How can one be a budding politician and simultaneously be apolitical? How can you maintain a hands-off approach when it comes to the political process, while at the same time be a participant? In an election year where the leading two Republican candidates are in a hotly contested race, conundrums abound-all around! What may be even more bewildering is the fact that the two major Republican contestants both claim to be Christian. But what did the founder of Christianity say about worldly politics? How did early Christians view the political process?
Discerning Diplomats: Paul identified Christians as being “ambassadors substituting for Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:20, New World Translation) One reference work states that to “‘act as an ambassador’ means to act as an established statesman (diplomat)-a trusted, respected ambassador who is authorized to speak as God’s emissary (represent His kingdom).” Bible commentator Albert Barnes makes these observations: “At all times, and in all countries, an ambassador is a sacred character, and his person is regarded as inviolable. … Ministers are ambassadors for Christ, as they are sent to do what he would do were he personally present.”
To be sure, ambassadors for Christ “go not to promote their own welfare; not to seek honor, dignity, or emolument; but they go to transact the business which the Son of God would engage in were he again personally on the earth.” He further states that it “follows that their office is one of great dignity, and great responsibility, and that respect should be showed them.”
Shunning Secularism?: Jesus instructed: “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.'” (Mark 12:13-17) The book Church and State-The Story of Two Kingdoms (1963) says that Jesus “refused to act the part of a political messiah and carefully established both the boundary of Caesar and that of God.” Jesus knew that “it does not belong to man who is walking, even to direct his step.” (Jeremiah 10:23) In The Question of Government (1975), historian David Fromkin writes: “Governments are composed of human beings; therefore they are fallible and their prospects are uncertain. They exercise a certain power, but only a limited one.”
“Paul was willing to use his Roman citizenship to demand the protections of the judicial process due him, but he engaged in no lobbying on the public policy issues of the day,” states the book Beyond Good Intentions-A Biblical View of Politics (1988). “Though they believed they were obligated to honor the governing authorities, the early Christians did not believe in participating in political affairs.”
Theologian Charles Villa-Vicencio says: “When the political structures were changed under Constantine, [wayward] Christians apparently flocked to participate in the civil service and the army and to accept political office.” (Between Christ and Caesar, 1986) Consequently, by the end of the fourth century C.E., that amalgamation of religion and politics had become the State religion of the Roman Empire. True Christians refrained from politics while false ones participated.
Knowing the System: But were true Christians ignorant of the political process? Not participating in politics and having a keen knowledge as to how the political system works were not mutually exclusive concepts for Jesus and his early disciples. After a couple of Jesus’ apostles orchestrated a political move involving heavenly power, the Lord responded by saying:
“Since you’re familiar with the political apparatus as it operates in various nations, you know that worldly politicians exercise their clout over citizens, and that other powerful men flex their influential muscle over people. As prospective rulers in God’s heavenly government, don’t be like them. On the contrary, whoever wants to be great among you must be servant to the rest, and whoever wants first place among you must be a slave to the group.” (Matthew 20:25-28, Carr’s Christian Translation) Jesus’ apostles were not only “familiar with the political apparatus as it operates in various nations,” but two of them attempted to engage the political machine among the apostles themselves!
King Herod was so cunning and calculating that Jesus called him a “fox.” (Luke 13:32) This indicates the Lord knew of the prominent politician’s character. This same political leader jailed John the Baptist for publically criticizing him. (Matthew 14:3-12) And historian Luke recorded that yet another politician sought a bribe from an incarcerated apostle Paul.-Acts 24:24-27.
These events suggest that, while not embracing the political apparatus, first-century Christian ambassadors of Christ were knowledgeable of politicians, as well as the political affairs of the day. What a balancing act!
Peace and blessings to all. Amen.