Applying Discipleship to our Political Lives

The world today feels as divisive as ever. Abortion, refugee resettlement, immigration, gun control, and freedom of religion are just a few topics that have pitted neighbor against neighbor and even Christian against Christian as many cling to their tribes no matter the cost while others find themselves without a political home. Where does that leave us as Christians? What is our duty to each other and to God? How can we move forward connected, with respect for one another, and united in our mission for Christ? The Banner has teamed up with the Center for Public Justice to release a series of articles exploring these topics. This is the second of six.

To be Christian is to live in the middle of tension. We have been given life because of Christ’s saving and reconciling work on the cross, and we await the day he will return to bring final justice and shalom to the creation. While we wait, we have moments when we experience the foretastes of life in God’s kingdom; at others (or simultaneously) we feel the discomfort and distress of a broken world that opposes the ways of God. What is a disciple of Jesus to do when the tensions rise, particularly in political context that leaves one with a sense of homelessness?

When I wrote The Political Disciple I attempted to connect four Christian beliefs (creation, Christology, sanctification and eschatology) to our public commitments. My emphasis was Christian fidelity to God with an emphasis on engagement in society. My aim was to present ways that Christian beliefs orient us toward participation in the public realm; in a way, I was responding to the modes of discipleship more hesitant or resistant to a politically engaged faith. As then, I maintain it is important for us to recognize for the first time or recall that we have been given a first great commission that God has never rescinded; our stewardly dominion over the creation is complicated by the Fall, but the task remains, and it includes our political life. What does this stewardship entail in moments like the present?

We in North America have been in a time of increasing ideological polarization for over a decade, now intensified by a global pandemic and heightened attention to the longstanding problems of race. And then there is the U.S. election of November 2020. No one should be surprised if they feel like their head is spinning at times; the disruption and disorientation is a real thing.

When considering how disciples of Jesus would face this moment, I think it is not only helpful to recall the first great commission of Gen. 1:26, 28 but also the more familiar great commission we find in Matt. 28:18-20. While some trajectories of Christian formation create dissonance between these two commissions, they are connected and can help us make our way amid the political fog. There are two dimensions of the commission in Matthew I highlight.

First, the scope of the commission is global. After hearing Jesus pronounce that he is king (“All authority in heaven and earth is given to me”), the task given to the church is to make disciples of all the nations (extending to the ends of the earth—Acts 1:8). If we remember the global reach of the gospel of the risen and reigning Christ, it is very helpful for perspective. One challenge for Christians in the United States and Canada is that our vision can be far too small and narrow. We can think Christians elsewhere in the world should practice political discernment that regards God’s priorities as centered on the current super power. Recalling the global scope of the great commission can help us reframe our perspective. This does not mean disregarding national political concerns but reminds us that our first political allegiance is to the one who has cosmic authority and who invites us to have a vision far broader than North America. We serve Christ first; his kingdom will not be defeated, and while our disruption and distress is real, it is truly temporary. The scope of the great commission can lead us to a proper relativism when we consider our political moment. Our political engagement matters but will never be ultimate.

Second, the content of the commission is expansive and inescapably public. Jesus says “teach them everything I have commanded you,” which means not simply a list of commands but the full sweep of his teaching. This includes Christ’s words that he came to fulfill rather than abolish the law (Matt. 5:17). The point here is that Jesus does not call for discipleship limited to private personal piety. His teaching includes a path of discipleship that requires attention to the lives of others; we see this when he identifies the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39) and in parables like the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Disciples are to be people who follow Jesus, experiencing internal transformation that is expressed in forms of neighbor love from the interpersonal to the public. 

For certain, the possibilities of public/political actions depend upon one’s context. Settings like the United States, where citizens can become political representatives, provide opportunities to love neighbors through voting, connecting with office holders and even running for office. Even in this time of great duress, these possibilities remain for disciples of Jesus (and complications are normal even in the best of times). The content of the great commission includes the pursuit of public good as much as personal transformation.

In addition to what we can learn from the great commission in Matthew, we can also consider how to be both those who take seriously the opportunity for public engagement while also being careful to not make too much of political engagement. Texts like 1 Peter are written with a perspective that reminds us that we are never fully at home. At this point, some readers might wonder if I am hurtling toward a contradiction with my prior points. There is no contradiction but instead attention to an important truth: part of being Christian is to feel like a stranger or exile in this world. 

At this moment, there are likely many Christians who look to their left and right, politically speaking, and “no place for me” is what they conclude. Their survey of the political terrain does not fail to notice places that would be tolerable and maybe even some that could be somewhat comfortable, but the greater sense is of one who wanders and wishes for a better home. For Christians, our better and final home is the renewed heavens and earth that will arrive with Christ’s return. The sense of exile comes with the temptation to withdraw, head for the sidelines and take on a monastic posture for the remainder of our days. While some might have a truly monastic vocation, most of us do not. Our alien/stranger/exile identity does not entail a detached existence with “this world is not mine, I’m just passing through” as the soundtrack. Instead we recognize that no human-constructed political system will ever deliver the kingdom. 

In countries that allow political participation, we honor the truth that the government is affirmed by God (as in 1 Peter 2:12-17) and live as people of generosity and hope. Our hope comes from our trust in God’s promises and anticipation of his kingdom, and our generosity can be expressed by seeking ways to bring proximate good to the world amid imperfect political systems. Perhaps we can consider ourselves “engaged exiles.”

What does this mean in these strange and distressing times? It means that followers of Jesus are always political disciples who reset the frame and recalibrate their approach. More specifically it means that we do not check out and remember to look at politics not just in terms of the big elections but remembering the importance of local matters. It also means we take the long view, remembering that peaks and valleys have always been “normal” in a post-Genesis 3 world; our hope is not in political parties or general elections but in the king who will one day bring everlasting shalom.

About the Author

Vincent Bacote, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Theology and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. He is the author of The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life and The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Christian Ethics. Bacote resides in the Chicago area with his family.

X