The trouble with a broadly Christian political party
At last Saturday’s Australian federal elections, my wife and I voted for the Australian Christian Party (ACP) because voting is compulsory and of all the parties it seemed to be the one most aligned with what we believe. Nevertheless, because it is a broadly ‘Christian’ party we struggle to see how we can ever wholeheartedly support it. If we believe, as we do, that the Bible and our confessions apply to all of life, the unity we express in a general Christian political party must inevitably, as a result of doctrinal differences, lead within the party to a compromise of the Truth as we confess it.
To be sure, there are issues on which we will mostly agree with many other Christians: abortion, euthanasia, religious freedom, the importance of the family, freedom of Christian schools to employ Christian teachers or terminate employment of those whose doctrine or conduct is not Scriptural, aversion to transgenderism and all it entails, and so on.
However, politics is much more than that. It’s not just issues-based but deals with a whole spectrum of matters including economics, defence, crime and punishment, immigration, climate, culture, work relations, etc. How will we get unity on these matters? Take the crucial matter of punishment for murder: how many Christians from diverse religious bodies still agree with the death sentence, as commanded in Scripture in Genesis 9 and Romans 13? Death is so final, they say; therefore they prefer to speak in terms of long prison sentences aimed at repentance and rehabilitation.
We are not the only ones who struggle to support a broadly Christian political party. Many in our Canadian sister churches in the late 1980s had the same struggle when the Christian Heritage Party (CHP) was established. Commenting on this struggle at the time,[i] Prof. J Geertsema said our confessions, “are important as guide and basis not only for our church life, but also for our political thinking and activities” because they say the same thing as God’s Word does. Therefore the confessions are normative for all of life. We may not compromise what we confess and merely restrict ourselves to those matters on which we have broad agreement.
We need not doubt that the candidates for the ACP, like those of the CHP in Canada, all want to serve the Lord in accordance with God’s Word. And that’s a great thing. As Prof. Geertsema says, “When fellow Christians say that they have the Bible, which means God’s infallible Word, as basis for their life, and so for their political thinking and action, we can rejoice. We do the same thing. This places us together over against Hindus, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and over against all secular humanists and evolutionistic liberals who do not have the Word of God as the norm for their thinking and life”.
But it’s here that we hit a snag. Almost all conservative Bible-believers will claim that the Bible is the basis for their whole life, and therefore also for their political actions. However, when it comes to interpreting God’s Word, they do so in so many different ways and on so many different issues. That’s because their views are shaped by their doctrinal basis.
For example, if there are Roman Catholics in the party (as both the ACP and CHP have had), we are, says Prof. Geertsema, confronted with their nature-grace contrast:
“Nature, which means, this natural earthly life in so many aspects, is neutral. A Christian can fully take part in this neutral, natural life. Besides this natural life there is spiritual life, the grace of God for the soul, the church, and so on. In practice this view means that in the church, and in spiritual matters, one serves God, but in matters of this earthly life one can go along with the so-called neutral world. A Christian church is necessary, but at the same time nothing wrong is seen in membership in an un-Christian labour organization in which Christ is denied as Saviour, as if in these matters of our job and daily bread we can be ‘neutral’. We disagree with this thinking because it is not ‘normed’ by Scriptures. ‘Neutral’ actually comes down to denying Christ in that certain aspect of life.”
(Martyn Iles and the Australian Christian Lobby appeared to ignore this important point when they recommended voting for RC candidates in various parties simply because they are Christian.)
Why it’s desirable to have our own church-affiliated party
Ideally, of course, our members should start a political party of Free Reformed people. A few decades ago we did try but sadly failed to get the needed support. Likewise Prof. Geertsema laments the fact that in Canada there is no reformed political party. Although most importantly we instituted churches and established our ‘own’ schools based on Scripture and confession, he said that organising ourselves politically, on the other hand, had “hardly got off the ground”.
The reason he laments this, he said, is because his Reformed upbringing, his “Reformed confessional reading of the Scriptures”, taught him that besides his other tasks, such as in church and in school education, the Lord has given a political calling. He bases this on the confession which points to “Christ as the Saviour and Lord of my whole life in all its aspects and duties and callings. That whole life is for Him and His service”. Hence he sees Christian political responsibility as part of his cultural mandate. But it must be a Christian politics done in a manner “that takes God’s Word as norm and is sanctified by the Spirit of God”.
A further reason for such a Reformed party is that the major political parties both here and in Canada are humanistic. None are truly Christian. All tend to follow the democratic notion that normative is not what God’s Word says but what the majority of the people think is right. He adds:
“Besides, humanistic philosophy, together with much unprincipled opportunism, causes our governments to give in so easily to loud-mouthed minorities that cry for equal human rights for their (from a Biblical point of view) lawless ideas and practices. Must what is unnatural and lawless have equal rights with what is natural and law-abiding? Should there not be discrimination against that which breaks the law? … Should not a Biblical witness be heard right there in Parliament, if at all possible?
Now it might be argued that this is why in Canada they still have the CHP and here in WA we have the ACP, but the trouble with both is that participation involves burying our theological/ confessional differences in relation to political matters and hence compromising what we believe and confess. There’s much more to government than the issues of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, transgenderism, etc.; and even on these matters Christians are often divided. Can such Christian parties as the CHP and ACP be relied upon not to make compromises on what God’s Word says? Prof. Geertsema remarks:
“We have to ask such questions, because – let us be honest with that Roman Catholic fellow-member – we confess that the Roman Catholic Church has compromised and still is ‘compromising’ the truth of the Word of God with the acceptance of, and adherence to, its un-Scriptural doctrines taken from its specific Roman Catholic tradition, which on so many points conflicts with God’s Word. ‘No compromise’ is a beautiful statement. But the Roman Catholic ‘reverence’ for Mary and the mass are, when seen in the light of God’s Word, ‘an accursed idolatry.’ Does that not have any bearing on political co-operation? At first sight it may seem not, but in the end the conclusion will be that truly Roman Catholic and truly Reformed are still two opposite ways that are worlds apart, just as in the sixteenth century. A true, lasting, solid Christian unity and co-operation in the church, but also in the political arena, is a unity in the truth of all that the Scriptures say.”
Of course, it’s not just the Roman Catholics. How many other Christians don’t subscribe to the Arminian idea that there is some natural good in people, that election is based on the faith God foresaw people would do, that everyone is by nature able to choose for God. Scripture is so often viewed through humanistic reasoning rather than humble submission to God’s Word. There are Christians who believe they have a ‘calling’ to do something, yet it contravenes God’s directives. And so it is, for example, that women have ‘felt the calling’ to become ministers of the Word. Moreover, how many Christians would subscribe to what we confess about the Sunday, or what God’s Word says about divorce? Today’s culture has shaped and compromised the views of many Christians on many matters. Consequently a united reformed position on various matters in a broadly Christian political party is in reality impossible without compromise.
ARPA – the alternative
If participation in a Christian party such as (in Canada) the CHP or, (in WA) the ACP, is out of the question because of the difficulty if not impossibility of maintaining a distinctly Reformed confessional stand, a Scriptural position which we are not allowed to compromise, what can we do, other than sit back and lament the absence of a Reformed political party? Prof Geertsema says there is an alternative: ARPA – Association for Reformed Political Action. The word Reformed is particularly important and he expresses the “hope that they would maintain the Three Forms of Unity as their basis”.
He applauds the establishing of local ARPA organisations but adds the warning that it should “not just be an organization for action, which can lead to American style activism”. Action is fine but the priority should be on “study, study, study, Reformed study” so that it becomes clearer “what truly Christian and Reformed, anti-revolutionary, political theory and practice is: what truly Christian, anti-revolutionary governing of a country means”. He adds:
“It is true, as Reformed principled people who have the Reformed confessions as basis and guide for our whole life, we have a rich heritage; which, I am sometimes afraid, we are more and more losing through ignorance, through lack of study, which, in turn, makes us susceptible to the influence of a general Christian, social gospel activism, or a moral-issues activism. Therefore, once again, let us study in ARPA. That should be first and foremost.”
We would echo, of course, Prof. Geertsema’s hope that ARPA maintains the Three Forms of Unity as its basis. It’s good to see, therefore, that ARPA’s Mission Statement says:
“1. ARPA aims to encourage members of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia to study and discuss political issues in the light of God’s Word, to educate these members about current political and social matters and to promote these scriptural views to the wider community as well as in the political arena.
- ARPA aims to influence government in its decision making by promoting positions which agree with the teachings of the Bible as summarised in the creeds and confessions adopted by the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. These are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creedas well as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort.”
Supporting broad-based Christian political parties must in practice inevitably involve compromising Scripture and confession. Ideally, of course, we should have our own truly Reformed church-affiliated political party. However, our inability to achieve that doesn’t mean we cannot be involved in politics. ARPA provides us with an avenue for studying what God’s Word and our reformed confessions have to say about our political and social responsibilities, for conveying the findings of such study to fellow church members and for witnessing of what we confess God’s Word teaches to the wider community; in this context, especially to those involved in government. For Christ rules over all as head of His church (LD 19), which everyone is obliged to join (BCF 28), and He calls on governments to recognise their dependence on, and subservience to, Him, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
[i] J Geertsema, “Is it our political calling to join the Christian Heritage Party?” Clarion, Vol. 35 No. 19, 19 Sept. 1986, pp. 378-380.