At the end of January2021 Stefano Mariotti was asked to take part in a televised debate entitled ‘The Christian and Politics’ (on Ekklesia TV Italia: Punto Focale). Alongside a member of the Italian Senate (Senator Lucio Malan, from the Forza Italia party), Stefano gave answers to questions about to what extent a true Christian should be ‘involved’ in politics, and attempted to encourage viewers to think biblically on what exactly that involvement might look like. Here we focus mainly on giving a summary of Stefano’s contribution, since he is an EMF worker known to many of the mission’s supporters.
After Senator Malan, a member of the Waldensian Evangelical Church, had explained a little about his own faith, relating it to his experience as an Italian politician, Stefano took up the challenge of explaining why so few Christians were to be found in the political world in his home nation. He pointed to two reasons. First of all, there is not a high percentage of true Christians in Italy! Secondly, the lack of presence of true believers is not just about numbers and statistics. Their absence may very well be simply a sign of an underlying unwillingness to have anything to do with the “dirty” world of politics.
On his first point, Stefano went on to define with total clarity what a believer really is, in a tone that was firm, yet not unnecessarily offensive to any non-converted person tuning in. Moving away from the popular idea of a Christian being a really high-principled citizen with religious ideals, Pastor Mariotti reminded viewers that the Bible defines a true Christian as a sinner saved by grace, transformed by Christ, who has experienced what the Bible calls the gift of a new birth and whose spirit feeds on the Word of the Living God. That person seeks to live out the gospel in every context and every relationship. They wish to become attached to a local gathering of believers who are also trying to live out the gospel in community and in their community. Not many Italians, be they ardent Roman Catholics or convinced secularists, believe that is what a Christian is all about. Fewer still have embraced that message, so it is no surprise that there are “very few” true Christians in politics in that Mediterranean country.
Regarding Stefano’s second point, about how Italian Christians view politics, this was where he took issue with the teaching that has often been given in evangelical churches in Italy on this topic. Traditionally, the churches have been distinctly “anti-politics”. They see it as a field that is no place for Christians, raising issues that divide believers. There is certainly an amount of fear about the effects that a church member’s involvement in politics might bring about in their respective congregation, and so on.
And yet, we were reminded, that “let’s-keep-our-distance” approach may not be thoroughly biblical. For the remainder of the session, when it was his turn to speak, Stefano tried to help the listeners to think through the role that the church and individual believers should play in their society, in the light of all the Scriptural teaching on the subject, and quoted the Lausanne Covenant of 1974: ‘evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. ....... The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his church and responsible service in the world’, and ‘The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead’. Stefano said that it was surprising that over these last decades Italian churches have neither spoken much of socio-political issues, nor encouraged believers to have any involvement in dealing with them.
The moderator (Mimmo Melchionda) asked Stefano if he could go into more detail as to why a believer should pluck up the courage to enter this field where he or she would need great valour if they were to stand up for the principles of the Word of God. To which Pastor Mariotti replied that a true Christian should always begin with a high view of the sovereignty of God and a correct perspective on the responsibility of man. They need to remember Christ’s command to go into the entire world to preach the gospel, and they have perhaps forgotten the ‘Creation Mandate’ (Genesis 1:28, 2:15), where the Lord gives instructions to work for the flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants. He urged those listening to remember that social and political spheres were not outside the control and authority of the kingdom of God. The people of God in exile had been told to pray for and work for the good of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7); believers today, finding themselves in a kind of exile in a “foreign” land, can and should work for and pray for the good of this earth and its inhabitants. Christians in Western culture, Stefano affirmed, tend to have a tremendously individual focus which centres exclusively on their own individual salvation; they often don’t take on board the mandate to go on renewing creation, nor do they consider the biblical concept of community. He mentioned a talk given in Rome, in 2014, in which the US pastor Timothy Keller asserts that we must view the gospel as not only about an individual’s finding peace –the gospel is the foundational world view, a complete interpretation of reality that informs all we do. The church’s role is thus to teach Christians to work out the truth of the gospel in whatever job they are involved in. And that job could be that of politician.
We glorify God, Stefano pointed out, not only in the ministry of the Word. We glorify him in how we do our job; this also applies if we are a politician, working for the common good: That, indeed, was the vision of the Reformers like Calvin and his associates; Kuiper saw it this way too in the Netherlands. The gospel should have an impact on the family, in the workplace, and in the city, as well as in the society and its politics, wherever Christians are putting the gospel into practice.
Asked if there were any dangers in Christians taking an interest in politics, Mariotti replied that one risk is that we can slip into thinking that a government is more salvation-worthy in God’s eyes, or gains more credit, when it, for example, opposes abortion or does not favour the LGBTQI lobby. That can almost become salvation-by-works theology, he explained to his interviewer. And that was not what Jesus himself stood for; his kingdom (John 18:36-38) is not of this world. Christ was clarifying in this passage that civil authorities have one type of sphere of influence, but the sphere in which God’s people were to be working was different. Jesus never wanted to encourage his disciples to seek a mere moral change in society divorced from a true, radical, change of heart. Christians should therefore never use the state to ‘promote' Christianity. The church is rather to be what its Lord called it to be in Matthew 5: 13-16: salt and light. And that light needs to be shining before others clearly, calling them to glorify our Father who is in Heaven. That can indeed be done in all areas, including in politics, whether at a local, regional, national or international level.
Sometimes the government will be favouring us, sometimes it will limit us. Stefano said that that is not what really matters. What matters is that we, as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, should not take church-state separation so far that we abdicate our role as those who ought to be making an impact on our society, truly confronting and dialoguing with rulers and authorities. Just as Moses did with Pharaoh, Daniel with Nebuchadnezzar, John the Baptist with Herod, Paul with Felix; in later history Christians like William Wilberforce took on that task. This is not the task of simply being ‘anti-abortion’, ‘anti gender-ideology’, etc. It is all about doing what Jesus did, joining the Law of the Old Testament with the missional mandate of the New Testament, as he showed in his ‘sacred and secular’ application of the word ‘love’. Luke 10:27: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.’
Stefano’s final words in the debate were in reply to the question of how the church should engage in politics at the local level.
“In my role as pastor, and also as a church, there should be no identification with any particular political party; it should rather be to encourage believers in the church to have a commitment to politics, to pray for the authorities. It is most important to avoid having a direct involvement by using the pulpit to support one party above another. Rather we are to inform the church to grow up in these things; this is our responsibility. Christ has given us a picture of the church as a body, and the body needs to grow in a harmonious way, and this includes in its understanding of politics. I think with regards to politics the church is stunted. Therefore, in our churches we need to be open, informed, and preaching the whole counsel of God to every sphere of life, including politics”.