Jesus’s Politically Diverse Disciples


Sometimes a sermon can be a polarizing thing. Once I was preaching to a crowd of New Yorkers about how Christians should respond to the problem of poverty. I will never forget two e-mails I received the following week, both in reference to the same sermon.

The writer of the first e-mail, among other things, accused me of being a RIGHT-wing extremist.

The writer of the second e-mail said that he was certain that I must be a LEFT-wing extremist.

There are few subjects that cause people to become more heated and opinionated than the subject of politics. Yet in the public discourse, the most heated and opinionated people seem to get nowhere with their heated opinions. During a previous presidential election cycle, a friend of mine posted the following on his Facebook page:

Dear person passionately pushing your political agenda on Facebook,
You have convinced me to change my vote.
Thank you for helping me see the light.
Appreciatively yours,
– No one.

When I received the two critical e-mails in response to my sermon about poverty, I shared them with Tim Keller, who at the time was my boss and older mentor. Tim recommended that I seek to learn what I could from the experience, but not worry too much about the negative feedback, because it actually could be a good sign.

For us preachers, Tim said, the longer it takes people to figure out where we stand on politics, in all likelihood the more faithfully we are preaching Jesus.

Some may object, “Well, what’s the proof of this?” I believe the proof lies in the fact that significant political diversity exists among committed followers of Christ. For example, there can be two churches in the same city but different Zip Codes and life circumstances. The members of both churches affirm that 100% of the Bible is God’s Word, is absolutely true, and that they are doing their best to submit their entire lives to it. Yet, strangely, most members of the church in Zip Code A will say, “It’s hard for me to fathom how a person can simultaneously be a Christian and vote Democrat,” while most members of the church in Zip Code B will say, “It’s hard to fathom how a person can simultaneously be a Christian and vote Republican.”

What’s going on in this (very real, in virtually every city) two-church scenario? There are only two possibilities. Either (a) one church really “gets” the Bible on the subject of politics and the other church — even though its members are as sincerely committed to the Bible — is not intelligent enough to understand the Bible correctly, or (b) both churches are sincerely committed to the Bible, but also have significant blind spots. In other words, they need each other in order to understand the Bible more accurately, and live more faithfully. As Christena Cleveland has said, the best way to understand what our blind spots are is to get into personal relationship with other Christians who have divergent political views.

The truth is, it is not possible to be a wholesale follower of the Bible and Jesus and be a wholesale follower of any political party. God created government, but people created politics, and people are sinful so our political systems will also contain elements of sin and blindness in them. As such, wholesale followers of Jesus will carry with them a both/and and a neither/nor posture concerning political parties and platforms. Unless a human system is fully and consistently centered on God (no human system is), Jesus will have things to affirm and things to critique about the system. The American political left and the political right are no exception.

That helps me. I hope it will help all of us, especially those who are tired of the rancor and caricature and canceling that so often accompanies political discussions — especially in 2020.

This does not mean that Christians cannot align themselves with a political party. But if we do align with a political party, we must hold our loyalty to that party loosely in comparison to the way we hold onto the Kingdom of Jesus, or, rather, to the way Jesus’s Kingdom holds onto us. As a tax collector, the disciple Matthew was aligned politically with the Roman state. As a zealot, the disciple Simon was aligned against the Roman state. On the one hand, neither appears to have left his political affiliation in the gospels. On the other, we have no record of either of them conflating his politics with his Christianity, as if the two were one and the same. Jesus, the King of all kings and who holds the hearts of every ruler in his hands, rules as sovereign over THE Kingdom — the one that encompasses the entire cosmos and that will have no end — “that is not of this world.”

Presidents, congressmen and -women, senators, governors, mayors, aldermen and -women, as well as police officers, military personnel, park and school district employees, and other public servants play an important role in God’s plan to renew the world. At the same time, they cannot be to us the answer to the world’s greatest problems, which are much too complex for sinful humans and institutions to solve on their own. As the Scripture says, “Some trust in princes, some trust in chariots, but we trust in the Name of the Lord Our God” (Psalm 20:7).

We also know that Jesus paid taxes and encouraged his disciples to do the same. To those living in Rome, whose government was no friend to Christians, the Apostle Paul encourages submission to the governing authorities, who are “ministers of God” and to whom taxes, respect, and honor are owed. Peter likewise tells believers that part of their service to the common good is to fear God and honor the Roman emperor (Matthew 17:24-27, Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:17.)

Indeed, the Bible also highlights God-fearing men and women who served in public office. Debra served as judge over Israel, Joseph served as prime minister for the Egyptian Pharaoh, Daniel served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, and Nehemiah was a trusted official for the Persian king Artaxerxes.

In the New Testament, Jesus gave high praise to a Roman soldier for his exemplary faith (Matthew 8:5-13). These and other examples confirm that government, whether in theocratic ancient Israel or secular Egypt, Babylon, Persia and, or Rome, has always been part of God’s plan.

But when it comes to politics, the Bible gives us no reason to believe that Jesus would side completely with one political viewpoint over another. Rather, when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself.

The following encounter between Joshua, an Israelite military commander headed into battle, and the angel of the Lord, is instructive:

When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so (Joshua 5:13-15).

“Lord, are you for us, or are you, for our adversaries?” the ancient partisans cry.

“No, I’m not,” he replies.

The question we should be asking, then, is not whether Jesus is on our side, but whether we are on his. Or as one former U.S. President said, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democrat answer, bu the right answer.” This is the appropriate question not only for politics and government, but also every other concern.

Consider the Gospel according to Matthew, where the disciple states that he, Matthew, was a tax collector and Simon was a Zealot (Matthew 10:3-4). This is significant, because Simon’s Zealot party worked against the government, while Matthew’s tax collecting party worked for the government. You might say that Simon was a right-leaning “small government” loyalist who thought the State should keep out of people’s business, and Matthew was a left-leaning “bigger government” loyalist who made a career out of collecting taxes for the State. As far as we can tell, Simon remained a Zealot, and Matthew remained a tax collector, even after they started following Jesus. Despite their opposing political viewpoints, Matthew and Simon were friends, and Matthew wanted us to know this.

Matthew’s emphasis on a tax collector and a Zealot living in community together suggests a hierarchy of loyalties, especially for Christians. Our loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom must always exceed our loyalty to an earthly agenda, whether political or otherwise. It was also Matthew who relayed to us the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Christians, then, have been given an other-worldly ability to feel “at home” with people who share our faith but not our politics even more than we do with people who share our politics but not our faith. If this is not our experience, then we very well may be rendering to Caesar what belongs to God.

People from varying political persuasions can (and are meant to) experience unity under a single, first allegiance to Jesus the King, who on the cross removed and even “killed” the dividing wall of hostility between people on the far left, people on the far right, and people everywhere in between.

Wherever the reign of Jesus is felt, differences are embraced and even celebrated as believers move toward one another in unity and peace.

Struggling in today’s polarized climate? Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them is now available for individuals, discussion groups, and churches.

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10 responses to “Jesus’s Politically Diverse Disciples”

  1. […] Jesus, Left-Wing and Right-Wing Disciples. Scott Sauls writes “The question we should be asking, then, is not whether Jesus is on our side, but whether we are on his. This is the appropriate question not only for politics and government, but also every other concern.” […]

  2. Greg says:

    Can a person who claims to be a Christian really be a Christian when they choose to live a life of utter disrespect towards God by living a homosexual lifestyle or by sleeping w a person outside of marriage? The Bible says no. And this is just an issue of redefining an individuals life let alone a person claiming Christ yet attempting to redefine Him by stealing from Him character traits such as Creator of kinds to be replaced w defining Him as some weak overseer of the rather all-mighty nature and chance at work via evolution promoted in inept gidless universities today.

    We dont need to complicate the issue of a Christians political stance in this post modern world-of course there are going to be minors we can all disagree on. But a Christian voting for someone who supports capital punishment for the most innocent unborn child while putting up w the ideas of dismantling of the hands and feet of a justice system that punishes the most guilty? Of course there are bad police. Justice will most likely be served towards them too but tearing down the system that punishes the guilty is an idea out from an evil godless marxist camp that will lead to cultural implosion. That is the direction of todays democratic party.

    There is no way there can be any justification of any Christian falling in line w todays democratic party. Period.

  3. J S says:

    HI Scott
    I subscribe to your writing – and I really enjoy it – but I’m wondering if you could change the color of the font. As I age, I find it harder and harder to read as it seems too light colored. A small thing, I know.
    But thx for sharing with us!
    Blessings on you,

  4. Alan says:

    Scott – good article. I think a good litmus test is for Christians today might be someone saying, “I’m voting Democrat, but as a Christian, here’s my problem with the party platform – my genuine disagreements, and in an imperfect world I’m voting for Biden for X, Y, Z reasons.” Likewise, someone could say, “I’m voting Republican, but as a Christian, here’s my problem with the party platform – my genuine disagreements, and in an imperfect world I’m voting for Trump for X, Y, Z reasons.”

    It just happens that 80% of White Evangelicals support Trump and it seems about 70% Black Evangelicals support Biden.

    Then let’s take a look at our churches on Sunday at 11:00 AM, the most segregated hour in America. Maybe that says something that the Matthews and Simon Peter’s aren’t even eating the Eucharistic meal at the same table.

    So yeah…long way to go.

  5. Joan Wimberly says:

    My thoughts on Christians and politics. I listen to what comes out of the mouths of leaders, for the mouth and actions display the heart and mind. I try not to look at the news feed, but at the actual words and deeds. The evening news from the two main stations sound like different conclusions about different events. I try to follow those with no agenda, like the scientists who only look at facts. One of my favorite parts of Scripture is in Micah 6. What does God require of man but to Act justly, Love mercy, and Walk humbly with his God. Then it seems easy to choose a leader. The other issues I agree with one side or the other and vote accordingly. It sounds easy, but takes a lot of soul searching and discipline. Both sides love our country and it’s democracy. May God give us His wisdom in these next few weeks.

  6. Patrick McClarty says:

    Not sure many will read this, so may be a waist of time. But, I feel compelled to reply. There is movement called Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden. They are pro-life, but believe Democrat policies from birth to death outweigh their pro-life belief. The main issues they point to are healthcare, poverty, racism, climate change, smoking. They say these are all pro-life issues that Democrats have better policies than Republicans. I could disagree and say I believe Republicans have the better policies with these five issues. For example, poverty. Republicans feel the way out of poverty is sense of personal responsibility for your own life. That would entail stronger family life (especially fatherhood), better education, spiritual emphasis. This produces stable families with opportunities for self-reliant finances. One specific policy is free choice in education. Therefore, all children have the ability to attend school of their choice, the money designated for them for education follows them wherever they go. If I’m wrong I stand corrected, but I believe Democrats are opposed to this, their goal is to improve the public education system. I would argue we’ve tried that for 50 years, has not worked. I could point out many of the problems I see with our public education system, but it would take too much time. Suffice is to say, public education is a mess, and the one’s suffering under this are children. So, who has the right answer? The people above would say Democrats, I would say Republicans.

    Bottom line, we can disagree on birth to death issues, some policies on both sides, or combinations of the two, could help. But, the murder of babies before they have a chance at life is black/white issue, no middle ground. The Democrats are even going further now, they want abortion rights up to birth, and even after baby is born, in some cases. When New York passed its law to allow abortions up to birth they celebrated in the streets and lit up the Empire State Building. I sat in shock watching this. Even Bill Clinton said abortions should be rare. New York City now has more black babies aborted each day than born.

    Think about abortion. They cut the babies arms and legs off. They stick a tube inside the head to suck out the brains. These steps make it easier to remove the baby. Blood everywhere. Then, they dispose it like trash. My Bible says God knew you in the womb. Please read Psalms 139. I’m deeply saddened a group of Christians can vote Biden, because they believe other “birth to death issues” are stronger than murder of a child in the womb, or even born. What’s the difference between murdering a baby in the womb and one that is 3 yrs old that is in the same circumstance as the unborn one?

  7. Gail says:

    I am supportive of Saul’s post. I am not going to judge anyone especially not a Christian, for their point of view regarding politics. As my 20-year-old daughter pointed out when we discussed Saul’s post, our battle is not against flesh and blood but demonic strongholds in heavenly places. The enemy of our souls is orchestrating unprecedented “perfect storms” to create more division and to harm and destroy our witness as Christ’s representatives in this dark and dying world. Condemning fellow Christians based on their political viewpoint is not the best way to be like Jesus in this polarized climate. My only answer to breathe life into this dark and toxic climate both outside and inside the church comes through our responsibility to be be like Jesus, to reflect His love and humility first and foremost. Let’s seek the Spirit of Christ in us shining through us. Above all this is a spiritual matter.

  8. Eli says:

    Having lived most of my life overseas, and under atheist communist/Marxist groups in both Ethiopia and Bolivia, I find myself very concerned about what appears to me to be the blindness of many of my brothers and sisters here in North America.
    There is a huge difference between the democrat and republican platforms and leadership.
    I can not agree that the democrat top leadership loves this country. Underlings and voters may. But the leadership has shown in numerous ways that they love power, and want to fundamentally change our republic. They have shown blatant disregard for this country’s foundation and the lives of the most vulnerable.
    There are serious problem with both parties, but I see a GRAVE danger in the Democrat party. The rise of Obama to the presidency and his actions all throughout his administration mirror those of Evo Morales of Bolivia, a drug lord and thug. The rhetoric put forth by Obama and by Biden/Harris is the same I saw under the Derg (Soviet Union backed communist government) in Ethiopia.
    It seems as if my brothers and sisters here do not know world history, and certainly are too quick to believe the media in this country. To me, the mainstream media is a vast, far-left propaganda machine, sounding eerily like Radio Moscow and Radio Voice of Revolutionary Ethiopia did in the 1980s when I was a teen.
    I hope the Lord allows His people to have more clear sight before we vote in an Marxist Dictatorship. In my view we almost there.
    Fortunately, this world is not our home. I am just sad to see this nation I love, which has enjoyed great freedoms and blessings, on the verge of pulling down an iron curtain on itself.

  9. […] This article originally appeared here. […]

  10. Rick says:

    Great article. Thank you!

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