What Hath Christianity To Do with Politics?: (Pt:1: The Bible and Politics)

In a nation divided socially, culturally, and politically, there is a necessity to reflect upon the proper relationship between Christianity and politics. As Richard John Neuhaus often remarked, politics is a function of culture at large, and culture is always underlain by religion and morality. Thus, politics is only one sphere of culture (among other spheres such as art, science, education, business, sports and entertainment, and family). Yet it is a significant sphere and one always fraught with moral and religious import.

For this reason, we will be posting a multi-part series on the proper relationship of Christianity and politics. In this first installment, we will define politics and discuss the Bible’s teaching on politics before going on to post further installments on historical and contemporary Christian approaches.

First, a definition. Politics may be defined concisely as the art or science of persuading citizens and elected officials about matters of public concern. Politics generally presupposes differing views, not only about ultimate aims but also about the best means of achieving them. Therefore, it usually involves collective conflict and resolution involving persuasion, negotiation, and an agreed-upon mechanism for reaching a final decision. The decision reached is generally regarded as authoritative and as it becomes policy it is enforced with governmental power.

Although the Bible is certainly not a handbook for politics, it does speak clearly and even forcefully about matters of government and politics, even if it does so indirectly. In the Old Testament, we see God repeatedly calling Israel to be a witness to other nations (Gen 12:1-3; Is 42:6), with her witness including her political life. God even gave Israel numerous laws to guide the life of the nation. If Israel would live according to God’s law, she would flourish and thus provoke the other nations to want to follow Israel’s God. Moreover, Israel’s prophets often rebuked not only Israel’s kings but also the political leaders of the pagan nations.

Sadly, Israel did not live up to her calling. The people of Israel—including her priests and kings—broke God’s law repeatedly, to the extent that God sent the into exile (Lam 4:13). During this time, Israel lamented that “The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we have sinned” (Lam 5:16 CSB). During this time, Israel’s only hope was the promised Messiah. This Messiah would be “one like a human being” (Dan 7:13, NRSV). He would be like a human being in that he would come in human form and rule as God’s king, but he would be unlike human beings in that he would ride on the clouds.

The New Testament reveals Jesus of Nazareth as God’s promised Messiah. His life and ministry were pursued in the context of the Roman Empire, the latest in a long line of empires reaching all the way back to Persia, Babylon, and Egypt. The Jews longed for the day when the promised Messiah would return to free them from exile. Thus, when Jesus declared that God’s kingdom was at hand (Matt 3:2), they understood that a political kingdom was on the rise. N. T. Wright writes:

Jesus’ message was after all inescapably political. He denounced rulers, real and self-appointed. He spoke of good news for the poor. He led large groups of people off into the wilderness, a sure sign of revolutionary intent. He announced the imminent destruction of the Jerusalem temple. At the start of a festival celebrating Israel’s liberation, he organized around himself what could only have looked like a royal procession. And he deliberately and dramatically acted out a parable of the temple’s destruction, thus drawing on to himself the anger of the authorities in a way which he could never have done by healing lepers and forgiving prostitutes (though we should not miss the revolutionary note in his offer of forgiveness, whose real offence lay in its bypassing of the temple cult)…. He died the death of the lestai, the political insurrectionists (Barabbas, and the two crucified with Jesus, were lestai). How could he not have been “political”?

Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension cumulatively declared that he is Lord, with the implication that Caesar was not. His kingdom proclamation, therefore, was deeply and inescapably political.

Moreover, Jesus’ disciples and the Jews of his day discussed and debated the proper interface with the political sphere. The Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” By asking this question, they hoped to goad him into picking a side on a hotly contested political issue of their day—the poll tax. Yet, instead of taking sides on an economic issue, Jesus made a statement about the limits to Caesar’s jurisdiction: “Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21 CSB). In effect, Jesus said, “Look at this coin. It has got Caesar’s image on it. Fine, he can tax you. Given him your tax dollars. But never give him your ultimate allegiance, which belongs to God alone.”

The early church took Jesus’ lordship to heart, declaring ultimate allegiance to Christ even while Caesar still declared himself lord of the earth. Paul underscored this allegiance when he wrote to the Christians in Philippi (a Roman colony) that every Philippian citizen would one day bow the knee to Jesus and not to Caesar (Phil 2:10-11), and when he wrote to the Colossians that he would return one day to renew and restore the fallen cosmos over which he is Lord (Col 1:15-20).  Indeed, so loyal was the early church to Christ that the apostle Paul had to exhort them not to try to consummate Jesus’ political kingdom in the here and now: “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God” (Rom 13:1). With this statement, therefore, Paul affirms Jesus’ recognition of a limited role for government, and thus for politics. Similarly, Peter reminds the church that they are called to be a light to the nations, and the way to be a light includes respect for earthly governments, living good lives in private and public, and doing so based on their ultimate allegiance to Christ.

Thus, the biblical writers evince a consensus about God’s authorization of government and politics, on the one hand, and his circumscription of their jurisdiction, on the other hand. Yet, throughout the two millennia after Christ’s ascension, Christians have debated the proper interface of Christianity, politics, and public life. Christianity’s leading theologians and denominational traditions have offered differing interpretations of what it means to be a faithful Christian citizen. Augustine’s political theology stands out for its enduring influence on the church, even though the political theologies developing from within the Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Black Church traditions do not conform exactly to his views.

In the next post, we will summarize Augustine’s view of the relationship of Christianity and politics. Augustine was the most prominent of the church fathers, and his view shaped the discussion for centuries to come.

[1] N. T. Wright, “The New Testament and the State,” in Themelios 16:1 (1990), 12-13.


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