Every election well-meaning Christians encourage each other to vote. The encouragement usually sounds a little bit like this, “I believe that one day everyone will have to give an account to God for how we vote.” The implication is that every Christian needs to vote for the right politicians, ballot issues, and values, or one day God will hold them accountable for voting wrong. I confess that I have given this encouragement, and I’m now convinced this view, not necessarily how we vote, is what is wrong.
The exhortation is based on Romans 14:12, which says, “So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.” (NIV®) When we quote the Scripture this way, we ignore two very important words, “so then”. They tell us this phrase is not a standalone thought, but a logical conclusion of what came before. So what did come before?
In the first half of Romans chapter 14, Paul addresses Christians who have genuine differences of opinions over dietary restrictions and celebrating religious holy days. Some he considers weak in faith, and others strong, but he encourages everyone to live in faith and act charitably towards their brothers and sisters in Jesus. In verse 10, Paul asks, “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” (NIV®) Then, quoting Isaiah 45:23, he adds, “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.” (NIV®) Our judgment, then, will first be on our relationship to Jesus, and whether we bent the knee in this life, and then how we lived as his disciples. That is a much different judgment than a review of our politics.
As believers who have differences of opinion, God, not us, is the true and final judge. And yet, we use verse 14 to pass judgment on each other. You better vote, or else! Paul actually writes in verse 5 that it’s okay to disagree with each other, “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” This applies not only to theological differences, but politics too. Right after the highly-misapplied verse 12, Paul adds one more time for good measure, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another…” (NIV®) This does not mean that we cannot disagree, use discernment, or thoughtfully judge each other’s beliefs, but we do so from a place of humility and frailty, dependent on God’s grace, and not pretending to sit on his throne.
In several other New Testament passages, Paul writes about this final judgment for Christians, what it will be like, and what reward we may receive. In 1st Corinthians 3:10-15, Paul writes about building the church. He reminds the early believers that Jesus Christ is the foundation, and we are all called to build upon him. If we build with lasting material, such as gold or silver, our work will last through the “fire” of God’s judgment. But if we build with hay or straw, it will be “burned up”, but “the builder will suffer loss yet will be saved…” (NIV®) What are the things that do not burn up? The answer; gospel things, kingdom things, Jesus things, not political things. We will be judged and rewarded, but for being used by Jesus to build his kingdom, not for using Jesus to build our kingdom. We must never use God’s words for our means, to accomplish a political victory. We build the church, not conservatism or liberalism.
Likewise, 2nd Corinthians 5:10 says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (NIV®) How we live today matters, but again, the immediate context is a call to “live by faith” (v. 7) and trying to follow after Jesus, “So we make it our goal to please him…” (v. 9). The good things done may include our part in political activism for holy causes, but first it concerns the cause of Jesus Christ, the cross, and the gospel.
Each Christian is saved by the grace of Jesus, alone, not our merits, not our voting history. In fact, the good things we do in this life are first attributed to God before us. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (NIV®) We are called to “keep in step with the Spirit” whose role it is to shine the light of our attention on Jesus. When we get swept up in political fervor, we become consumed not with the cause of Christ, but with an earthly cause.
When Jesus came, he came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt. 4:17 NIV®) Jesus was about his Father’s kingdom, a heavenly kingdom breaking into our reality. This is one of the reasons the Pharisees, the religious conservative of his day, rejected Jesus. He did not align with their political ideologies and they crucified him for it. They wanted a Messiah, a king, who would overthrow the Roman government. The kingdom of Jesus is a different kind of kingdom, one that both overshadows our earthly kingdoms and yet goes largely unnoticed.
A lump knots in my throat when I think about God’s final judgment of Christians. If on that day I think I will be able to pull out my voting history and present it before God for a good grade, I am largely mistaken. On that final day we will throw ourselves to the ground in worship and put all of our hope in Jesus. We will be so thankful the Father has already held him accountable for all the ways we mess up, politics included, and that in him, we have a perfect voting record. On that final day God will examine us, but I suspect he will be examining our hearts and not our ballots. Did we put our trust in Christ and obey him, or did we prioritize God and country?
When we’re tempted to pressure the right vote with Romans 14:12, let’s check our hearts. There are lots of good reasons to get informed and get out to vote, even reasons rooted in the Bible, but this verse is primarily addressing a different topic.
Jonathan Romig (M.Div., Gordon-Conwell, 2013) is the Pastor of Cornerstone Congregational Church, a new church in Westford MA. He recently preached a sermon series entitled No Fear November that explains how we can have God-centered peace this election.