Should Christian faith and politics be mutually exclusive or inextricably intertwined? The answer to this question is all over the map. Many Christians argue that we should not be involved in the political process at all, while others argue that it would be irresponsible NOT to be engaged in it. Groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have long claimed that Christians in the first century stayed completely clear of government, so they forbid their members to vote, join political parties, or serve in the military. It is easy enough for most conservative Christians to write off JW opinion since they are rightly seen as a cult that denies the essential doctrines of the historic faith such as the deity of Christ, His physical resurrection and salvation by faith alone. But, there are some groups within the professing/confessing church who also shun political involvement with the claim that there was no Christian involvement in the political process in the first century, and Christians today should shun politics as well. We have heard the argument made that Christian involvement in the political process over the past several decades has inadvertently made the national situation worse than it would have been otherwise. Maybe this is true. But we are not sure how we could possibly know what would have resulted had Christians stood silently by and basically gotten out of the way of the transformation of the culture. It could be just as likely that the spiritual and moral decline of this nation may have been at least somewhat retarded by Christian involvement in the political fray.
We take the position that government was an institution established by God, and that the Bible makes clear that when the righteous rule, a nation rejoices. (Proverbs 29:2) Obviously, when the unrighteous rule, we’re going to see a different outcome. It is true that we don’t find Jesus or the Apostle Paul advocating for Christians to run for public office, but that does not mean that the people of God have not had God’s approval for government involvement under different circumstances. Daniel was a very high official in the Babylon. Who placed him there? Joseph was the second in command of all of Egypt in his day. He himself claimed that his position was given him by God to bless the Israelites. David was a king in Israel. God installed him. These men were not perfect and the governments they served certainly were not perfect either. Christians in China do not have the same ability to influence the direction of their nation as we currently enjoy here, so it wouldn’t make sense to compare the political action of these two groups as to which way is right and which is wrong. By the same token, first century Christians were in a much different position than we are today, though that may not always be the case!
We believe that ultimately, involvement in the political process is an issue of Christian conscience. The Bible does not condemn or promote the idea. But the Bible definitely teaches that God is the One to whom our highest allegiance is justly owed. Love of country is not evil, but it must not be allowed to become an idol that displaces God – because that would be evil.
This ultimate allegiance to God over the state was the very thing that made Christians so unpopular with the Romans of the first century. As we said repeatedly pointed out, adding Jesus as a deity to the pantheon of deities would not have been a problem in first century Rome. Christianity could have been just another mystery cult among the myriad mystery cults and worship practices. The problem, as we pointed out last week, was its claims of exclusivity, the assertion by Christians that there is only one true god and all competing deities were false. Because Christians would not bend on this, Christianity was seen by the Romans as competition with the truly predominant cult of Caesar – the supreme political religion that was Rome itself. As our friend, Robin Phillips points out in Political Christianity in the Early Church:
Now the religion of Rome, on the other hand, was just the opposite of this. It was a political religion that dictated the whole of one’s life in the public world. It structured how people were expected to live as good citizens of the Roman state.
The Roman state was regarded as supreme and again, Robin Phillips comments:
In an uncanny resemblance with Nazism, the Roman state offered a vision of the good life; the Roman state offered peace; the Roman state brought together previously warring pluralities; the Roman state offered a sense of eschatological progress; the Roman state provided a framework of meaning to answer the question ‘how should we live?’
N.T. Wright in his paper “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” comments on the book, Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society )edited by Richard Horlsey and published by Trinity Press International):
There is much that I could say about this book, but one thesis from it stands out starkly. The evidence now available, including that from epigraphy and archaeology, shows that the cult of Caesar was not simply one new religion among many in the Roman world. Already by Paul’s time it had become the dominant cult in a large part of the Empire, certainly in the parts where Paul was active, and was the means whereby the Romans managed to control and govern such huge areas as came under their sway. Who needs armies when they have worship?
We can see the challenges to Rome in the text of Scripture itself. In Romans 13 Paul tells the church in Rome, the very heart of the political religion of Rome, that God is the One Who places all governments into power. That is in itself a direct challenge to Rome, for if God is the One who bestows all human authority, Rome itself cannot be supreme. In the same letter Paul wrote in Romans 10:9-13:
For if you tell others with your own mouth that Jesus Christ is your Lord and believe in your own heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
The Romans asserted “Kaiser kyrios” – Caesar is lord. Christians refused to affirm this, maintaining in opposition that Jesus is Lord. (Romans 10:9) This is in direct challenge to swearing allegiance to Rome as one’s ultimate authority. This isn’t simply our opinion but the very accusation brought against Paul and Silas in Acts 17:7:
They are all guilty of treason, for they claim another king, Jesus, instead of Caesar.
The view of the Apostolic writers was that the early Christians were not to look to Rome for their salvation. Yes, Christians are to be good citizens, but our primary allegiance is to Jesus Christ who is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2)
The case we have been making the last few weeks is that we are seeing nothing short of “The New Emergence (or Re-emergence) of Old Paganism” and with it the elevation of the State by the political elite as the answer to how we should live – and the institution to whom we must bow in religious obedience. Christianity is now being viewed, not just as a belief for whom its adherents should be allowed freedom of expression, but as a competing religion which must be silenced or destroyed.
How did this battle play itself out in the first century and what lessons can we draw from it? The opposition of the culture certainly focused the teaching of the church on the spiritual things that truly matter. Most of the New Testament was written to correct false beliefs and ungodly behavior. Today it too often seems that false teachings and ungodly behavior is accepted in much the church. If we are shocked at how many churches are embracing homosexual unions as “marriage,” we should understand that such thinking is largely due to biblical and historical illiteracy. Falsehood and truth have been allowed to coexist in many church settings. Things were easier for Christians in America’s past when this nation held to a majority Christian worldview, and perhaps that encouraged us to close our eyes to the doctrinal sloppiness and false teachings that were creeping – and then pouring – into the church.
We, like the first century Christians, need to wake up, to remember that our government only exists because God has allowed it. Our allegiance must be, not to the state, but to the One who is supreme over all. We do not believe that political power will save us or the nation. We know Who our savior is! Nevertheless, though it is obviously the case that Christians do not have the influence in our culture as they once did, as long as we do still have the right to vote and to support politicians that most align with the biblical worldview, we can at least attempt to hold our elected officials to account for the things that they do.
Even more importantly, we must live out our faith in love. Christianity triumphed over the political religion of Rome because the gospel which the Christians lived and proclaimed was transformative on the hearts and minds of the Roman citizens. The Christians loved each other – it was their hallmark – but they also loved the poor, the enslaved, the lost and the weak pagans that surrounded them. (And are not all people poor, enslaved, lost, and weak, whether or not they even recognize the fact?) This was so much the case that, as we have pointed out many times in the past, the last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate, in a desperate attempt to reinvigorate the pagan religions of the empire, directed his priests to start acting like Christians:
Why do we not notice that it is their kindness to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [i.e., Christianity]? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception…In the second place admonish them that no priest may enter a theatre or trade that is base and not respectable…in every city establish hostels in order that strangers may profit by our generosity; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money…for it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans [Christians] support both their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”
Thankfully, there are still today many Christians doing these things, faithfully and mostly without fanfare. Paul speaks of Christians as being “ambassadors” for Christ to the lost world around them. We are to be in the world, but not of the world. This world – yes, even America – is not our home; we are just passing through. And as we “pass through,” we represent the God and His truth to those who are lost and dying without Him.