What is the Biblical Standard for Choosing Civil Authority? Part 1 of Who Should Christians Vote For?

[I’ve gone out of my way to not talk in specifics about this election season, but instead look at principles that should frame our votes in every election, for every office.]

Part 1 of a 3 part series: Who Should Christians Vote For?

Americans have the great privilege of choosing their own civil authorities. Christians in American still have to submit to those in authority over us (Romans 13:1), but every so often we get to choose who those people are. The first Justice of the Supreme Court, Honorable John Jay said, “God is the One who has given us the privilege in this Christian nation of selecting our leaders.”

Since we have such an honor and privilege, how then should we choose our leaders? By what standard should they be held? How should we decide who to vote for?

In a time when there are many conflicting messages, I turned to the Bible. What does it say about rulers and civil authorities? Voting for a civil authority is not like voting for a pastor. It has often been said that the US President is not the Pastor-in-Chief. What does the Bible say about selecting civil authorities? How should we expect them to lead?

There are two significant examples of civil leaders being selected from the among Israelites. Before we examine them, let’s agree that these are descriptive passages about what happened, and not prescriptive passages about what we must do. Let’s also agree that if we hold the Bible to be true, then these passages contain lessons that can be applied to our own modern selection of leaders.

Exodus 18:21a “ But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain”

Deuteronomy 1:13 “Choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you.”

In the Exodus passage, Moses needed help dealing with civil matters, with disagreements among the people. Jethro, his father-in-law, suggested looking for these qualities in the people selected to help;

  • God Fearing– They needed a healthy respect for God and the things of God.
  • Trustworthy– They were faithful, honest, and could be relied upon.
  • Hating dishonest gain– People of integrity.

Similar situation in Deuteronomy, when God told Moses what sort of people to choose:

  • Wise– People who were not just knowledgable, but wise.
  • Understanding– People who could understand the situation they were presiding over.
  • Respected– People who have earned the respect of the community.

That seems like a pretty smart list of qualities to look for in a candidate for any office. Based on those passages my personal list looks something like this:

I will vote for candidates that respect religion and religious freedom. They will be honest, and people I can believe will do what they say they will do. They will be people of integrity. I will look for people who are wise, and competent to fill the office they are running for. I will vote for people who I believe are capable of earning and keeping my respect.

For me, this is the minimum standard for my vote. Notice I didn’t mention specific social or economic issues, no foreign policy or immigration or any other political issue. That’s not because I don’t care about them, I very much do. But issues change as society changes. The bedrock of biblical truth upon which we build our worldview does not.

The 6 qualities of a civil authority listed here are immutable and timeless. You and I may disagree on nuances of issues, but we can agree on this short list. Plus, people who respect religion, and who I consider wise and competent will, in my view, hold positions on issues similar to my own. But if they don’t meet the standard of this list, I should keep searching no matter how much they might share my views on issues.

The book of Proverbs is also full of wisdom about civil authorities:

  • A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor. Pr 28:16a
  • When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan. Pr 29:2
  • If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked. Pr 29:12
  • Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. Pr 11:14
  • Wicked behavior is detestable to kings, since a throne is established through righteousness. Pr 16:12 (HCSB)
  • When a land transgresses, it has many rulers, but with a man of understanding and knowledge, its stability will long continue. Pr 28:2

This isn’t an exhaustive list of verses, but you can get a biblical picture of the person we should be looking to vote for. It can be hard to hold to this sort of standard in our current political climate, especially on the national level. It’s very easy to allow fear to color your decision.

What if none of the candidates can live up to this standard? What if that horrible candidate wins? I point you to Romans 8:28, and encourage you to remember God is sovereign. While he cares about everything, God’s primary purpose is not to fix earthly governments. The Kingdom of Heaven is not about one nation, it’s about something far more important.

Dr. Russell Moore from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was talking about the 2016 Presidential election and he said, “If you lose an election you can live to fight another day and move on, but if you lose an election while giving up your very soul then you have really lost it all, and so I think the stakes are really high.”

Who should you vote for? It may be that you have several choices that biblically qualify for an office, or you may feel you have none. I think the process starts with prayer. Ask God to lead you to the candidate for each office. No one will be perfect, but it’s doubtful God will lead you to a candidate that is completely contrary to this simple biblical standard. He won’t lead you to a candidate who is not wise, not trustworthy, does not have integrity, is not respectable, who does not respect religion. But you may have to look beyond candidates who get the most media attention.

I encourage you to stick to what you value and vote for someone you can support. Much more important than which party holds what offices is your own relationship with God. Don’t betray your values over an election. You have the privilege and the responsibility to participate in choosing your own civil authorities; do it well.