In his book The God of Israel and Christian Theology, Kendall Soulen argues that God’s ways with Israel must shape how we think theologically. God called Israel to be a distinct people with an alternative national way of life, and they were to be the agents of God’s blessing for all the nations of the earth.
God’s intentions for Israel in the Scriptures must be the starting point in considering Paul’s political vision.
Because Western Christianity has neglected Israel in doing theology, it has forgotten that being the people of God is a fundamentally political reality. Throughout the Scriptures, the God of Israel is intensely concerned with the mundane affairs of humankind—love and loss, child-bearing, child-rearing, barrenness, war and peace, crop rotations, care for the earth, friendship, commerce, economics, politics, sex and gender, oppression, exploitation, slavery, to name just a few.
According to the Scriptural logic, the worship of the God of Israel and the political life of God’s people were inextricably related. To worship the God of Israel meant to do justice and to love mercy, to refuse to charge interest, to look after the poor, the orphan and the widow, to ensure community flourishing, to guarantee that foolish business decisions didn’t hurt families, to do good to one another.
Worship, therefore, was a holistic and integrated set of political, commercial, economic, and social practices.
This Scriptural vision shapes Paul’s conception of the church. God’s political intentions for his people in Jesus haven’t changed. We are to be a holy people, shaped by a radically alternative set of economic, social, and political practices oriented by the life-giving command to love one another after the cruciform pattern of Jesus.
Western Christians have grown comfortable with modern bifurcations of public and private, individual and corporate, political and spiritual. We’ve relegated Christian realities to the private sphere of the emotions, and have capitulated our public presence to the corrupted character of what our embattled culture calls “politics.” This is a terribly tragic surrender.
Paul envisioned the church as a political entity that seeks the blessing of the culture in which it is embedded. Because it is holy, the church must imagine ways of being political that go beyond merely endorsing the agenda of this or that political party.
14 thoughts on “Politics & the God of Israel”
We fear trhis kind of integration in the West. It seems to suggest a single way of politics, or worse a single way of worship. Nothing could be further from the truth when looking at the history of debate in the Hebrew tradition. On the other hand this view does represent a sense of focus, committment, and submission to God that is severely lacking and quite necessary to forward progress in both arenas.
Exactly — just saying that the way of Jesus is thoroughly political does NOT AT ALL endorse this or that way, this or that ideology, or this or that party. It’s a radically different politics because it is oriented by a radically different Lord.
Someone has said that God is sovereign not only in the promises he makes but also in how he chooses to fulfill them. There is little question that many of ancient Israel’s faithful expected God’s promises to be fulfilled in political, military, and nationalistic terms. But the witness of the New Testament is that God stood those expectations on their head. In Christ, God fulfilled all his promises to Israel—and he did so not with conventional human power but the power of Christ’s submissive, loving self-sacrifice and surprising, triumphant resurrection. This is the constant, unequivocal message of virtually every book of the New Testament.
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Perhaps ‘This Scriptural vision shapes Paul’s conception of the church’ because Paul didn’t differentiate between ‘church’ and ‘Israel’. Perhaps the idea of ‘church’ is imposed by later theologians.
It all comes down to how we take the meaning of the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia G1577) (which everyone assumes means church). One sure fire test to gauge meaning is to compare words in the NT where the OT is being quoted.
[Hebrews 2:12] quotes [Psalm 22:22]. Notice that ekklēsia G1577 is taken to mean ‘assembly’ or ‘congregation’.
Perhaps Paul didn’t use the word ekklēsia to mean ‘church’ at all, but used it to mean ‘assembly or congregation’. Perhaps this idea of ‘church’ comes from early Church fathers, and has carried on ass an unquestioned presupposition …
.. in which case it stands to reason that Paul envisioned the assembly he was addressing as the political entity of a redeemed Israel, a veritable Kingdom of God, a nation of priests [Exo 19:6][Isa 61:6], a Holy nation [Exo 19:6] Because it is a holy people, the congregation must imagine ways of being political that go beyond merely endorsing the agenda of this or that political party.
If the ‘church’ is Israel and Israel is the ‘church’ it makes understanding Paul far easier.
I agree with your post.
Here’s how I see my role as a citizen.
Pay my tax, pray for my leaders, avoid maligning them, obey the law unless it demonstrably violates God’s law. That’s it.
Ancient Israel was a theocracy, AD era there is no such thing so we must be very careful here.
The ideals of ancient Israel that Yahweh had for them, they are for us as individuals, but, I am not sure how I would apply them to my life in a public fashion as opposed to private beyond what I wrote above.
Patrick, yes but often when Christians point out Ancient Israel was a theocracy, they IMPLY and we’re not .. which is true (by ‘we’ I mean all Western Democracies (not all of us are Americans)).
However, that ancient Israel was a theocracy doesn’t stop us from moving towards better integration, having a Holy theocratic mindset in our politics – however we make national decisions.
Look at the language Jesus himself used …:
– He called HIS CALLED ‘Kingdom of God’ and instructed people to ‘seek’ it [Matt 6:33]
– He stated ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand ..’ [Matt 4:12][Mark 1:15]
– He said ‘The Kingdom of God’ has come upon you’ [Matt 12:28]
– He proclaimed the Good News of the ‘Kingdom of God’, not the potentially good news [Luke 4:43]
Clearly Jesus treated God’s portion his people [Deut 32:9], the ‘Kingdom of God’ as a ‘literal thing’ (even if it was differentiated from all other kingdoms by the presence of the sanctuary of God, a spiritual differentiator [John 18:36] (His Kingdom may have been IN the world, but it was not OF the world)
If Jesus (Yeshua) treated his Kingdom as a Kingdom, at the forefront of our thinking should be the understanding being Christian’s first, makes us all monarchists supremely loyal to our King (and in His party). Our politics is one of holiness whoever is running for office and what ever party they represent.
As for the workings of democracies, as long as the King’s heart is as water in the hand of the Lord [Pro 21:1], all of that other stuff is of lesser importance.
Agreed, I still don’t understand how that translates into a role for us in a national, secular setting beyond serving Christ, praying for our leaders, avoiding maligning the leaders and obeying the laws. God’s kingdom is not of this world. Our citizenship is not in the USA, it’s in the new Jerusalem.
Ultimately I believe it means ‘separation of church and state’ is unbiblical. By that I mean ‘separation of church and state in the modern sense where our political interests are to ‘appear’ secular (in an atheistic sense), as opposed to how your original American fathers of state intended it.
How they intended it (as I understand it) was not that the state was to be secular (no mention of God), but that it was not to officially endorse one particular version of God (but I believe they still presupposed most people would be believers, even if a variety of different denominations, Protestant and catholic, perhaps even Jewish).
I say this because American state fathers saw the United States as a city on a hill, New Jerusalem, restored Israel – all very faith-saturated viewpoints. This is evidence in sermons of the time, also referenced in the personal correspondence of your early presidents.
The political consequence of this means that we must not compromise in our desire to be governed by men of faith ( it is the moral obligation of our political duty). It also means that our politics must be moral first, and partisan second. This last point seems the most diffucult to achieve in reality, especially in a bipolar two party partisan democracy.
Thought provoking comments, Tim. Are you advocating a kind of Christian Reconstructionism? In the late fourth century Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the Imperial Religion and criminalized pagan worship. Is that the sort of thing you’re looking for?
To say “Paul envisioned the church as a political entity that seeks the blessing of the culture in which it is embedded” needs a LOT of qualification, because much in Paul places the Christian hope for redeemed society on the other side of the Parousia and judgment. So while it’s easy to say that “because it is holy, the church must imagine ways of being political that go beyond merely endorsing the agenda of this or that political party,” I need to see you take the next step and imagine for us some ways of being political as the Body of Christ which go beyond merely endorsing the agenda of this or that party.
Don’t get me wrong. I think you’re completely right to think that redeemed human society fulfills all the various dimensions of human being—social, economic, commercial and political. Everything we aim to accomplish (or to manage) through political means does indeed find its fulfillment in redeemed society lived in Christ. And I agree that the Church is to be a place where believers live that out. But to disagree with one responder, I don’t view America as a New Israel, a city set on a hill, and don’t attribute to American what is the exclusive calling of the Church as a prophetic presence in the world.
If this means believers are to seek to achieve a redeemed society through the constraint of political power this side of the eschaton, then I think that’s overreaching. God redeems ‘the political’ categorically, yes. But this side of the eschaton, I think fully redeemed human ‘society’ can only be approximated WITHIN the community of the redeemed.
Tom, yep, lots of qualification and elaboration is needed, but I’m trying to keep posts short!
Nope, most definitely not Reconstructionism!
Tim: Exactly — just saying that the way of Jesus is thoroughly political does NOT AT ALL endorse this or that way, this or that ideology, or this or that party. It’s a radically different politics because it is oriented by a radically different Lord.
Tom: Then in what sense IS the Church ‘political’ (or what do we mean by ‘policitcal’) if it doesn’t endorse or condemn positions that impact the wider polis? If you just mean being a prophetic and moral voice within the world (e.g., for the poor), then sure. But I don’t see how this equates to ‘being political’.
Can you provide some examples of what it would look like for the Church AS the Church to seek our culture’s blessing in being political? You mention our being political requiring the blessing (permission?) of the non-Christian culture, no? How would the earliest believers have fulfilled their calling to worship God politically in a culture advocating their destruction (say, during Diocletian’s reign)?
Here’s what I’m hearing: (a) Christian worship integrates political, economic, and commercial practices (among others), and (b) Christians are to seek the blessing/permission of the surrounding culture in imagining ways of being political that go beyond endorsing the standing agendas of the day. It looks to me like the Church’s identity is thus bequeathed it (in part) by the culture at large.
Stay tuned for future posts . . .