Are Christians Obligated to Vote?
Good Friday to you. Welcome back to the podcast. Well, many Christians live right now in a republic, a form of self-governance where we choose our representatives — we vote on them. And maybe more than ever, Christians live in free societies. For them — for us — are we required to vote? Is voting a Christian duty? Would it be negligent for a Christian, as a citizen of a free society, to abstain from an election?
We get this question a lot, and especially in the last six years it has become common. And we’re closing the week with the most recent version of it, from a listener named Danny. “Hello, Pastor John! I have been struggling with the question lately about whether or not a Christian who lives in a free society is obligated to vote. God commands us to submit to governing authorities (Romans 13:1), to pray regularly for them (1 Timothy 2:1–2), and he gives us an allowance for civil disobedience in rare cases when it is necessary (Acts 5:29). But if, in a given election, the choices boil down to options I feel no strong conviction toward, or if the election comes down to an option of the ‘lesser of two evil’ choices, do Christians have the choice to simply not vote at all? In my circles, this does not seem to be an option for a faithful believer. I’ve been told that this would amount to neighbor-neglect on my part. Would it?”
Let’s come at this by quoting 1 Peter 2:9–17, and what we’re going to hear in this text is the double identity of the Christian in this fallen world. One identity is that of a sojourner and exile. In other words, this world is not our home. And the other identity is that of being subject in this world to the God-appointed authorities of governors and kings. So one identity is slaves of God (and, yes, that is the word used, “slaves of God,” not at all excluding the glorious truth of “child of God” — both have aspects of truth in them), owned and ruled by God and no other. And the other identity is one sent by our owner, God, into a foreign world to make his glory known through gospel words and good deeds. So listen for those two identities as I read this text.
Our Double Identity
“You are a chosen race [Christians], a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Let that sink in: a holy nation, and that’s not referring to any earthly nation. That’s Christianity. That’s the born-again people of God from all the nations. “You are a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). So that’s what I mean by gospel words. He called you to proclaim.
“That’s our goal: make God look glorious in this land where we live temporarily as aliens and sojourners.”
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds” — that’s why I refer not only to gospel words but also good deeds — “and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11–12). So that’s our goal: make God look glorious in this land where we live temporarily as aliens and sojourners. Make him look beautiful, great, valuable. That’s our goal. Make God look great.
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13–14). So that’s our identity as subjects of God-appointed authority.
“For this is the will of God, that by doing good” — there it is again; we’ve seen “doing good” three times now — “you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as [slaves] of God” (1 Peter 2:15–16). Now, there’s our identity as God-owned slaves, who are in bondage to no man. “Live as people who are free” — that is, free from whatever human authority is claiming you — but know that your master, God, sends you for his sake into that foreign land for his purposes.
“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). That’s the end of the text.
Every Nation a Foreign Land
So here’s our double identity. Christians are a holy nation called the church — God’s own possession. And therefore, as a holy nation, we are sojourners and exiles in every other nation on the planet, including America. Or to say it another way, we are God’s slaves — meaning we are owned by him and responsible ultimately to him alone, not any man.
Then the other part of our double identity is God’s call or vocation for us to submit freely — not because earthly rulers have any final authority over us — to governors and kings, and to do good in these foreign nations where we live, like America, for the glory of God.
This is the fundamental reality, the structure of the Christian existence that we need to keep in mind when we are thinking about things like voting in this foreign land where we live called America — or wherever you happen to live (to those listening to this around the world, your own foreign land where you live as aliens and exiles, as Christians).
So, what are the implications of what I’ve just read and said? Here are three.
1. Corporate worship is politically explosive.
We cast a vote every week by assembling in congregational worship and singing our allegiance to Jesus as Lord over all lords, King over all kings, President over all presidents, Premier over all premiers, Chief over all chiefs. Christ-exalting corporate worship is politically the most explosive thing we do. It is absolutely seditious in any regime that presumes to claim ultimate authority or ultimate allegiance over human beings. In worship, we say out loud, for all to hear, “Jesus Christ is our King over all other rulers. We must obey him. Obedience to earthly rulers is relative; obedience to Jesus is absolute.” “The Most High rules the kingdom of men,” Daniel says, “and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:25).
“Obedience to earthly rulers is relative; obedience to Jesus is absolute.”
As legitimate and even as desirable as a proper affection for our earthly nation (in my case, America) may be, if weekly worship begins to sound like patriotic rallies rather than a celebration of King Jesus over every nation, including our own, we’re moving away from biblical faithfulness and toward idolatry. That’s the first implication.
2. Christians should want to do much good.
There should be no question that Christians, as sojourners and exiles on the earth, want to do good for the people and the nation we are part of. Christians care about all suffering — especially eternal suffering, especially suffering nearby. Proximity applies some measure of accountability.
So we bless our communities with gospel words and good deeds. That’s the implication of 1 Peter 2:9–17. Christians do not want to be part of life-ruining problems in society. We want to be a part of life-bettering solutions in society. We don’t want police to be unjust or unhelpful. We don’t want leaders to be corrupt, but to have integrity. We don’t want the infrastructures of water, and sewer, and electricity, and natural gas, and roads, and bridges, and streetlights, and fuel supplies, and flood control, and building codes, and 911, and fire stations — we don’t want any of these to fail. We are willing to pay for them and do our part to keep things functioning for good, the common good of as many as possible.
We want to be a part of helping with the problems of homelessness, and poverty, and drug addiction, and mental illness, and criminal behavior, and domestic violence. We want there to be safe neighborhoods, and good schools, and affordable housing, and ample jobs, and stable economic conditions, and international peace. This is why Peter, two times in this short text, said that we are to be busy doing good deeds so as (1) to silence those who say Christianity is bad for the world, and (2) to make God look glorious. That’s the second implication. We’re not sitting buried away in our little caves, indifferent to the suffering and the needs of our society.
3. Voting is one form of doing good.
Here’s the third, last implication. Voting is one form of doing good. It is one kind of good deed. We hope — by voting for worthy, competent, wise candidates — that the common good will come to more people. That’s our goal. But I don’t think it follows from any biblical truth that voting is an absolute duty for Christians. It is one possible good deed alongside many others, one way of serving the good of society, but there are too many other factors at stake to describe it as an absolute duty.
One of those factors is this: when the duty to vote is elevated to the point where it overrides other Christian principles of virtue, it has been taken too far. That duty has been taken too far. At times, it happens in a fallen world that a vote for any proposed candidate is so offensive, so morally compromised, so misleading that it may be a matter of greater integrity, more faithful obedience to Christ, and a clearer witness to truth if we do not vote for any of the proposed candidates.
It would be irresponsible to assume that a choice not to vote for some party or person on the ballot is a failure to love our neighbor, when in fact, the non-voter may be much more involved in doing socially transformative good deeds than the one who votes for a morally unfit candidate because he’s considered the lesser of two evils. Life is not simple. It is inevitable that Christians will disagree on strategies for how to do the most good with gospel words, good deeds, and Christian example-setting. We must be slow to judge the moral strategies of other well-meaning people.
Just one more thought. If you believe, as I do, that in principle, voting is a great gift and privilege in our society, and you want to uphold that privilege, it is almost always possible to vote by writing in the candidate you think is worthy, though not on the ballot. In that way, you may uphold the precious gift of democratic self-government while avoiding the ruinous effects of supporting unworthy candidates.