Christ and Political Power

What does the Kingdom of God have to do with Politics?

The Question

Christ above all earthly powers is the motto of the Institute of Public Theology. It’s a summary of what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 1:20–23 when he says that the Father’s “great might” “raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at [the Father’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.”

Jesus Christ is preeminent in power and glory, exalted above every other power in this world, all of which are created powers. But what does it mean to say that Jesus is above all earthly powers? H. Richard Niebuhr, a famous twentieth-century liberal theologian, wrote an influential book in 1951 entitled Christ and Culture. In that book he set out to examine the different ways in which Christians historically have understood the relationship between Christianity and the cultures in which they lived.

In this talk I propose to do something similar, but with a different focus. We could call my quest Christ and Political Power. Or as my subtitle has it: “What hath the Kingdom of God to do with politics?” When we confess that Jesus Christ is above all earthly powers we are making a statement (among other things) about his relationship to the political powers of this world and age. But what statement is that exactly? How is Christ’s kingdom related to the kingdoms of the world? How should believers think about and pursue political power, if they should at all? Answering these questions, however briefly, is the goal of my talk.

Three Answers

It is my contention that there are three main ways in which Christians have thought—and still do think—about what “Christ above all earthly powers” means. First, Christ is opposed to earthly, or political, power. We could perhaps see this in the rise of monasticism in the fourth century. It is clearly evident in the anabaptist movement at the time of the Reformation, with its pacificism, anti-governmental anarchism, and so on. We can see this impulse today in what has been called evangelical “third-wayism,” where the thought is that any attempt by Christians to gain and use political power will necessarily alienate our non-believing neighbors from the gospel message. Christians, instead, must seek a third way (sometimes called “faithful presence”), which ostensibly eschews the quest for political power and anabaptist withdrawal. This is the mindset you have encountered if you’ve been told that politics is nothing more than a dangerous idol, that political power and Christianity go together like fire and water.

The second way of thinking about what “Christ above all earthly powers” means is one in which Christ’s redemptive rule includes his rule over all realms of life, including the political. This may sound quite biblical on the surface, but problems emerge in the failure to adequately distinguish between Christ’s redemptive rule over his people and the precise, yet different, way in which he rules over the nations of the world. This has taken different forms historically. It was seen in the medieval period, for example, in 1073 when Pope Gregory VII declared that “the Pope is the master of Emperors!” In this way of thinking there may be a division of labor between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man, but the latter are in essence subsumed under the former. There is a version of this way of thinking that manifests itself in evangelical churches as well. It is seen in approaches to the state that end up blurring the distinction between the redemptive calling of the church and the temporal calling of the state. All human endeavors get lumped into the category of redemption, from the pursuit of justice, to the work of community development, to your favorite coffee shop down the street. It takes a true idea, that “Christ is Lord over all things,” and applies it in an untrue way, blurring the vital distinction between the earthly powers that God has appointed and the church’s own authority and mission.

Third, and finally, is the idea that “Christ above all earthly powers” means that Christ indeed rules over the church and over the state, but that he does so in different ways. It might have been possible for me to say a few things here that would make it seem like I’m going to neutrally evaluate each of these three without letting you know where I stand, but I’m not going to. It’s the third one.

Politics or the Gospel?

Before we sort out the Christian’s relationship to political power we need a definition of politics itself. Mine comes from the late 16th century synthesizer of Reformed political thought Johannes Althusius. “Politics,” he says “is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them” (Politica 1.1-3). In other words, politics is about figuring out what is necessary to live harmoniously with our fellow man in society, and how to ensure that that society is healthy and just.

Man is, as Aristotle says, a political animal. This is clear in scripture too: being made in the image of God includes mirroring God’s rule over creation in our own righteous dominion over, and cultivation of, it, as wee see in Genesis 1 and 2 (Gen 1:26, 28; 2:15). Politics is not, then, as it is often described, a “necessary evil.” It is not a result of the Fall. It is inherent to what it means to be a human being. Politics in a fallen world is, and always will be, tainted by sin, but we were made to rule, and politics is simply figuring out how to do so.

One of the reasons Christians sometimes see politics and political power as completely antithetical to the Christian life has to do, perhaps surprisingly, with the nature of the Bible itself. Scripture is not a manual for politics; it is a testimony to the saving acts of God as fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ and applied to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. It certainly has much to teach us about politics, but that is not its focus. Many Christians conclude, therefore, that they should actually shun politics. But this is a category error. The Bible is the inerrant, infallible guide to the church in its mission to take the saving gospel of Christ to the world. Jesus preached the gospel of the Kingdom, which was the gospel of the salvation he was about to accomplish for sinners. The apostles were pastors called by God to testify to the saving work of Christ. That is their single-minded focus: “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:16. This is the Paul who also writes in 2 Timothy 2:3–4 about how pastors should not become entangled in the world’s affairs.

But why is that? Is it because politics is dirty business? Is it because the Christian should shun all earthly power? By no means. The reason is simply this: Paul, Peter, James, and the rest, had one overriding passion: to preach the gospel and to build up the saints in the full counsel of God. In this, they were fulfilling their vocation. Were they to devote themselves to such things as politics they would have become unfaithful to the calling God had placed on their lives. But many Christians today take this to mean something very false: because the apostles devoted themselves to the church’s ministry of the gospel, that is the only God-honoring vocation for anyone. Maybe this doesn’t mean that someone thinks they have to become a pastor; it might merely mean that they find any non-ministerial work to be unfulfilling and to seem frankly unspiritual. They find themselves constantly dissatisfied with their own vocations and seek to find ways to mimic the work of the church, even if they never pursue pastoral ministry per se.

I would suggest to you this morning that this confusion and angst in the end comes down to one thing: confusion about the differing ways in which Jesus Christ rules over his church and over the world he made. We’ve already touched on how Christ rules over the church: through the ministry of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and the spiritual shepherding and upbuilding of the saints. Now we must look at how Christ rules over the world. That is, we must look at politics.

Christ and Political Power

The classic text in the Bible for understanding the place of the state in the divine plan is Romans 13:1–7. This text, despite what you may have been told, is not primarily about why you must always obey the government, no matter what it says or does. God certainly commands that we be in submission to the state’s lawful counsels, but unlimited submission is simply not the point. In fact, everything in the text revolves around how everyone, from citizen to ruler, is under God’s authority. The very reason we are to be subject to the lawful counsels of governing authorities is because “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by” him, as we read in verse 1. That is to say: everyone owes obedience to the Lord, from the least to the greatest. Rulers are not a law unto themselves. They have been appointed by God (verse 2) and are his servants “for your good” (verse 4).

How, then, should the governing authority rule? What is his vocation? It is to be “a terror” to bad conduct, to approve those who do good (verse 3), to bear the sword as God’s servant, “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (verse 4). He is a “minister of God” who has been appointed to levy taxes and revenue for the common good of a nation (verses 6–7).

He is to rule over the nation as God’s servant. In short, he is to exercise dominion over creation, and to rule the people, as the political animal he is, and the political animals they are. Politics is God’s appointed means for the flourishing of the people of every nation. Of course, it gets corrupted by sin, but it is an inherently good, worthwhile, and necessary vocation. The exercise of political power is the very way in which Jesus Christ rules over the nations of the world, through the rulers he has appointed. Now, in this talk, we can’t get into all the many ways in which Scripture informs, and indeed must shape, the application of political power (which has been the focus of the class I taught over this last week). But we can see something that many Christians struggle to see: the inherent dignity and goodness of politics, yes, even of the exercise of political power.

“Politics,” again, as Althusius says is “the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them.” It is a dignified and worthy vocation, although it is a very different vocation from pastoral ministry. The job of the pastor is not to devote the bulk of his time and energy personally to politics, but as a part of preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God, to equip the saints themselves to do so, as he equips them for all of their vocations. For some this will mean actually serving in government; for others it will mean becoming active along all levels of the political realm, from local politics all the way to national (and perhaps even international politics, although most of us will be doing well if we even find the time and energy to do what we can in our own communities). Pastors can help their flock see that politics, while there will always be a danger of becoming overly fixated on it (just like any creaturely good), is not something they should be ashamed about participating in. It is the God-ordained means of bringing justice, order, stability, blessing, and true freedom to every human community that would humbly submit to such godly rule.

“Civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.” Those are the words of John Calvin in the Institutes, Book IV (20.4). The reason this is the case, is that as Thomas Aquinas said, the magistrate “bears a special likeness to God . . . since [he] does in his kingdom what God does in the world.”[1] In other words, the godly exercise of political power by man powerfully displays God’s own power and rule, and therefore, powerfully displays the image of God.

Politics is not dirty business; power does not always corrupt. Both are wonderful ways in which God’s own majesty, dominion, and glory are manifested, for the good of all. And so we can see the problems in the anabaptist rejection of earthly power, along with its modern evangelical imitations. But we can also see the problem with the merging of political power and church authority: Jesus Christ rules over the world through the magistrates he has appointed, not through the officers of the church. The church exercises its God given authority as it goes out into the world preaching the message of salvation with power; the magistrate exercises his God given authority as he rules the kingdoms of this world.

Conclusion

I am a Presbyterian, and historically Presbyterians have had some differences with Baptists on how political power should be exercised with reference to the church and the true faith. The 1788 American revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith—although compared to the 17th century version they tone down the state’s mandate regarding true religion—still insist that it is the job of the state to “maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth” (WCF 23.1, emphasis added). The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith removes only the word piety in its otherwise verbatim repetition of the wording of the Westminster Confession on this point. Baptists have historically been averse to the idea that the state would be involved in any way in ecclesiastical matters. Nonetheless, I find it interesting that the LBC still grants authority to the state to promote the “public good” and recognizes that it must do so for the glory of God: Chapter 24, section 1 reads:

God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end has armed them with the power of the sword, for defense and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers.

Politics, in other words, for both Presbyterians and Baptists, is a good gift from the Lord to be engaged in enthusiastically and vigorously for the public good, for justice, for peace, and ultimately, for God’s glory. The Apostle Paul would heartily agree.

And in closing I’d like to read you a (somewhat lengthy) quote from someone else who agrees, and who puts what I’ve been arguing in this talk very well:

Strange as it may appear there are those who deem their Christian professions at variance with their civil duties, as if the church were the only institution of God’s own planting, the only sphere in which they are called to act, whose narrow minds can grasp but one class of duties and but poorly apprehend even those. Yet such is a prevailing notion among many Christians who glory in the shameful boast, ‘I’m no politician.’ ‘I have nothing to do with politics.’ Such should remember that civil society is no less an institution of God than the Church, that society can in no sense exist without government and that man is the instrumentality appointed to administer this government… The church, as a church, can take no part in the affairs of state, but individual members of the church as embodying the only true morality and as members of civil society, owe to that society of which they form an integral part certain duties for the neglect of which God will not hold them guiltless.[2]

I’m not sure I could have put it any better myself: church and state, two distinct realms and authorities in God’s world, realms that must remain distinct, but which can never be radically separated. Both necessary; both indispensable; both ordained by God for the good of the world; one its eternal and spiritual good, the other its earthly and temporal good.

Which theologian wrote these words? None other than President Benjamin Harrison, in 1851. And thus we see that not only are the thoughts expressed in this talk classically Protestant, they are also thoroughly at home in America’s past, despite the lies we’ve been told about our radically secular history.

And so may we as Christians, and as Americans, whether small or great, whether elder or city councilman, whether state representative or pastor, serve the Lord wholeheartedly in whatever station he has placed us in, for the good of souls and the good of the world.

*Image Credit: Unsplash

**Editor’s Note: This article is a lighted edited version of a convocation address given at the Institute for Public Theology on August 13th, 2022.


[1] Thomas Aquinas, De Regno, Ch. 10,§72 (emphasis added). I owe the Calvin and Aquinas quotes to Adam Carrington, “Reviving the Christian Dignity of Politics” (Ad Fontes).

[2] Untitled essay in “The Papers of Benjamin Harrison,” (circa 1851-52). I owe this quote to Gordon Dakota Arnold, a 2022 Cotton Mather Fellow at American Reformer.

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Ben C. Dunson is the Editor-in-Chief of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.