Political Activism

There is a world of difference between Christians in political service and Christians seeking to usher in the Kingdom of Christ by political activism, as Phil Johnson so ably points out in this post:

Slaves, not rulers

ere’s number three in our list of four biblical principles politically-obsessed evangelical churches and parachurch organizations need to remember. To review:

1. Preaching, not lobbying, is how we make truth known.
2. Gospel, not Law is what changes sinful hearts.

And now—

3. Service, not dominion, is the most effective way to win people in any culture

In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus addresses the very question that lies at the heart of this series of blogposts: If we want to maximize our influence for the kingdom of Christ in our culture and our community, what’s the best way to do it? If we want to be a great leaders and influencers of men and women, what approach should we take?

Here’s Jesus’ answer: “Jesus called [the disciples] together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise dominion over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'”

The command includes both negative and positive elements. Jesus is emphatic about the negative aspect: we’re not to seek greatness, or influence, or power in the kingdom of Christ by the raw exercise of authority over other people. He’s talking specifically about governmental and legislative authority.

And the “positive” part certainly won’t sound very appealing to the average person jockeying for political clout or partisan power. Instead, Jesus says, serve. Not in the sense of serving a term in office—but in the sense of making yourself a slave to others.

Now, let’s be clear here: Jesus is not spurning the idea of legal authority or human government. We’ve already seen that Scripture recognizes and affirms the proper role of rulers. Romans 13 defines that role, and verse 4 expressly says that when a ruler properly wields the sword against evildoers, “he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

But here in this context Jesus was speaking to His apostles as representatives and leaders of His church and ambassadors for His kingdom. And He makes this clear differentiation between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Caesar: The two kingdoms are run with completely different principles—because they operate in totally separate arenas; they function with exactly opposite strategies; they are pursuing entirely different goals; and the way they leverage their power and influence is therefore likewise thoroughly and radically different.

To illustrate, it’s clear from Romans 13 that the government is authorized by God to use force—up to and including deadly force and even capital punishment. Paul says it is both good and legitimate for earthly governments to wield their power—and even use the sword—to enforce submission to their rightful authority and to punish evildoers who deserve punishment. Romans 13:4 again: “He is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

But nowhere in all the New Testament is the church ever authorized to use the sword for any purpose—including the punishment of damnable heresy in her own midst. The most extreme remedy available to the church for punishing evildoers is excommunication. It would be a terrible sin for the church to overstep her bounds and employ any kind of force against heretics or evildoers, because she has no authority from God to do that.

Again: Christ and Caesar rule different kingdoms, by different principles.

Moreover, the church has no commission from God to harness the power of Caesar—even under a democratic regime—in order to attempt to advance the kingdom of Christ by legislative force, doctrinal dominionism, or any other kind of constraint. What Jesus was saying in this text (Matthew 20:25-28) forbids exactly that, in the most emphatic terms: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise [dominion] over them. It shall not be so among you.”

When Christian Reconstructionism was having its heyday back in the mid-1990s, I often encountered post-millennial theonomists who were convinced that the key to ushering in the kingdom of Christ on earth was for the church to gain dominion over our culture and our government’s public policy—chiefly through legal maneuvering and political means. They weren’t merely saying, as I already have, that government service (or even a career in politics) is a legitimate and honorable vocation for individual Christians whom God places in those positions. They were teaching that political activism is the duty of the church as a corporate entity. They were in effect teaching that gaining and exercising political power is one of the most vital ingredients to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom.

That flatly contradicts what Jesus Himself said in Matthew 20:25-26 (“the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion . . . But it shall not be so among you.”) It also conflicts with the pattern of ministry in the New Testament church. Even Paul, who appealed his own case to Caesar, did so not with the hope he might influence Caesar’s public policy (which, to be candid, was a thousand times more evil than anything the American Democratic Party has yet proposed)—but Paul asked for a hearing in Rome because he longed for an opportunity to preach the gospel there. He was happy to go there in chains—not to protest the treatment he had received at the hands of Roman officials, but to preach to Caesar and his household the gospel of redemption.

That should be our spirit as well. I’d be thrilled if America ever elected a president who really believed Scripture and followed its principles without compromise. But to be totally honest, I doubt that’s possible in any democratic system. Furthermore, on those rare occasions when truly devoted, Bible-believing Christians have found themselves in possession of the reins of significant political power, they have almost always managed to make a mess of it.

Remember what Will Durant wrote about Cromwell: “His private morals were impeccable, [but] his public morals were no better than those of other rulers; he used deception or force when he thought them necessary to his major purposes. No one has yet reconciled Christianity with government.”

The problem, I believe, is the very thing Jesus highlighted in Matthew 20:25-28 the kingdom of God is ultimately not advanced by the flexing of political clout.

Phil's signature



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