advising those in the church to avoid ALL controversy, but to avoid the “foolish” and “ignorant” controversies.
Then, what about ethics and politics? Are the controversies that arise in these discussions foolish or ignorant? Certainly many are, but at the same time, many are not. In fact, the gospel has a crucial stake in both ethics and politics, and, if Christians fail to address them adequately, we not only do so to our own detriment but to the detriment of the world around us.
My primary objective in writing this article will be to provide a theological framework which shows how the gospel connects with ethics and politics and thus show why Christians ought to concern themselves with these subjects.
How Does the Gospel Relate to Ethics?
First, let’s begin by examining the relationship between the gospel and ethics.
People can often have a misinformed view of the gospel that limits it to the knowledge of salvation in Jesus Christ or to the belief that Jesus died for our sins. Now, I never want to downplay these aspects of the gospel, ever. Without them, there is no gospel. But I also want to highlight another essential component of the gospel that doesn’t receive as much attention: repentance.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught of the indispensable nature of repentance to salvation (Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15, Luke 5:32, 13:1-5, 24:47). Peter, when giving testimony of Jesus at Solomon’s portico, told the audience, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,” (Acts 3:19). The gospel is never less than the good news of the forgiveness of sins found in Jesus Christ, but it is certainly more than that. If we are not preaching a gospel that calls sinners to repentance, then we are not preaching the whole gospel. The great commission calls us to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Making disciples necessarily entails teaching those disciples to repent and obey Jesus’ commandments.
Note, this is NOT salvation by works, for salvation only comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and his work (Ephesians 2:8-10). Rather, this is the acknowledgment that the gospel requires more than just mental assent to the facts about Jesus. The gospel requires repentance, a change in heart, a submission of our very being—our very wills—to Christ as Lord. This naturally answers the question of how the gospel relates to ethics.
Repentance, in its essence, means to turn away or turn back from something. Ethics and morality are the framework which help you decide what to turn away from (sin) and who to turn to (Jesus). When we call someone to repentance and to receive the forgiveness of sins offered through Jesus, we are also calling them to forsake the sins associated with their “old self” and to make new ethical choices in accordance with their “new self” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Thus, ethics is an intrinsic component of the gospel.
Ethics is not the entirety of what the gospel is. Salvation cannot be gained through ethics or obedience to the law (Romans 3:28). Similarly, the knowledge of God in his Triune nature; Christ’s death, resurrection, and propitiation for our sins; these are things which aren’t strictly ethical by nature. But all of ethics is encompassed by the gospel and should be derived from the gospel. The gospel always carries with it ethical implications, most evidently seen in the sanctification of Christians through the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, 2 Thessalonians 2:13).
How Does Ethics relate to Politics?
Next, let’s discuss the connection between ethics and politics, as this will aid us in understanding the connection between the gospel and politics. First, let’s make sure we are on the same page and define what politics is.
Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, defines politics as “the process whereby we decide how we’re going to live as a society.” Politics encompasses not only the way we interact in community but also the way we live together as citizens under a government. For the sake of discussion, though, I will limit the definition of politics that I am using to questions concerning the government as well as the government’s use of the power of the sword (Romans 13:1-4).
The main connection between ethics and politics is the moral framework inherent in the process of rendering justice. When we look at two of the primary passages in Scripture which pertain to the role of government (Romans 13:1-4, 1 Peter 2:13-17), you will see a lot of language that references morality (i.e. “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad,” (Romans 13:3) and “…governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”(1 Peter 2:14)). Morality is intrinsic to the proper role and function of government and society. This is because the ability to judge and punish requires a moral framework. This moral framework is reflected in a set of rules, which we call laws, upon which society and government are able to punish wrongdoing. In this way, government acts as God’s agent in carrying out his wrath on the one who has done wrong (Romans 13:4).
Interestingly, politics actually used to be thought of as a field of ethics. Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines the word politics as:
The science of government; that part of ethics which consists in the regulation and government of a nation or state, for the preservation of its safety, peace and prosperity; comprehending the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control and conquest, the augmentation of its strength and resources, and the protection of its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals. Politics, as a science or an art, is a subject of vast extent and importance.
It’s only been in more recent decades that politics and ethics has been viewed in such a disjointed manner, in large part due to our nation’s misunderstanding of the separation of church and state. Morality is intrinsic to the law. Thus, politics is an inherently ethical enterprise. I can think of no political issue which doesn’t have an ethical foundation or implication.
All of politics has ethical implications or foundations, but not all ethical issues should concern the government. Government should have no say or authority over ethical issues of the heart, such as lust, coveting, and anger. The power of the sword entrusted to government should not be conflated with the power in the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). Only God can change the heart of a person. Government can only control what people do, not what they think or believe.
Connecting the Gospel with Ethics and Politics
Now that’s we’ve looked at the connections between the gospel and ethics and between ethics and politics, it becomes easier to see the connection between the gospel and politics.
Ethics and morality are critical links between the gospel and politics. Not only does God care about ethics which involve issues of our own heart, but ethics which encompasses the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27). This is profoundly demonstrated in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37).
Love is intrinsically social in nature because it always involves more than one person. God is love (1 John 4:8). Before anything in all creation existed, love existed as an attribute of God within the communal nature of the Trinity. For humanity, love is that agent which turns us away from ourselves towards God and towards others. In fact, if you define politics broadly to include any communal or societal interaction, the circles of ethics and politics become nearly indistinguishable because all ethical decisions will have an impact on someone else. No man is an island.
The reason, though, that I circumscribe the circle of politics within the circle of ethics is because I am defining politics more narrowly to include only those things over which government has authority. The love of neighbor—more specifically the commandment to uphold justice—is the aspect of ethics which connects most directly with the role of government. The love of neighbor not only compels us to have a vested interest in how we ourselves treat our neighbors but also in how our neighbors are treated by others, including how they are treated by agents like the government. So, when we think about loving our neighbor, we must also think about justice and the implications that this has in politics.
Let’s use practical examples to demonstrate this—for instance, the issue of slavery. Everyone in 2018 accepts that forcibly enslaving someone is evil. But put yourself in the position of someone back in 1840 when there wasn’t such a consensus. As a Christian, would it have been enough to say, “Well, I don’t own any slaves and I don’t personally condone slavery, but I am indifferent about whether the government allows it.”? You probably would be in good company. Yet, most of us today recognize that holding to such a position is merely being complicit with societal evil, especially since the means to abolish slavery existed. We rightly recognize that the love of neighbor would compel us to work to abolish it on an institutional/political level out of a concern to seek justice and righteousness for our fellow image-bearers.
Let’s use a more contemporary example like abortion. Is it enough to say, “Well, I’m personally against abortion but okay with other people getting one,” or would the love of neighbor (assuming you acknowledge the fetus to be your neighbor) urge us to oppose it politically and work to outlaw a practice which destroys human life and denies them justice?
Obviously, many issues are not as clear-cut as abortion or slavery, but I believe the principle stands that the love of neighbor should compel us to work against societal evils. Even as far back as Genesis 9:6, God said, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Unethical actions are often deserving of a communal or political response. This is why, in a New Testament context, Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 entrusts the power of the sword to the government to punish wrongdoers.
Thus, it is impossible to divorce the gospel from politics. The gospel will always have ethical and political implications.
Understanding the Limits of the Relationship Between the Gospel, Ethics, and Politics
While the gospel always has ethical and political implications, by the same token, we must never conflate politics and ethics with the gospel as it pertains to salvation. Salvation comes by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and will never depend on what political positions you take, which political party you support, or how good of a life you live. To assert anything else is seeking to be justified by the law, which Scripture clearly refutes (Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:21, 5:4).
This isn’t to say that our ethics and politics aren’t of significant consequence. In fact, my point in writing this article is to show the opposite. I just also want to be clear that such things aren’t of salvific consequence, meaning that politics and ethics aren’t what save us. However, they can be indicators of whether the gospel is having its full effect in our lives. If we believe in the gospel, this will naturally flow downstream into our ethics and politics.
Can Faithful Christians Disagree on Ethics and Politics?
Having now demonstrated the connection between the gospel, ethics and politics, there’s one more crucial element that needs to be added in order to have a complete framework: opinion.
Not every political or ethical choice is of equal weight. Laws against murder are not of the same moral or political significance as, say, whether the tax rate is 19% or 20%. The decision about whether to buy a new TV is not of the same ethical weight as whether a woman should get an abortion.
Likewise, not every political or ethical choice is of similar Biblical clarity. There are going to be some issues which a Biblical worldview addresses clearly, like murder (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17). This leads to clear ethical implications (Do not murder) as well as political implications (laws against murder). There are other issues which a Biblical worldview would allow for two Christians to have a difference of opinion without compromising their faithfulness to Christ.
Scripture talks about this in Romans 14. Verses 1-4 read,
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Here we have an ethical dilemma about whether Christians should eat meat or only vegetables (Also see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:23-33). Meat from an animal was often sold in marketplaces after being sacrificed to a false god. Some Christians felt compelled not to eat meat because they feared that eating it might make them complicit in the idolatry and could compromise their Christian witness to the world. Other Christians felt like they had the liberty to eat such meat. These two factions in the church would argue over who was right. Paul ultimately gives two principles to the Roman and Corinthian churches.
- Christians can disagree in good conscience over matters of opinion. They will ultimately give an account of themselves before God.
- Whichever conclusion you come to, make sure that it is done out of a clear conscience and out of love for your brother and neighbor. Put their needs ahead of your own liberties.
If opinions like this exist within ethics, then how much more do they exist within politics! There are going to be ethical and political questions where Scripture doesn’t clearly spell out what we should do in a given situation. Yet, with a conscience that is informed by Scripture and led by the Spirit, Christians should be able to make an informed decision in good conscience. Naturally, since none of us are omniscient or perfect, good Christians can come to different conclusions. That’s okay, so long as we are dealing with an opinion, and not something about which Scripture clearly addresses.
One Possible Model for Demonstrating the Relationship Between the Gospel, Ethics, Politics, and Opinion
This leads to my diagram about the relationship between the gospel, ethics, politics, and opinion. Trying to demonstrate it visually won’t perfectly capture every nuance how I would like, but a visual aid can be helpful nonetheless.
There are a total of 6 areas which result. Let me explain each of them briefly:
- Green – The gospel message; matters of salvation or utmost doctrinal significance (i.e. salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone; God’s triune nature)
- Blue – Christian ethics essential to our sanctification; ethical issues which Scripture clearly addresses
- Yellow – Political issues essential to our gospel witness to the world; political issues which Scripture clearly addresses
- Orange – Political issues that are matters of opinion; political issues which Scripture does not clearly address
- Purple – Ethical issues that are matters of opinion; ethical issues which Scripture does not clearly address
- Red – Opinions which have no impact on the gospel message, our sanctification, or our gospel witness (i.e. What is your favorite color?)
The most difficult aspect of drawing this diagram is trying to demonstrate that the gospel has an intrinsic relationship with both ethics and politics without conflating the salvific message with ethics or politics. Again, ethics and politics don’t determine salvation, but a saving and transforming knowledge of Jesus Christ as well as the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit will affect a person’s ethics and politics.
The other major point I want to draw from this diagram is that there will be areas of ethics and politics where Scripture speaks clearly and areas where it doesn’t. Where it does, Christians are called to stand up and speak clearly on those issues as well. Where it doesn’t, we can have opinions, even strong opinions, but we should always hold to those opinions with a humility that demonstrates a willingness to listen to the other side and without conflating our opinions with what God has clearly spoken through Scripture.
The gospel inherently has implications into both ethics and politics. The gospel connects with ethics through the command to repent from our sins and be transformed through the sanctification of the Spirit. Ethics and politics are intrinsically related through the moral framework inherent in the government’s ability to render justice with the power of the sword. This ultimately influences the connection the gospel has with politics. The gospel’s command to love our neighbor calls Christians to care for their neighbor’s well-being, including how they are treated by entities such as government. Christians can disagree on some ethical or political issues, but we must diligently study the Scriptures to know which issues God has or has not spoken clearly on.
In a follow up post to this (I will link here when it is published), I will explore more thoroughly how the Church at large ought to be engaged politically. Should pastors talk about these issues? Do Christians have an obligation to vote?