Whenever national elections roll around, many Christians ask how their faith should shape their politics. This year’s US presidential election campaign has lent a charge of urgency to this perennial question. What’s important for Christians to remember when they go to the polling booth – if they go at all?

The first thing to remember is that politics is secondary. For Christians, what’s far more important is to simply be the church – to live out day by day what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. The example of the Christian church of the first three centuries demonstrates how powerful and effective the church’s mere existence can be, as we will see below.

All the same, it does not follow that Christians should withdraw from political engagement. This temptation can be powerful, especially this year, as we see how exceedingly nasty, vicious, dishonest, and depressing politics can become. As a result, many good Christians conclude that we should just turn our backs on the whole messy business.

That, I believe, is a mistake for two reasons: one practical, one theological.

In practical terms, history teaches that political decisions can have a huge impact for good or bad on the lives of billions. Think of the devastation the world might have avoided if German Christian voters had voted differently in 1933. Think, by contrast, of the freedom that followed for tens of millions when the British evangelical politician William Wilberforce, after thirty years of lobbying, persuaded fellow members of parliament to outlaw first the slave trade, and then slavery itself, throughout the British Empire.

Today, it is through politics that we develop laws that either restrict or permit widespread abortion, protect or weaken religious liberty, harm or empower the poor, and conserve or destroy the environment. Politics is simply too important to ignore.

The theological reason for political engagement is even weightier. The central Christian confession is that Jesus is now Lord – Lord of the entire universe. The New Testament explicitly teaches that he is now “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). “All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to the risen Jesus (Matt. 28:18). Christians who know that must submit every corner of their lives to this wonderful Lord.

Since we live in a democratic society where we have the freedom to vote, how we cast our ballot (or don’t) shapes what happens to the communities in which we live. One way Christians must live out our belief that Christ is Lord, even of political life, is to think and pray for wisdom to act politically in ways that best reflect Christ our Lord.

If we want to be biblically balanced in our politics, we cannot be one-issue voters.

But that raises the question: how do we let Christ be Lord of our politics? First, we must have a passion for truth. Christians know that God hates lies – and also that lying in politics is bad for democracy. So in this and every election season, Christians should insist on knowing the truth. Fact-checking organizations such as Politifact or Factcheck can help inform us whether what a politician says is accurate.

Second, Christians should have a passion for civility in the political arena. Biblical faith calls us to respect every person, no matter how much we disagree with him or her, because every person is both made in the image of God and loved by God. Civility reflects our reverence for the divine image in each person. It demands that we genuinely seek to understand those with whom we disagree. Christians should demand this virtue from all politicians, especially those who claim the Christian badge. At a minimum, this means protesting both racist innuendo and the encouragement of violence against opponents.

Third, in politics we must pursue a biblically balanced agenda. How can we discern what this agenda should be? I propose that the answer will come from asking a further question: What does the Bible say God cares about?

When we turn to the whole of Scripture, it quickly becomes clear that the God of the Bible cares about both the sanctity of human life and economic justice (especially for the poor); about both marriage and peacemaking; about sexual integrity, racial justice, and creation care. The political vision of the Bible is what I call “completely pro-life.”

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Embracing Consistency

In January 2016 I spoke to a large evangelical conference held to coincide with the annual March for Life in Washington, DC, when thousands gather each year on the anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision to call for an end to widespread abortion on demand. In my remarks, I recounted how for decades I’ve believed that Christians should act on a basic truth about the beginning of human life: that from the moment of conception, we are dealing with persons made in the image of God. That’s why I’ve joined in the movement to reduce abortion both by legislation and through supportive programs to assist unwed pregnant mothers.

While remaining committed to these goals, I’ve been disturbed by a fundamental inconsistency in much of the pro-life movement. People who are passionate about combating abortion often seem unconcerned about other ways that human lives are destroyed. Why, I wondered, did many pro-life leaders fail to support programs designed to reduce starvation among the world’s children? Why did others oppose government funding for research into a cure for AIDS? Why did an important pro-life senator fight to save unborn babies only to defend government subsidies for tobacco products, which cause six million deaths around the globe each year? When Congressman Barney Frank quipped that pro-lifers believe that “life begins at conception and ends at birth,” he was not being entirely unfair.

We in the pro-life movement can do better. Leaders such as Pope Francis have shown the way by calling on us to defend the sanctity of life consistently. In his speech to the US Congress in 2015, he said that Christian faith teaches “our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”

Global poverty, to take one example, is a pro-life issue: eighteen thousand children under five die every day, most from hunger or medically preventable causes. President George W. Bush launched, and President Obama continued, the PEPFAR program to combat treatable diseases such as malaria and AIDS. Yet despite millions of lives saved, major politicians have called for dramatic cuts in PEPFAR’s funding. Shouldn’t Christians be the first to support effective programs that prevent unnecessary deaths?

In every age, the first, most important political act is to be the church.

Environmental degradation is a pro-life issue. Global warming, unless we act soon, will cause devastating climate change that will lead to the deaths of millions of poor people.

Racism is a pro-life issue. In American history, white racism enabled the enslavement of tens of millions of Africans made in the image of God; after slavery ended, thousands of African-Americans were murdered in lynchings. Today, young black men are killed by police at far higher rates than young white men are.

Capital punishment is a pro-life issue. How can killing a person guilty of killing another person ever serve to teach respect for the sanctity of human life?

This list, of course, is far from complete. The point is, if we want to be biblically balanced in our politics, we cannot be one-issue voters. We must be pro-life and pro-poor, pro-family and pro-racial justice, pro-sexual integrity and pro-peace.

In real-life politics, we will find few, if any, viable candidates who fully represent the completely pro-life agenda. So we must weigh the various candidates’ platforms (and likely actions) and then vote for the one closest to what the Bible teaches us God cares about. Sometimes, that means deciding for the candidate likely to do the least harm.

First-Century Pro-Lifers

To many Christians, this way of thinking about the sanctity of life – despite its profound rooting in scripture – may feel unfamiliar. How valuable, then, that we have access to the bracing pro-life witness of the New Testament’s first readers: the early Christians. In my book, The Early Church on Killing, I collected every document and artifact I could find on the teaching and practice of the early church on killing up to AD 313, the year that Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire.

The consistency of the early church’s pro-life convictions is astounding. Whether the issue is abortion, capital punishment, infanticide, or killing in war, every extant statement by Christian authors before Constantine says that Christians should never kill. The Christian writer Lactantius, writing in the early fourth century during the severe empire-wide persecution of Emperor Diocletian, sums up this consensus by flatly forbidding believers to serve in the military or participate in capital punishment: “Killing a human being is always wrong because it is God’s will for man to be a sacred creature” (Divine Institutes, 6,20).

I do not believe God has one ethic for Christians and another for the world.

In accordance with the early Christian conviction that every human life is sacred, eight different authors in eleven different writings unanimously reject abortion. The blunt condemnation of the Didache is typical: “You shall not murder a child by abortion.” In most instances, the writers condemn abortion either because the unborn child has a soul from the moment of conception or because abortion is killing and Christians do not do that. Thus Tertullian condemns abortion because Christians believe that all murder is wrong: “In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb” (Apology, 9).

By the same token, four different writers say that Christians must not participate in capital punishment. The Apostolic Tradition, a church order probably from the late second or early third century, explicitly teaches that if a prominent government official (one who “wears red”) authorized to order the death penalty asks to become a Christian, he must abandon his government position if he wants to become a candidate for baptism: “One who has the power of the sword or the head of a city and wears red, let him stop or be excluded.”

The texts prohibiting killing in war are even more frequent. Up until the time of Constantine, there is not a single Christian writer known to us who says that it is legitimate for Christians to kill or to join the military; meanwhile, a substantial number of passages written over a period of many years explicitly say that Christians must not or do not kill or join the military:

  • Nine different Christian writers in sixteen different treatises explicitly say that killing is wrong.
  • Four writers in five treatises clearly argue that Christians do not and should not join the military. In addition four writers in eight different works strongly imply the same.
  • At least eight times, five different authors apply the Messianic prophecy about swords being beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4) to Christ and his teaching.
  • Ten different authors in at least twenty-eight different places cite or allude to Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies, and in at least nine of these places, they connect that teaching to some statement about Christians being peaceful, ignorant of war, or opposed to attacking others.

It is also true that the documents show that by AD 173 there were a few Christians serving in the Roman army; their numbers increased substantially in the late third and early fourth centuries. But these Christian soldiers were doing what all extant statements on the topic by Christian authors clearly condemned.

In summary, early church history confirms what a biblically balanced approach urges: a completely pro-life agenda.

A pro-life vigil in Sydney, Australia (2015).
Photograph by Giovanni Portelli Photography

Putting It into Practice

How do we apply this early Christian vision today? Partly, of course, our historical context will influence our response. All the same, in every age, the first, most important political act is to be the church – to live out in community the full implementation of Jesus’ kingdom teaching. That is what the early church sought to do. They did it even though very few Christians were Roman citizens and the empire frequently persecuted and sometimes killed them. No matter what the external political setting, the church should be the church.

The early church lived out their refusal to kill in striking ways that eventually revolutionized society. Abortion and infanticide were widespread but the early church rejected both; in time, both became far rarer. Gladiatorial contests, too, first declined in importance and then were banned as a result of the Christians’ refusal to even attend this once-popular “sport.” Slowly and bit by bit, the Christian church’s pro-life vision affected the wider culture in profound ways.

The same has happened again and again throughout history – whenever Christians have modeled a new way of living in the church, their example has changed the surrounding society. Hospitals and schools for poor children started because Christians felt compelled by Christ’s love to care for the sick and to educate poor children; eventually, the larger society agreed that everyone should have health care and education. The sixteenth-century Anabaptists insisted that the church should be a believers’ church free of state control and eventually – after thousands were martyred – governments made religious liberty a constitutional right. Today, if the body of Christ becomes a living model of racial embrace, peacemaking, and economic justice for the poor, we will reshape our societies.

To what extent should Christians try to persuade the secular world to live according to the completely pro-life vision of the gospel? We must start by candidly recognizing that non-Christians will never be able to fully live the way Jesus taught. The Christian has three things the non-Christian does not have: the powerful, supernatural presence of the Holy Spirit empowering us to live like Christ; the liberating power that comes from knowing our sins are forgiven and we are accepted by God in spite of our sin; and finally, the strong support of a Christian community. Thus, Christians cannot expect non-Christians to always live like Jesus.

And yet: they should live like him. I do not believe God has one ethic for Christians and another for the world. God wants all people to love their enemies and refuse to kill.

Paul tells us in the first two chapters of Romans that the law of God is written on the heart of everyone (see especially Rom. 2:14–15). When Christians consistently proclaim biblical truths about the sanctity of human life and about justice for the poor, even non-Christians will sense that this message is true and right.

If Christians articulate a completely pro-life agenda boldly – through our words, in our daily lives, and in the voting booth – many people in the larger society will respond. When we do this, it will be an act of love toward the billions of our neighbors who will be helped. And it will serve to proclaim that Jesus, who came to bring abundant life (John 10:10), truly is Lord over all the world.

For further reading, see the author’s books Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Brazos, 2012) and The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion and Capital Punishment (Baker, 2012).