It has always been difficult for Christians to think in harmony about the state. This is due to two ambiguities. One ambiguity is that the church, although it should be sacred in the sense of being devoted wholly to God and his kingdom, is often quite secular and thus, to the embarrassment of many believers, frequently takes its authority, theology, agenda, and methods from the world. It is not noticeably unique. The other ambiguity is that the state, although established by God for the defense and wellbeing of its citizens, sometimes operates in a despotic and even demonic manner. So while Christians are called upon to honor and obey the secular powers, they must also at times be ready to challenge them in the name of God and his righteousness, and even disobey the state when its laws conflict with God’s.

Christians increasingly see the value of political involvement. But how should they be involved? And with whom and for what causes? To offer guidelines in these areas, we begin with some intentionally balanced statements.

1. Church and state must be separate from each other, in the sense that the church must not control national policy nor the state either establish or limit the free exercise of religion. But this does not mean that either church or state is independent of God.

The doctrine of the separation of church and state means that presidents are not to appoint clerics, define the doctrine or establish church polity, and clerical authorities are not to appoint presidents nor do the state’s work. Nevertheless, church and state are both responsible to God in whose wisdom each has been established. Each is to remind the other if its God-appointed duties, and recall it to upright, godly conduct if it strays. If Christians do not do their job of speaking to the civil authorities on moral issues, spiritual and moral principles will be eliminated from public debate, the state will become its own god, and the only functioning political principle will be pragmatism.

2. Christians are free to seek elected office, and some should be encouraged to do so. But elected officials do not have to be Christians to be effective leaders, and merely being a Christian does not in itself qualify one for any office.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the “Civil Magistrate,” states rightly that “it is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate.” This means that it is as proper for Christians to engage in secular pursuits, such a politics, as to become missionaries and ministers. But while missionaries and ministers must be born again to perform their function, civil leaders do not have to be. A Christian does not have to vote for the “Christian” candidate if a choice is offered, and he or she can pray for and support an unbeliever of good character and ability with both thankfulness and enthusiasm.

3. The Bible gives Christians guidelines for approaching national and social problems, and Christians should seek to be consistently biblical in all their thoughts and actions. But the Bible does not necessarily give specific answers to problems, and reasoning from a biblical principle to a specific policy must be carefully done.

It is a valid complaint of seasoned politicians that many Christians leap too quickly from a valid truth of Scripture to a specific program and are overly hasty to denounce anyone who disagrees with their program as being unbiblical or anti-God. If Christians are to gain a hearing in the rough and tumble of the political arena, they must be willing to fill in the gaps, showing how a suggested program best expresses and advances the desired principle. Moreover, Christians must argue their case with unbelievers, appealing to them on behalf of what is good and not retreating into an unassailable citadel of “direct revelation.”

4. In attempting to advance a specific proposal, Christians must depend on moral suasion, asking God through prayer to give their reasoning favor with those having different points of view. But they must not retreat from this high position to tactics of mere naked pressure of coercion.

It is tempting to resort to such pressure. The political process is slow, riddled with compromise, and frustrating. Again there are many people who know only the tactics of public demonstration, economic boycott, media hype, and backroom power politics. Since these things often work for others, the Christian activist reasons that they should also work for him. Christians must not forget that the only truly lasting reforms come from God, and that they have usually been a product of periods of great spiritual awakening.

5. Christians must think, work, and pray effectively, trying always to place their specific programs within the framework of an overall Christian world and life view. And they must strive no less personally to model the reality suggested.

This is what that great statement in Micah 6:8 calls for: “What does the Lord require of you?” To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” To act justly does not mean merely to talk about justice or to get other people to act justly. It means to do the just thing yourself. To love mercy means that we are to be merciful consistently.

The final requirement is important: to walk humbly with God. Just because we have the Bible does not mean that we have all the answers, and we must not be afraid to confess that important fact. Rather, along with others we must humbly seek God’s solutions to our problems, recognizing that we ourselves may even be part of the cause.

This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, September 1987, and has been edited for time-related references.