The sudden rise of Christopher Luxon to the leadership of the New Zealand National Party has revived interest in the topic of religion in politics. If you had not heard, Luxon is a Christian. Moreover, he is a Christian of the evangelical variety. This means, in the public’s mind at least, that he takes his faith seriously, and quite probably too seriously. While he has been open about his faith, he has also tried to downplay the significance that it has for his job as Leader of the Opposition and potentially Prime Minister. Nonetheless, Luxon’s faith has been noted. Being serious about Christian faith as a politician is difficult in a largely irreligious society, but it brings challenges for Christians outside of politics too. What will this mean for us outside the political arena, who carry the identity of “evangelical” but who bear no responsibility for what he will do and say, past, present, and future?
For a start, it is certainly for us an opportunity for discussion with people on what evangelicals do, don’t, or might believe, and why. That shouldn’t be overlooked and that is a good reason to be prepared to answer questions or criticisms when they come. At another level, it is also something of a liability. Every mistake a Christian politician makes, or every transgression of public opinion has the potential to reflect on us. While many people are willing to forgive the mistakes politicians inevitably make, others are not, and some of these will eagerly take any and every opportunity to discredit Christianity by what they might do. This is important. We should pray for all our civic leaders that they may do well and govern wisely (1 Timothy 2:1-4), but all the more for those who share the same faith as us.
I also wonder what hopes we might hold about Christians working in parliament. I recall some high hopes that people had held when I was a teenager for what Christian politicians and parties might achieve for the kingdom of God, but such hopes seem now rather muted. It might be due to the poor track record of Christian parties and politicians, or it could be a dawning realization that a post-Christendom society is increasingly resistant to and resentful of Christian influence coming from high places. Christians in high places can do a lot of good for God’s kingdom, but they can also do a lot of damage. There is a risk that Christians in places of power end up becoming a liability to the gospel. Some of what they do may make it harder for everyday Christians to successfully do what should be their focus: adorn the gospel and display the church as the “pillar and buttress of the truth” (cf. Titus 2:10; 1 Timothy 3:15).
I am reminded here of an event in the career of John Owen in the late 1640s. At the time, England was ruled by a coalition of Christian factions who were regarded as being intemperately zealous about their faith (remembering virtually all Europeans at this time were Christians of one kind or another). They also inherited the budding English desire for empire building. When the Irish revolted against English rule, a zealous Christian military led by Oliver Cromwell sailed across the Irish sea and put down the rebellion in a bloody slaughter. John Owen was appalled – like many others. While Owen was a rather political Christian, he was under no illusions about their responsibilities toward Christ. When he next addressed parliament, he castigated them for their brutality and the impact it would have on efforts to evangelise Catholic Ireland.
Here is what he said:
How is it that Jesus Christ is in Ireland only as a lion staining all his garments with the blood of his enemies; and none to hold him out as a lamb sprinkled with his own blood to his friends? Is it the sovereignty and interest of England that is alone to be there transacted? For my part, I see no farther into the mystery of these things but that I could heartily rejoice, that, innocent blood being expiated, the Irish might enjoy Ireland so long as the moon endureth, so that Jesus Christ might possess the Irish.John Owen, sermon before parliament, February 28, 1649.
Throughout his career Owen had a dogged focus on what mattered to the interests of the gospel, and his aspiration for English sovereignty was that it would do the same. Unfortunately for the gospel (and the Irish), the Christians in charge made some disastrous and unchristian decisions, that came at the expense of the cause of the gospel these English Christians believed. They were a liability to the gospel.
This is an important focus that we should not forget. We can wisely make the decisions and use the influence that are in our power, regardless of where we find ourselves in the world – whether it is the top floor of the Beehive or the back office of a call centre. But we must remember to continue faithfully serving Jesus and his kingdom there, and avoid undermining his cause, especially amongst those who differ from us on matters apart from our faith.
This is not a criticism of Christians in high places, but instead a caution. They have a tough job and hard decisions to make. Christian politicians especially, as they work within a diverse team of MPs and lead an even more diverse nation which does not for the most part share their faith or values. Let us pray for all our MPs and support them, but especially those who share our faith. Pray that they will lead wisely and that ultimately Christ’s name will be honoured through their actions.