Monthly Archives: March 2016

Scribes & Pharisees Call Out the Church

Mark 2:1-3:6 contains a series of five episodes in which the scribes and Pharisees raise questions about Jesus’ behavior. In four of the five episodes, they direct their questions to Jesus. But in vv. 15-16, they question the disciples.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

In terms of how this episode works on audiences of Mark’s gospel, something subtle is going on. The disciples throughout the gospel stand in for the church, so the scribes who are questioning the disciples are really challenging church audiences.

Think of films or plays in which characters break the fourth wall, departing from the narrative and speaking directly to the audience.

All Are Welcome

Sieger Köder, “All Are Welcome”

It’s as if the scribes pause the narrative and turn to church audiences to ask their question.

“Hey, church, are you paying attention to what Jesus is doing here? Do you see him eating with all the wrong people—the notorious sinners and those we consider traitors? These are the sort of scum upon whom God will surely rain down his judgment! Why is he spending time with them, running the risk of being seen to endorse them by eating with them?”

“And why is he so different from you? Your communities seem to be specially ordered to make sure you never run into these people? You’re so tidy and clean! Can you really claim to be a community loyal to this person?”

It does no good for us to answer that we truly do care for sinners but we just want to see them repent before we hang out with them. This is precisely the posture of the scribes and Pharisees. They long to see repentance and restoration on the part of sinners. But their method is to shun them into repentance, avoiding their contaminating presence.

Jesus doesn’t merely desire their repentance. He goes to them, walks among them, sits and eats with them. If God’s people are not among sinners and other marginalized people, the question must be faced, “why does Jesus eat with sinners and tax collectors when his disciples want to have nothing to do with them?”

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 6

Paul’s gospel, then, is thoroughly political, but not “political” according to the corrupted status quo of what we call politics in our 21st century American culture. Paul doesn’t call for the church to try to agitate for power and influence, and certainly wouldn’t tolerate rhetorically denouncing other people or fellow Christians in the name of differing party loyalties. In Paul’s view, God is making all things new through Jesus Christ and through him alone. God is working out his purposes in and through the church, pouring out his blessing on his people as they seek to faithfully embody the broken-hearted love of God for all people. So, some practical implications for contemporary church practice:

First, a lesson from Saul the Pharisee. He had a mind and heart more thoroughly saturated by Scripture than anyone currently alive. His aims and ambitions were completely oriented by God’s agenda! Or so he thought. It’s all too easy, once our passions are aroused, for us to distort Scripture, to see in the Bible what we want to see, and to have our notions of the ideal society shaped by cultural prejudices or other cultural voices than by God’s agenda. And it’s all too easy, driven by growing anger, to adopt a cultural mode of violence and coercion—even if it’s only verbal and rhetorical, and not physical. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re advocates for God’s agenda, but instead be in serious need of political repentance. Just as Saul converted from a politics of violence and coercion, Christian people must resist the temptation to rhetorical, verbal, and most certainly physical violence. We must develop and foster practices of gracious speech and other skills associated with peace-making.

Second, when it comes to politics, Christian people ought to think first of their church, its internal networks of relationships and its postures toward outsiders. For Christians, politics has to do with how we conduct ourselves in our churches and how our churches relate redemptively toward outsiders.

Third, our Christian identity, our loyalty to Jesus and those in our church, far outstrips any earthly affiliation and especially national political party identification. While Christians differ over policies and political ideologies, we ought to celebrate our common participation in the life of God in Christ by the Spirit.

Paul the Apostle

Fourth, we must reconsider what is shaping our imaginations. Through whose eyes are we seeing the world and our national situation? Cable news? Newspapers? Talk radio? Politically-charged web-sites? Are they so stirring us up with anger that we speak of this or that political figure derisively and in angry terms? Do our stirred-up passions drive us to think, act, and speak like non-Christians? Let’s have minds and hearts shaped by Scripture, oriented by hope in the coming Kingdom of God. Let’s set our hearts and minds on eternal things, on that Kingdom that is to come and which is already here in power. And let’s reconsider our words, and treat people as if we truly are followers of Jesus.

Fifth, when it comes to political action, let’s indeed get involved! But let’s think first about the efforts of our local bodies of Jesus-followers acting among our wider communities and neighborhoods. How can we get involved in practical ways to bless our local communities in the name of Jesus? We are to be communities of shalom and justice and self-giving love, rather than coercion and quests for power and influence, making demands that others meet our standards or become like us.

We can talk all we want about how policies should be different regarding immigration and local economics. But, whether you identify yourself as a Republican or Democrat, or whether you’re a conservative or a liberal, here’s just one practical suggestion for embodying the servant-shaped posture of Jesus toward the world.

Thinking especially of our situation here in West Michigan, why not get to know the leaders of local migrant worker communities and offer to help them figure out how to get legally documented? Do immigrant communities fear for their children or have trouble getting integrated in their schools? We can be advocates on behalf of those who are strangers and who live in fear. If we did, we would manifest the character of God.

Listen to what the God of Israel says to his people:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you afflict him at all, and if he does cry out to Me, I will surely hear his cry; and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:21-24).

God hasn’t changed. That is still his heart, and we can embody the character of that God in our social practices, acting as the polis of Jesus in our wider communities.

What if your church initiated an effort as advocates for immigrants? I can tell you right now it would be difficult. Strangers are . . . strange! It would mean sacrifice, re-orienting your lives, changing community patterns, getting to know people with whom you’re not comfortable – all behaviors that just might help us get over our constant complaints that our church communities are stagnant and complacent and lacking in excitement. Solve the problem. Get to know someone in need. He just make you draw upon God’s grace and ignite your heart with God’s own love with which he loves the alien and the stranger. And if they ask why you’re doing what you’re doing, you can tell them that you’re acting in the name of Jesus Christ so that you yourself can be pressed more deeply into the heart of the One who gave his life so that the world might truly live.

Well, there are so many more practical ways of living out Paul’s political vision, but I’ll leave it to you and your creativity to come up with those.

During this election season, you ought to consider well what candidate to vote for, and you ought to vote. But whether you’re Democrat, Republican, Libertarian or Green, you should also be aware that voting is only one among a limitless range of options for Christian political behavior—and there are many others that are far more effective, life-transforming, and community-enlivening, and that serve to manifest the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all things.

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 5

The church’s politics can be seen in at least three concrete ways. 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.

Paul the Apostle

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.

Tomorrow, some suggestions for embodying Paul’s political vision in our communities.


The Politics of Paul, Pt. 4

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.Paul the Apostle

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.

For tomorrow, some of the concrete ways that Paul’s churches enacted Paul’s political vision.

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 3

It would be an outrageous understatement to say that when he saw the exalted Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus, Saul’s perspective changed. Of course, it did. But we must take some time to unpack just how it changed and what aspects of it were transformed. First, when Saul saw the resurrected and ascended Jesus on his heavenly throne, he realized that resurrection had come—God had initiated his salvation program. And remember, for Paul resurrection was not merely a spiritual reality. It was holistic, involving political, economic, and social aspects of life, and even the transformation of the cosmos (God had defeated Sin, Death, and the powers that rule the present evil age).

Second, Saul realized that God had begun his resurrection agenda with the crucified Jesus—the crucified Jesus. We’re so used to this that we have difficulty realizing how shockingly scandalous it is. In the midst of a Jewish culture craving revenge, fantasizing about violent retaliation against their oppressors, God accomplishes salvation through Jesus’ death on the most potent political symbol of imperial domination and shameful political defeat. Jesus dies on a cross along with political agitators, violent criminals, and others that Rome simply wants to be rid of. Far from being cursed by the God of Israel, this Jesus has been vindicated, shown to be in the right, revealed to be God’s chief agent of salvation, resurrected, exalted, and installed as Cosmic Lord, ruler of all things in the heavens and on the earth. God does not accomplish his saving purposes through power, domination, or coercion, but through self-giving love, servant-hood, and giving himself fully for the life of the world and the flourishing of his enemies. That is, God saves only by his grace, and not based on works of righteousness.

Third, because of this, Saul now realizes that God’s politics must be shaped by the cross. If the Lord, whom God has installed as ruler of all things, triumphs by means of the cross, then all those loyal to him must be cruciform—that is, oriented by and shaped by the cross. If the ruler is cruciform, then the body politic—the polis of Jesus—must have its political, economic, and social life holistically determined by the cross, and not by power; not by coercion; not by violence. For Saul this was a breathtakingly radical reversal, indeed, so profound we can hardly grasp it.

Paul the Apostle

A fourth transformation of Saul’s political vision—resurrection doesn’t work like Saul had anticipated. He expected one singular end-time event—the Day of the Lord. This was to be the day when God would judge the wicked, save his people, raise the righteous dead, transform creation, and bring in the fullness of the Kingdom—God’s new creation political order.

But Saul comes to understand this mystery—that God has begun his work of salvation, but will complete it over time. Christ is the first-fruits and God will raise from the dead all those who are loyal to Jesus in another future end-time event—the day of Christ. In the meantime, however, God is building his church—his alternative body politic—the polis of Jesus set among the poleis of the world.

Fifth, Saul undergoes a radical reversal regarding Israel’s relationship to the nations. Saul certainly had the same prejudices as his fellow Jews toward non-Jews. He had little doubt that the God of Israel was going to return to rescue Israel and blast the nations off the map for their idolatry and their status as God’s enemies. For Saul to hear, then, from Ananias in Acts 9 that he was to bear the name of Jesus “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel,” it must have come as quite a shock.

Saul now sees that God doesn’t hate the nations (i.e., the gentiles) nor does he long for their destruction.  The God of Israel loves the nations and Jesus died so that they might truly live. And God is no longer reaching the nations of the world through the nation of Israel, but is building a new people—a new body politic, a new polis, drawn together of all the nations, Jew and non-Jew, of those who follow Jesus. In fact, as God builds his new body politic, he is drawing in people from all ethnicities so that the singular defining identity marker is “Jesus-follower,” and not Jew, or non-Jew, Greek, Scythian, European, Italian, Irish, white-American, African-American, Hispanic, Arab, Michigander. All are united in the one new polis of Jesus in which all other identities are subjugated to our membership in the body of Christ.

Saul of Tarsus, therefore, had a radical political conversion. His conversion wasn’t merely “spiritual,” involving a profound change of heart.  Saul came to see that God had installed a new ruler of all things, seen and unseen, things in heaven and things on earth—the Lord Jesus Christ. Saul’s conversion, then, is a thoroughly political one, and his politics are transformed thoroughly.

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 2

Paul’s thought is most fundamentally shaped by the Scriptural narrative of the Creator God and his call of Israel as his special possession. The God of Israel created the world and everything in it. He spoke a creative word, ordering the world and placing humanity within the garden of Eden. God charged Adam and Eve to fill the entire earth and to cultivate it. They were to rule over creation as viceregents on God’s behalf in such a way that reflected his ultimate rule and brought forth the earth’s fruitfulness. They were to cultivate shalom, the flourishing of humanity and creation together. God’s original intentions, therefore, were political, having to do with the reign of God and the right ordering of humanity’s social behaviors.

Humanity rebelled, however, and no longer ruled creation in the name of the one true God, and they no longer sought to cultivate shalom, looking after God’s good world in harmony with others. They now exploit the creation for short-term and selfish pleasures, spoiling it and exploiting one another. The fall into sin introduced a disordered politics of chaos and destruction.

In response to this, God made promises to redeem, and began to fulfill these promises by calling Abraham, promising to make of his descendants a great nation and through it to redeem the nations of the world (Gen. 12:1-3).

God called Israel out from Egypt to make them a “holy nation,” his own unique possession. Through Israel God intended to fulfill his promises to Abraham, making them a blessing to the nations. This is what is meant by Israel as a “Kingdom of priests.” They were to represent God to the nations, and were to lead the nations in the worship of the one true God. From the very beginning, then, we have a political vision for God’s people, involving both domestic and international relations. Domestically, they were to be “holy,” having an internal life that was to be completely different from the nations. They were to be a nation of justice and compassion, looking after the poor, the orphan, and the widow. There was to be no one needy among them, since they were all brothers and sisters, and the one true God whose world is one of plenty was to dwell among them uniquely.

And they had a very unique foreign policy. While maintaining their distinct identity, they were to welcome the nations, developing relationships of mutual sharing in order to disciple the nations in the way of the God of Israel, who was also the Great King over all the earth. Their foreign policy as a kingdom of priests was a seriously risky mission! It involved, after all, a military policy of vulnerability and weakness. According to God’s original design, however, if Israel was faithful to God regarding its domestic practices and international relations, God himself would be their security.

Paul the Apostle

As the story goes, however, Israel failed on a massive scale. Rather than being a light to the nations, they wanted to be like the nations. Rather than cultivating a politics of holiness, they mimicked the corrupted political, economic and social practices found among their idolatrous neighbors. They developed practices of injustice, exploitation of the weak and defenseless, and adopted the worship of the gods of the nations. They did not trust God to protect them or their national interests so they made treaties with the nations in order to guarantee their security.

And they perverted their foreign policy of holiness, distorting God’s Law. They turned its practices into a set of distinctives that they then held over against their neighbors, adopting an arrogant and judgmental posture toward the nations God wanted to redeem. Rather than being agents of the life of God to the nations, they grew to fear and despise the nations, longing for their destruction. And they imagined that God regarded outsiders with the same attitude of disgust. Because of the vast range of their corruptions as a body politic, God sent Israel into exile.

Even in exile, however, God wanted his people to maintain a political vision of holiness. They were to stick together and become a wandering people among the nations—a polis among the poleis, a cohesive body politic among foreign kingdoms and nations. They were to cultivate internal practices of mutual care, love, servanthood, humility, and economic sharing. And they were seek the blessing of the surrounding polis—the wider culture within which they were now situated. Looking ahead, the political vision of a wandering people faithful to God while among the nations likely shaped Paul’s vision for the church more than anything else.

While they were in exile, the God of Israel insisted that this was not the end of the story. He promised that he would return to gather them back to the land and establish his Kingdom among them once again. He would return to restore his people, sending his Spirit to breathe new life into dead bones and reconstitute Israel as a nation that would truly “know God.” God would make them finally into the just nation that he called them to be. They would practice justice and look out for the poor, the orphan, and the widow, and they would lead the nations in the worship of the one true God, enjoying together his magnanimous blessing.

These promises of a restored body politic shaped Jewish expectations of salvation in the centuries preceding the turn of the eras. First century Jews lived under the oppressive domination of Rome and called out ever more passionately for redemption from the God of Israel. This redemption was political—they wanted freedom from oppression, the installation of righteous leaders, a society of justice and compassion where everyone was looked after—they longed for shalom, the political order of flourishing that comes from God’s very presence among them.

The Politics of Paul, Pt. 1

*In the election cycle in 2012, I participated in several discussions bringing biblical and theological perspectives to bear on politics. I wrote several posts stemming from my reflections on Paul’s political vision. I’m going to re-post them over the next few days.

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.

Paul the Apostle

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.

Christian Discipleship: An Introduction

In moments of cultural unrest and political crisis, identities become confused. I find it helpful in such times to review the basics of what it is to be Christian.

To be Christian is to identify with the cross of Christ, knowing that this secures to us eternal life now and in the future.

When we are baptized, we publicly identify with the death of Christ. His shameful death is ours; his surrender of his rights is ours; his being socially ostracized is ours; his refusal to retaliate or lash out verbally is ours; his love for enemies is ours; his praying for his persecutors is ours; his rejection of grasping after power is ours; his giving up control of the course of history is ours.

To begin as a Christian disciple, then, is to publicly surrender our rights, privileges, symbols of social status and the desire to control the course of history. It is to cast our lots with the coming kingdom of God rather than any earthly nation.

Much of Christian discipleship is the life-long discovery of just what we gave up when we considered everything loss in order to gain Christ.

In times of cultural unrest, when anxieties are enflamed, it may seem best to assert our rights, to fight our enemies, to grasp after power so that we might determine the course of history and to control national events.

Christians must see in this the temptation to give up our Christian discipleship, to get off the cross, to cut ourselves off from Christ.

And this would be a tragic mistake, for only those who identify with the death of Christ are guaranteed the hope of eternal life. Only those who surrender earthly rights will receive a heavenly kingdom. Only those who lose their lives will live.


Now, identification with the cross does not mean doing nothing. We are baptized into a new people, and we enter into wholly new social behaviors such as loving and serving others. We welcome strangers and those with no social capital and we treat them as equals and honored guests. Christians provide hospitality to others by feeding and clothing them and helping the homeless to find sustainable housing.

Consistent through the Scriptures of Israel, the teaching of Jesus, the apostles and New Testament writers, God calls Christian communities to do these things especially to those whom the majority culture demonizes.

These are all unusual behaviors. They are not the norm.

But Christians behave this way so that the God who loves his enemies will be truly seen in this world. Christians behave this way to make manifest that they truly belong to a coming kingdom. Christians behave this way because they follow a king who rules from a cross, who sits on his throne as a slaughtered lamb. And Christians behave this way because they believe that when they do, the Lord Jesus Christ and the God who sent him most effectively dwells among them.

In a time of cultural upheaval and enflamed anxieties, it may seem best to close our doors, to demonize others, to hate our enemies, to retaliate, to lash out verbally, to refuse hospitality to strangers and to deny refugees the basic care they need. It may seem to make sense to adopt the hopes and hatreds of the majority culture.

Christians must see in this the temptation to cease our Christian discipleship, to no longer be the radically alternative community ruled by Jesus, to see Jesus’ commands as burdensome, inconvenient, dispensable and undesirable.

Giving in to this temptation is to go the way of the world and to testify that we do not believe in a coming kingdom. It is to grasp after our lives now because we do not believe in the promise that by losing them now we will gain them later.

Christian discipleship is not the denial of politics. It is the rejection of the politics of power, quests for control and anger, and the cultivation of a cross-shaped politics of weakness, welcome and joy.