When I was a young Christian, in my goals, conduct and outlook, I was taught to remain separate from the “fallen world order” as much as possible. Yes, conditions in the larger world were often disturbing, including its political realm, but what did one expect from a system under the dominion of sin and Satan? What humanity needed was the gospel of the Kingdom of God, not another political philosophy.
Since the “forms” of the present age are all destined to “pass away,” including all existing governmental systems, well, why waste time “working for the meat that perishes”? Had not Jesus tasked his disciples with proclaiming his gospel “to all nations,” not with social or political reformation?
But for me in my youth, far more compelling were the examples of Jesus when he was confronted by the political powers in his day. Unfortunately, it has become the accepted norm, if not orthodoxy, that the church is called to political activism, to use the levers of state power to fix the “culture,” restore society to some supposed pure state, and to stop wickedness; well, at least in western-style democracies.
When Satan offered him political power, without hesitation, Jesus rejected it. So, why today do we presume to employ very thing refused by the Son of God refused? The Devil tempted him by offering “all the kingdoms of the world.” All he needed to do to possess that awesome political power was to “fall down and render homage” to the Tempter – (Matthew 4:8-9, Luke 4:5-7).
In contrast, western church leaders embrace the political means, which necessitates accommodating corrupt political systems and compromising Christian principles. Satan demanded homage as the price of political power, the very things demanded by the “beast from the sea” in Revelation! Coincidence?
According to Satan, the kingdoms of this Age “have been delivered to me and I give them to whomever I will.” Note well that JESUS DID NOT DISPUTE HIS CLAIM! Perhaps that encounter explains why human governments often exhibit rather beastly behavior!
What great good could Jesus have done if he held Caesar’s throne! Imagine how righteousness would prevail across the earth with Rome’s military and economic power to enforce his messianic dictates. Surely, if ever there was justification for the resort to political power, that was it. Who better to wield state power and violence than the Prince of Peace?
However, rather than resort to the political means, Jesus embraced the way of the cross, the path of suffering. In the God’s kingdom, true victory is achieved through humble obedience and the denial of one’s “rights”; His domain is characterized by self-sacrificial service and acts of mercy, not force or political machinations.
But Satan’s political intrigues did not end with Christ’s victory in the wilderness. Following his rebuff, the “Devil departed from him until an opportune time.” Jesus faced the same challenge again after miraculously feeding a multitude, when certain members of the crowd “were about to come and seize him that they might make him king” – (Luke 4:13, John 6:15).
But instead of accepting kingship from the hand of the mob, Jesus walked away, and thus, turned many minds against him. He would not become the militaristic messiah that so many of his contemporaries expected, and the closer he came to Calvary, the more the fickle crowds rejected him and the kind of kingdom that he represented.
When before the representative of mighty Rome, Pontius Pilate inquired whether he was “the king of the Jews.” Jesus did not deny his kingship – “You say that I am a king: I for this have been born.” However, he qualified his reign, stating, “my kingdom is not from (ek) this world: if my kingdom was from this world my own officers would fight that I should not be delivered up to the Jews: but now my kingdom is not from here” – (John 18:33-36).
Christ did not state claim that his kingdom was something strictly “spiritual” or otherworldly. However, the source of his sovereignty was other than the kind of political power that characterizes the existing world. The coming kingdom of God would be of an entirely different nature than the kingdoms of the present age.
Pilate found no fault in Jesus and was about to release him; however, at the instigation of the Temple authorities, the crowd cried out for Pilate to release Barabbas instead, a léstés (Greek) or “brigand.” The priestly leaders preferred a violent political revolutionary to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Instead, Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and became “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Because of that choice, God exalted and bestowed on him “the name, which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” Yes, he achieved sovereignty over the Universe, but not by bypassing Cavary – (Philippians 2:6-11).
Christianity has a long and sordid history of mixing Church and State, going all the way back to the fourth century when Emperor Constantine merged them in an act of political expediency, and within a generation, the once persecuted became the persecutor. History is replete with examples of the folly of this, yet we continue to justify and find ways for Christians to lay hold of political power and employ it to advance their religious, cultural, societal, political, and “Christian” agendas.
Do we not yet understand just exactly what state power is and how it is exercise? To advance the gospel through the political means is to resort to the coercive power of the State. The choice before us is the cruciform and rough pathway trod by Jesus, or the expedient and smooth highway offered by Satan.
Should his disciples embrace what Jesus rejected, or instead, emulate his example of self-sacrificial service?
Over the last generation, many Christian leaders have embraced political activism as if the cause of Christ can be advanced through the corrupt political system. It seems a little evil is necessary to achieve some greater good.
But the day is coming when we will discover, to our dismay, that political activism has been an enormous mistake. By its very nature, it is contrary to the proclamation of the Gospel. The corruption inherent in the political system will inexorably leech into the church, indeed, it already has – A little leaven leavens the whole lump.
Partisan politicking is a poor substitute for Gospel Proclamation and Christian lives conformed to the Cross of Christ. It is high time to return to the task with which Jesus himself commissioned his church and to do so in the same way as him.