Message preached on Sunday, November 6, 2016 by Adam Davidson at Portage Free Methodist Church
In this series, we’re asking the BIG questions about God, faith, the church, and Christianity in general. For this Sunday, the questions we’re addressing are about politics and the Kingdom of God. We’ll get to the specific verbatim questions in a moment, but first we need to lay some groundwork. We’ll start in Romans chapter 13 as we seek to establish what is true, in light of the topic of politics and the Kingdom of God.
Does the church participate in politics? Do pastors participate in politics? The answer to both is yes. Next question: should the church and/or pastor take a political stance? That’s where wise caution must be generously used. We are a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in the state of Michigan, and that standing has with it specific laws that need to be observed in order to keep that standing, which is something we endeavor to do.
According to what I’ve researched, the church can’t:
- Endorse a candidate
- Contribute financially to a candidate or to PAC’s (political action committees)
- Can’t distribute candidate materials (so, if you find a bunch of flyers on your windshields, they’re not from us)
- Put candidate endorsements/editorials/opinion pieces in church bulletin
- And so on…
The church can:
- Provide information and express opinions for/against certain legislation
- Discuss positions of candidates on issues
- Invite candidates to a church event or candidate forum (we have yet to hear back from any of the current presidential candidates.
- And so on…
The law of the land is written for our protection and is something we benefit from and commit to uphold. Our aim and intent is to be fair to every candidate in the race and stick to the facts, avoiding opinion and conjecture. This is good for us to say up front because the Church is not about politics but about Jesus. Jesus is about His eternal Kingdom which will supersede this temporary world, including our governmental, economic, and other social systems.
Philippians 3:20 reminds us that Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. Until He returns, what we live in now is temporary. We live as citizens of a nation, but our final and ultimate identity as followers of Jesus is that we are citizens of heaven — not just whenever we die but here and now. Colossians 3:1 says Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. We live here, work here, exist here, but our minds are on Jesus and whatever his mind is on. This plays out in our lives in how we live day to day — not just while we’re in worship together but every moment of life. In 1 Peter 2:11, we are urged, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against our souls.
Plainly put, this world is not our home.
Followers of Jesus are politically aware, socially active, incarnational citizens of heaven who have their eyes on Jesus, their minds on Jesus, and their lives oriented to the ways of Jesus here and now. We are citizens of heaven who have a dual (albeit lesser) citizenship on earth. I am a citizen of the United States of America, and I’m thankful to be. That’s my penultimate citizenship. My ultimate citizenship is in heaven, under the Lord Jesus Christ. If you Know Christ — not just if you know about Him but actually know Him as your Savior, then your citizenship is in heaven, too. If you don’t know Jesus, then your citizenship goes as far as this world, and this is about as good as it gets. Ever.
Our mission as a church is to help people find, follow, and be like Jesus. Jesus is here — not only here, but available to all who believe that He is Lord. When you follow Him, you follow Him spiritually to the cross, to the tomb, and to the presence of a Holy God. We become made new. Over time, as the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, we take on the character traits, love, and perspective of Jesus, which means we become like Him, even in our political interactions and participation.
Faith in Christ — this is how Christians grow. Therefore our God-given mission is to make disciples — for people to say no to ungodly living and yes to Christ who is the Way, Truth, and Life. Our prayer, our hope, our reason for existing as a church is for people in Southwest Michigan and around the world to find, follow, and be like Jesus. All that to say — we can talk about politics and even have a place to talk about politics because we want to be active in the world as salt and light. Not better than everyone else, not isolated, but sinners forgiven by the grace of God who live in freedom and tell others about that same Amazing grace.
In The Republic, Plato declares: One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. This implies that whoever runs for President is declaring that they are the smartest person in the nation, which history has often shown to be otherwise.
Today is a politically charged day. We are experiencing the most tumultuous presidential election in the recent history of the US — if not ever. I’m not here to offer commentary on why that is, first because I’m sure you can fill in the blanks as consumers of media and residents of our nation, and second because I don’t wanna talk about sociological theory but about Jesus and how we try to follow Him through this minefield. What is a follower of Christ to do in this era, especially in light of our pending election for president, and for many other offices and issues that will be on the ballot on Tuesday?
It’s fitting to do this today, especially as we’re in this series called Why: Asking the Big Questions and because these questions came from you. I have edited them down just a bit for clarity and space.
Specifically, you asked:
How is one to know how to vote for president?
This is sorta like asking who do I vote for? And my official answer is: I can’t say! Also, you asked:
If the book of Revelation explains the peril of our future world situation, then why do we as Christians try to change our world politically? Does it even matter?
These questions pair nicely — one is “I’m torn on how best to participate” and the other is “I’m frustrated and just don’t want to participate”. People take a break from facebook, can’t they take a break from politics for like 4 or 8 years? It’s tempting to stand back and wait for this dumpster fire to go out.
Onward to Scripture. Let’s pray together as we open the Word of God.
- Lord, thank you for your creation, provision, and blessing. We humble ourselves before you as a people in need of a fresh Word, a living hope, a reminder of your power and position as Lord of lords. Would you help us to know your voice today, to be open to your Holy Spirit’s movement, and to become more like Jesus as we live here in this time and place. Be glorified, Lord. This is our prayer and this is our joy as citizens of your coming eternal Kingdom. Amen.
Let’s talk about Emperor Nero.
Nero was the emperor of Rome from 54-68 A.D., which is a long time ago, which is why the picture is in black and white. Like most political pamphlets, this imagery paints him in the best possible light, though that’s not what history tells us. Nero possessed a protuberant belly, spindly legs, squat neck, and a body that was “pustular and malodorous” (he produced a lot of pus and he stunk) — all according to Roman historians. No worries, because Nero saw himself as a Greek god in both spirit and flesh. He came into power soon after his 17th birthday, and it didn’t take long for all the power to go to the Emperor’s head. He saw himself as the savior of the world, called to bring about the restoration of classical Greek grace, beauty, and artistry. Any respect he seemed to get from his people was motivated by fear of punishment. Nero would give recitals and have his audience locked into the auditorium. People couldn’t leave. History talks about women giving birth, people falling asleep, collapsing, and even dying during his concerts. In fact, dying was the only way to get out.
And that’s not the worst of it. Nero was a bad guy. He murdered his mother because he wanted to see the womb that he, a Greek god came from. He murdered his first wife so he could marry another woman.
Nero’s great plan was to renew the Roman Empire from the ground up by making a utopia that displayed his glory and magnificence. Nero rebuilt roads, and demolished buildings to make room for his new glorious structures, including a palace to his name. Few of the citizens fought back, including the Christians.
Simultaneous to Nero’s political ruling was the brand new, baby church. Jesus was crucified in 33 A.D. but left a bunch of His disciples in charge of the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Christians met together for worship and teaching in the temple courts in Jerusalem and beyond. The church grew and so the movement grew. Their teaching included the gospel of Christ which would save people from God’s fire and judgement. People were getting saved — not just from judgement but from the power of sin and darkness which wages war against our souls. Thousands of people were now following Jesus and becoming more like Him. Because Rome was relatively peaceful and mostly open to this new “Jewish Sect” of Christians, the church was able to grow and multiply with little interference from the Roman Emperor.
Nonetheless, there was some tension. How do people follow Jesus in the context of a politically evil empire, especially led by a seemingly evil person? If Jesus came to cleanse us from sin, yet the world still has a broken political system rife with corruption and disease, shouldn’t we be doing something to stop it? Isn’t Jesus Lord?
Some Zealots — one little piece (sect) of Jewish descent — used that line of reasoning for their attempts at overthrow in the name of God.
- They believed that there was no King but God, so they paid no tribute to the political leaders at all. “Hey, my boss is Yahweh.”
- Their goal was to make it so that no civil government could rightly function. They didn’t want a monarchy, or an oligarchy, and certainly not a democracy. The Zealots wanted a theocracy and theocracy only. They wanted what they read in Isaiah 33:22 – For the Lord is our Judge, the Lord is our Lawgiver, the Lord is our King — it is he who will save us. They took that to the extreme, saying it meant all other structures were null and void.
- In God’s name, they wrecked homes, burned crops, destroyed villages and cities, and assassinated families — even of their own tribe.
- In the Zealot’s mission, anyone who paid allegiance to anyone but YHWH was to be killed. In their minds they had good reasoning, a long sociological history, and the sacred documents of the Old Testament to back up their actions.
That’s when Paul wrote these words: Romans 13:1-5 (NIV2011)
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do what is right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from the fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
Paul writes them to address the believers who believed it was God’s will to destroy all human forms of government (on one hand) and, on (the other hand) to encourage Christians who knew their faith was out of sync with the ways of the world.
So, whether you’re looking for insight on how Christians view politics or you’re looking for reasons not to plot an overthrow, this Word is for you. Consider:
- Everyone means everybody — Subject means that we see all authority above us as something we submit to — Authority is something that God gives to someone, be they Christian or not.
- When we rebel against authority, we rebel against God and call for God’s judgement on ourselves.
- Rulers have a God-ordained role (government): to maintain safety and well-being for a collected people — to provide good and stop harm.
- Live according to the rules laid out by the governing authorities, since the one in authority is God’s servant, whether they know it or not.
- Submit to authority — not only because of the fear of punishment from the government (subject to the laws of the land) but because of God.
This instruction helps us with at least two challenges of being a Christian in a politicized nation:
- We see that it’s okay (right) to recognize the office of a person in authority, be they Parent, Teacher, Mayor, Governor, President, or whatever — and that there are no caveats regarding character, motivation, etc.
- We see that God’s not looking for us to disable or discredit any government system but rather for us to abide by them as good citizens.
Paul wrote these words to Christians who were trying to understand their relationship to the governing authorities of the day, just like we are. The development of the Church & Christianity has always taken place within the context of social, economic, and political struggle. Have you noticed how often the bible acknowledges the political leader during a certain event?
Luke 2:1 – In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.
Luke 3:1 – In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene…
Acts 11:28 – One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)
Pontious Pilate, Cornelius the Centurion, King Aggripa — all key civil servants in the New Testament account.
One commentator says that one of the reasons the books of Luke & Acts were written was to show Christians that they had nothing to fear from the continuance of the Roman Empire. The same is true for us today.
In Romans 13, Paul is basically saying “okay, everybody — here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to submit to the authorities, whatever they may be, because we believe that Jesus Christ is truly Lord of all. We’re not going to get spooked when things don’t go our way, we’re not going to feel pressure to fix the world and all its political ills, we’re not going to plot a revolution. We’re going to trust God and watch His Kingdom unfold in this world. Okay? Okay.
Everything was good. The brand new church was finding its footing in the world. God was performing miracles. People were coming to Christ, being baptized, being healed. And every authority fit into the overarching authority of the Kingdom of God. All good, all good. We press on until Christ returns, which could be at any moment!
Then, everything changed. The Christians had their strategy, but, remember, so did Nero. And that’s when the fire broke out — the literal fire. In 64 AD, Nero called for a controlled burn meant to demolish something in the way simply grew out of control. Instead of having it put out, Nero called for the fire to continue to spread, since it helped his cause. The problem is that it was burning the citizen’s homes and material belongings, and even each other. History tells us that there were some people who were putting the fire out, and some people who were adding fuel to the fire in accordance with the order of the emperor.
This did not bode well for Nero’s political career. Finally the citizens of Rome said “This is ridiculous — everything of mine is gone, I’ve literally got nothing to lose — so what’s the deal with this fire, Nero?” As Nero’s approval rating goes down, the social and political pressure goes up, and Nero needs a scapegoat — someone to take the fall. So he deflects and blames: guess who: the Christians. Nero said, in essence, “They’re always talking about God’s burning fire of judgement, and this was their little stunt, and they will pay for it.”
And that is when we start to see persecution. Not critical people who are mean to us, not bad days where faithful people felt a little discouraged, but actual physical painful persecution leading to the horrific deaths of many believers. Besides blaming Christians for Nero’s fire, there was growing concern that the people of the Way were a threat because they didn’t worship the pagan gods. Allegiance to Jesus conflicted with the expected allegiance to Christ. This took persecution clear off the charts.
Hebrews 11:36 – Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning, they were sawed in two, they were killed by the sword. They went around in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, mistreated — the world was not worthy of them.
One historical account I read talked about how they would take Christians and burn their bodies as a source of light in one of the squares. Imagine Paul, under persecution, perhaps being burned alive, and ask yourself: did he regret writing that stuff in the letter to the Romans? Was he having second thoughts? I don’t think so. Indeed the world was not worthy of them.
A few years later — 70 AD — the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. They lost their “center” for the faith. By then, Paul, Peter, and James the brother of Jesus had all been martyred — they died for their faith. And you’re a follower of Christ — you’ve lost the temple in Jerusalem, you’ve lost your key leaders, and you’re wondering if you’re next.
We know what they did in light of these struggles. They did their best to make a living as good citizens of whatever nation they were part of. They worshiped, they cared for the needs of the people, they gave what they could. Under threat of persecution for their faith, they kept their allegiance to Christ while at the same time respecting the authority of the rulers on earth, as long as it didn’t require them to completely abandon their faith.
By the 4th century, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. As the Roman Emperor from 306-337, he experienced a conversion to faith in Christ. The world had a Christian leader at the helm.
Churches and land were given back. Opulent structures were erected, and now the pendulum swung to the complete other side. The church went from being underground to infested. Constantine’s faith was a mixed bag at best — he prayed to “the Supreme God” for assistance in battle and won, seeing the shape of the cross in the sky. But he kept other pagan god structures and symbols in the mix. While it’s not ours to judge, we do know that history suggests that Constantine was more of a religious guru with Christian threads than he was a bona fide follower of Christ.
Now, with a “Christian nation” the threat to the church wasn’t persecution for not worshipping the pagan gods. The threat was Jesus and His call to obedience in light of the temptation to rely on riches and structure instead of Him. In some ways, Constantinianism was good because it launched Christianity into a wider-reaching movement, but in other ways it was bad because it really corrupted the church’s moral integrity.
And here’s what we need to be reminded of today: Anytime someone prays that the United States becomes a Christian Nation, we need to be careful about what, exactly we’re praying will happen. If we were to have a Christian president, would that be a good thing? Maybe in terms of policy, but not if they are a bad witness to the faith. It’s tough to make the case for Christ to a fellow citizen if they say “oh, you mean like that hypocrite, the president?”
In his book Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh writes that The church must be wary of nostalgia for Constantinianism.
In Constantine’s era, Rome could’ve been classified as a Christian nation… and it led to all kinds of issues.
Truth: God hasn’t created the church to intermingle with politics. He has ordained government and authority to carry out certain tasks for our world today, and the church to be the hope of the world. These two are completely different from each other. One is temporary, the other is eternal; one affects structure, the other changes the heart, etc.
Cavanaugh goes on to write: A Christian should feel politically homeless in the current context, and should not regard the dreary choice between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, as the sum total of our political witness.
That gives me a little bit of breathing room today.
Will the United States ever be great? Not as great as the Kingdom of God. Never gonna happen. It’s theologically impossible. To impose legislation or intimidation to achieve a superficial Christian morality” is not our calling.” That’s something I read from John MacArthur, pastor and author, who also wrote Changing the form of government or superficially moralizing it were not Jesus’ goals. He sought to redeem individual souls.”
Church, that’s where the lion share of our attention is to be aimed: Jesus, redeeming the world, one soul at a time.
Until then, we proclaim:
- All authority is from God, whether the person in authority recognizes it or not. Consider this when you vote.
- Charles Hodge said all human power is delegated and ministerial. Parents over children. Bosses over subordinates. Legitimate or corrupt, just or unjust. The reigning emperor of Rome, whoever they were, even with sceptre in hand and an overt messiah complex, were to be obeyed by Christians. Whoever the next president is, just as our current president, is to be respected.
- Government, while inspired by God’s legitimate design, is inherently corrupted by human abuse of power. Nonetheless, Christians are to repress evil and promote good. Consider this when you vote.
Even though this world is temporary, and, sadly, corrupted by sin, we need to remember that all of us are corrupted by sin — and that those who know Christ are in the process of being sanctified — made uncorrupt. Until then, we here in the US at least, enjoy the privileges of citizenship and carry out the duties. If anything, the corruption and frustration of our broken political system is only a symptom of the human heart, which is twisted by sin — which is a problem that each of us has.
The nation/state exists for mutual protection — we live under a mutual covenant to live by certain laws and relationships. Without these, we are in grave danger.
Besides protection, consider the convenience that a well-governed society offers: electricity, roads, the internet, water, sewage. So much of this is done not at the federal but the state and local level.
I had the privilege of offering the invocation — the opening prayer — at the Portage City council meeting last Tuesday. Mayor Strazdas called the meeting to order, invited me up to pray, a local boy scout troop led us in the Pledge of Allegiance, and then came all the business. One of the items on the agenda included water and how the city of Portage pays for and manages our water system, which, as you might imagine, is a big deal in the state of Michigan right now. It was during that meeting that I learned that Texas Township’s water and sewage service is provided by the City of Portage. Did you know that, at its peak, Texas Township produces 1,000 gallons of sewage per minute? And I thought my house was productive!
The reason this came up is because of a recent pipe breakage last March. This pipe carried all the “goods” from Texas Township to Portage for treatment. The piece that failed wasn’t something you’d get from Home Depot. No, this is a pipe that needed to be custom fabricated. Until the replacement part was installed, water service people had to truck the raw sewage to the treatment plant one load at a time. A potential environmental catastrophe was averted, especially since the pumping station is right next to a creek. Thousands of gallons of sewage could’ve spilled in the very wrong place, which would be gross, unsanitary, terrible for the environment, and damaging to our image as a region. Fortunately, someone caught it, someone else stepped in and took evasive action — and 99.9% of us were unaware. Now that’s something to be thankful for!
After the meeting (I stayed for the whole meeting — it was great sermon prep) I thanked the city servant for their good work. I appreciated what she did. As a citizen, I shared my appreciation. I feel like that’s more the word of instruction for us today. How can we be good citizens, sources of light and not more darkness, sources of good and not evil? How can we make a genuine difference in the political sphere that will honor God and encourage people? How can we show our gratitude, not taking all of these conveniences for granted and seeing them as a blessing?
Then there are the “what if’s:”
But what if we get persecuted? Meh. The church could use some persecution.
But what if they take away our rights? They can’t take away our citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
But what if the person God wants to be president doesn’t get elected? That’s God’s problem, not mine.
The greater risk is that we will look to the United States as the source and sustainer of our faith instead of the Kingdom of God. The greater risk is that we will look to the president as the moral compass and leader of our lives instead of Jesus Christ. The greater risk is that we will give media the place of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The greater risk is that we will get so caught up in temporary politics that we will lose our footing in the eternal.
No overthrow, be it literal or in our hearts (I’ll tell you what I would do if I lived in the White House…)
No resentment, be it obvious resentment or just under the surface (So and so is such a ______)
Do people know more about your political leanings than they do your faith in Christ?
Remember this: no matter who gets elected as President of the United States, Jesus will still be Lord of all.
Until then, we deal. We live, we thrive as citizens of the Kingdom of God who live as citizens of a nation.
In Jeremiah 29:5-7, Jeremiah gives instruction to God’s people, God’s citizens, who live as aliens in a foreign land. God tells them plainly: Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
How do we live? As good citizens, planted here to be the light of God at a time when darkness overwhelms. How do we vote? We follow Jesus. We pray, we seek the peace, we participate in joy.
Even if the president should become my enemy, I will still love them. If the president comes to my house and strikes me on the face because of my faith, I’m supposed to turn the other cheek.
They will say of us “the world was not worthy of them.”
Political panic and mudslinging is not worthy of you, citizen of the Kingdom. In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul urges that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
There are no qualifiers, no character traits, no expectations of good leadership on our part. No civic leader can or should “earn” our prayer for them. We pray for them because we are told to. Simple as that! I bring this up because I have been told to do so according to Titus 3:1, which says remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.
There we are.
We participate. We pray. We work toward peace.
As a citizen of the Kingdom of God:
- I will be subject to rulers and authorities
- I will be ready to do whatever is good
- I will slander no one
- I will be peaceable and considerate
- I will be gentle toward everyone
These last two questions are related:
Why has Jesus not returned again as Revelation says?
That’s the same question they asked in 64 AD. Until He returns, we wait and we hope, holding on to the Word of Christ in Revelation 22:12-13: Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
With the future looking less sure with each passing day, why aren’t people turning to the good news that Jesus promises?
Same question they asked in 64 AD. Thank God for His grace and patience with all of us, including those who are still lost. 2 Peter 3:9 says The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Isn’t the United States an amazing place to live!?! We get to vote! We have freedoms and rights that other cultures in the world would never even dream about. It’s hard to comprehend just how easy we have it, not only compared to majority world countries of today but also to world history. This is an important season for the United States, and now is the time for followers of Christ to be active. When you vote, you make it an issue of prayer, participation, peace. Trusting Jesus through it all and remembering your ultimate citizenship. And, by the way, don’t not vote. It’s your civic duty. It’s how we participate as Christians in the world. We can vote! Let’s vote well.
Someday, Christ will return. Someday.
Can you imagine the scene? We get to heaven and meet the Apostle Paul. We talk a little about our lives, our testimony of how we met Jesus, and how awesome it is to be in eternity. Soon the conversation turns to politics. Paul reminisces, saying oh, I remember Nero — terrible guy. He had me burned at the stake. Saw me as a threat to his little kingdom. I was burned alive, right next to Peter and James. It was terrible. I’ve never experienced something so horrible. The worst part was that Emperor Nero was looking me in the eyes as I burned, so the last thing I had to endure on the earth were his beatty little eyes. I can’t believe that guy was in charge. We wondered why Jesus hadn’t returned yet, but it’s all good now. Here we are! So many of our brothers and sisters died so shamefully and with unnecessary pain. The persecution was almost too much. Almost. But Jesus got us through. He is good!
And we say Amen, Paul. But then he asks us: Now… what were you saying about how terrible it was in 2016? What’s an e-mail? Who’s Billy Bush?
Alpha. Omega. Beginning. End. He is Lord of all. Is He your Lord? What a great time for us to be considering our allegiances in light of the Kingdom of God. Submission to the government systems of the world is secondary to submission to Jesus Christ. We must obey Him. He is Lord.