Christianity is neither conservative nor socialist

This article is part of a three-part series. To read “Christianity is conservative,” click here. To read an opposing view, “Christianity is not conservative,” click here.

Both the Christian Right and the Christian Left get the question of Christianity and politics wrong.

Christianity is not politically conservative or politically liberal — though Christians may be either. Christianity is not political at all. It is in a sense politically agnostic. But in another sense it calls into question the basis of every earthly power, including politics.

Those looking to dig into the Bible and find a political platform are going to be sorely disappointed. It’s not there. That is for the simple reason that it is not a book about politics, but about God, and how He is saving His people through Jesus Christ. This distinguishes Christianity from Old Testament Judaism and modern day Islam, both of which contain detailed political agendas. Well-meaning Christians that want to outline a detailed “Christian” agenda of their own, however, will simply not find one.

When opponents tried to trap Jesus between his fidelity to oppressed Israel or oppressor Rome, he asked whose picture was on the coin, and taught us to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar (Matt 22:15-22). When on trial before Caesar, he admitted to being the King of the Jews, but in the same breath asserted “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:33-37).

Jesus’s followers likewise taught us to be strangers and pilgrims in the world, subject to the governing authorities. Peter writes, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil… for this is the will of God” (1 Pet 2:13-14). Paul likewise told Christians living in Rome (under Nero!) that the governing authorities were appointed by God, and they should be subject to them. The only exception is when the state tries to force you to actively violate God’s law (and no, taxpayer funding for abortion doesn’t seem to qualify).

Note that for both Peter and Paul it is God who is ruling the world through the state — though he’s not trying to save any souls through these means, and the Bible isn’t the constitution. He’s just keeping the bad guys at bay, using the light of nature common to Christians and non-Christians. This is good and honorable work, and the New Testament never tells converts to quit their service as soldiers or servants of the state.

Thus the Christian faith represents a radical break from the theocracy of Israel, but Christianity is not therefore inconsistent with the Old Testament. Rather, the model for Jesus’s politics is not Moses, but Abraham, who lived “as in a foreign land” while looking forward to a heavenly “city that has foundations” (Hebrews 11:9-10).

This teaching was political in a narrow sense, insofar as it was extremely threatening to Jewish political leaders and revolutionary zealots who hoped to restore their independence. Jesus didn’t give comfort to any of the political parties of his day, either the conservatives or the radicals (cf., “Life of Brian”). And he threatened Rome as well, by failing to ascribe to it the ultimate status it sought. If he was the King of the Jews, he must be their enemy.

Yet he was a King — the King of Kings — and a radical, in the sense that he proclaimed his coming Kingdom as ultimate and victorious over all earthly kings and kingdoms. The Kingdom of God, however, would not be built or established by any followers here on earth. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting,” Jesus told Pilate, but it is not.

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  • Russell

    Your view of Jesus’ answer to people who were trying to trap him in his words of “Render to Ceasar the things that are Ceasars and to God the things that are God’s” completely misses the point. Are you saying that there is a sphere of human action in which Ceasar is independent of God and that it would be inappropriate for God to but into Ceasar’s affairs with His silly laws? The point of this discourse was that while the coin bore Ceasar’s image, all me including Ceasar bear God’s image and are thus “God’s.” Ceasar is not a parallel God with a parallel kingdom. He is subject to the “Ruler of the kings of the earth” Rev 1:8. A faithful Church would call Ceasar out on this like John the Baptist did Herod. We do not preach a partial Lordship doctrine. We preach Jesus as Lord of all.

    Christianity may be neither conservative nor liberal, but liberalism and conservativism (as thaey exist today) are not equally Christain either. And it is not a matter of indifference to one’s soul how one votes. Especially about abortion (abortionno.org)

    You may think the most important thing for the Church is to try and make the enemies of Christ like us, but remember that Jesus said in John 7:7 that “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me, because I testify that what it does is evil.”

    • Brian Lee

      There is no independent realm for Caesar. His earthly authority is established by God (Rom 13), and governed by God. But it is not established by the Bible, or governed by Christians or the church. It is ruled by God in nature, and he will judge Caesar and every earthly ruler for how he disposes his duties (mainly, of punishing the evildoer and doing no wrong). It is in that sense, you are correct, that Caesar bears God’s image, and is responsible to him.

      I don’t deny than one or another ideology (conservatism or liberalism) or polity (Castro’s Cuba or Clinton’s America) may be more or less friendly to religious freedom, the free working of the church, or other issues of justice, and therefore more or less likely to garner the political support of Christians. But making that decision is a matter of Christian liberty, and Scripture does not speak directly to it.

      It is not the church’s responsibility to make the world like us; John’s epistles make it clear that the world will oppose us. But we are called to live quiet, peaceful lives and do no wrong, living in submission to governing authorities. It seems like precisely the point of John 7.7 is that the world hates Christ in a way it may not in fact hate Christians.

  • Supernatural Witness

    Great article. I agree right up to the last couple of sentences. Being dual citizens, the early Americans passed laws as Americans not as Christians against idolatry. Freedom of expression was and should have been limited to Christian expression not for the church’s but for the society’s sake. Idolatry like murder is a civil crime not just an ecclesiastical crime.

    The real source of conflict between church and state come from the Catholic doctrine of Dominion Theology which teaches that the church visible is the visible manfestation of God’s kingdom on earth. Dominion Theology in a less virulent form is alos embraced by Protestant Denominations such as Lutheran and Presbyterian and probably the Dutch Reformed Church to which the author belongs though the Dutch tended to have more Anabaptist influence. The opposite teaching that the church should be utterly separate and invisible is espoused by Anabaptist sects such as the Brethren, Amish, and Mennonites.

    This leads to a polarization between avoiding politics by the latter and dominating politics by the former. The typical believer in the US is Nondenominational or Baptist espousing a balanced view similar to the author. Thus we have Catholic Conservative pundits dominating the Conservative movement demanding that Catholic Supreme Court nominees be approved while the typical late denomination and nondenominational believers never get approved for the court.

    The linch pin for Dominion Theology is the idea that no one can know who is a believer so the church should include both saved and unsaved. This idea was held by Rome, Luther and Calvin. This is unbiblical as demonstrated by the initial development of the deacon ministry in Ac 6 where the Apostles instructed the believers to choose seven men KNOWN to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Clearly, it is possible to know who is a believer and only allow them to serve in ministry. Of course, most churches welcome unbelievers into the fellowship but only allow those who make a Christian profession of faith demonstrated by baptism to participate in any ministry or decision making in the group.

    The lack of knowledge of Dominion Theology and of this distinction between who can be a church member church/ state question dramatically affects modern politics because neither churches nor parishioners have a clear understanding of what is the church’s role and what is the Christian citizen’s role. The simple answer is that the church’s role is to be salt and light while the citizen’s role is to be a politically active citizen so long as he does not lose sight of the vanity and temporality of human effort.

    • Supernatural Witness

      The Reformed Church of which the author is a member is probably Presbyterian and therefore espouses Dominion Theology. For a thorough understanding of the question of Dominion Theology, see the life of John Wycliffe whose conflict with the Roman church centered on this question.

      For an understanding of the church/state question see the lives of Luther, Calvin, and the Anabaptist movement.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Francis-Du/1783068623 Francis Du

    Because the brethren of The Messiah have their “citizenship is in Heaven” they choose to be but “aliens and pilgrims while on the earth”! So it is that they no longer have their portion with those who follow “the broad way that leads to destruction” because they have taken heed unto The Call to “Come Out of her, MY people”!

    They have “Come Out” of this wicked world and it’s systems of religion and have taken heed unto the exhortation to:

    “Love Not The World”

    ”For the WHOLE(not just a portion) world is under the control of the evil one”…….(I John 5:19)

    “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world will pass away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of The Only True GOD will abide for ever.”(IJohn2:15-17)

    “If you were of the world, the world would love it’s own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said unto you, the servant is not greater than his Master. If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept My saying, they will keep yours also.” (John15:19-20)

    “Where do wars and fighting among you come from? Do they not come of your lusts that war in your members? You lust, and have not: you kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: you fight and war yet you have not, because you ask not. You ask, and receive not, because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts. You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is to be at enmity with The Only True GOD? Therefore whoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of The Only True GOD.” (James 4:1-4)

    “The world cannot hate you; but the world hates Me, because I testify that the works of this world are evil.” (John 7:7)” and “The Messiah gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of The Only True God, Our Father.”(Gal 1:4)

    The Messiah testified: “If the world hates you know that it hated Me before it hated you.”(John 5:18) Truly, Truly, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone: but if it die it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life in this world shall lose it; and he that hates his life in this world shall have it unto life eternal.” (John 12:24-25)

    John testified: “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hates you.” (I John 3:13) “ James testified, “Whoever would be a friend of this world is the enemy of GOD”(James4:4)

    “Come Out of her, MY people”!

    Global warming, polluted air, land and waters, toxic wastes, sexual perversion, evil inventions of destruction, greed, hate, carnal warfare, dis-ease(no-peace),,etc,, are all destructive processes that have their root in “the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” all of which fuel the fires of mankind’s “imag”ination ;-(

    “Come out from among them and be separate”!

    Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(no-peace) that is of this world and it’s systems of religion, for “the WHOLE(not just a portion) world is under the control of the evil one” indeed and Truth……

    Truth IS, a lie never was and is not…….

    Abide in Truth……. francis

  • Merlin Ogre

    Nice discussion of the Two Kingdoms. It is refreshing to discover a reformed voice with such a platform as this. Keep on preaching, brother.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christopher-Tutor/19002744 Christopher Tutor

    Dr. Lee,

    Wonderful article. I sympathize with your argument but remain unconvinced. Specifically, I am curious whether it allows for serious engagement in politics. This is particularly problematic in our rights-based system. If I am seeking to fulfill the law of love as a voter, I will inevitably join the debate of defining those rights and therefor their imposition on those who disagree. For example, as a Christian, I love the child. Can I then impose that broad definition of personhood on a post-Christian society? Of for that matter, could I have included African-Americans in that broad definition two hundred years ago? Was Dr. King wrong to impose his Christian interpretation of personhood in opposition to legal segregation? At some point, if engagement is possible, I must define rights (right to life, right to marry, right to property). It seems that such an exercise places the Christian decidedly on the right in our current political environment, especially with regard to abortion. Of course, it could also affect the issues of gay marriage, taxation, war, etc. Perhaps, the life of the Christian would seem rather liberal day-to-day (eschewing materialism, consorting with prostitutes and Michael Vick, extending grace rather than law) but conservative at the ballot box. What are your thoughts, Sir? Have I misinterpreted? Thanks again for the thoughtful analysis.

    Grace and peace,

    • Brian Lee

      I’m not sure we merely have to “join a debate of defining rights.” I think we are always free to address the issues in our own way, and indeed I’d say some of the most influential voices in public policy debate bring about change by reframing debates.

      The Church cannot impose it’s view of any moral truth on broader society, nor are we called to. Christians living in a democratic republic bear a certain responsibility to show neighbor love by participating in the political process, casting votes, and, yes, imposing majority will on the state. That is a fundamental difference between the methods of the church and the methods of the state… the Church may not coerce, the state must.

      But the view of personhood we seek to advance in the public square is not the Christian view, it is the human view, accessible to all by the light of natural revelation and God’s moral law written on our hearts. King’s strongest appeals were to the Declaration of Independence, not to a distinctively Christian view of personhood.

      I do not deny that one or the other political ideology might seek to “corner” elements of the Christian worldview. In the case of abortion, a watershed issue for the church in our day, the political parties have clearly chosen different sides of the issue–but that in itself didn’t have to happen, and may in fact be as much a reaction to the church’s politicization on that issue. The church chose to be a voting block, and so it joined a coalition. That’s natural.

      But it’s not clear to me that conservatives or liberals have cornered the Christian view on the issues of race, or immigration. And race is arguably the central New Testament ethical issue, vis-a-vis the incorporation of Gentiles into the church with Jews. Yet somehow the church downplays the issue of race, remaining silent about persistent sin in her midst, while focusing all of its political guns on abortion? And the church’s hypocrisy over divorce and same-sex marriage has cost it much credibility on that issue.

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