Many church historians believe that Constantine's Edict of Milan in AD 313, which allowed Christianity as a state-sanctioned religion, put an unfortunate marriage of church and state on the horizon. Merely decades later, Emperor Theodosis made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The grass-roots, counter-cultural movement of Jesus of Nazareth had become a means of political gain. Priests were now the police. Popes became kings. That which was "rendered unto Caesar" and that which was "rendered unto God" were now one in the same.
As we can imagine, the more the church's ambitions focused on political control, the less it focused on the mission it was given by its Founder. A few brave souls over the course of the following centuries spoke up against this trend, but they received very little support from the people and much opposition from the church, often in the form of executions. What little traction the John Wycliffes and Jan Huses of the world did gain, however, eventually culminated in a declarative, defining moment over a thousand years after Christianity's rise to political power.
On All Hallows' Eve (the real October 31st holiday) of 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral. The thesis of his Theses: neither the Pope nor the church are responsible for your salvation or in control of your life; Jesus is. This spurred a bold and prolific career of Luther's, during which he fought for a singular truth: man finds communion with his Creator God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. For Luther, though, the concept of a new "denomination" was foreign. He had no intention of facilitating a schism or to amass a following. His goal was to steal back the bride of Christ from the adulterous relationship it had with politics and reunite her with her true groom. He had no desire to "separate" Catholicism and Protestantism; he had a desire to separate church and state. Until the day he died, he wished only to be a faithful priest, loyal to his King and to his flock.
Fast forward another half millennium, and we are now in the midst of what can only be described as a political circus. Many people believe that we have a less-than-favorable draw as far as candidates are concerned. Regardless of your view of the candidates, though, it's clear this election cycle has notably affected Christians, many of whom now find themselves in a cul-de-sac of seemingly lose-lose situations. Of course, everyone has their opinions on the matter, and, of course, everyone is compelled (or, at least feels compelled) to share them on the Internet. Unfortunately, this means even amongst Christians—perhaps, especially amongst Christians—the rhetoric being shared has less and less to do with Jesus and his Commission and more and more to do with candidates, parties, and policies. This is not to say that political engagement or concern is wrong. To be sure, Luther's revolutionary act certainly had sweeping political implications. But, although some of the affects he had were political in nature, his underlying loyalty steadfastly remained to Jesus alone.
The question we need to ask—continually ask—as November comes and goes is, "Who has my underlying loyalty?" When we think about issues and policies, do we ask, "What does my party teach?" or "What does my Savior teach?" When we dialogue with those who disagree with us, do we see them as enemies across the aisle, or do we see them as fellow men and women to whom Jesus has said, "Come to me, all." And even more important than how we champion our political views is how often we do so in comparison to championing our worldview as Christians. If someone were to survey our social media feeds and our conversations with others, would he first gather that we're followers of Christ or that we're Republicans or Democrats? Would he assume our beliefs on eternal life are more important than those about fiscal policy? And, if we do talk about money, is it more often focused on our own personal stewardship or on the government's budget?
Again, political awareness is not wrong. We are citizens of a democratic society who bear the responsibility to approach the polls with discernment and wisdom. We simply must consider the message that our words communicate, particularly during a season as volatile as this one. If you are a Christian, your loyalty, your allegiance, your commitment—your whole life—is due to one person: Jesus, and one agenda: his. This truth consumed Luther, and it should consume us, as well.
After the polls close and the votes are counted, someone will be President. That person will be a fallen human being, disliked by many. That much is sure, and we can't change that. What we can change, however, is how we represent Jesus and his message. We can affect how people view the church, which was established not as a institution chasing political gain, but as a shelter of hope for anyone who needs it. The church, not a political party, is God's way of carrying out his ministry of reconciliation in the world.
When people look back at the election cycle, we should hope that Christians were not primarily known for our ability to get a particular candidate elected, but by our gracious demeanor, our unwavering, joyful hope, and our unassailable loyalty to our true King. After all, Jesus' instruction on how to make sure people knew we were genuinely following him was quite clear.
"By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another."