Engaging Worldly Powers

Tomorrow, many believers in the United States will vote for their governors and representatives for the next two to six years.  To participate in such elections is the great privilege of those in many nations, especially those like ours where we do not worry about significant fraud in the counting of the vote.

This is a much different world than those of the Bible.  The kings of Israel were not elected.  The populace of Israel did not elect its high priests.  God occasionally lifted up a warrior to liberate Israel in the time of the “judges” but no doubt tribal rule was the order of the day in the centuries before the monarchy.  At the time of Christ and the New Testament, the Romans and their surrogates were firmly in power. 

In short, no biblical context was exactly like ours.  The Bible thus does not immediately address our type of political context.  Most of us have clear intuitions on what it means to be a Christian citizen or voter in the United States, but it is worthwhile to take these out and have a look.  If we do not know our assumptions, then we are simply “driven and tossed by the wind” of our situation.

For example, the United States is not biblical Israel.  Is it the Christian’s task to try to make the laws of the land mirror as much as possible our Christian understanding?  That works fine for us as long as our group of Christians is in charge, putting into law our Christian understanding.  In practice, of course, we have at least unconsciously acknowledged that we could not possibly accomplish such a task, even if we concluded it were the ideal.  No one goes to jail for committing adultery or pre-marital sex.  We do not stone those who practice homosexuality.

Those of us who believe God has created us with free will have a further question here.  If God allows individuals to disobey him, then would it be his will for Christians to enact laws to force unbelievers to obey him?  For example, Romans 1:26 says in relation to homosexual sex that God “gave them up” to follow their passions.  While Paul says that individuals who are typified by this act will not be in the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10), in this world he suggests God abandons such persons to their passions.  In Paul’s language, such individuals are only hurting themselves (Rom. 1:27).

Certainly we find the biblical model of speaking out for those who are oppressed and downtrodden, those who are hurt by others.  This is the prophetic model that Jesus himself modeled when he made “good news to the poor” one of the central themes of his earthly ministry (e.g., Luke 4:18).  Speaking up for the powerless, however, is something different from pronouncing judgment on the disobedient.  Our political context is much more similar to that of the New Testament, than of the Old Testament when Israel understood itself as under God’s direct control.

Yet we are also much more politically empowered than Paul or the earthly Jesus in his self-limitation was.  Both Jesus and Paul treat the worldly powers as something far removed from them, as a given of their context–at least for now.  Jesus renders to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Luke 20:25) and gets on with his mission.  Paul dismisses trying to fix the sexual immorality of the world: “For what have I to do with judging those outside? … God will judge those outside” (1 Cor. 5:12-13, NRSV).

In an ideal world, Paul sees the God ordained purpose of the state as punishing wrongdoers and being an agent for good (Romans 13:1-7).  Like Jesus, he instructed the Romans to pay their taxes and obey Caesar.  His own personal experience must have made it painfully clear that the Roman government often failed at its appointed task.  Ironically, the very same Nero who was emperor when Paul wrote Romans would eventually put Paul to death.

Acts 4:19 makes it clear that there is a time for Christians to disobey human authority.  But it was clearly not over things like taxes, since both Jesus and Paul instructed Jesus-followers to pay their taxes in a world where they were far more oppressive than anything today.  And Paul’s sense of human authority as “for your good” balances out our pessimism with the potential good in government.  Government can do good, even if it can also do evil.

At the end of this discussion, I find three principles for us as Christians when engaging the powers of this world:

1. First, the world is not the church, and we must keep this distinction very clear. 
The United States is predominantly made up of individuals who consider themselves Christians.  The notion that God cares for all people, captured somewhat imperfectly in the Enlightenment language, “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” coheres with Christian values.  But let us stop short of saying the US is a Christian nation–we are just not righteous enough to speak such things. 

We are not Israel.  We can believe that our system of government and our particular capitalist economy holds great potential for maximizing the happiness of its people.  But let us be clear that it does so by balancing out the self-interests of its people.  That is to say, it takes into account human greed and our fallen drive to do what is best for “number one,” me.  Capitalism is based on the idea that people will do what is in their best individual self-interest, as Ayn Rand so aptly captured in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness.  Our system of checks and balances in government intentionally takes into account the human drive to run away with power when left to its own devices.

In short, this system tries to get at goals that cohere well with Christianity.  But make no mistake, the system is an accommodation to human evil.  It is not worthy of the name Christian.  It is not a system we would enact if we knew people would always act Christ-like.  It is not the way the kingdom of God will operate.  It is a system that takes into account that most of our hearts and minds will not be transformed.  Our nation is not the same as the church.

2. Worldly powers are fearful and dangerous. 
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the passages that first comes to mind when thinking of engaging worldly powers is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager in Luke 16.  What a bizarre story?  Jesus seems to commend this man for cheating his master out of money that was owed him.  The only way I have been able to make sense of this story is to see the whole situation as ludicrously foreign to Jesus’ audience.  The assumption of the whole passage is the foreignness of a situation where one would be handling such large sums of money.  Like the coin with Caesar’s image on it, the world of such money must have seemed very far away from matters of Jesus.

The bottom line seems to be to get out of that world as quickly as possible.  It is a terrifying context where one can hardly survive and be pure.  It is a place of corruption and defilement.  I am not advocating that Christians remove themselves from politics or the world, another option some Christians have taken from time to time.  I am saying to watch out.  Engaging the powers of this world should be a scary thing for believers, a realm we enter with trepidation.  A Christian with the heart of Christ should always feel a little uncomfortable if they have power or money.

3. The state can do good.
Paul himself says so.  The assumption that government will mess up anything it gets its hands on is just as skewed as the view that equates the nation with the church.  The state can do good, and we will search long and hard for a passage that says the church should try to stop it so that the church can be the sole dispenser of good. 

Although Psalm 72 relates to a king of Israel, it is hard to imagine that Paul would not have prayed these same words in relation to Nero or the earthly Jesus of the high priest in Jerusalem: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (72:4).  Nations can do these sorts of good things.  And while the implementation of such values is complicated, it is perfectly Christian to align ourselves with them in those instances where God used worldly powers for good.

  • B. Whitesel

    Hello Ken;

    I appreciate these insights. And, I found especially helpful the thought that, “Engaging the powers of this world should be a scary thing for believers, a realm we enter with trepidation.  A Christian with the heart of Christ should always feel a little uncomfortable if they have power or money.” I like John Perkins’ 3 Rs that relate to this. He feels that Christians should be invilved in Relocation, Reconcilation & Redistribution. Thanks for reminding us there is plenty we can still do this election (and every) season.