We’ve covered this topic here a couple of times, but it’s one that’s rarely preached or covered in Bible class, although it’s fairly prominent in the NT. For example,
(Eph. 6:11-12 ESV) 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Paul plainly believes in spiritual rulers, authorities, powers, and forces that are opposed to the gospel. On the other hand,
(Col. 1:15-17 ESV) 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
While the powers are opposed to the gospel, they are also creations made by Jesus “for him.” They were made to serve Jesus’ own purposes. Therefore, Christians should submit to these authorities —
(Rom. 13:1-3 ESV) Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
— which all very confusing.
I mean, are they good or bad? Enemies of Jesus or powers that rule for our good? Which is it? And are these powers earthly kings and princes? Or spiritual angels or demons?
In the first-century Jewish and Christian mind-set, heavenly and earthly rulers are connected. God reigns over all creation through a chain of rulers stretching from heaven to earth. God is in charge of archangels who are in charge of lower angels who are in charge of kings who are in charge of governors who are in charge of local rulers who are in charge of cities that are made of families, which are led by parents.
Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 752-755). . Kindle Edition.
That is, to the First Century mind, each nation has its own gods, and the kings who rule do so for the gods they serve. Thus, kings and demons are in league. To serve Caesar is to serve Caesar’s gods, and to serve his gods is to serve Caesar. In Paul mind, the “powers” were both the spiritual beings behind the scenes and the earthly rulers through whom they acted.
This chain of command deeply impacts human flourishing. Since these authorities came into power in a fallen world, their impact is often negative. That is why humans struggle against them (Eph 6: 12). Some of them even strive to separate us from God’s love (Rom 8: 38– 39). So Christ made a spectacle of the powers and triumphed over them on the cross (Col 2: 15). Since that time, they are being subjected under Christ’s feet, and those that resist will eventually be destroyed (1 Cor 15: 24– 26).
Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 766-770). . Kindle Edition.
But as we see in Col and in several other passages, the powers can and do sometimes serve legitimate and holy ends. When that happens, Christians should honor the powers —
These verses teach us that governing authorities have been instituted by God. They serve God and they serve our good, even though they don’t always do what is good for us. When functioning properly they enable us to lead quiet and peaceful lives, help create conditions in which people may be saved, punish wrongdoers, curtail bad conduct, and encourage good conduct. When they carry out their proper function, those under them are free to flourish, including the church. Even Jesus recognizes their power on loan from God (John 19: 11).
Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 789-792). . Kindle Edition.
To the modern mind, the “powers” might be equated to the modern nation-state as well as to modern systems that regulate the world, such as capitalism and nationalism. These can be very good things — or very bad. But they serve to regulate the world and provide a level of stability essential for God’s people to flourish. (We’ve covered in earlier series the question of whether there are actually spiritual beings behind earthly powers; but it’s not hard to imagine a demon or two behind Nazism or Stalinism — or driving Hitler or Stalin.)
When nations and economies fail, people suffer. On the other hand, nations and systems such as capitalism are capable of bringing about their own kind of suffering. So they are not inherently evil, but they are certainly fallen — and like people, capable of great good and great evil.
Nugent develops a theology of the powers from that premise. He ultimately concludes,
My point is this: The tasks of keeping sin in check, meeting basic needs, and making the world a better place are crucial for human thriving, but they are tasks that God has assigned to ordinary human power structures.
Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 876-877). . Kindle Edition.
In other words, the church/Kingdom is not charged to govern or fix the secular world. The world (the part of the cosmos outside of the Kingdom) is governed by the powers, and the powers are tasked with keeping the world in proper order.
The role of the church isn’t charged to repair a broken world but to invite those in the world to leave the world and join the church — because the Kingdom is a better place. The place of the Kingdom is to be an alternative society/community that demonstrates the superiority of the reign of Jesus over the reign of the powers.
God can always find wealthy benefactors and worldly rulers to meet needs and organize the masses. There will always be prosperous pagans, high-profile humanitarians, middle-class do-gooders, and upwardly mobile politicians who want to secure a lasting name by making this world a slightly better place. It appears to be God’s will to use such people to do this very thing, whatever their intentions may be.
Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 888-891). . Kindle Edition.
Think about it. When the church organizes a drive to free women from sexual slavery, the church finds they are in league with Western governments, non-governmental secular nonprofits, wealthy do-gooders, and many other secular powers who want the same thing.
When the church campaigns for poor countries to be relieved of their debts, the church is doing good, but it’s doing good right alongside the United Nations and many other powers that are campaigning for the very same thing.
The point isn’t that the powers are always doing good. They do evil as well. Nor is the point that the church shouldn’t be there at all. Rather, the point is that God very often is already there acting through powers and authorities that aren’t the Kingdom, because the primary role of these powers and authorities — when they are acting as God meant for them to act — is to do good for humans (in or out of the Kingdom) and the Creation.
But this is not the primary purpose of the Kingdom. And sometimes the Kingdom prefers to be a power rather than the Kingdom of Heaven — which is a mistake.
What God wants from his set-apart people, however, is much more important according to Scripture. Only we can do it. According to Isaiah, that important task involves being a light to the nations that will reach the ends of the earth. “It is too light a thing” for us to focus on anything else.
Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 892-894). . Kindle Edition.
Nugent works through Deu and Isa to demonstrate how God’s plan is intended to work —
Notice how God’s people come to bless and instruct the nations according to these verses. The order is crucial:
1. God takes his people away from the nations and makes them his own nation.
2. God’s people order their lives according to God’s instructions.
3. God’s people thrive due to the superior way of life that he gives them and the blessings he pours upon them.
4. The nations notice and are impressed, having never before seen such a life.
5. The nations decide on their own to come to where God is blessing his people in order to learn this way of life from him.
It’s important to note what God’s people do not do. They do not come up with their own plan for making the world better. They do not engineer their own path to success. They do not devise a marketing strategy and promote it among the nations. Nor do they presume because of their prosperity and unique relationship to God that they are entitled to rule over other nations. They do not seek to enlarge their territory by absorbing inferior nations. They do not colonize other nations for their own good or head up an international coalition. They simply live how God calls them to live. They don’t try to make the world a better place. They humbly accept that God is making them into a better place.
Nugent, John C.. Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church (Kindle Locations 973-986). . Kindle Edition.