As God moves in History bringing redemption to the entire fallen cosmos, one aspect will necessarily be cultural transformation. And, part of cultural transformation will necessarily manifest itself politically and socially, that is, not merely or solely in the hearts of believers.
In today’s 24-hour news cycle, political banter is virtually unavoidable and a lot of what we hear is distasteful. Consider a few recent examples:
- Robert De Niro spewing crude language toward POTUS at the Tony Awards
- Popular TV comedians mocking the looks of a disfigured Navy veteran seeking a Congressional office
- The entire SCOTUS nomination process where the Senate’s “advice and consent” role has become “search and destroy” the character of the “wrong party’s” nominee
Political speech seems increasingly ugly, distasteful, uncivil, vulgar, immature, and counterproductive…
The perception is that political engagement at best produces a Pyrrhic victory, and at worst comprises a foolish Pickett’s charge, distracting from, undermining, or erecting barriers to, the Gospel and being “Gospel-centered.”
And, given those [perceived] parameters, it’s no wonder that non-engagement by some well-meaning Christians is increasingly justified by claiming politics “is NOT a Gospel issue; let’s just avoid politics and pursuing power for the Gospel’s sake.”
At such cultural moments, Christians may be tempted to conclude that politics is dirty and no Christian should be involved in law & public policy.
Yet, what if politics, rather than being dirty, is instead a good work? What if the Gospel not only has political implications, but IS in some sense inherently political. In short, what if politicsIS a gospel issue?
While today’s believers seem to hold a welter of opinions about such things, the Apostle Paul approaches such things with refreshing clarity:
dAll Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that ethe man of God2 may be complete, fequipped gfor every good work.
Let’s do some sanctified thinking: Are the public square and the common good, including Politics, areas that could benefit from teaching? Is there something to be learned? Are there politically-tethered concerns that need correcting? Would those working in these arenas benefit from “training in righteousness?” Is Politics a good work fitting for engagement by Jesus’ followers? Are such things proper concerns of the institutional church and her ordained spokesmen?
If the Gospel is in some sense political and if politics comprises a good work, it follows that Scripture will impact our approach to this good work as a Gospel effort. So, is the Gospel political?
The Gospel’s Cultural Context: A Political Climate
The early Christians, though pious, knew nothing of a truncated privatized faith. Rather, their faith had public traction precisely because it was lived publicly, including being clear about ultimate authority on heaven and earth, which is an inherently political notion.
Consequently, we see boldness attached to the earliest public expressions and applications of theology, even at great personal (and political!) risk. Consider Peter’s proclamation:
It is one thing to express a religious preference – this was certainly common in Rome’s polytheistic culture. However, it was quite another to proclaim and promote an exclusivism of one’s religious convictions. This underlies Peter’s point.
This exclusivism spawned a response from the legal and political realm, in what may be the first “speech codes.” Note how the public officials responded:
27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, e“We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you fintend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, g“We must obey God rather than men. [sermon excluded]
33 When they heard this, they twere enraged and wanted to kill them.
Certainly, this narrative reflects “Gospel implications.” And yet, looking closely, there does exist political implications given the cultural context. The Roman and Jewish opposition was not merely personal or subjective; it was institutional and stemmed from official objective political commitments. Those commitments clashed with the political commitment which underpins the Gospel: Christ’s Lordship.
Peter no doubt chose his words to effectuate maximal listener impact. These words, especially Acts 4:12, are latently loaded politically because they mimic and thereby directly confront words uttered by the most powerful political man in the world at the time: Caesar Augustus, who had proclaimed just a few years earlier:
“Salvation is to be found in none other [except] Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved.”
As one scholar explained, this formed the predicate for an inevitable cultural and pollical clash that we see manifesting itself just a few years later:
As Ethelbert Stauffer, in Christ and the Caesars, points out, Augustus saw himself as “the world’s saviour who was to come.”When, in the year 17 B.C., “a strange star shone in the heavens, he saw that the cosmic hour had come, and inaugurated a twelve-day Advent celebration, which was a plain proclamation of Virgil’s message of joy: ‘the turning-point of the ages has come.’” The political order embodied and manifested the divinity inherent in being, and salvation was therefore in and through this high point of power, Caesar. “Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus, and there is no other name given to men in which they can be saved.” Conflict between Christ and Caesar was thus escapable.
Christ’s coming in this cultural context precipitated a clear, public, and unmistakable political clash. . .
And Peter succinctly and infallibly by the Spirit puts it in the correct perspective, echoing and referencing – yet almost mocking – Caesar’s proclamation and inscription. In this political and cultural “smack down,” there can be only one ultimate authority. Peter tells us this is Jesus, not Caesar and this point is a radical, subversive, and inescapably political claim.
Politics and political currency are real and Politics is necessary, and Politics is inevitable, BUT Politics and political power are penultimate, NOT ultimate – that’s the Gospel’s cultural message and context.
Nevertheless, just because the Gospel is ultimate and politics is penultimate does not mean that the Gospel is apolitical or that Jesus’ followers can be indifferent to politics. The cultural context dictates – and will always so dictate – otherwise. Jerusalem will always clash with Athens, as Tertullian remarked. And, part of that clash is inherently political.
The Gospel’s Creational Context: A Political Climate
Christianity as a Worldview IS Political in a real sense and therefore engaging in Law & Public Policy is a legitimate and first order calling. As such, working in this arena is just as spiritually legitimate as so-called “full time gospel-centered ministry.” This is true not only given the Gospel’s Cultural context, but also because of its Creational context.
Paul in addressing those living in the heart of Caesar’s realm (Rome), first articulates cosmology – the structure of real reality and the Gospel’s creational context. He does this before tackling technical theological themes like justification, sanctification, election, perseverance, et al. It is this cosmological context that provides foundational points for rightly assessing and understanding law and politics. And, this demonstrates the inherent political character of the Gospel. Or put differently, one cannot disavow politics and simultaneously claim to be “Gospel-centered,” if one take’s Paul’s cosmology seriously.
Paul’s Cosmology, that is, Twoism teaches two things: (1) Reality and therefore, Law has an inherent structure; and (2) there can be no neutrality with respect to that structure. This is the Gospel’s creational context and it too is unmistakably political.
FIRST: Paul sets forth a two option cosmology—what’s real reality—and this impacts what comprises Law (Romans 1:18-32):
EITHER: Reality is TWO comprised of the Creator and Everything Else (Creation); OR Reality is ONE: Monism, a single metaphysic, expressed in a myriad of ways.
Paul’s further point: One’s Cosmology – one’s understanding of “reality” — relates to behavior and therefore impacts Law, Jurisprudence, and Policy. Worldview correlates with ethics.
Here’s why: The Twoist reality is that God is Holy, that is, utterly other from Creation. There exists a Creator-Creature distinction. The Creator alone is independent, as Paul affirms during his engagement in the Pagan public square. He commences and roots his argument is creation/cosmology:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord [a serious political term] of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,  nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,
This establishes another exclusive claim: Only God is transcendent and therefore, ONLY His Law is truly transcendent.
Consequently, in this cosmology, this view of reality’s structure, the creation, including its positive law and politics, is therefore necessarily dependent on and derivative from this independent transcendent God:
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
” ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
Therefore: because the Creator alone is transcendent (holy and independent), His Law will necessarily and properly be transcendent: the “Law ABOVE the Law” . . . Sometimes Called Natural Law. This structure generates implications for understanding and rightly ordering Law and Politics.
As Oliver O’Donovan explains:
“The state exists in order to give judgment,”O’Donovan argues, “but under the authority of Christ’s rule it gives judgement under law, never as its own law” (DN, 233). The revelation of God in Christ has a relativizing effect on the powers that be: “The legislative activity of princes, then, was not a beginning in itself; it was an answer to the prior lawmaking of God in Christ, under which it must be judged. Christendom in effect refused the classical commonplace that the ruler was ‘living law,’ his personal authority indistinguishable from the authority of the law he gave” (DN, 234).
And so from the matrix of Christendom “we witness the birth of constitutional law”: “Law not only proceeds from the ruler; it precedes him. His own legitimation must be a matter of appeal to law” (DN 236). 33
The earthly political authority is only derivatively political because it stems from an ultimate political authority: Christ the Lord. Accordingly, all earthly authority, including political authority, though generally legitimate, must be derived “from above” as Jesus told the politician Pilate (Jn. 19:11) – it is NEITHER autonomous NOR independent – and it either aligns and coheres with the higher law or it doesn’t.
Writing in 1981, one commentator put it this way, again using starkly biblical—and inescapably political–terminology:
Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final assertion Christians make about all of reality, including politics. Believers now assert by faith what one day will be manifest to the sight of all: every earthly sovereignty [States, Nations, et al] is subordinate to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.
Politics per se cannot possibly be “dirty” because Christ Himself holds a political office from which all earthly authority derives: He is Lord.
Another scholar put it this way:
Christian faith is either relevant to all of life or it is relevant to none of it: the claims of God are either total, or He is not God. To ask Christianity to stay in its own territory is to ask it to stay in all of life.
—including cultivating a faithful presence in the public square for Law, Policy, Politics, and the Common Good.
What is the aim or telos of that faithful presence, if rightly ordered? What should be the trajectory of rightly ordered political power? In what thematic direction should Christians propose and seek to influence Policy?
Daniel Driesbach describes the vector and motif of a God-shaped (and Gospel-shaped!) faithful presence in the Political and legal sphere:
The cause of liberty is the cause of God; God favors and approves the cause of liberty, and tyranny and arbitrary rule are offensive to Him. Indeed, a state of tyranny, slavery, or sin represents a disordering of God’s moral structure of a purposeful universe. Slavery, in particular, was often depicted as a condition worse than death. Liberty, in short, is the most cherished possession of a free, civilized people. The discourse on liberty emphasized that liberty must be distinguished from license.