And thou shalt see from all the people men of ability, fearers of God, men of truth, haters of unjust gain; and put such over them, as principals of thousands, principals of hundreds, principals of fifties, and principals of tens: and let them judge the people all the time: and it shall be, all the great things they shall bring unto thee, and all the small things they shall judge themselves. (Ex 18:21–22)
Take unto yourselves men, wise and understanding and knowing, unto your tribes, and I will put them as your heads. (Dt 1:13)
As I’ve been considering how (and whether) to vote in the upcoming election, I have felt the force of the pragmatic argument. Vote for the lesser of two evils: the party with the best chance of getting in and the most potential to minimize harm. I understand why voting for a party like New Zealand First can seem like a shrewd option to a Christian who is trying to discern the overall outcomes of the election, and play a part in minimizing the harm.
God does call us to be shrewd as serpents. But he also calls us to be innocent as doves. I have been persuaded that it is impossible to be innocent in a “lesser of two evils” vote, because such a vote violates God’s own law for who we may choose as rulers, as established in Exodus 18:21:
- They must be men
- They must be able or competent
- They must fear God
- They must be trustworthy and truthful
- They must hate dishonest gain or unjust profit
For the sake of both convenience and whimsy, I am going to refer to these five attributes as the princely pentad.
It is clear in Deuteronomy 1:13 that the people themselves chose men known for fulfilling this princely pentad. This is natural, since Moses would not know all the people himself—rulership in scripture is always at the consent of the people, to represent the people. Hence the law establishes clearly that the people should choose those who will be heads over them.
Because heads represent their bodies. In choosing their rulers, people are representing themselves in order to focus that representation into one man.
Voting would be impossible in the first place without this simple principle of self-sovereignty: it is because we have the right to rule ourselves that we have the right to delegate that rule into representatives whom we elect to rule over us.
But if voting is fundamentally an act of representing ourselves, then as Christians we know that we are actually representing God. We are not our own, but were bought with a price. As God’s sons, we are bound by his law in what we may do—and we have no liberty to stray from it. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father doing: for what things soever he doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner” (Jn 5:19). Thus, it is God himself who gives us the criteria for the rulers who may represent us, because ultimately those rulers will also be representing him. A magistrate is a servant of God—a point Paul labors repeatedly in Romans chapter 13, verses 4, 5, and 6. He serves as a lesser prince of the Prince of Peace, the Lord Jesus:
And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of Yahweh shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Yahweh. (Is 11:1–2)
Notice how the attributes ascribed to Christ here are the same ones required of rulers in Exodus 18:21. Hence Paul tells us, the magistrate is God’s servant for justice. When he enforces laws, he bears Christ’s power, speaking in Christ’s name about right and wrong. That’s the point of Romans 13.
But what do we call it, then, when someone speaks where Christ has not, or lies about what Christ has said? What do we call it when someone acts falsely in Christ’s name, or uses Christ’s authority to break God’s laws?
We call it blasphemy. Bad rulership blasphemes God.
This should give us great sobriety in assessing who to vote for—because if all rule starts with self-rule, and self-rule issues in electing heads to rule over us, then Christians, as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Co 5:20), are themselves blaspheming Christ if we misuse this power he gave us, by choosing and supporting rulers who will not represent him, nor serve in his name, but will rather revile him and oppose his law. And so Paul’s condemnation falls upon the church:
But if thou bearest the name of a Jew [and we all do bear the name of the Jew Christ], and restest upon the law, and gloriest in God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law, and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having in the law the form of knowledge and of the truth; thou therefore that teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? … Therefore the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. (Ro 2:17–21, 24)
If we believe that Christ has the government upon his shoulder, and is building his kingdom through the princely pentad that finds its perfection in him, then how can we throw our weight behind rulers who reject his government, scoff at his law, and blaspheme his name?
For they that lead this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed. Therefore the Lord will not rejoice over their young men, neither will he have compassion on their fatherless and widows; for every one is profane and an evil-doer, and every mouth speaketh folly. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still… And it shall come to be in that day, that the remnant of Israel, and they that are escaped of the house of Jacob, shall no more again lean upon him that smote them, but shall lean upon Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. (Is 9:16–17; 10:20)
This might seem like a strange connection, but consider Robert Riley’s observation in Making Gay Okay: “there are two fundamental views of reality: one is that things have a nature that is teleologically ordered to the ends that inhere in their essence; the other is that things are only what we make them to be.” He wrote this in the context of sexuality. But it strikes me that exactly the same issue is at stake with voting. Is there an essence to rulership and representation which we must honor, or is the political system whatever we try to make it to be?
Consider the analogy: if there is a nature to sex that is ordered toward certain ends that inhere in its essence, then homosexuality is inherently disordered and wicked, and cannot be countenanced regardless of the pragmatic ends. And certainly rainbow advocates make pragmatic arguments. They beg us to consider the end of lessening harm. To recognize gender-bending in law, they say, leads to better outcomes. Refusing to recognize it causes depression and suicide. Such arguments have the appearance of wisdom to the foolish and simple, and so have proved persuasive to many Christians, despite how clear God’s law is on this matter.
Should it surprise us, then, that the same approach, adapted to voting, has had even more success?
But if there is a nature to voting that is ordered toward certain ends that inhere in it, and are moreover reinforced and regulated by God’s written law, then voting for a non-Christian, or a liar, or a woman, or someone known for bumbling or bribery, is inherently disordered and wicked, and cannot be countenanced regardless of the pragmatic ends. It may be that voting for such a person could minimize the short-term harm. It may even be that refusing to vote for such a person could cause more short-term harm. But whatever may be, it is certain that God does not see this as a justification for doing it—and it is equally certain that, because it is lawless (and sin is lawlessness), it will invite his judgment.
Jared Rolston recently observed:
with every election that we managed to avoid the lesser of two evils, the evil we supported moved closer to the evil we avoided. If the Christians’ support is guaranteed on the right, why would they pay any attention to our moral concerns? They have had the “faith voters” by our vulnerable pragmatic parts, knowing that we are light on principle and conviction. Upon this simple reflection, it is easy to see why the lesser of two evils has steadily represented our values less and less. This being the case, Christians need to own some of the blame for the leftward liberal drift. Short-term compromises have had the long-term effect of making the new right worse than the old left. Before any positive changes are going to happen, the church needs to repent of its pragmatism.
We know from 1 Corinthians 1 that “in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God,” and that “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning will I bring to naught.” Certainly God has brought the worldly wisdom of pragmatic voting to naught. We are unquestionably worse off now in terms of our rulership than we were many generations ago, when we first started heading toward the cliff—when we first decided it would be better to vote for those who would have us drive a little slower toward the edge, than those who would turn us around, because we saw no hope of getting enough hands on the steering wheel. After all, MMP functionally redistributes votes for parties that don’t get 5% to the parties that do. So a vote for a minor party is worse than futile, right? It will be unrighteously allocated to a party we wanted to vote against.
But what does God say about them that work unrighteousness—and what our response should be? It is worth reflecting on a fuller passage, to let the contrast with pragmatism really sink in:
Fret not thyself because of evil-doers,
Neither be thou envious against them that work unrighteousness.
For they shall soon be cut down like the grass,
And wither as the green herb.
Trust in Yahweh, and do good;
Dwell in the land, and feed on his faithfulness.
Delight thyself also in Yahweh;
And he will give thee the desires of thy heart.
Commit thy way unto Yahweh;
Trust also in him, and he will bring it to pass.
And he will make thy righteousness to go forth as the light,
And thy justice as the noonday.
Rest in Yahweh, and wait patiently for him:
Fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way,
Because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.
Cease from anger, and forsake wrath:
Fret not thyself, it tendeth only to evil-doing.
For evil-doers shall be cut off;
But those that wait for Yahweh, they shall inherit the land.
For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be:
Yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and he shall not be.
But the meek shall inherit the land,
And shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.
The wicked plotteth against the just,
And gnasheth upon him with his teeth.
The Lord will laugh at him;
For he seeth that his day is coming. (Ps 37:1–13)
If you vote for a man after God’s own heart—and if no such man exists, do not vote—and your vote is unrighteously reallocated to a son of the devil because there remain in New Zealand not even 5% who will not bow the knee to Baal, that is not “on you.” That is on the wicked. If you try to send money to someone suffering in another country, knowing it will probably be stolen by the corrupt postal workers of that country, it is still virtuous to try. The goodness of an act does not consist in its outcome. The mere act of charity is good in itself. And cliché though it may be, sometimes it is the thought that counts. “Let your light shine before men.” The doctrine of double effect ought to be known by all Christians.
The problem is that our election system has bamboozled Christians by making voting seem an abstract, mechanical process—like button-pushing on a very complex machine. But voting by nature is not abstract and mechanical. It is immutably concrete and personal. It is representational rulership. The way we do voting in New Zealand projects the illusion of a mechanistic process, by forcing our vote into an abstract and mechanical system—but Christians should be able to see through it.
A simple way to illustrate this is to just replace voting with something more tangible. For instance, if instead of voting you could give $500 to a party, and $500 to an electoral candidate, would you still do it? I know I wouldn’t give $500 to New Zealand First, nor to any of the candidates on my electoral roll.
To vary the analogy, just because you can have sex with a robot doesn’t change the nature of sex. You don’t get to say, “Oh well ideally sex is something different, but in this case it’s really just a mechanical bodily function being facilitated by a sophisticated tool.” So too, voting has a nature that is fixed and regulated by God, and it is our duty to honor that nature.
The choice before us at the polling booth is really quite stark:
- We can navigate politics by our own wisdom, and willfully reject the direction God provides for walking in his ways. We are assured by the repeated example of scripture that the result will be to heap up judgment for ourselves. Moreover, this judgement will take the form of God handing us over to our ways, hardening our hearts, and blinding us to our foolishness, so that we cannot turn back, and are made to reap the due reward for our error. That this is happening right now seems undeniable. “Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.” (Is 6:9–10; cf. Jn 12:40; Ro 1:28)
- We can navigate politics by the wisdom of Christ, and faithfully walk in the way he gives us. The result will be to heap up blessings for ourselves. Moreover, this is the only means that Christ will use ultimately to extend his lordship over New Zealand, to put his enemies under his feet, and to fully establish his kingdom here.
These are our choices. Yes, sometimes practically speaking, our votes might be futile, or worse than futile. But a Christian lives by faith, not by sight. We are not called to be effective; we are called to be faithful. “So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” (1 Co 3:7) The blessings of God and the kingdom of Christ do not grow from a seed other than the one he has given us in his word, or from a water other than the wisdom of the Spirit. But they do grow from our faithful adherence to these things, even when the short-term prospects look absurd by worldly wisdom. The entire history of the church attests to this, because the cross itself attests to this.
Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit. He that loveth his life loseth it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will the Father honor. (Jn 12:24–26)
If the rulers of this age had known this wisdom, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Co 2:8). But how is it that we, who should by now have grown up into the full stature of Christ, still know it not? This is the pattern of Christianity itself.
Whether God gives the increase now, or later, he will only do so through faithful representation by rulers who fulfill the princely pentad. Those are the men he will use to bless us. Those are the men he will use to bring about the kind of society and culture that reflects his character and laws. He gives us our work to do in faithfully representing him, and bids us trust him to do his. John Quincy Adams famously said, “Duty is ours. Results are God’s.” But David said it just as well: “Trust in Yahweh, and do good.”