The Christian and Politics: Some Reflections

The Christian and Politics: Some Reflections

The Christian and Politics: Some Reflections

Christians are often divided between isolationists who believe that Christians have no business with politics – since “the kingdom of God is not of this world” and “heaven is our home”- and over enthusiasts who often invest politics with a sense of ultimate importance that often leads to Messianic complexes – it’s either this party, politician, or policy or all hell will let loose.

Which of these two positions is defensible from the NT? Or is there a better option that is more consistent with the NT data? Below, I offer some reflections on the relationship between Christianity and politics.

We cannot be indifferent because Christ is the King of the universe

The first thing to say is that indifference is not an option because the NT consistently teaches that Christ is the Lord and King of the whole universe. During his ministry, he rode into Jerusalem as the Messiah, the king of the Jews (Mathew 21:1-11), a title he assented to before Pilate (Mathew 27:11) and was affixed above his head while he suffered on the cross (Mathew 27:37).

But Jesus is not just the King of the Jews, as the expected servant of the Lord, he brought light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6) and now he claims Jews and Gentiles as his subjects. At his resurrection, he claimed authority over heaven and earth (Mathew 28:18). According to Paul, Christ is seated at the right hand in the heavenly realms where he is “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21).

In Christ, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated (Luke 17:21) and the new creation has begun.[1] As the new creation people of God, the church, we must pray that God’s will will be done on earth as in heaven (Matthew 6:10) and become Christ’s agent for filling the earth with his knowledge and glory (Ephesians 1:22-23).

When the OT prophets talked about the kingdom of God, they expected that it will be a reign of righteousness, peace, deliverance, healing, social justice, the knowledge of God, and the restoration of creation (Isaiah 40-66). Jesus tells us that this kingdom of God – this kingdom that will be marked by all these realities – has already been inaugurated in himself. Consequently, as we pray for the will of God to be done on earth as in heaven, that the kingdom of God becomes more real in anticipation of the consummation, our work as believers will include bringing righteousness, peace, deliverance, healing, social justice, the knowledge of God, and the restoration of creation into the present in anticipation of the consummation of the kingdom and the new creation in the future.

However, N.T Wright cautions us, we should not think that we are the ones building God’s kingdom; rather, we are building for the kingdom. “First, God builds God’s kingdom,” he says. “But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within that world takes place not least through one of his creatures in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image.” [2]

Again, “God intends his wise, creative, loving presence and power to be reflected—imaged, if you like—into his world through his human creatures. He has enlisted us to act as his stewards in the project of creation. And, following the disaster of rebellion and corruption, he has built into the gospel message the fact that through the work of Jesus and the power of the Spirit, he equips humans to help in the work of getting the project back on track. So the objection about us trying to build God’s kingdom by our own efforts, though it seems humble and pious, can actually be a way of hiding from responsibility, of keeping one’s head well down when the boss is looking for volunteers.”[3]

As God’s new creation people, we must bring “signs and symbols of the kingdom to birth on earth as in heaven.” God has promised that there is nothing we do in view of the new creation that is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:57) and “that is the mandate we need for every act of justice and mercy, every program of ecology, every effort to reflect God’s wise stewardly image into his creation.”[4]

If we know anything about the world we live in, it is that politics, when done right, can become a means by which God’s purposes of righteousness, peace, social justice, healing, and the transformation of creation can take place. And we have seen examples in the fight against slavery in Britain and America, the civil rights struggle in the US, and the struggle for independence in South Africa, among others, where political power can be used for good. Therefore, whether as politicians or as people who make moral demands on them, politics can be a tool for the accomplishment of the Christian call to build for God’s kingdom and anticipate the transformation and renewal of creation that is coming and already begun in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and session as God’s right hand.

We cannot be indifferent because we must love our neighbours

If we love our neighbours, we must desire not just their spiritual well-being. Human beings are physical beings inhabiting a material (though not a naturalistic) universe. Since we are not mere souls, it’s impossible to love humans without concern for their material conditions.

But what determines the material conditions of our neighbours? At least you’ll agree that politics (taken in a general sense as a substructure) is one. Economic and social decisions, taken by politicians, affect the material conditions of our neighbours.

Consequently, though generosity and hospitality on our part can go a long way in enhancing and improving the material conditions of our neighbours, sound political choices can do better than what we can. For example, sound political decisions that create more jobs, allow workers to earn what they deserve, reduce income inequality, and improve public infrastructure can do more for my neighbour than my #20,000 gift.

We can extend this reasoning to every other thing valuable for human flourishing: security, peace, justice, and thriving communities. [5]

We must be realistic because the kingdom of God has not yet been consummated

Though God’s kingdom and new creation have dawned, it has not been consummated. This fact should make us realistic about what’s possible to achieve in this already-but-not-yet period through political means.

Reflecting on the two views represented in the introduction (though here the isolationists are the ones represented by the second view), N.T Wright writes, “We must recognize, as the second view does, that the final putting to rights of everything does indeed wait for the last day. We must therefore avoid the arrogance or triumphalism of the first view, imagining that we can build the kingdom by our own efforts without the need for a further great divine act of new creation. But we must agree with the first view that doing justice in the world is part of the Christian task, and we must therefore reject the defeatism of the second view, which says there’s no point in even trying.[6]

Brad Littlejohn also issues a similar warning about the need to be realistic about what politics can achieve: “our engagement with politics should be measured and realistic, recognizing the provisionality of the political order. Perhaps the greatest error of evangelicals in the past generation has been the temptation to think that more could be achieved through politics than was realistic, and sometimes that more must be achieved through politics than was appropriate. It goes without saying that we should not expect radical transformation of the temporal order into the new Jerusalem; it can only ever hint at and witness to Christ’s reign, not incarnate it.” For example, “without changed hearts, many otherwise good policies may prove futile.”[7]

This realism means we must never fall into Messiah complexes that believe the hope of the church somehow rests on a particular candidate, policy, or party. No one but Christ will consummate the already-inaugurated kingdom and politicians, despite their best intentions, are humans who fail (overpromise and underdeliver). Also, as Brad said above, even good policies sometimes fail and the supposed best candidate disappoints.

Consequently, we must not think that the whole scope of the church’s mission and usefulness consists in political activism or that the success of the church can only be accessed in political terms. The church must be growing in holiness, knowing and loving God more than ever, reflecting Christ into the world, and strengthening our relationship with one another. That mission requires discipleship and personal and corporate spiritual formation. And that mission manifests itself in many more ways outside of politics: serving our communities, being generous and hospitable, forging self-denying and self-giving relationships, becoming peacekeepers, among others. This is why even where the church had/has no political influence, they have done much good in the world. 

Politics is not ultimate, Christ is. “Even when political authorities or earthly institutions are indeed doing the will of God, they remain fragile and fallible, not something that we can ever grasp hold of and say, “here indeed is the Kingdom.”[8]

man raising his left hand
Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

We should know that no political party, politician, or social policy is the “Christian” one

While Christians can conscientiously be part of a political party (which supports certain policies and promotes certain politicians), we can never identify any one party as the Christian one. We must stand over and above the parties we support and morally critique them when necessary.

If it’s true that all humans are fallen, then it is impossible for a political party to be always right when measured by Christian principles. Therefore, Christians will always be in positions where they can effectively be a voice of critique in parties they identify with. Once we get to the point where we can’t conscientiously criticise our parties when necessary, we must consider if we are not already constructing an idol out of that party.

Commenting on the situation in the US, Tim Keller says: “When the church, in the name of political power, allies and aligns too much with the current secular left or right, it is sapped of both spiritual power and credibility with nonbelievers. Theologically, both political poles are suspect, because one makes an idol out of individual freedom, and the other makes an idol out of race and nation, blood and soil.”[9]

Source: Premium Times

We should understand that Christians will disagree about the best way to build for the kingdom of God through politics

Secondly, it’s a fact that true Christians often disagree on the best way to anticipate the new creation in today’s world through politics. While some are right liberals, some are left liberals, some are postliberals and some are integralists. It’s very difficult, therefore, to say that one political ideology somehow represents the Christian one and that those who are outside of it are somehow non-Christians or sub-Christians.

Again, we must always evaluate our political ideas and subject them to a thorough biblical theology. Also, when we disagree with other believers, we should try to persuade one another why we believe a policy or ideology is more faithful to the scriptures than the other. However, such disagreements, discussion, and persuasion must be seen as a dialogue between brothers and sisters.

As Paul said, in another context,  “Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

Brad Littlejohn puts it this way: “Christians are often tempted to exalt their own prudential judgments for the best kind of legislation into biblical mandates and to extol leaders who enact these judgments as the only valid choice for Christian voters. Sometimes entire institutions or nations have been able to capture the imagination of Christians longing to see the reign of God, and have deceived us into thinking that these governments enjoyed a special divine blessing and calling and were the unique agents of the divine will, a deception that usually ends in tragedy and deeply harms the Christian witness.”[10]

We must recognise the importance of politics without putting our hope in it

The same Christ that inaugurated the kingdom and the new creation in his ministry is the same person that will ultimately consummate the kingdom and the new creation.

Our best efforts will not bring about that consummation. Both good and evil will be present until the harvest (Matthew 13:30). The only utopia that will exist on this earth will only come by the powerful and decisive act of Christ when he comes again to consummate the new creation, when the new heavens and the new earth will become a reality (Revelation 21-22).

The enlightenment did not create the utopia it imagined; neither did communism, liberalism, and democracy. That’s because politics can never bring about the new creation, it (new creation) is God’s work, not man’s. Even the best of men still remain fallen.

But God will indeed bring about utopia when heaven and earth are united in the new creation. Then, the kingdoms of the earth will become the kingdoms of our God and Christ (Revelation 11:15) will personally reign over the redeemed world, a world where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” It is in that new creation that the ultimate deliverance, healing, social justice, righteousness, and peace will exist.

“One day, when all forces of rebellion have been defeated and the creation responds freely and gladly to the love of its creator,” said N.T Wright, “God will fill it with himself so that it will both remain an independent being, other than God, and also be flooded with God’s own life”[11]

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

For him shall endless prayer be made,
And praises throng to crown his head;
His Name, like sweet perfume, shall rise
With every morning sacrifice,
With every morning sacrifice.

People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on his love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on his Name,
Their early blessings on his Name.

Blessings abound where’er he reigns;
The pris’ner leaps to lose his chains,
The weary find eternal rest,
And all the sons of want are blest,
And all the sons of want are blest.

Let every creature rise and bring
Peculiar honors to our King,
Angels descend with songs again,
And earth repeat the loud Amen,
And earth repeat the loud Amen.

Amen.[12]


Footnotes

[1] The Renewed Mind, The New Creation Has Begun, https://therenewedmind.org/the-new-creation-has-dawned/

[2] N.T Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2008), 277, Scribd.

[3] Ibid, 277.

[4] Ibid, 288.

[5] See Loving God And Our Neighbours Through Our Political Choices. Loving God and our Neighbours through Our Political Choices (therenewedmind.org)

[6] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 290.

[7] Brad Littlejohn, The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (Landrum:The Davenant Trust, 2017), 117, Pdf.

[8] Ibid, 108.

[9] Jake Meador, In Search of the Common Good (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 12, Scribd.

[10] Littlejohn, The Two Kingdoms, 107-108.

[11] Wright, Surprised by Hope, 143.

[12] Isaac Watts, Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun, Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1961 ), #374

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