With an election coming up in the UK, a lot of Christians will be thinking about how to vote. Of course, it isn’t just Christians who are wondering how to vote – all sorts of people will. But the priorities of Christians will, inevitably, be different from the priorities of most other people. So what should the priorities for Christians be?
Does the Bible have anything to say?
Of course, if you ask Christians what their priorities are, and what they think the most important issues are, you will get a variety of responses. So I want to ask “Does the Bible give us any guidance on this?” And I think that it does. And my starting point is something that the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I Timothy 2:1-4 )
What does Paul want more than anything else? He wants as many people as possible to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. This was what he spent his life doing. In fact, that is the mission of the church. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he told them to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
So – what does this have to do with politics?
Well, when Paul urges prayer for all people, he singles out one group of people in particular: kings and all who are in high positions – in other words, rulers – which for us in the west today, basically means politicians. It does not just mean politicians – it also includes judges, but primarily, it means those who hold political power. And Paul tells us why we are to pray for those who rule.
What does he want us to request when we pray for them? He says that we are to pray for rulers so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (I suspect that, if we didn’t know what he was going to say, that we probably wouldn’t have guessed that.)
Praying that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life
Many people have been surprised by those words. Gordon Fee comments, “For many scholars, this sounds terribly bourgeois, even selfish“. But Paul’s point is that the lives of all people are affected by those who hold power – and that includes Christians who seek to proclaim the gospel and live a godly life. Paul says this, of course, because his big concern is that Christians should proclaim the gospel and live godly lives. And that should be true for Christians today as well.
And Paul connects the matter of proclaiming the gospel and living a godly life with rulers, because he knows from personal experience that his own ability to proclaim the gospel, and the ability of Christians in his day, to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way,” was much affected by those who ruled.
To quote John Stott’s comments on this verse:
Paul is quite specific in directing why the church should pray for national leaders. It is first and foremost that we may live peaceful and quiet lives. For the basic benefit of good government is peace, meaning freedom both from war and from civil strife. Paul had many experiences of this blessing, when Roman officials had intervened on his behalf, not least in Ephesus itself when a great disturbance about the Way had arisen, and the city clerk had succeeded in quelling it.
Prayer for peace is not to be dismissed as selfish. Its motivation can be altruistic, namely that only with an ordered society is the church free to fulfil its God-given responsibilities without hindrance. . . .
[Another] benefit of peace is implied in verse 3. . . . The logic of this seems to be that peaceful conditions facilitate the propagation of the gospel. . . . The ultimate object of our prayers for national leaders, then, is that in the context of the peace they preserve, religion and morality can flourish, and evangelism go forward without interruption.
“Here is important apostolic teaching about church and state, and about the proper relations between them, even when the state is not Christian. It is the duty of the state to keep the peace, to protects its citizens from whatever would disturb it, to preserve law and order… and to punish evil and promote good… so that within such a stable society the church may be free to worship God, obey his laws, and spread his gospel.
Conversely, it is the duty of the church to pray for the state, so that its leaders may administer justice and pursue peace, and to add to its intercession thanksgiving, especially for the blessings of good government as a gift of God’s common grace. Thus church and state have reciprocal duties, the church to pray for the state (and be its conscience), the state to protect the church (so that it may go free to perform its duties) ….”
In other words, the most important thing that government does, as far as the apostle Paul is concerned, is to ensure that Christians can do what Christians are supposed to do. And this means he wants to see governments keeping the peace, preserving law and order, giving the church freedom to perform its duties, and allowing evangelism to go forward without interruption.
Matters such the economy, housing, education, healthcare, the environment, and yes, even Brexit – which are of considerable interest to most of us, are not the sort of things that Paul was concerned about. And I believe that they are not the sort of things Paul would be particularly concerned about today. So, while these things are not irrelevant, and are worth thinking about – they should not be the big issues for Christians who are serious about being faithful to the Bible, and who are serious about the mission of the church to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.
Voting in Britain in 2019
Which brings us back to elections. If the one thing that the Bible tells Christians to pray for with regard to politicians is that they would let us lead peaceful and quiet lives – then that should be the main thing, or even the one thing, that we want in politicians, and that we should look for at election time.
In practice, what does that mean for voters in Britain today? The answer, it seems to me, is that there is, on the surface, not much to choose between the different parties. They all have similar policies with regard to law and order, and protecting citizens from things that would disturb it. And it doesn’t seem that there is much to be concerned about. Britain has been, and looks like continuing to be, a place where Christians can lead peaceful and quiet lives.
There are, however, two things that I think we should be concerned about – and that we should be praying about, and that we should be thinking about at election time.
The first is the matter of freedom. If the church is to be free to perform its duties, evangelism is to be allowed to go forward without interruption, there must be certain freedoms in society. I suppose some people might want to work to ensure Christianity is in some way recognised as being the official religion of the state. It seems to me that in the current climate, that is not likely to happen. I would also add that when it has happened in the past, it has often meant that some Christians were not particularly free. Think, for example, of the way that Christian England put John Bunyan in prison for preaching.
In other words, one of the issues that we need to be thinking about at election times is freedom. To quote a recent article article in Spiked by Inaya Folarin Iman (who is actually a candidate in the upcoming election)
“Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen a significant erosion of our fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. Yet few political parties seem to consider this erosion of freedom a problem. This is not surprising, as both main parties have long sought to drastically expand the scope and power of the state at the expense of individual liberty. In my opinion, a society that promises ‘freebies’ without defending our fundamental rights is one that has lost its way.”
The article mentions the case of Oluwole Ilesanmi a 64-year-old man from Nigeria who came to the UK nine years ago, and who has toured the country reading aloud from the Bible, spending hours outside train stations. He was arrested after calling Islam an ‘aberration’.
Then there is the case of Harry Miller, a 53-year-old docker and former police officer, was investigated by Humberside Police for retweeting a supposedly transphobic poem. Speaking to a police officer on the phone, Miller asked whether he had committed a crime, to which came the ominous response: ‘We need to check your thinking.’
In Finland, a member of parliament is being investigated by the police who are considering charges against her over a 2004 pamphlet she wrote defending the Lutheran Church’s traditional teaching about marriage. She reports that during the investigations, the police “asked about the contents of the Letter to the Romans.”
As Iman says, “These cases may be extreme, but they are also the logical result of giving the state the power to arrest people on the grounds that they have expressed hatred.“
It is pretty clear that neither Ilesanmi, nor Miller, nor Rasanen was motivated by hatred, or was doing anything that was hurting anyone. The fact that the police got involved in all three cases is an indication that freedom of speech in the west is a concept that is under threat. That is something that should concern Christians, and it is something that should be an election issue.
A peaceful life
The second matter of political policy that Christians should be seriously concerned about at election time is peace. Paul urged prayer “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” But that raises a question: “Who is we?” The answer is obviously Christians.
Which Christians? Again, the answer is obvious. Paul meant all Christians everywhere. Which means that when we pray for rulers so that “we” may be able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, we shouldn’t just be praying that Christians in our own country would be able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, but that rulers would act in such a way that Christians all over the world would be able to lead a peaceful and quiet life. One obvious implication of that is that Christians in the UK will pray for rulers in, say China, to rule in a way that allows Chinese Christians to live a peaceful and quiet life.
But there is a second implication, which has relevance not just for the way we pray, but also for the way we vote. The actions of the rulers in one country can have a big impact on the peace in another country.
Atthe 2nd International Conference on Persecuted Christians in Budapest last week, Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syrian Orthodox Church spoke about what has happened in the Middle East in recent years, and said “Our estimation is that more than 90% of Christians have left Iraq and almost 50% of Christians of Syria have left the country. ”
The reason why so many people have left these countries is that they have been breakdown of peace. Twenty years ago, for all the problems that these countries had, Christians were pretty much able to get on with living a peaceful and quiet life, and the church was able to go about the work of evangelism. The coming of war to those countries changed all that completely. In Iraq, that war came about completely because of the actions, not of the Iraqi government, but of the governments of America and the UK. In Syria, the breakdown of the order and descent into civil war was largely due to the actions of the governments that were hostile to the government of Syria, and wanted to see it brought down. America played a large part in that, and the UK was also involved to some extent.
The foreign policy pursued by our government is something that has very little impact on the life of people in this country – but it has had a huge impact on the lives of people in other countries – and often not for the better.
It is probably true that there are other things that the governments do which can affect the ability of Christians to lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. But it seems to me that at the moment, the two big issues are civil liberties – especially freedom of speech – and foreign policy, particularly with regard to war and peace. Sadly, very few politicians and voters seem to be talking much about these things at the moment.
How to vote
So how should Christians vote in elections?
By that, I don’t mean “Which candidate, which party, should they vote for?” I mean “How should they approach the question of who they might vote for?” And the answer I would give is “Vote according to what the Bible says.” And it seems to me that there is no other passage in the whole of the Bible that speaks more clearly about what Christians should want to see in their rulers than what Paul has to say in I Timothy 2.
Yes, I know that many Christians want governments that will, by political action, promote Christian values in society. To be honest, I think that it is completely unrealistic in the present climate to hope for that. Indeed, perhaps it always was. But more importantly, there is nothing in the New Testament which suggests that Christians should look for that.
And yes, the Bible has a huge amount to say about rulers, good and bad. But much of that is in the Old Testament, and was about what kind of king God wanted as ruler of his own people. As the Old Testament comes to an end, and Jerusalem is conquered by the Babylonians, we come to a time when God’s people live under pagan kings. We see that some of those kings are better than others from the perspective of how they treat God’s people. And much the same is true in the New Testament. And that suggests that we should want rulers who are honest rather than dishonest, and merciful rather than cruel, and who are fair and impartial rather than biased or prejudiced. But surely fairness, honesty and mercy are very much qualities in rulers that allow people to lead peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way.
I Timothy 2 may be the only place in the Bible that explicitly says what Christians should look for, hope for, and pray for in their rulers – but it also fits with everything else we read in the Bible about good and bad kings. And so, it seems to me, it is the place in the Bible that we should go to for guidance about how we should vote.