On Thursday 23rd June everyone registered to vote will be asked the question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Some might ask, what does that have to do with us? Didn’t Jesus say, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36)? Shouldn’t the Church and the state be separate?
But how separate should individual Christians be? Does being a citizen of another kingdom, mean we owe no allegiance whatsoever to secular powers? That’s the question that Paul seems to address directly in Romans 13:1, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities”.
Remember that Paul was aware of political diversity: he was the citizen of an Empire; he had preached in Athens, a primitive democracy; and was intimately familiar with the theocratic rule of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. That informs this deliberately general phrase, “governing authorities”, because, without endorsing any particular form of government, Paul is saying that government is ordained by God. Not all governments are good, but government of some kind is necessary and, since that is the case, as Christians, we must play our part in the form of government that providence has placed us under.
So what does submission to the ruling authorities look like in a democracy?
In Romans 13 Paul twice calls the ruler, “God’s servant”, implying that he is responsible to God – he will be judged based on how well he punished the guilty and commended the innocent (vv. 3-4). But in a democracy … who rules? The answer is, we do. The word ‘democracy’ comes from the Greek words for ‘the people’ – demos, and for rule – kratia. Democracy is the rule of the people and so, on election day, you and I are among God’s servants – commending that which is good, and condemning that which is wrong.
So what about Brexit? It would rather undermine everything I’ve said about taking individual responsibility to suggest which way we should vote, but I want to suggest some principles.
It’s not all about you
At any vote, people seem to get very self-centred. It’s hard to avoid, one of the key indicators going around is the idea that you personally will be £4,600 poorer off if you vote to leave.
Whether that’s true or not, is that really the most important issue? Paul says, in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition … Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”. As Christians, we in particular should approach such a question, not in terms of how it will affect our job, our livelihood, or our bank balance but in terms of the great issues of justice, accountability, and compassion. If, in the conversations we have about this topic with our friends, we emphasise these, instead of small parochial issues, we will show the practical outworking of our faith.
It’s not the end of the world.
We should respond to the issue of the UK’s remaining in the EU as neither a matter for our national salvation, nor as a matter for despair. It may well lead to huge changes in our nation’s wealth, its place in the world, its relationships to the other powers and therefore it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if we vote the wrong way, we will doom our country.
However, no matter what way this referendum goes, it won’t surprise God, and no matter whether we make a wise decision or a foolish one, God is still the ultimate ruler. Even if we make a foolish decision, God is fully able to use the outcome for his own glory.
Exercise your obligations wisely, but don’t act as if the future of the world hung on this vote.
It is important
While it’s not the end of the world that doesn’t mean that voting should be approached casually. The question is, what does it look like for a Christian to take this seriously?
Voting should be accompanied not just by a careful weighing of the facts, but also by prayer. If it seems strange to pray about an EU referendum remember that Paul says, in 1 Timothy 2, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour”.
I don’t expect God to tell me what to vote for, but I know he expects me to pray for the cause I choose, he expects me to pray for those who are going to have to execute the decision, whatever it is. Because, as surely as Scripture requires me to accept that government is necessary, and instituted by God for our good, it also requires me to remember that no ruler is perfect. And commonplace as it is to write off all politicians as corrupt beyond use, they are no worse than you or I, and they, because of their office, require our prayers more than most.