We live in a highly politicized world. The US is a democracy, and so has always been political, but it’s truer now than ever. Ever since Ted Turner founded CNN, news — which is mainly political — has dominated TV viewing for many of us. In lots of households, including my own, if we’re not watching sports, we’re watching Fox, HNN, or CNN.
When CNN was founded, they brought in people to debate both sides of a controversial issue — which was quite a novelty at the time. Before then, Walter Cronkite told us “That’s the way it is,” and that was the way it was. And so having both sides debated on TV was crazily liberating at the time.
Of course, the producers soon found that ratings were better when the two sides were rude, talked over each other, and refused to concede a point no matter how much proof was brought against them — and this led to a political culture that cares nothing for actual discussion and consensus. It’s all about shouting down the other side — and both sides are guilty of it.
And the church has become increasingly political as well. We are far more likely to speak ill of Bush or Obama in the hallways of the church building than was once true. Respect for the government is in rapid decline.
On the other hand, people are largely better informed than they once were. I’m sure we know much more about the various health care bills than we knew about the founding of the EPA or enactment of ERISA (Pension Reform Act) under Nixon. But a lot of what we “know” is unreliable. Even the “fact check” sources on the internet are often put there by advocacy groups for one side or the other.
And it’s not too surprising that the political parties want to gain the support of Christians — and as the church has seen the nation become more and more secular, the church has sought to regain influence through the political process. And that’s an ongoing debate within the church.
Some argue that the US was always meant to be a Christian nation. Others argue that we were intended to have a secular government. And churches often have “Bible” classes dedicated to the question of the Founder’s intent when they wrote the Constitution. Of course, when we read the Constitution, seeking the Founders’ intent, considering their historical background and their views of the world, we’re engaging in hermeneutics. It’s a similar process to what we do when we read the Bible.
But the Constitution isn’t scripture. It’s not inspired by God. And the intent of the Founders is not necessarily God’s intent. You see, when we gather in a church building to determine what Thomas Jefferson meant by this phrase or that, we are doing what lawyers and judges do. We may well be acting as good citizens of the country. But we aren’t acting much like Christians — because Christians study the word of God, not the words of Madison and Hamilton. We don’t learn what God wants for the government to be like from the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.
You see, we open the Constitution seeking to prove or disprove what we want, and we do that before we open the Bible to see what kind of government God wants. And this borders on idolatry. If I decide what’s right and good based on the words of James Madison, I’ve made him Lord. Or I’ve made myself Lord, by seeking to prove that my desires are bound on the government by law — rather than first asking what God wants.
Now, for a long time, I thought it was obvious that God wants the government to impose his will on people. But over the years, I changed my views — a lot. But it took a lot of time and study — and being rebuked by a few good souls. And it wasn’t an easy change because I’m a lawyer and I know politics and how to work the system. I know how the church can work the system. If you want the church to have secular power, I know how to do it.
I have been a registered lobbyist at both the state and federal levels. I’ve even been a registered influence peddler! There are several laws on the books that I’ve written. I know how to do this.
But I finally learned that the church is seeking to win God’s war with Satan’s weapons.
Consider First Century Rome. The people of Rome wrote on their public works SPQR — Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and the People of Rome”). The people of Rome identified with the government so much so that they placed the Senate above themselves. I can’t imagine us today saying “The legislature and people of Alabama,” as though we would find our identity in the Alabama legislature!
The point is, though, that the Romans were very political, too. They identified closely with the government of Rome — at least as much as we identify with our federal government.
Now, when Augustus became emperor, he was declared kyrios and soter — Lord and Savior — in a proclamation calling this euaggellion — “good news” — the same word we translate “gospel.” To a Roman, the gospel was that Augustus is Lord and Savior.
In Palestine, Herod was “king of the Jews.” That was his title, given him by Augustus, the emperor.
Of course, Jesus was the Messiah, which is Hebrew for “anointed.” The Greek word for anointed is christos — which we translate “Christ.” “Anointed” means “king” — and “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus the king” or even “king Jesus.” Remember that Saul and David became kings of Israel when Samuel anointed them.
And during the time of the apostles, the Empire was developing a cult in which the emperor would be worshiped as a god. Asia Minor, modern Turkey, where Paul spent much of his missionary work, was highly prosperous in those days. They grew rich off the trade routes and the good will of the emperor. And the cult of the emperor grew fastest and strongest there. Why?
Well, where your treasure is, there your heart is also, and they were rich and they credited the emperor with making it so. And so they built temples to the emperor and compelled people to offer sacrifices to him as to a god.
In Acts, we read how the gospel spread from Jerusalem, to Antioch, and up to Asia Minor. This would surely be one tough mission field!
When Paul met with the Jews, he announced that Jesus was Messiah = Christ = king and Lord and Savior. Paul says this is the “gospel of truth.” How would an agent of Caesar have interpreted those words? A good Roman citizen would have heard, “Good news, Jesus has ascended to the throne as a god over the empire, of which is king, lord, and savior (=protector)!” A good Roman citizen would have heard a direct challenge to the power of Caesar.
Meanwhile, the Jews in Asia Minor considered Paul a blasphemer. The Greeks and Romans would have seen him as a rebel. It’s no wonder he spent so much time in jail, getting beaten, and being stoned. It was a tough mission field, indeed. I mean, any sensible marketing person would have modified the message to be more acceptable to the local culture, to be more effective.
I have a book on my shelves put out by Focus on the Family where a Christian author tells us how to defeat pornography in our communities. He relates how he tried to do so from a Christian organization and repeatedly failed. And so he formed a secular organization, hid his Christianity, and prevailed on the community to zone pornography away from residential neighborhoods in order to preserve property values. He defeated porn appealing to people’s self-interest to relocate the stores. Praise Jesus!! (Sarcasm.)
Paul would have preferred to take a beating or be stoned before he’d retreat from the name of Jesus. He’d rather fail in his mission than fail to stand for Jesus. Paul saw his mission as converting people to the cross, so they’d bow before the one true king of the universe. And if this means failing to move the pornography away from his neighborhood, well, it’s a small price to pay to suffer in the name of Jesus.
Now, sometimes Christians obey the government in the name of Jesus. Sometimes we disobey the government in the name of Jesus. But it’s always service to Jesus. You see, it’s about who we worship. Do we worship our real estate values? Success? Our way of life? Power? Our schools? Our government? … Or our King? You only get to pick one.