In a recent Sunday School lesson about worldliness one of my former professors commented, “All of us without exception are disposed toward some form of worldliness. When we talk about worldliness is not talking about other people’s problems.” Conservative Christians are right to decry worldliness when it appears in violent and sensual music and movies, for instance. But worldliness may also express itself in the way Christians conduct their political discourse—even when they are right on the issues.
Consider the following Scripture:
Titus 3:1–3—1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. 3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
The way Christians engage in politics should be distinct from the way the world engages in politics. Paul exhorts Titus to remind those he leads to be submissive to their rulers. In this context he says that are to be courteous, gentle, and to avoid quarrelling. Paul has a theological basis for this admonition: Christians were once like the the sinners who rule over them and live around them. The sinners are characterized in part by hating and being hated. The Christian, however, has been show grace. Thus Christians should be gracious, and not abusive, toward others.
Romans 13:1–7—1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
Paul wrote this command to submit to government, to fear doing wrong, to pay taxes, and to render honor to government leaders while Nero was emperor of the Roman empire. This obedience obviously does not extend to areas in which God has given commands to the contrary (Acts 5:29, 32). But if Christians in Paul’s day owed Nero honor, then American Christians in the present have no excuse for failing to render President Obama and other magistrates the honor they are due.
1 Peter 2:13–17—13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Peter, also living under Nero’s rule also enjoins Christians to honor the emperor. Christians have always been faced with those who would slander them. By doing good in this way (and others) Christians may silence these slanders.
Acts 23:2–5—2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” 4 Those who stood by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” 5 And Paul said, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ”
Paul confessed to having done wrong by reviling the high priest (though he did so in ignorance). He knows from the Old Testament the wrongness of his speech, for Exodus 22:28 forbade the Israelites from speaking evil of their rulers.
These passages do not forbid forthrightness in defense of truth or taking action to defend one’s legal rights. Paul was willing to appeal to his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-39; 22:25-29; 23:27; 25:8-12). It is worth noting, however, that Paul doesn’t act on his rights simply because they are his rights (1 Cor 9:12, 15, 18), but he uses or refrains from using his rights based on which action would best further the gospel.
If Christians stood firmly for truth in the political realm in a gentle manner, showing perfect courtesy toward all people, and avoiding quarrelling, they would show themselves a people distinct from this world.