Voting within the Framework of Christian Discipleship
by Andrew Rillera
How are Christians, who find their primary identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God (Phil 3:20; 1:27) and “in Christ” (Gal 3:28; Col 3:10–11), to think about their citizenship in a worldly kingdom and voting? For some Christians, their conscience will not allow them to vote because they reason that it validates “the system” and produces a sacrilegious alliance of the holy (Kingdom of God) with the profane (the kingdoms of this world). For these Christians, voting is kind of like eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8–10). While we at PAX do not take this position, we want to recognize that some feel this way. As a non-profit our aim is not to tell you who to vote for, but rather to offer some guidance as to how we ought to engage in the process of voting in a manner that both positively serves as witness to the Kingdom and Lordship of Jesus as well as guards against common pitfalls. In short, for Christians, voting ought to be undertaken under the framework of Christian discipleship: to be Christlike.
Our Vote is Not Our Identity
One pitfall is to think that our vote is our identity. While it may be common for those in the world to have their highest sense of identity in their political party or their nation, for Christians, our primary identity is citizens of the multinational, multiethnic, multicultural Kingdom of God. There are at least two things to keep in mind from this truth.
First, to develop patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behaving that are indistinguishable from any worldly political party means we have functionally abandoned what ought to be our primary allegiance to the Kingdom of God and his Son. No political party is the Church, the Body of Christ, so we cannot fall prey to the temptation to think that some segment of the world, which is under the influence of dark and malevolent spiritual forces (Eph 2:2–3; 6:11–12; 1 John 4:4; 5:19; John 14:30; 2 Cor 4:4), actually embodies God’s will for humanity in their political party platform. No nation, no government, and no party deserves our unqualified allegiance. But they all demand it and evangelize people to their cause.
We know we haven fallen into the trap of political allegiance when our talk simply parrots the canned rhetoric of a specific party or interest group. If our only language about the public side of life and how to go about securing public goods is just the regular talk and walk of the world, then we have siloed off an important aspect of our discipleship from the Lordship of Jesus. Jesus is Lord over all, including the political realm, and civic engagement is part of our calling as followers of Jesus to love all our neighbors. So, when we advocate for certain leaders or policies, it should be through a biblical framework and with the words of Christ, not of the world. Moreover, much of worldly politics is governed by an ends justify the means approach, but disciples of Jesus Christ know that both the means and the ends matter equally and both need to be shaped by a discipleship of cross-shaped love, especially of one’s enemies. Being a disciple of Jesus means being committed to certain public goods and part of our Christian witness should be about promoting those public goods in Christlike (cross-shaped) ways.
Second, the Kingdom of God affirms each of our distinct identities since God has formed his Kingdom from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5:9–10). To be Christian does not mean we lose our ethnicity or our culture to some homogenous and formless conglomerate. It is good to be proud of your cultural identity, your language, your people, and your nation. But being a citizen of God’s Kingdom means we speak from within our unique location for the benefit of all peoples all over the earth because God’s Kingdom reaches into all peoples and places.
Refusing the idols of nationalism and partisan identity does not mean being anti-US (or anti-UK, anti-Germany, anti-China, or wherever we happen to live). Rather, as children of Abraham (Rom 4:16–17) who are called to bless all nations (Gen 12:1–3, Gal 3:8), we are to be so pro-all-nations that to be nationalistic is an abandonment of our status as an Abrahamic People and citizens of the multinational Kingdom of God.
Vote For the Welfare of Your Nation While Having All Nations in Mind
We must also work for the blessing and welfare of the nation that we live in. This is what the prophet Jeremiah councils the Judean exiles living in Babylon in Jer 29:7. But another pitfall arrives here. We should not overvalue voting. Voting is simply one way to work for the blessing and welfare of our home nation. But, as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we know that the blessing of our home nation is inseparably bound up with the blessing and welfare of all nations. So we need to cast our votes (for candidates and for policies) with all peoples in mind (and that of future generations). Voting is not the be-all and end-all of public engagement. It is simply one tool of a Kingdom peacemaker. It is merely one way to “speak” publicly, but we cannot forget the myriad of other ways to speak and especially to speak truth to power.
The fundamental task of disciples of Jesus is the bear witness to his Kingdom to all nations (Matt 28:18–20). The Apostle Paul describes Christians as divine royal ambassadors (2 Cor 5:20). Most of the people we read about in Scripture did not get invited by the worldly powers to have a voice at their table. Jesus and Paul did not have an “official” voice. But some people did get invited by the worldly powers to have an official voice (e.g., Joseph, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) and they used it as simply one more way to speak as ambassadors for the Kingdom of God — and crucially, they remained loyal to their Kingdom allegiance even to the point of death.
The fact of the matter is that possessing the right to vote means being granted an official voice by the worldly powers. For those of us with the invitation from these powers to cast a vote, let us not squander this opportunity to speak in this official capacity, but let us also not forget that this is neither our only nor primary way to speak to and for our home nation. Picking up on God’s call for Israel to be a priestly kingdom in Exodus 19:6, Peter says the Church has this same priestly role among the nations (1 Peter 2:9–12). A priest is one who serves as a mediator between God and humanity. Thus, we are called to daily speak to our nation (with actions and words) on behalf of God, both applauding and encouraging it when it serves as an instrument of peace and flourishing and also prophetically speaking truth to power when it is on a path of destruction and devastation. And, we speak for our nation to God in prayer, asking God for wisdom, mercy, and the restoration of creation where there is brokenness.
So how ought we use our voice to speak to our nation at the voting booth? Since no one political party is the Church and the world is under the influence of spiritual forces of evil, we have to be guided by a damage control approach. That is, we need to be asking questions for each policy and for each candidate at all levels of elected office such as: What will alleviate more suffering? What will have a more positive impact on the material conditions of those on the margins, the poor, the oppressed, the sick, and “the least of these”? How can I be a voice for the voiceless, for those who do not have an official voice at the table (e.g., immigrants, the unjustly disenfranchised, future generations, peoples in other nations that will have to live with the results of American political outcomes given American hegemony, etc.)? What will make this nation look more like a sheep and less like a goat (Matt 25:31–45)? These are precisely the concerns we observe in Jesus’s life in the Gospels. Since our primary identity is Kingdom citizens and our primary task is to be ambassadors for God’s Kingdom to all other kingdoms, then when these other kingdoms invite our voice, we are under obligation to use our vote to voice Christ-like concerns.
The Sins of One Party Do Not Atone for the Sins of the Other
The final pitfall to avoid is this: Let’s not pretend that “the other side” is so evil that they offer a sort of perverted Messianic redemption of “our” candidate’s sins. That is, worldly politics is so often defined by absolutizing the wickedness of the other party with the result that they overlook the sins of those in their own party or the candidate they want to vote for. The reasoning is: the awfulness of “them” atones for any sins from “our party.” It ought not to be this way among Christians. All these pitfalls are interrelated and this is why Christians need to avoid total allegiance to any one party. Christians belong to no worldly party; they are the Body of Christ. Falling into partisan politics paves the way for this alternative means of atonement and redemption that is, in fact, anti-Christian because it locates atonement and redemption for one’s “party” in the wickedness of “the other party” rather than in Christ Jesus.
Casting a vote for a candidate of a certain political party does not mean we cannot then hold that person or that party accountable for all of their wrongdoings. Moreover, it does not even have to be an “endorsement” (moral or otherwise) of that candidate. It might simply be a strong “no” to another candidate and a way to voice our concern for damage control. Voting is not a marriage to a candidate or a party. It is more like picking a mode of transportation. We choose the one going closest to where we want to go even if none of the available options are going exactly where we want to go. We should not give our total allegiance to a candidate or party such that we feel compelled to overlook their liabilities and wrongdoings.
This leads to a final set of questions to ask oneself when casting a vote: Who is most likely to amend their problematic behavior when confronted? Or, what policies and candidates will most effectively hold elected officials accountable to wrongdoing? What will bring about the most balance of power?
At the end of the day, our primary identity as Kingdom citizens means we need to think no more of our vote than as one way to use our voices as Kingdom ambassadors. For some reason we find ourselves with an opportunity few in the Bible had, so we need to use this opportunity wisely, but realize that our main mode of engagement with the world and the public sphere is in the mode of daily Christlike discipleship as Kingdom ambassadors. By avoiding the above pitfalls, we realize that voting day is just one more day along this path.
Andrew is a PhD candidate in New Testament at Duke University in Durham, NC. He serves as the Research Editor for PAX and as an adjunct professor at Eternity Bible College. He has written articles for the Journal of Biblical Literature and Biblical Research and co-wrote Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence with Preston Sprinkle.