Proverbs 29:2 gives us an image that may be aptly applied to the morality of public leaders: "When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan." In the United States, we have the benefit of being part of actively choosing our public leaders, a privilege not all people share. Unfortunately, we could multiply examples of immorality among public leaders. Allegations of wrongdoing on the part of public leaders and vitriol spewed by public leaders grab the headlines far too often. Internationally, examples abound of similar wickedness and far worse misuses of power.
Let's first remember that this is not unprecedented. Jesus' family had to flee to Egypt because Herod ordered the murder of all Jewish boys under two-years-old all because he was jealous and insecure about the one born who was called king (Matthew 2:16-18). Jesus' crucifixion was, among other factors, allowed to go on because of the cowardice of the public authorities who gave in to a raucous crowd rather than executing justice (Mark 15).
So first we must take to heart the fact that just as God used each of those instances to accomplish his redemptive plan, no public leader is in power apart from his sovereign will. Therefore, Paul writes, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God" (Romans 13:1). When we grow discouraged, we must remember that no matter who holds power on earth, God still sits on his throne in heaven (Psalm 2).
So how do we apply the weightier matters of the law - justice, mercy, and faithfulness – to the modern challenges we face regarding the morality – or lack thereof – of public leaders?
When it comes to justice, giving each person their due, there are at least three things we ought to consider. First, we must evaluate each public leader based on God's standard of righteousness. Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, wisely counseled him to "look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens" (Exodus 18:21). God's standard of righteousness must be ours as well, not merely the lowest common denominator among candidates.
Since it is not a requirement to be a Christian – or even to have those qualities – to hold public office, we must then give a fair evaluation to each candidate, not allowing ourselves to be swayed by vitriol or embellishment. We must do the work of finding the facts. The reason is because our vote should be based on their competency to do the job they are campaigning for. As George Robertson recently counseled a group of us, we must assess what they can actually do in their role, and cast a vote based on whose position we believe will best execute righteousness.
With regard to evaluating a public leader's character, perhaps the best thing we can do is suspend judgment and grant the benefit of the doubt until we've had a chance to invalidate or confirm allegations made. This is a practical way of evaluating based on God's righteousness and applying the reality of God's common grace. It's also a practical way of loving others as we would like to be loved.
Another merciful thing we must do is pray. Paul wrote to Timothy: "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (1 Timothy 2:1–2). Notice that Paul doesn't qualify this with whether or not they are a Christian. This means we must pray for leaders, even if we disagree with them and dislike their actions. In mercy, we must remember the stress of their jobs. We must ask God to use the challenges they face to show them their need for trust in a sovereign, redemptive God. And of course, for those leaders who rule unjustly, we must pray against them as a mercy to those who suffer under their rule.
Peter's first letter is immensely relevant and challenging when it comes to applying faithfulness. He wrote:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13–17)
The people to whom Peter was writing were living under the oppressive – and many believe, incompetent – rule of Nero. Nero relentlessly persecuted Christians. And yet, Peter calls them to "live as people who are free…living as servants of God." If Peter could write this to people who lived, not in a democracy, but under an emperor who hated Christians and considered himself divine, it must mean that our ability to be faithful is not contingent on who is in political power. Therefore, no matter what situation we live in, we must always seek the peace of the city (Jer. 29:7).
This could mean voting for someone of a different political party than the one you typically support, if you believe their policy is closer to God's righteous standard. Remember, no candidate will ever perfectly represent you, so voting for someone with whom you disagree on some things but agree with on others is simply striving to be faithful in the circumstances in which you live. This can also have the effect of driving us deeper into our union with Christ, our only perfect representative.
We must also ask God to raise up godly leaders, encourage others to public service, or enter public service ourselves. "When the righteous increase, the people rejoice."