Adapted from ‘Political Thought: A Student’s Guide’ (Crossway)
When I consider the question of where the teaching of Jesus fits into our current politics, I realize that readers are likely to begin thinking right away about questions such as abortion, immigration, racism, social justice and any number of other current issues. That is a good impulse. If we take the lordship of Christ in our lives seriously, then we should seek to apply that lordship to our participation in politics.
Most readers of this article will be citizens in democratic republics who have the right to speak, to organize, to petition and to vote. They should absolutely be thinking carefully about how they can act in a responsible and loving way in the light of both their vertical relationship to God and their horizontal relationships with fellow image bearers. I think it is useful to think in terms of the brotherhood and sisterhood of men and women under the fatherhood of God. Just to state it that way helps us to begin thinking well.
Rather than work my way through a list of current issues and to suggest which choices would have the approval of Jesus Christ (which in some cases could be presumptuous based on my own sin nature, biases and limitations), I would like to take note of two major points that I see shining through from Scripture.
HOW WE VIEW GOVERNMENT
The first point has to do with how we view government. One event from the life of Christ leads us to consider the matter directly. In Mark 12:13–17 Jesus faced a hostile audience eager to trip him up with a question that would expose him to scorn. As a teacher of all that is “true,” would he pay taxes to Caesar? He asked for a coin and contemplated what was engraved upon it. He saw the image of Caesar and answered, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The immediate impact of the statement is that money comes from the system the government has set up and so we should pay the tribute that government then demands. But Jesus could accomplish that teaching by simply instructing followers to “render unto Caesar.” He goes further. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
It seems to me that what Jesus says in the passage is that there is a place for the government. It has a rightful task and a duty it should fulfill. But even bringing God into consideration introduces a new dimension. The idea and reality of a Caesar is a grand and mighty thing, but as soon as we place God next to this earthly ruler, Caesar’s stature is immediately and radically put into perspective. Caesar will be like all the others. Earthly kingdoms will crumble and statues will erode. Their real significance is that they reflect (often badly) God’s greater rule. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
There is a rightful zone of activity that belongs to the government, but it is not coextensive with the whole that is ruled by God. The government should never be confused with the authority behind all authorities. When governments go beyond merely tolerating sin and instead celebrate it, they hack away at legs of their own thrones. And when governments seek to force Christians to betray their understanding of the lordship issue—namely that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not—the Christian must say with the apostles (and martyrs throughout history) that we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
My second point about what Jesus teaches flows directly from the first. In Matthew chapters 24 and 25, Jesus definitively declares his kingship. He will sit on a glorious throne, not as some local chieftain presiding over a tribe, or even as a great emperor of many lands, but rather as the King over all the nations with their people gathered before him. We cherish our democracies and our rights to have governments whose authority depends upon our consent. That is all very good as image-bearers relate to one another and we prevent any one sinful human being or small group from wielding too much power. But we must also remember not to think merely of Jesus as a friend or a brother. Make no mistake. He is a king. Not only is a he a king, he is the one true King.
I think one of the great lessons of the miserable experience of Israel’s monarchy (one that God warned the people against) is that there is only one man truly worthy to rule. That man is Jesus Christ. All real authority derives from God.
The political impact of that reality is that as much as we become excited over the presidencies of people like Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan, we should be far more attentive to the reality of the kingship of Jesus Christ. Christ’s rule may seem remote to us as cable news and social media obsess moment to moment and day to day over the rush of decisions, activities, and controversies that surround politicians, but we would be wiser to realize that his reign is like the heaven C.S. Lewis depicted in The Great Divorce. It is real. It is joyously, dangerously, thrillingly, devastatingly real. We are mere shadows before its light if we are separated from our true Lord.
I have studied politics most of my life. And like so many, I have lived and died over the many victories and defeats that come with modern campaigns and legislative battles. But the older I get, the more clear it is to me that the most significant thing I have to say about politics is that Jesus Christ is King. Those are the words that should be burning within us.