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Should The Church Play A Role In African Politics?

Africans are generally religious people. Christianity is one of the major religions on the continent, and the number of professing Christians is growing. At the same time, Africa continues to face political instability in a number of countries. This instability raises important questions. Is Christianity of any actual help to the political problems our continent is facing? Should Christians engage in politics? What role should the Church play with regard to politics? Below I will attempt to provide biblical answers to these questions and others related to them.

The Christian’s Role In Politics

We do well to begin by remembering that Christ is king over all the earth (Colossians 1:16-17). Christ removes kings and sets them up (Daniel 2:21). As one Dutch Reformed theologian famously stated, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

Christians can and should be in politics if the Lord calls them.

Therefore, Christians can be in politics if the Lord calls them. They should not be afraid to accept the calling, believing that politics is only ever a dirty game. For sure politics, like every human institution, can be riddled with sin. But Christianity is not Gnosticism – which believes that the material world is evil and only the spiritual realm is good.

Christianity does not minimise the consequences of the fall on the human race. Yet at the same time it is always hopeful in the power of the gospel; in the knowledge that Christ is redeeming his creation. The scope of his restoration and redemption includes our fallen political systems.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (31.5) best captures the Bible’s teaching about a Christian’s involvement in politics: “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate (government official or politician), when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.” Please note, the emphasis here is that Christians who are called into politics are to maintain piety, justice and peace of their country.

The Church’s Role in Politics

But while Christians could be called to serve as politicians, the calling of the Church is different. The Church is never called into politics. Her calling is to pray for magistrates and give them godly counsel when needed, but she should never turn the pulpit into a political podium.

This demands a great degree of nuance. For when Christians join politics it could also be said in one sense that the Church is in politics. But I believe that you get what I am trying to put across. The separation of the Church and State is never absolute because we will always have members of the Church who are also members of the State.

The Church should never turn the pulpit into a political podium.

Again, the Westminster Confession of Faith (31.5) is helpful here: “Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

It is important to notice that the WCF does not completely prohibit the Church from petitioning or advising the government. When the civil magistrates have asked the Church for advice, the Church should do so gladly and dutifully. As Robert Shaw writes, “The Church and State may co-operate in the advancement of objects common to both. But each of them must be careful to act within its own proper sphere—the one never intermeddling with the affairs which properly belong to the province of the other.”

A Prophetic Rather Than Political Voice

But what about the Church having a prophetic voice in society? Certainly, the Church should have a prophetic voice in any society, by pointing out the evils of the society and calling it to repentance. But this does not mean that the Church as an institution should become directly involved in politics. For that is not why Christ established his Church.

The Church should have a prophetic voice – pointing out evils and calling that society to repentance.

Christ often demonstrated the differentiation between his mission and the State’s. For example, Jesus refused the request to mediate between a man and his brother regarding their inheritance. Christ specified that he was not a judge of a civil court (Luke 12:13-14).

We see another example of this when Jesus was before Pontius Pilate. Christ refused to associate the Church with the kingdoms of this world. Instead, he clearly told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36)

What About Political Oppression?

What if the government oppresses its citizenry? Isn’t the Church supposed to defend the poor and vulnerable and even be willing to pick up arms to fight against a wicked State? Indeed, the Bible calls Christians to obey only the lawful commands of the magistrates. Therefore, if the magistrates command what is unlawful, the Church ought to stand up and declare with the early Church that she will obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Nevertheless, it’s never the calling of the Church to be in the forefront picking up arms against the State.

It’s never the calling of the Church to be in forefront picking up arms against the State.

The Reformers, especially John Calvin, ably discuss how the Church should respond to evil and oppressive governments. Calvin argues that the Church should never directly pick up arms against the State. Rather, the Church should support other magistrates, political organisations, and authorities to mount a greater resistance against wicked governments. This is not unlike the example of Festo Kivengere, during the reign of Idi Amin.

The Church Can Support Political Change

Calvin’s teaching is also called the “Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates.” In his Institutes (4.20.31), he writes, “For if there are now any magistrates of the people appointed to restrain the wilfulness of kings… I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with the duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.”

The Church must encourage and stand with efforts to curb evil, injustice, and oppression.

The Church is not a lesser magistrate. It should never be an opposition party. The lesser magistrates, especially those including Christians, have a responsibility to restrain the evil of unjust leaders. In cases where the greater magistrates (governing authorities) are oppressing their citizens, Christians should support lesser magistrates. They must encourage and stand with efforts to curb the evil, injustice, and oppression of greater magistrates. All this is to be done within the bounds of the just laws.

The Church’s Nuanced Role in Politics

The Bible clearly teaches a separation between the Church and the State. Thus, the Church should not directly involve herself in politics, acting as a political party. However, when individual Christians are called into politics or government they may serve gladly. Only, they must not forget that their role is to maintain the piety, justice, and peace of their country. I believe that when Christians practice politics with these goals in mind, we will see a more politically stable Africa.

The Church must not trade in the gospel of Christ for a political message.

On the other hand, the Church must resist pressure from politicians that will result in it being used for selfish ends. Believers, both those in politics and those who aren’t, must also resist the temptation to see political transformation as their true hope. The Church must not trade in the gospel of Christ for a political message. For the Church belongs to God’s eternal kingdom, which transcends all earthly ones. The political kingdoms of this world will come and go, but Christ’s kingdom will last forever.

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