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.
– 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.
Sign up to receive Scott’s weekly post in your email inbox.
Learn about Scott’s books, including his most recent, A Gentle Answer.
Learn about Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville.
Listen to or subscribe to Scott’s sermons or his YouTube channel.
Connect with Scott on social media — Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.