If you want to be biblical, you can’t escape the political:
There are at least two mistakes Christians can make when it comes to the matter of politics and Scripture. The first is to think that the Bible is some sort of political textbook. The other is to think that the Bible has nothing to say about politics, and that it has no interest at all in political matters. Both views are incorrect.
Let me speak to each of these errors in turn. As to those who see the Bible as being all about politics, we find this often with those on the religious left. They want to use the Bible to baptise their pet political theories and agendas. A classic, if extreme, example of this is liberation theology, which seeks to read Scripture through the lens of Marxist political and economic theory. See more on this here: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/05/05/liberation-theology-and-marxism/
Although not in the same league as the Liberation Theologians, on the other side of politics one can mention those who perhaps see too much of the Old Testament and Yahweh’s covenant relationship with ancient Israel as some sort of binding and comprehensive template for all nations today.
Christian Reconstructionism, or Theonomy, is one obvious version of this. These folks seek to bring the civil laws – and penalties – which God had set up for Israel and apply them to modern secular nations today. Sure, they do not seek to drag the ceremonial laws over. That would be difficult, since the temple (and all that goes with it, including the sacrifices) is no longer to be found in Jerusalem – or in Washington, Canberra, or London for that matter.
But numerous questions arise here. While God certainly does have something to do with every individual and every nation on earth, that does not necessarily mean he has the same close relationship with each one. God’s relationship with Israel really was unique in so many ways, and modern secular nations today cannot be said to be in the same position that ancient Israel was.
This is a controversial position, and it has its defenders and detractors. And before I get too many folks railing against me, let me say that I am quite open to much of what the Theonomy camp is trying to say. For a brief introduction to this school of thought, see this piece for starters: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/09/on-theonomy-part-one/
While it is true to say that the Bible is not a political textbook – just as it is not a history textbook, or an economics textbook, or a science textbook, etc – it does nonetheless have plenty to say about all these matters. In fact, one can argue that one can NOT escape politics when seeking to be a biblical Christian in today’s world.
And that is for the simple reason that the Lordship of Christ SHOULD extend to every area of life. We should see our faith impacting not just the spiritual arena, but the political, the social, the cultural, the legal, the economic, the artistic – every area in fact.
Yet so many Western evangelicals have a very one-dimensional view of Christianity. It ends up being solely about getting souls into heaven – end of story. And it is seen that the end goal is to simply have a bunch of wispy saints floating around on a bunch of wispy clouds, strumming harps forever.
We have a disembodied view of our faith in other words that tends to have no real bearing or relevance to this world. Yet when we read the Gospel accounts, we see Jesus very much involved in all aspects of life in the here and now. He of course healed people’s sick and twisted bodies. He fed people. He was concerned about their physical and material needs.
He did not just seek to get people to heaven – he sought, in a very real sense, to bring heaven to earth. Indeed, as he famously prayed, he asked that the will of God be done on EARTH as it is in heaven. And given that our future end involves a new heaven and a new earth – however that is to be understood – we need to jettison the clouds and harps mindset that too many of us have had about what Christianity entails.
Since Jesus is concerned about our material and physical needs, healing is a part of this. We all suffer physically, and so the gospel should have something to say about our actual bodies and the state they are in. That is why I have often said we should develop a theology of suffering.
In the same way, we need to develop a political theology. What does our faith have to say about the world of politics? Again, we need to reread the Gospels with all this in mind. When we do, we see that Jesus was inescapably political. Simply proclaiming to be the King of the Jews was, among other things, a political statement. It put him over against other kings, be it Herod or Pilate or even Caesar himself.
And that meant confrontation – even political confrontation. The Bible is full of this, be it Elijah confronting Ahab, or Daniel and his friends confronting Nebuchadnezzar, or John the Baptist confronting Herod, or even Nathan the prophet confronting King David. Both religious and secular rulers – including political rulers – are constantly being held to account by God’s people.
Over the weekend I spoke to these truths, yet I had one fellow upset by all this. He emailed me and actually said this: “The church is NOT a platform to speak against our Premier Daniel Andrews or for or against any politician in our State or country. An apology to the church on that would be fitting.” Wow. So Jesus was sinning when he spoke against the leaders of the day, as were all these other great saints of God? Good grief!
Simply consider the main theme of Jesus as found in the Gospels: the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of heaven. This is all about the rule of God, or the government of God. As such, his message directly impacted and ran against every single human government. It was for political reasons that the rulers of the day had Jesus killed. Even though he was not calling for political revolution as the Zealots were, his entire life and teaching were seen to be revolutionary – even treasonous.
Yesterday I mentioned and quoted from the excellent book by British Christian writer Alan Storkey, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers (Baker, 2005). I refer you to that previous piece: billmuehlenberg.com/2021/07/07/jesus-politics-and-speaking-truth-to-power/
As might be expected, I happen to have many hundreds of books on faith and politics. But the Storkey volume is one of the best of the bunch. It looks carefully and incisively at just how very political so much of what Jesus said and did actually was. Let me quote just a bit more from this vitally important volume. Having mentioned the Kingdom of God, let me offer what he has to say on this crucial subject:
The Kingdom or Rule of God is central to Jesus’ teaching. . . . Jesus’ use of kingdom denotes the real and effective government of God. This is no withdrawn, otherworldy kingdom. He is talking about God’s actual government or rule of our lives as the central truth of our existence, deeper and fuller than mere political government. The subject of most of the kingdom parables is God, and our concern is this: How does God rule?
Still, this is difficult for us and his first hearers to absorb. . . . Jesus’ proclamation of the government of God is the pre-ordering truth of the universe. All of creation is made by God and is subject to God. The government of God is that within which we live…. Although the metaphor of Kingdom is political, the teaching covers everything…. The teaching of the Kingdom is far broader than political, yet it is also political. The rule of God over everything is also God’s rule in politics. It is the central truth of political life, the reference point for states, rulers, law, and justice – whether they recognize it or not. Logic requires it. How could the rule of God not apply to states and politics, as though God opted out of this part of our existence?
He provides plenty of specific details about all this, Then, with further broad brush strokes, he goes on to say this:
The Son of God rules as the servant King. This is God’s way, and any can participate in God’s Kingdom on God’s terms. The threats of self-made power can be opposed, and the general rule of Christ stands against the kings of the earth. This is the political fulcrum of all of history and the disciples learn it in a rough and ready way. Gradually the old models are shown for what they are. The Jews, and others, have looked for the sign, the charismatic leader, who will produce the political liberation, but it has not come. The Greeks have constructed the state around gods of the polis (city-state) and human thought, but they have proved inadequate. The Romans build empire, relying on militarism, slavery, conquest, and taxation, but it declines and falls. The apostle Paul audaciously sees the Roman state as under God’s authority, and so eventually it comes to pass. Not surprisingly, knowledge of the rule of God puts human rulers in their place. The politics of submitting to God’s ways and acknowledging the rule of neighbor love grows amid the ebbs and flows of history.
But there is more to it than that. The disciples started to learn, but knowledge of the rule of God means far more than this central insight. It would systematically change every area of politics. It means submission to God’s law, seeking justice, meekness rather than assertiveness, addressing disputes we have caused, keeping rulers humble… It requires leaders to be put in their place, with no ruler worship. The humble are to be lifted up and the arrogant cut down to size. In its scope, this is the greatest political revolution ever, as the gentle rule of Christ voluntarily settles on humanity, with its structural principles and insights. Because it is so radical in obedience to God, it does not allow compromise. It is a long-term, patient Kingdom, dethroning other kingdoms and powers…. It is also a matter of power and confrontation. The early Christians saw this.
The quotes offered here and in my earlier article should give you a taste not just for this particular book but for the political implications of the Christian gospel. The gospel touches everything, including power politics. It teaches us to think in new ways about what it is to do politics in a fallen world.
The gospel IS political, as it is economic, social, cultural, and so on. Thus our Christian faith will regularly intersect with the political environment that we find ourselves living in. How could it not?