With the election hard upon us, it is a good time to be reminded that nothing we do can rightly be divorced from the sufficient governance of Christian Scripture. No pockets of neutrality exist in any sphere of life, including our politics. While the battery of issues facing voters today is exceedingly complex, one option always proves better than the rest—and it is safe to say that were the incarnate God to join us in the polling booth next week, he would be able, in his perfect wisdom, to discern in every case the best possible option in view of all the facts available.
Of course, we possess neither all the facts nor the wisdom necessary to perfectly harmonize and synthesize those facts. As a result, we Christians tend to vote provincially, and we do not all vote the same. This does not mean (necessarily) that one voting bloc is sinning and the other is not. Still, moral ought does exist in politics: there are some choices that are better than others, and some choices that are flat out wrong.
Most Christians will admit this, conceding that the Bible should inform our voting decisions at some level. We can’t vote for a platform of pure evil. But platforms of pure evil are rare: all candidates exhibit at least some common grace, and a goodly percentage of them are sincere in pursuing what is, at least in their best opinion, most advantageous to their jurisdiction or to the country.
In their various stewardships of common grace, however, politicians tend to privilege certain virtues over others, and we voters do the same. Some of us privilege national security, others economic stability, others moral values, job security and a safe workplace, education, freedom, protecting the environment, assisting the disenfranchised (whether ethnically, generationally, medically, or financially), or the advance of the Gospel. All of these are arguably good things, and if asked to do so, we could all arrange them in an pecking order ranging from the issues most important to me to the issues least important to me.
In Christian ethics, however, the unaided self is never awarded such broad liberties. Instead, the Scriptures are declared to be the Norma Normans non Normata, sufficient for every expression of godliness. Obviously, the Scriptures do not give us the names of the best candidates, but they do give us more guidance than a list of “good stuff that you can prioritize however you want.” Specifically, the Scriptures offer us a short list of duties of government commended in Scripture as duties of government that take precedence over all other “good things” that our government might accomplish. These primary duties include…
(1) The Protection of Citizens from Violent Death. This is the sole occasioning concern that led to God’s original establishment of human government (Gen 9:6), and it has been a primary reason for the formation of nearly every human government since. And lest there be concern that this purpose has been usurped, we see Paul revisiting this theme, asserting that the emblem of human government is the “sword” of protection/justice leveled against “wrongdoers” (Rom 13:4). The first concern of any government is to protect its citizens from violence. Peter concurs (1 Pet 2:14).
(2) The Establishment of an Environment in Which the Gospel Can Advance. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul urges believers to pray that their governors would create an environment where believers may pursue holiness and godliness without harassment (2:2); an environment conducive to the announcement and embrace of the gospel (v. 4). Note that Paul does not expect the state to establish or even to favor the Christian religion, but he expresses hope for a climate in which the Gospel is able to flourish without restriction. This being Paul’s primary hope and only recorded prayer for human government, it follows that this is a primary duty of human government.
(3) Finally, the Promotion of Moral Good. This theme, found in both Paul and Peter’s calls for governors to commend those who do good (Rom 13:3–4; 1 Pet 2:14–15), is the broadest of God’s prescribed purposes for government. The specific “good” is not given, but the word group used here (ἀγαθός) favors the nuance of beneficence over the nuance of righteousness. As such, government is to praise and encourage, by its policies, the private practice of charity and benevolence, and thereby serve as a societal “minister of good.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list of things that human government may legitimately do; indeed, the Bible seems to allow the government to assume rather broad powers. But by privileging these three concerns, the Scriptures offer specific guidance to Christian voters today about what should be their principal voting concerns.