Stewardship of Civil Society
The Bible is full of parallels, examples in one sphere of life that have implications in another. It ought not to be a surprise, then, that a call towards Christian involvement in civil society can be drawn from the scriptural call to stewardship on earth. God designed society to develop and thrive, and he also knit in certain constraints. Figuring out how those supernatural laws fit into the earthly practice of politics is key for pursuing unity within the Church and also for shining as an example to the world around.
Exploring God’s intentions for mankind on earth is important to pursue righteous living and mitigate missteps of pop-culture Christianity. Looking at some of the first interaction between God and man, we see a plan emerge. Genesis 2:15 explains that God placed man on the earth to “work and take care of it.” A deeper look at what those words mean bears great fruit in finding application to the modern Christian life.
The operative Hebrew words of the verse can be alternatively translated, “to cultivate and keep watch over.” The imagery here links the purpose of man on earth to the role of a steward watching over property, seeking to return it in better condition upon the owner’s return. Such a view meshes well with a holistic view of the Bible, as Genesis begins with mankind in a wild and uncultivated land and Revelation concludes with a celestial city and peaceful community in coexistence.
The earth is God’s possession, which he has entrusted to us who bear his image. As representatives of him, we carry the same propensity to foster development and the desire to nurture social engagement. If the scriptural view of the world at its final stage is a thriving city with established social institutions, viewing the statement of purpose in Genesis 2 as applying only to the natural world is like getting distracted by the balloons on top of a brand new car. We are called to cultivate not only nature, but also civil society.
There are several key tools to foster social order, and one of the most visible of which is politics. Politics is the means by which a group organizes its interactions around an established structure. Christians have long debated their role in politics, many feeling compelled toward engagement and others feeling just as strongly to avoid involvement in the affairs of a temporary and corrupt world.
Christians have often gotten political engagement wrong by mandating behavioral change that has resulted in harmful events ranging from the Crusades to Prohibition. When politics is used to skip over social dialogue about contentious issues that fall along value lines rather than clear-cut structural laws, it is an abdication of the Christian duty to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
During the days of ancient Israel, people outside of the faith were required to abide by certain structural laws but weren’t required to follow the same behavioral laws. Rather, compliance was a choice, one that led to further freedom to engage in deeper aspects of worship to God (e.g. Passover, Ex. 12:48) but which was not obligatory to contribute to the economic or non-ceremonial social community.
Throughout the New Testament, there are frequent exhortations to obey government and comply with the political system. If Christians don’t take an active role in politics, remaining centered on the principles of social structure and freedom of behavior, others will get involved and act beyond those principled bounds. By being involved, Christians can comply with the calling to live in a way that prompts others to follow and give glory to God (Mt. 5:16).
As stewards of the earth, in both natural and social senses, Christians ought to feel compelled toward political engagement. But that’s not where social involvement ends. Christ calls his followers to build the Church, sustain their families, and engage the world, so simply being involved in politics is a mere portion of that mission. To follow God’s directive to care for the world until his return, we must use multiple social tools to rightly cultivate civil society.