Principles for Voting
Thursday, October 30
by R.C. Sproul
In Acts 14, Luke sets forth for us the events that took place on Paul’s first missionary journey, a journey on which Barnabas accompanied him. We’ve seen this pattern emerge over and over again. The apostles would come into the synagogue or the public square known as the agora. They would proclaim the gospel openly. And there would always be some people who responded in faith by the power of the Holy Ghost while others in attendance would stand up in outright hostility and oppose them. Indeed, it was through great tribulation that the gospel bore fruit in places like Antioch and Iconium. And everyday Paul and Barnabas were subjected to threats, insults, hostility and even physical danger. We can see how things degenerated to such a degree here in the latter part of chapter fourteen: the Jewish leadership actually convenes a kangaroo court and imposes the death penalty upon Paul! A rioting mob is gathered and begins to throw stones at Paul with deadly force. Paul is knocked down by the repeated blows to the face, arms, torso, and head. His would-be executors then drag him out of the city, leaving him for dead.
Now ladies and gentlemen we can’t read that and say, “Ho-hum, isn’t that interesting?” Passages like this speak to the truthfulness of the adage “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” These sorts of things happened to a multitude of Christians who did not recover as swiftly as Paul did on this occasion. Indeed, many in the Christian community of the first century became human torches in the gardens of Nero. Others were thrown into the arena to go against professional gladiators, or to be fed to the lions while crazed emperors and a depraved public watched the spectacle with perverted glee. That’s our history as Christians. And down through the ages every time the gospel has been preached openly in the public square, it has been met with some degree of hostility, violence and persecution. And no doubt such things continue in our day in various pockets of the world.
Now one of the things that I think about in terms of my own ministry is why I’ve never been cast into jail. Why has no one ever thrown a stone at me because of the boldness by which I preach the gospel? Well, I preach it in a safe zone, I suppose–a zone that has been declared something of a reservation. The church has been banished in our day from the public square, and a deal has been made. The deal goes something like this: If we confine our preaching and teaching to spiritual matters (matters of the world to come) and keep our mouths shut about what’s going on all around us in the culture in which we live, then we will be protected by the powers that be. But if we venture off the reservation and intrude our opinions into the public square, then we will feel the full measure of the wrath of the culture and indeed of the government itself.
That government today perpetuates a myth which is totally ungrounded in American history. This myth is articulated every day under the rubric of the “separation of church and state”. But I defy anybody in this room or in this nation to find such a concept anywhere in the Constitution of the United States of America or in the Declaration of Independence. The phrase originated in some private correspondence from the pen of Thomas Jefferson where he spoke of erecting a wall of separation but it never become part of the fabric of the law of this land historically. And I say today in our age that the concept of the separation of state and church that even Jefferson had in view in the 18th century has also been changed dramatically in its public understanding. What was meant in the 18th century even in the informal way in which Jefferson spoke of it was the division of labor between the church and the state. In other words, it is not the state’s responsibility to do the ministry of the church and it is not the state’s responsibility to preach the gospel or to administer the sacrament. Those duties have been given to the church that God ordained and to the Christian ministers whom God has called and appointed. But on the other side of the coin God also instituted government for the safety and well being of the people who live in its midst. And the government has been assigned by God the responsibility of preserving, protecting and maintaining the sanctity of human life. The government has been ordained by God to protect those areas of life in the realm of common grace–blessings that God gives to all people–not just Jews or Christians or any other group. I’m referring to blessings such as the sanctity of marriage. That’s why the church recognizes marriages that take place in the secular world. But it is God who ordains the state and before whom the state is ultimately responsible and to Whom it will be held accountable at the end of the age for how it exercised its responsibility.
A few years ago I was invited to give the address at the inaugural breakfast of the newly elected governor of the state of Florida. And on that occasion I said to the governor elect, “Good sir, today is your ordination day. You have received your mandate to govern not from the will of the people, but from almighty God, who Himself establishes government and calls you His minister, not the minister of the church, but His minister as a guardian of the affairs of the state. And I remind you that you will be judged by Him in how you carry out your duties.” But in our time the separation of church and state has come to mean the separation of the state from God. It is one thing to say the state is not accountable to the church, it’s another thing to say the state is not accountable to God. And when the state assumes its autonomy and declares its independence from Almighty God it is not just the right but the duty of the church to call the state to task: Not to ask the state to be the church, but to tell the state to be the state under God.
And that has been the task of the church throughout the ages, throughout the pages of the Old Testament and into the New. I know there are people in Christendom who believe that the church should never say anything about the public square or what happens in the political realm. But given our biblical history I wonder how anybody can come to that conclusion. You read the pages of the Old Testament and you read the history of the prophets. You see a king like Ahab using the power of his secular authority to confiscate the personal private property of neighbors. And nobody says a word until Elijah risks his life to declare it unjust and call him to task. Isaiah was raised and anointed to go into the palace and speak to king after king after king, bringing God’s criticism to the nation. Amos was the one who cried in the marketplace “let justice roll down like an ever-flowing stream.” And for calling the culture of their day to righteousness every one of those prophets faced hostility, bodily harm, and death. Why was John the Baptist beheaded? Because he called attention to the immorality of the king, and the unjustness and illicit basis of his marriage. Jesus criticized Herod as well, calling him a fox. And when He called the nation of Israel to righteousness, corrected the Sanhedrin, and criticized the leading authorities and their corrupt practices, He was arrested and executed. He was not executed because he said, “Consider the lilies, how they spin.” He was executed because He said, “Consider the thieves, how they steal.”
Jesus took His message to the public square. But Uncle Sam has cut a deal with us, and here’s the deal: They’ll give you and I a tax exemption whereby we can deduct from our income taxes our tithes and offerings that we give to the church. But on one condition: that we not speak out on the political issues in our day. Ladies and Gentlemen that’s a compromise that the church can never afford to make. I’m not allowed by law at this point to tell you who to vote for on Tuesday, to recommend or endorse a particular candidate, and I’m going to obey that law because I’m called to obey the civil magistrates even when I disagree with those civil magistrates. But at the same time I’m going to protest against that condition and say to the church if it means that we have to give up our tax deductions so be it. Because we shouldn’t be giving our donations and charitable gifts to the church just so we can get a tax write-off. Our responsibility to tithe to the Kingdom of God is there whether we receive any benefit from the secular government or not. Surely we must all understand that. And I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but I am going to tell you some things you should be concerned about when you go to the voting booth this week.
But here is what I’m going to tell you to do when you vote. As a Christian you have obligations opposed upon your conscience that in some sense other people don’t have, although they should have. And the first thing is this: You have to understand what a vote is. The word vote comes from the Latin votum, which means ‘will’ or choice. And when you go to the ballot box and you vote, you are not there to vote for what’s going to benefit you necessarily. Your vote is not a license to impose your selfish desires upon the rest of the country. You only have the right to vote for what is right. And not only do you have the right to vote for what is right, but when you vote you have the duty to vote for what is right.
I’m reminded of the work of William Wilberforce in England. You may recall that in debate after debate after debate, and in election after election after election, Wilberforce was soundly and roundly defeated when he sought the abolition of slavery in the British Commonwealth. But if ever there was an exercise in perseverance, it was by Wilberforce. Wilberforce refused to give up. He simply would not walk away from being the conscience of the English nation. And he publicly testified that slavery was wrong and he promised to oppose it as long as he had breath in his body. And finally in the providence of God, Parliament woke up and abolished this unethical practice that was a plague on the English speaking world.
We’ve gone through the same plague in the history of America, and thanks be to God slavery has finally been abolished in America. But I believe that slavery is the second most serious ethical issue that our country has ever faced. From my perspective the number one ethical issue that this nation has ever faced is the issue of abortion. Abortion is not a matter of private choice–not for the Christian who understands anything about the sanctity of life. The first century church made it very clear in their day, explicitly stating that abortion is murder.
I’ve written over 70 books. The book that had the shortest shelf life of all of my books was my book on the case against abortion. I talked to pastor after pastor and sought to understand why they weren’t using this material (for which we also made a video series). They told me, “Well, we agree with it but we can’t do it in our church.” And I said, “Why?” They responded: “It will split the congregation.” And I said, “So be it!” A million and a half unborn babies are slaughtered wantonly in the United States of America every year in the name of women’s rights. If I know anything about the character of God after forty years of study, I know that God hates abortion. And I could never vote for a candidate who supported abortion–even if I agreed with that candidate on every other policy position. If he supported abortion I would not vote for him and I urge you to do the same.
I know that abortion is not the number one issue in this campaign because it has become acceptable. Just like slavery became acceptable. But it cannot be acceptable to ethical people. The people of God have to rise up and say ‘NO’! We are not asking the state to be the church but we must say to the state, “Please be the state. God ordained you to protect, maintain, and preserve the sanctity of life, and you are not doing it.” So that has to be on your mind when you walk into that voting booth.
And a second ethical issue that you need to keep in mind before you vote is this: Don’t be a lobby group of one. This week I read in the Sentinel that they did a pole of athletes, asking them for whom they were going to vote. And one said it straight out. He said “I’m going to vote for the one who’s going to give the most money away.” How many times have you heard the phrase ‘I’m going to vote my pocketbook’? I’m going to go to the trough of the public and drink as deeply as I can. Alexis de Tocqueville, when he came and examined the great American experiment of democracy, said two things can destroy this experiment: One is when people learn that their vote is worth money, that you can bribe people to get their vote or that you can use the vote to somehow shelter yourself from financial or other obligations imposed upon others. Have we taken the blindfold away from lady justice? Are we not all equal under the law?
On the contrary, we have an income tax structure today that is inherently unjust. We almost never hear anybody discuss this injustice. But when God set up a system of taxation, He did things differently. God said I’m going to impose a tax on my people and it’s going to be ten percent from everybody: The rich man and the poor man are not going to pay the same amount. The rich man’s going to pay much more than the poor man, but they’re both going to pay the same percentage. They’re both going to have the same responsibility. That way the rich man can’t use his power to exploit the poor man, saying, “I’m going to pay five percent, but you’re going to pay fifty percent.” The rich weren’t allowed to do that. Nor were the poor allowed to say, “We’re going to pay five percent and the rich are going to pay fifty percent because they can afford it.” What that is ladies and gentlemen is the politics of envy that legalizes theft. Anytime you vote a tax on somebody else that is not a tax on yourself, you’re stealing from your brother. And though the whole world does it and though it’s common practice in the United States of America, a Christian shouldn’t be caught dead voting to fill his own pocketbook at the expense of someone else. Isn’t that plain? Isn’t that clear? And until we get some kind of flat tax, we’re going to have a politicized economy, we’re going to have class warfare, and we’re going to have the whole nation’s rule being determined by the rush for economic advantage at the polls. Don’t do it. Even if that means sacrificing some benefit you might receive from the federal government. Don’t ask other people at the point of a gun to give you from their pockets what you don’t have. That’s sin.
It is, of course, the American way. But we Christians should not be involved in that sort of thing. Rather we should be voting for what is right, what is ethical. And our consciences on that score need to be informed by the Word of God, not by our wallets. And so I plead with you: When you enter the voting booth, don’t leave your Christianity in the parking lot. And be bold to speak on these issues, even if it means somebody picks up a rock and throws it in your head. Because it is through tribulation that we enter the Kingdom of God. I pray for you, beloved, and for our nation in these days to come.