Over the last half-century or so, evangelical Christians have envisioned the relationship between politics and Christian faith as a complicated and thorny problem. For some, politics and Christian faith are best kept completely separate. Faith isn’t political and the church ought to stay out of politics. Nothing but trouble awaits us when we—as Christian people—try to enter the political realm. On this view, Christian faith is a private matter—something between believers and God, meant to be unsullied by the compromises of politics and the logic of “lesser of two evils” voting strategies.
For others, Christian faith means “getting involved,” being informed about important issues, fulfilling our civic duty of voting, and using the political process for righteous ends. All too often, however, the available options for such involvement are extremely limited—being a devoted listener to this or that political radio personality, this or that cable news channel; voting faithfully and consistently according to this or that issue or one or the other major national party. But how are we to know which of these two options is “the Christian one?”
Within the last few election cycles, I’ve spoken to an evangelical Christian person who said he could not imagine that anyone could be a Christian and vote for a Democrat. Oddly enough, I spoke to another evangelical Christian who said he could not imagine a person being a Christian and voting for a Republican.
There is obviously great confusion among the faithful about how our discipleship to Jesus should be embodied when it comes to our citizenship.
But can we find any help from the Apostle Paul? Does Paul have anything at all to contribute when it comes to faith and politics? At first glance it sure doesn’t seem so. For many NT interpreters over the last two centuries, Jesus had much to say about politics, but Paul was silent. Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, repentance and a change of public conduct, a redeemed use of money, and transformed economic and political practices. But Paul had a different focus. He left all that Kingdom of God teaching behind and had little to say about the repentance or public Christian behavior. He was a theologian of the heart set free, giving counsel on sustaining the spiritual life and maintaining one’s affections for the things of God. He called for minds set on heavenly things and hearts fixed on eternal realities. If Paul had anything at all to say about politics, he said it in Romans 13:1-7—take on a posture of submission to secular governments, don’t participate in civil disobedience, and leave politics to the world.
In these posts, I will offer an alternative understanding of Paul’s political vision. I will argue that his conception of Christian realities is thoroughly political. Paul could have only seen things in political terms. To de-politicize Paul’s vision is to tear out its very heart, turn it into something completely distorted, and to end up with something that Paul would hardly recognize. Just what that means, however, requires that we put aside our modern notion of “politics” that has been shaped by presidential and congressional election cycles, national power politics of a two-party system, and cable news networks that make their money from stirring up anger and labeling those who disagree as the source of all evil. Let’s do our best, then, to extricate ourselves from our current cultural setting and its perverted vision of politics, go back into the first century to consider Paul and his texts, and then return and look afresh at our culture through the lens of Scripture.
Before I proceed, I’d like to define a few terms. First, I’ll be referring quite a bit to “politics” and that which is “political.” By “politics,” I’m speaking about that which has to do with rulership—who is in charge and what right do they have to order our lives? Politics involves the proper ordering of social practices and relationships, and patterns of economic exchange within a social group.
Politics has to do with all sorts of behaviors in the polis. That term—polis—is the Greek term that denoted ancient cities and all that held them together as a cohesive social and cultural unit. The polis is the body politic, a gathered people regarded as a political body under an organized government. Politics, then, has to do with ruling and socially ordering a polis.
Simply by defining our terms more carefully we can already see that Paul is a political figure, and his gospel a political one. He proclaimed the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the proper ordering of communities that claimed to abide under his gracious reign. Such communities constitute the polis of Christ, the body politic of Jesus. You may not have thought about the nature of the church in this way before, but this is precisely what Paul imagines—the church of Jesus Christ is the body of Christ—the group in this or that ancient city that is loyal to the true ruler of all things and is thus related to one another as a unified body politic and relates to the outside community on behalf of its ruler, Jesus Christ.
Paul’s letters of instruction to such political bodies involves their social ordering, the transformation of their social practices, their economic exchanges with one another, their treating one another according to radically new social rules. They relate to one another, in fact, according to the realities of a coming political order—the Kingdom of God.
For Paul, God was doing his work in the world through local churches, each of which was an outbreak of Kingdom of God life on earth. Each church was a polis functioning and flourishing in the midst of the wider polis. When Paul talks about the church, then, he is elaborating a political vision.
Let’s turn, then, to Paul. I’ll first talk about Paul’s Scriptural heritage—the biblical narrative that informed his thinking. Paul was not shaped by Western individualism, had no knowledge of the Enlightenment, nor did he grow up among a people accustomed to over two centuries of democracy in the form of representative republicanism. The Scriptural vision of Israel’s identity and mission shapes his thought. I will then turn to Paul’s pre-conversion and post-conversion political mindsets. Much about his perspective changes—quite obviously. But not all of it. Following this, we’ll draw out some aspects of Paul’s political vision for the church. And finally, I will make some practical suggestions based on what Paul says about the church’s identity and mission in the world.