I’ve claimed thus far that Paul’s gospel is political, and I’ve already given some hints about the basic shape of his outlook. But what are the more specific political contours of his thought? Just how does this work out when we turn to the sorts of things he actually wrote to churches?
First, as I’ve already mentioned, the heart of Paul’s gospel is the announcement of a new ruler—Jesus Christ as cosmic Lord. This is, of course, a political title. Jesus is not only the Messiah of Israel, but Lord over all things, highly exalted over all powers and authorities (Eph. 1:20-22). Jesus Christ is the political ruler of a newly gathered people—the new creation polis of God.
Second, Paul’s gospel is the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited Kingdom of God, a new and life-giving, reality-altering, community-transforming realm into which God is drawing people by his Spirit. This political reality is the emergence of a God-empowered, Spirit-animated realm that manifests the reign of the Lord Jesus through a radically new social order—the polis of Jesus.
Writing to the Colossians, Paul says that God “has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” He calls on this same imagery in Gal. 1:3-5:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forevermore (vv. 3-5).
At salvation, God snatches people out of enslavement within the oppressive matrix of the present evil age, brings them into the life-giving Kingdom and sets them under the gracious reign of his Son, Jesus Christ. We now participate in the reality of the being-restored creation by the power of the Spirit. This is the fundamental reality about which Paul speaks—a new political reality with renewed political practices. Paul says to the Galatians that no longer does ethnic identity determine personal value (Gal. 3:28). He condemns those who compel or coerce non-Jews to become Jews. According to his gospel, Jews and gentiles must accept and love one another because they together inhabit a new political reality and have been united by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Paul went on at least three missions to establish Kingdom communities throughout the world, revisiting them, sending ministry partners to them, praying for them, and writing them letters to see that they would flourish and grow.
Third, the church as a body politic takes its orientation from Israel as a political entity. The church is not Israel, nor is it a nation like other nations, determined by one ethnicity and situated on a distinct patch of land. But Israel’s identity and mission shape the church’s identity and mission. This is signaled by Paul’s language for the church, which he borrows from Scripture’s language about Israel.
Paul calls the church “holy ones” in several places, and uses “holiness” language quite often to speak of his churches’ identity with reference to God. This does not merely point to a moral purity before God (though it may include this). It points to Israel’s politically-oriented vocation. God called them as a radically different sort of people who were to embody a radically different domestic set of social practices, and a completely unique set of relationships with the surrounding nations. When Paul uses “holiness” language for the church, he’s getting at how the polis of Jesus is supposed to be this sort of people among the various peoples of the world.
In several of his letters, Paul refers to readers as “chosen,” or “elect.” He’s not developing a doctrine of predestination in these places, but again, referring to Israel’s election. God chose Abraham and Israel, not because he loved them more than the nations, but precisely because he loved the nations. His chosen ones are those who are special recipients of God’s love so that they can be agents of that love to others. When Paul uses election language of the church, he’s thinking of the identity of Israel as agents of God’s pursuit of the nations and of the missional character of Israel. This vision of a political unit that embodies God’s relentless love for the nations shapes how Paul conceives of the church.
Finally, Paul begins nearly every letter with a greeting of “grace and peace.” Peace, of course, is one way of translating the Hebrew term shalom. Beyond merely indicating the mental or spiritual state of his readers, Paul wishes for them an experience of the political order of universal flourishing that was to characterize God’s world from the beginning.
Much more could be said about this, but this is just to say that the political identity and political mission of Israel determines how Paul conceives of the church.
Just to sum up, the church’s politics can be seen in at least three concrete ways that I’ll just mention briefly. The Lord’s Supper was a political practice that reflected the sort of community that embodies the death of Jesus Christ. How is this so? When the world eats its meals, it gathers rich with rich, poor with poor, people from this side of town with people from the same side of town. Social groupings are determined by ethnicity, shared interest, income level, social class, etc. When they eat, the more important people sit at the head and near other important people—they have seats of prominence that reflect their status.
Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor. 11 present a different scenario that reflects the church’s subversive character as a holy body. Everyone was to wait for one another. The poor were welcome and weren’t to be shamed, but could enjoy a feast even if they had nothing to bring. And the wealthy were to bring more than they could afford, sharing from their bounty with others and sitting alongside people of lower status. This would have hurt their social capital in the eyes of the world, so eating the Lord’s supper would have been politically dangerous and risky for those with wealth. But when people gather in Jesus’ name and depict their new political identity with this sort of political practice, the Lord’s death is proclaimed, and the church powerfully witnesses to Jesus Christ’s Kingdom reign.
Second, the church’s politics can be seen in their care for the poor. In Acts 2 and 4, Luke mentions that there was no one needy among the polis of Jesus because everyone was looked after. People were selling their possessions in order to share with one another. Further, in Gal. 2, Paul reports that when the two major arms of the church, represented by Peter and Paul, got together, the one thing they heartily agreed on was that they should remember the poor. The polis of Jesus must have as one of its central concerns a care for the marginalized and poor within its ranks, and a heart for the poor and suffering in their surrounding communities. This is yet again an instance in which God’s commission for Israel shapes Paul’s vision for the church.
Third, the internal life of the church and its posture toward outsiders must always be cruciform and servant-shaped. God triumphed over his enemies and the corruptions of the world by going to the cross, giving his life for his enemies. That means that the internal sets of political behaviors must embody self-giving love and cruciform servanthood. And the corporate shape of the church that relates to the world must be cruciform. As the body politic of Jesus encounters the political bodies and structures of the world, we must maintain postures of humility, weakness, self-giving love, cruciformity—in an effort to see God at work among them and so that God will powerfully work in us for the glory of God’s name.
These political bodies were alternative communities that manifested in their social practices the triumph of God and the reign of the Lord Jesus. They did this in their care for one another, in their use of property and money to meet each others’ needs, in their deference toward one another rather than domination of one another, and in their regard for the larger communities in which they were set. All that is to say, their political behaviors—their conduct as the polis of Jesus—functioned as a public monument to the reign of Jesus over all things. Just as he is a Lord who triumphs and rules in a radically unexpected and unprecedented manner, so his body politic functions internally and externally in a way that is completely different from any other political body on earth.