The scriptures on the powers
Recent New Testament scholarship has brought a new focus to Paul’s teachings about the “powers.” When Paul refers to the “powers,” he is sometimes referring to spiritual opponents of Jesus and other times referring to those having power on earth. Often it’s hard to tell which. For example,
(Col. 1:16) For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
In Paul’s mind, there may not have been much of a distinction between demonic powers and a Roman emperor who insisted on being worshiped as a God. Either way, the powers were usurping the place of God.
Romans 13 teaches that God created government to protect us from evildoers, but government is part of a fallen creation and so government often usurps God’s place and become a rival for God’s power and influence. Indeed, it’s the nature of government to acquire more and more power, even claiming authority over the church.
In Colossians, Paul tells us how the powers are defeated -–
(Col. 2:15) And having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
The powers that were defeated include not only Satan but also the Roman and Jewish rulers who sought to kill Jesus and so prevent him from becoming King of the Jews. They failed. They failed because they assumed Jesus wanted power in the same sense that they had power -– earthly power to make people obey on pain of death or imprisonment.
But Jesus rejected that approach when he was first tempted by Satan during his 40-day fast in the wilderness. Rather, although Jesus could have called 10,000 angels, he allowed himself to be crucified, and so embarassed and defeated all rivals, in both the spiritual and earthly realms. And this enabled Jesus to set up a Kingdom built on love by people drawn voluntarily to the cross.
Therefore, just as Jesus did, the church is called to proclaim truth to power and declare the government and other powers wrong when they are wrong –- and to suffer the consequences of so doing. From John the Baptist to John the Revelator, the New Testament is the story of martyrdom and imprisonment for declaring God’s truth despite the objection of those with the power to kill and imprison.
Therefore, how can the evangelical church be a part of the Republican Party? How can the African-American and mainline Protestant churches be a part of the Democratic Party? How can we seek to defeat the powers while being a power?
One of the great problems with joining the power structure is that you must play by their rules to be successful. You sit by quietly while the powers do wrong so that you can accomplish a part of your agenda.
The churches in the Democratic Party tolerate its advocacy of abortion so they can press their agenda for the poor. The goal is righteous but the price is too high. It would be better to suffer crucifixion.
The churches in the Republican Party tolerate the President’s constant efforts to reduce programs that help the needy or protect the environment in order to press the government to oppose abortion and to promote chastity. Again, the goal is righteous but the price is too high. It would be better to suffer crucifixion.
Ironically, the church would gain far greater power -– God-given power –- by leaving the political realm and teaching the whole counsel of God. God’s power will always exceed man’s power. Instead, the church has allowed the powers to divide us and pit us against each other –- and we thereby oppose the will of Jesus for the witness of a united church.
We are seen by the politicians as just another special interest group to be used and manipulated to venal ends. Rather than being the voice of God, we are lumped in with the labor unions, Big Oil, defense contractors, AARP, gay rights movement, Hollywood, and others as just one more group with money that wants to buy something from government.
Even if this were to succeed (and it won’t), it’s the wrong approach. Allowing the church to be politically divided and embarrassed before a watching world is too high a price to pay. We would do better to be crucified.
We must hang our earthly ambitions on the cross and seek to accomplish God’s ends by God’s means.
Patriotism and Christianity are two very different things. We cannot serve two masters. We serve Jesus or we serve Washington DC. We can’t serve both.
Of course, there are times when the government wants the right thing, and in that case, we support the government — because we are Christians, not because we’re Americans.
You see, we aren’t Americans.
(Phil 3:20-21) But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
There is no dual citizenship. We can certainly use our earthly citizenship as a tool that serves God’s kingdom, but we can’t have divided loyalities. “Everything under his control,” not just my spiritual life, is the plan. Even my nationality and patriotism belong to Jesus.
(1 Pet 2:11-12) Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
This makes us aliens in our own country. And this creates a tension between the government and the church, because the government often insists on my loyalty, too. Indeed, it wants me to teach my children that they cannot be good Christians unless they support the government. (Would you tolerate this if you were a missionary to Romania?)
And this dramatically changes the conversation with those who argue that the US is a Christian nation. It’s hardly surprising that those who argue for a “Christian nation” have trouble telling us just what that means. And it’s even less surprising that the Christian nation idea is argued from secular history — the writings of 18th Century men — rather than the Bible.
As a result, even though I’m a lawyer and I’ve actually read the Constitution and studied it, I refuse to teach about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in Bible class. They aren’t the Bible.
As a result, I pray for my government and pay my taxes, as the Bible tells me to do. But my loyalty is to Jesus only.