Christianity and Economics, Part 10: Were the First Christians Socialists?

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There are numerous economic problems with socialism, as was argued in part 9 of this series. Because of the incentive problem, the knowledge problem, and the economic calculation problem, socialism will always fail to live up to it’s promise to provide a more abundant life.

But some will defend socialism or socialistic economic policies because of Christian ethics. Advocates for socialism are often driven by attitudes of goodness, generosity, a willingness to share, gentleness, and compassion. Since Jesus taught his disciples to act charitably towards the poor and oppressed, it is argued that Christians should advocate for socialist economic policies. Even if an economic case were made to show that socialism fails to increase wealth, Christians must be willing to sacrifice wealth for the sake of others. After all, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3; Mt. 4:4).

Two passages are often pointed to as a scriptural foundation for socialism, both of which describe the early church in Jerusalem.

And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.

Acts 2:44-45

Two chapters later we read of what appears to be a communal pooling and sharing of resources in the early church.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 4:32-37

The Ethical Problem with Socialism

The primary ethical problem with socialism is that it violates God’s prohibitions against theft. As was discussed in detail in Part 5, the commandment, “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:11) means that people do not have the right to take other people’s property.

What’s more, the Bible teaches that rulers are not free to establish their own standards of right and wrong. They are bound by the same moral laws as everyone else. Kings are expected to act justly. This means they cannot exact gifts or tributes.

By justice a king builds up the land,
but he who exacts gifts tears it down.

Proverbs 29:4

Jeremiah emphasized the moral obligation of rulers to act justly. Their position of authority in no way permitted them to steal or murder.

Thus says the LORD: “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”

Jeremiah 22:3

Psalm 2 warns kings not to cast off God’s authority over their lives, but rather to submit to God’s anointed King.

Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all those who take refuge in him.

Psalm 2:12

If is for this reason that kings are not permitted to commit murder or theft.

One example that illustrates this truth is the account of King Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. Ahab committed both theft and murder, specifically in the case of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). When Ahab desired Naboth’s vineyard and offered to buy it, Naboth refused. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, then orchestrated a false accusation against Naboth resulting in his stoning. As soon as Ahab learned of Naboth’s death, he immediately claimed the vineyard as his own. In response, God, through the prophet Elijah, condemned Ahab for his actions.

I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD. Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.

1 Kings 21:20b-21

This account serves as a clear reminder that rulers are accountable to God for their actions and are expected to abide by the same moral laws as every other human being. It is for this reason that socialism is not an option for the Christian. The prohibition against theft disallows for any sort of state-mandated socialism. Since people are not permitted to take the property of others, the state has not moral right to collectivize other people’s property.

The Voluntary Nature of Christianity

What then should we make of the two passages from Acts previously quoted? Clearly, those early Christians were engaged in the voluntary sharing of their possessions. Their property was not confiscated by either the governing authorities or the church leaders.

The text is clear that Ananias and Sapphira were not punished for owning property which they refused to contribute to the church community. They were struck down for lying about it. Peter even points our that they did not have to lie, because it was their property to start with. It could have remained unsold if they had chosen.

While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? After it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it then that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God. – Acts 5:4

Acts 5:4

The ethical problem with socialism does not lie in the distribution of goods, but in the forcible redistribution of goods. The state is not a god, capable of distributing goods it creates out of nothing. It must first seize ownership of land, labor, and/or goods from others. The state cannot give to one person what it does not first take from someone else.

We must not confuse sharing and generosity with socialism or socialistic policies. Sharing is voluntary. Socialism is not. Sharing expresses love. Socialism does not. Sharing is self-sacrificial. Socialism sacrifices others against their will. Sharing is Christ-like. Socialism is not.

Although the early church is a wonderful example of sharing, it offers no justification for socialism or socialistic practices. Regardless of the motives of those who push for socialistic reforms, socialism violates the economic laws which God built into creation, and it is thus doomed to result in waste, poverty, and strife (Part 9). Although socialism can sometimes help some people, it can only do so by taking from others. For this reason, socialism is an ethical evil which should find no support from those who honor God’s law.

The Real Problem With Christian Nationalism

Bad arguments for correct positions often do more harm than good arguments for incorrect positions. This certainly seems to be the case with many of the popular criticisms against Christian nationalism. It’s not uncommon to read that Christian nationalism is wrong because “it suppresses minorities” or because “it is racist” or because it motivates political violence or “insurrection.

The problem with focusing only on the most unreasonable extremes is that it leaves the door open for Christians to adopt a more reasonable and balanced version of Christian nationalism. Many Christian nationalists simply believe that their government should look out for the best interest of its citizens, and the best way to do that is by encouraging their government to uphold godly values. They don’t try to suppress minorities, enforce Christianity by the force of law, and would never “storm the capital”. Since many of the popular attacks don’t accurately depict the most common forms of Christian nationalism, it’s no wonder why many find those attacks unconvincing.

Christian nationalism is wrong, but not for the reasons many popular arguments would have you believe. The real problem with Christian nationalism is that it misses the fundamental distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world.

Before accepting Christian nationalism in any form whatsoever, I encourage you to carefully consider the following passages.

1 Samuel 8:1-22

Although God originally formed his people as the unique nation of Israel, they were different from other nations in that they had no king other than God himself. Eventually, the Israelites grew tired of being different and so they asked for a king “like the nations” (8:5). Why did Israel want a king? Because they wanted someone to fight their battles for them (8:20).

The problem with Israel’s nationalism was that of trust. Israel wanted a human ruler because they no longer trusted in God to continue to fight their battles. That’s why God viewed Israel’s request as a rejection of his own kingship (8:7). Ultimately, God gave them their request. Over the next several centuries, Israel’s nationalism led to continual political conflicts, failed alliances, and ultimately to exile.

This passage reveals something very important about how God views the nationalistic desire for governing authorities to fight our battles. While this passage makes it clear that God is the head of all rule and authority (cf. Col. 2:10), and he institutes them for his purposes (cf. Rom. 13:1), he does so only as a concession to humans who cannot trust in him to fight their battles for them. Since humans insist on having governments, God uses them as ministers to accomplish his purposes (Rom. 13:1-5). But this does not mean that God approves of them. Often times God used wicked nations (such as Assyria or Babylon) as his ministers to punish Israel, only to turn around and punish them for their evil (e.g. Is. 10:5-15). Governments are under the influence of Satan (Lk. 4:5-7), but nevertheless, when people turn to earthly rulers, God permits them to have their way and uses those governments to accomplish his purposes.

Jesus, on the other hand, rejected the devil’s offer to take control of the kingdoms of the world (Mt. 4:8-10), refused to use his power to secure political power, and ran away from those who tried to make him a king (Jn. 6:15). Jesus came to destroy Israel’s nationalism by breaking down the wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles (cf. Eph. 2:11-18).

Psalm 33:16-17

The king is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a false hope for salvation,
and by its great might it cannot rescue.

Even after God allowed Israel to have a king, he still opposed their nationalism. He stressed that the security and success of his people was not to be found in the king, but in God himself.

When David wrote “Blessed in the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 33:12), he did so in the context of opposing Israel’s nationalism (which ironically is nearly the opposite of how many Christian nationalist will use the verse today.) David was saying that people are blessed when they trust in God to be their Lord as opposed to turning to earthly rulers (33:10-11).

Isaiah 40:15-17

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust…
All the nations are as nothing before him,
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

Although this passage doesn’t necessarily forbid Christian nationalism, it should greatly reduce the temptation by reminding us of the greatness of the Lord’s sovereignty in comparison to the meaningless nations. When people believe that the nations hold supreme influence on the course of the world, it is understandable why they would place a good deal of importance on influencing those nations for good. But for those whose eyes are fixed on the Lord there is continual peace, for they know that regardless of what unfolds in politics, whether good or bad, the Lord will use the authorities as his ministers to accomplish his good purposes (Rom. 13:1-5).

Matthew 20:25-28

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The quest for ruling power characterizes the world, but it must not characterize Jesus’ disciples. Christian nationalism, even in its very best and most reasonable form, is ultimately about influencing earthly powers to govern and rule in a particular way. Christians should have no part in wielding this kind of power.

John 18:36-37

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

When Jesus announced “My kingdom is not of this world,” Pilate then interpreted his words like many do today, as if Jesus was only speaking figuratively. He asked “So are you a king?” But Jesus, with no hint of confusion, weakness, or compromise responded, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born.”

Apparently, the idea of being a king and establishing a real kingdom was a big deal to Jesus. What’s more, this kingdom is primarily distinguished from the kingdom of the world in that its citizens do not fight in the same way citizens of earthly kingdoms fight.

Strangers and Foreigners

Most Christians believe in a two-kingdom concept in some form or another. Jesus made this clear in Matthew 22:15-22. The Pharisees in this passage tried to trap Jesus by asking him about the matter of paying taxes to Caesar. It is here that Jesus replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Most any Christian will acknowledge that there is a distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, although they will sometimes disagree where that line of distinction is drawn. But the early Christians drew that line with a decisive stroke.

Peter spoke to Christians as if they did not belong to the earthly kingdoms in which they lived.

And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourself with fear through the time of your exile.

1 Peter 1:17

Peter would later refer to them as “sojourners and exiles” (2:11).

The book of Hebrews likewise encouraged Christians to follow the examples of those who by faith “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” (Heb. 11:13). Paul held to the same ideas as can be seen in the following passage.

2 Timothy 2:3-4

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian disputes, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.

Paul told Timothy that a Christian should view themselves as a loyal soldier in the Lord’s army, not distracted by concerns outside of his domain. He reminded Timothy that a soldier does not have the time, nor the right, to involve himself in the affairs of the country in which he finds himself. Why? Because his relationship to that county is that of a foreigner. Christian nationalism is no more appropriate for a Christian than German nationalism would be for an American soldier stationed in Germany.

Nationalism, in it’s most basic and defendable form, suggest that nationalism is reasonable because citizens are right to concern themselves with the affairs of their own country before concerning themselves with globalist affairs of foreign nations. Yet it is this very logic which renders Christian nationalism unreasonable since Christians are citizens of a different kingdom.

Christian Nationalism is Backsliding

Other scriptures could certainly be added to this list, but the point should be clear. Christianity isn’t merely non-nationalistic. It is anti-nationalistic. The early Christians didn’t merely fail to transform Rome into a Christian nation, they viewed themselves as strangers and exiles living in a foreign country. The Bible doesn’t merely fail to support Christian nationalism, it warns Christians against it.

Come out of her [Babylon] my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues.

Revelation 19:4

Advancing God’s kingdom today requires that we remain distinct from the world (Jn. 15:19). Christian nationalism, in any form whatsoever, is backsliding because it blurs the line of distinction between the church and the world, between foreigners and citizens, and between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. To seek to build up nations reverses what Jesus accomplished when he established a kingdom that would rule over all nations, and one day will ultimately triumph over all earthly rule and authority (1 Cor. 15.24).

Just as Old Testament Israel rebelled against God when they demanded a king, Christians express a lack of trust in God when they embrace Christian nationalism. Christians are citizens of a different kingdom (Phil. 3:20). It’s time we live like it.

Roe v. Wade and the Temptation To Do Good

On June 24, 2022 the Supreme Court made the wonderful decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. When the news broke it was immediately recognized as a time for celebration for Christians, and for good reason. But along with the positivity, there’s been another side of the Christian response which has been troubling. That is, many Christians have pointed to this as evidence of the good that Christians can accomplish by pursuing political influence and power. It is argued that Roe v. Wade would have never been overturned without Christians using the political strategies and choices that were necessary to bring about this change.

Although I unapologetically celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision, I do not believe that Christians should look to earthly power as the primary, or even as one of the ways to bring about good in the world. Not only do I whole heartedly oppose abortion, I also believe that the kingdom of God must be kept distinct from the kingdom of the world; not only in what we say is wrong, but also in how we fight against what we recognize as wrong. As a believer in moral absolutes, I believe abortion is wrong and is destructive to society. I also think it is important for Christians to heed the warning of Psalm 146:3, to “put not your trust in princes.” As a Christian, I celebrate the Supreme Court for their decision which could potentially save millions of lives, and I call on Christians to faithfully follow the way of Jesus, who rejected earthly political influence in order to establish a kingdom which is not of this world.

Yes, I know I’m being redundant. But that’s because some Christians still just don’t get it. Let me make myself perfectly clear: I oppose abortion. Abortion is murder. Abortion is selfish. Abortion is immoral. Christians should actively fight against evil, and abortion is evil. But none of this should be viewed as justification for Christians to fight against evil in ways that blur the distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. This is precisely what most (if not all) activities and decisions made in the pursuit of earthly power cause Christians to do.

A Kingdom Not Of This World

My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.

John 18:36

When Jesus claimed “My kingdom is not of this world”, He pointed to the observable fact that his disciples were not fighting to substantiate that claim. Of course, you could say that in a sense Jesus’s entire ministry was a fight against evil. But even still, Jesus’s disciples were not fighting in the same way that other revolutionaries would fight.

When Jesus used the phrase “of this world” He was not speaking of the geographic location of His kingdom, but rather He was referring to the world’s way of doing things. For example, Jesus said He came to testify against “the world” because its deeds are evil (Jn. 7:7). Elsewhere, John would say, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). The contrast between “of this world” and “not of this world” is referring to the world’s ways of doing things and a godly way of doing things.

If Jesus’s disciples had a reputation of fighting in the same way the world fights, Jesus’s claim would have been completely meaningless. Can you imagine Pilate’s response if this had been the case? “What do you mean your kingdom is not of this world? Then why is Peter standing out there handing out picket signs at the political rally? Why did Matthew just send a donation to a Roman senator? And why is Simon recruiting more zealots?” But as it was, Jesus’s disciples were not fighting, and so Jesus’s teaching stood with the weight of observable truth.

Yes, Jesus’s early followers, like us, also had an earthly citizenship. But despite the fact that they lived under subjection to the kingdoms of this world, their distinction from the world remained apparent. They were “in” the world but not “of” the world.

Scripture drives home this distinction when it teaches us to view ourselves as soldiers stationed in a foreign country, and thus refuse to let ourselves get entangled in “civilian pursuits” (2 Tim. 2:4). It teaches us to view ourselves as “strangers” and “exiles”, just like Abraham did (Heb. 11:8-10, 13-16; 1 Peter 2:11).

Note this carefully – preserving our “exile” status is at the very core of who we are. That’s why Scripture repeatedly stresses the fact that we are called to be a “holy” people (2 Cor. 6:17), indicating that we are to be “set apart” (Ps. 4:3). Like Israelites coming out of Egypt to be “set apart” for God, Christians are instructed to “come out” of Babylon (Rev. 18:4). We are to be holy in the same way that God is holy. Our holy and distinct relationship with the world should be every bit as holy and distinct as Jesus’s relationship with the world.

Our Mission

It’s important to understand that I’m not arguing that Christians should adapt an escapist position, where we simply isolate ourselves from societal problems such as abortion. When God called Israel to be a “holy nation”, the purpose was not to isolate them from other nations. Israel was to be a holy nation so that they would serve as a light to the other nations (Isa. 49:6; 55:4-5, etc). God’s plan was always to bless all nations through Abraham’s family (Gen. 12:1-3).

So too, Christians are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt. 5:13-16). But in order for us to be salt in the world, we must maintain our distinction from the world.

If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

One way we maintain our holy distinction from the world is by refusing to pursue ruling authority over others. That’s the way the world tried to accomplish great things, but Jesus explicitly instructs us not to seek that kind of power.

You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But is shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Mark 10:42-45

God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten Son (John 3:16), and we are to imitate His love for the world by imitating his self-sacrificial behavior (Eph. 5:1-2). If we really love the world, and want to make a positive difference in the world, we would do well to love the world in the same way God did. The reason we are not to be “of” the world is so that we can be “for” the world.

We are not simply called to do “good”. We are called to be faithful. We are called to “imitate Christ”. We are called to be holy.

Jesus and the Temptation to Do Good

Paul says that we must be careful not to be outwitted by Satan’s designs (2 Cor. 2:11). With this in mind, we would be wise to reflect on how Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, so that we do not fall into a similar trap.

The Devil tempted Jesus by offering him all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-8). The Devil essentially offered Jesus what he came to get (Mt. 28:18-20), but by way of an immediate shortcut that would bypass his sacrificial death on the cross.

Think about it. Without having to suffer and die, Jesus could have immediately taken all the kingdoms of the world into his possession. Can you imagine how much “good” Jesus could have done if he had accepted Satan’s offer? He could have quicky overturned every evil law in Roman society. Jesus could have immediately outlawed abortion throughout the world. The Devil’s temptation would not have been a temptation if there was not a lot of “good” wrapped up in it.

Yet Jesus refused. Why? Because Jesus did not come just to give us an improved and more “godly” version of the kingdoms of this world. Instead, Jesus came to bring a kingdom that is not of this world. In fulfillment of Psalm 2, Jesus came to replace “the kingdom of the world” with “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” (Rev. 11:15-18). He didn’t just come to fix the kingdoms of this world. He came to put them out of business, thus turning all nations to him.

As tempting as the immediately good consequences may have been, Jesus refused to lose the radical distinction of his Kingdom in exchange for the Satan-ruled kingdom of this world. No matter how much good he could have done. He refused to rule like the Gentiles did. If we are dedicated to following Jesus’s example, we must resist the temptation to trade our holy mission regardless of how much “good” we might think we can accomplish by using other means.

Continue the Fight

Abortion is a great evil. Its existence testifies to the fact that Satan is, in a very real sense the “ruler of the world” (Jn. 14:30; 16:11), “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:1-4), and the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:1-2). Abortion thrives only under Satan’s “domain of darkness” (Col. 1:3). That’s why it is so important that in our fight against abortion, we are careful not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2).

So what do we do now? Christians should continue the fight against abortion as they have done in the past, yet without the pursuit of earthly power. Keep finding ways to serve the poor and the needy in your community. Keep inviting them into your homes. Keep supporting single mothers. Keep volunteering at pregnancy crisis centers. Keep adopting. Keep getting involved in foster care. Keep donating to children’s homes. Keep praying. The church has long led the charge in these type of actions, and that must continue. Yes, all of these things require a degree of personal sacrifice, but imitating the sacrificial savior is precisely what sets us apart from the world. Because of the gospel, sacrifice is how we believe we will win.

If we want to see Satan’s dominion weakened, we must remain faithful to God’s kingdom. Two thousand years ago, Jesus pointed to his disciples’ refusal to fight as proof that his kingdom was not of this world. When Jesus looks at our fight against abortion, does he see that our actions still bear witness to that truth?

“God’s Provisions of Authority” by David Lipscomb

The Gospel Advocate; January 23, 1866

We propose investigating, at this time, the relationship of the church to the political institutions of earth. In the investigation of this subject, we shall use certain terms, very common in themselves, but hardly with a sufficient definiteness of meaning to permit a use of them in this investigation, without first defining them. We shall use the adjectives, civil and political, when connected with the institutions of earth, as indicating those of human origin, in contradiction to those of divine origin. Civil government then, is a government founded by man for the well-being of the human family, in contradiction from a government founded of God for man’s well-being. With this definition, it will at a glance be seen that no civil or human institutions can exist in a government exclusively of God. Hence we never hear of a civil policy in the Church of God. God alone is the law-giver to his church. It also behooves us in determining definitely what relationship now exists between the Church of Christ and the political governments of the world, to inquire into the origin of each, whence did they originate, how stood they with reference to each other in the beginning, too, the successive changes that have taken place in each, with reference to the other, and how these changes have been regarded by God, the great arbiter of right and wrong. By pursuing this course we feel sure that a definite and clear appreciation of the relationship of church and state, may be arrived at, which will be of benefit to both, if acted upon.

Commencing then with the first creation of man the subject of both the human and divine governments, we find that God, in proposing to create him in his own image, declared that,

he shall have dominion over the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping think that creepeth upon the face of the earth.

Genesis 1:26

Man, having been created, receives his commission to live and act. In that he is empowered to,

subdue the earth, and to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:28

All authority is of God and from God. He, the maker of all things, alone had the right to assign to every created thing its position, functions, and powers.

There is no person or thing then in the universe that can rightfully occupy any particular position or exercise any especial authority or power, save by appointment directly from God. All other exercise of authority must be in rebellion against the Creator. God here directly delegates to man the right to subdue and control the whole lower creation. He is assigned the position of head of this under creation, and has the unquestioned right to hold it subservient to his own will and to command it to the accomplishment of his own purposes.

But who governs and directs man? Has God empowered him to control and direct himself? We find no such power delegated to him, but on the contrary He says, “that it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps aright.” But in contrast with his delegating this authority to man to control the brute creation, the inspired historian says in Genesis 11:16, “The Lord God commanded the man.” In other words, I have given you, man, the right and power to control and use under creation, but I reserve to myself the right, the sole right to govern and control you.

It is noteworthy, that when God once delegated authority to an under agent, he never himself interfered with the exercise of that authority, or reassumed it to himself. Hence, having once delegated to man the right to control the under creation, he never interfered with the exercise of that right. So we find him nowhere issuing commands to the under portion of creation. Still less, we may safely conclude, will he tolerate interference upon the part of man, with what he has reserved to himself as his peculiar prerogative. Then God reserved to himself the sole right to govern and control man, the assumption to govern himself or to govern his fellow man was an interference with God’s prerogative.

In accordance with this reserved right or prerogative of God, we find that he has always made provision for its exercise, by keeping continually a government of his own, in which he proposes to direct man. In the Garden of Eden he governed Adam, to provided for his government, by commands given directly to him in person. When he chose to try his own capacity to direct his steps aright, death, with its untold horrors, resulted. When Adam refused to obey his Maker’s law, as thus given, was driven from the garden of Eden, God still provided a government for all who were disposed to submit to his authority, though the patriarchal institution. In this the father was law-giver and law executor of God to his family.

When the family, that recognized God’s authority, had grown in numbers and proportions to the strength of a nation, God changed his institution from a family to a national government. Under this establishment Moses was not the law-maker, but the law-giver to the Jewish nation. God, himself alone, was the law-maker. We wish it observed that there was no human or civil polity in the Jewish government as it came from its maker. God gave the law through Moses. Through the Prophets and Judges, God applied his own law to the difficulties and differences that arose among his people, and himself through his Urim and Thummim decided every dispute that was brought to His judgment seat. There was here no human legislative, judicial, or executive authority, save as it was under the direct guidance of God.

This institution having superceded and supplanted the Patriarchal dispensation, continued until perverted by the introduction of a human polity, it corrupted the people it had been established to keep pure. When this people, as a whole, had rejected God’s government, and had substituted instead thereof, a human one, God rejected them as his people. Howbeit a few of that nation had, in spite of the influence of the perverted government, maintained their integrity to God. Under the providential workings of God with the other nations of the earth, the minds of some individuals of other nations had also been prepared for the reception of God’s government. He then introduced a new dispensation suited to embrace individuals, many or few, under any and all the nationalities of earth and for all time. This new dispensation, universal in its nature, superceded and supplanted the Jewish national dispensation, as it had done the patriarchal, but this is to stand forever.

God then, in accordance with his design of governing man, has at no time left himself without a government. These governments have been at all times complete and perfect in themselves, needing no interpolation or addition from human hands. To the Jews he said,

What thing soever I command you, observe to do it, you shall not add thereto nor diminish from it.

Deuteronomy 12:32

In the universal or Christian dispensation, he said,

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect thoroughly furnished unto every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book, and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and out of the things that are written in this book.

Revelation 22:18-19

So God has always provided an institution for man’s government, free from the defilement of human hands. In his government then there can be no civil or human polity.

Christianity and Social Movements

In their sincere passion to fight against evil, many Christians try to promote and uphold whichever social and political movements they feel best represent their Christian values. Far too often, this results in Christians fighting against one another about which social movements best reflect Christian values, rather than actually uniting with one another to fight against Satan.

There are debates over racism, politicians, political parties, facemasks, vaccines, immigration, economics, the narrative presented by the mainstream media, education strategies, and on and on. Whenever these innumerable social debates occur, Christians can usually be found on opposing sides, with each side arguing that their side best reflects Christian values. Christians latch on to whichever side seems the most right, and they do their best to actively support the right side, with the goal of defeating the wrong side.

The Christian Response to Ungodliness in Culture

As people who live in a democracy, Christians are for the most part free to voice their opinions however they see fit. But, when Christians choose to actively support and participate in various political and social movements, it is crucially important that they realize that there is nothing distinctly Christian about their activism. Their opinions may be completely correct. They may even be founded on godly ethical principles taken straight from Scripture. The wrongs they seek to address may in fact be very real and harmful evils. But being correct and noble does not mean that a particular social movement is “Christian.”

Being a “Christian” means being “Christ-like”. Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say. Jesus Christ most certainly fought against the ungodly aspects of his culture. Christ encouraged his disciples to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt. 5:12-16). The movement led by Christ was so successful in doing just that, they were accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). But Jesus never showed the slightest interest in joining in any of the various social movements of his day. Nor did his earliest disciples.

Jesus’s complete lack of interest in picking sides between the various social movements becomes even more significant when we remember that he lived in political volatile times that were filled with competing social movements. Not surprisingly, as Jesus gained popularity and influence, Jesus was continually challenged to voice his opinion on the various movements of his day to see which side he would choose. But Jesus continually refused.

The Taxation Debate

For example, on at least one occasion Jesus was asked about the divisive issue of whether or not the Jews should pay taxes to the oppressive Romans. Notice Jesus’s response:

Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Matthew 20:19-21

Some have mistakenly thought that Jesus was saying “Yes, be a good citizen. Pay your taxes, vote, do whatever your country asks of you.” But if we pay attention to Jesus’s response in its original context, it means nothing of the sort.

The coin bore the image of the emperor, which the Jews saw as a direct violation of God’s law (Ex. 20:4; Lev. 26:1). The coin bore an inscription claiming that Caesar was the High Priest and Lord. Scripture teaches that the God alone is the only true Lord, and everything rightly belongs to Him (Ps. 24:1; 50:10; Hag. 2:8) and man is created in His image (Gen. 1:26-27).

By holding up the coin and asking about the image and inscription, Jesus skillfully pointed out that the claims of God and the claims of Caesar are mutually exclusive. If one’s loyalty is to Caesar, Caesar is owed everything, beginning with the coin that bears his image. If one’s loyalty is to God, God is owed everything, beginning with man himself who is created in His image.

In this way, Jesus transformed the question pertaining to the political and social movements of his day into a question that pertained to the kingdom of God.

The Uniqueness of Christianity

This episode and others (e.g. Lk 12:13-16) make it clear that Jesus did not come to answer our political questions or offer a new and improved way of running the kingdoms of this world (Mt. 4:8-11). Rather, Jesus came to establish a radically different kind of kingdom, one that is “not of this world” (John 18:36). The only instructions Christians are given in connection with governing authorities are to respect and submit to them, pay taxes to them, and pray for them (Mk. 12:13-17; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). And even these instructions are given not out of concern for how the government should be run, but rather to facilitate the spreading of the gospel (1 Tim. 2:1-6).

The point of all this isn’t to argue that Christians can’t have opinions about the various social movements that divide our society. The point isn’t to say that Christians can’t vote, can’t peacefully protest, and can’t voice their opinions. But Christians must remember that when they engage the problems of the world using these methods, they are not being unique from the world.

Anybody can add their two-cents on social media about the problems in the world. Anybody can donate to a political campaign. Anybody can rally support for a particular cause they believe in. This approach is not a uniquely Christ-ian approach, because Christ himself did not take that kind of approach. Our unique call as disciples of Christ has nothing to do with gaining enough influence to run the kingdoms of the world, and has everything to do with our unique way of living under the authority of God’s reign.

Ultimately hope for the world does not reside in the success of failure of our particular political or social movements. It resides in the willingness of Jesus’s disciples to follow His example by keeping His kingdom set apart from the world (the Bible’s word for this is “holy”). We are to be unique from the world by not getting sucked into the innumerable social and political conflicts that characterize the world.

Our citizenship is in a kingdom that is not of this world. The heavenly kingdom is a unique one, where we believe the world is changed, not by gaining enough power and influence to defeat our enemies, but by trusting in God’s righteous judgment even when our enemies defeat us. In Jesus’s kingdom, we find greatness, not in ruling over others, but rather in serving them (Mt. 20:25-28).

Next time social division raises its ugly head and we are tempted to pick a side and join the fight, let’s pick the holy side. Let’s pick the unique side. Let’s pick the sides the wins the same way Jesus won; by self-sacrificial love. Let’s pick the Kingdom of God.

Why We Don’t Sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

When I was younger, I was taught that the most important part of our worship in song wasn’t the notes, but rather the words. When we sing to God, we are also speaking to and teaching one another (Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16). We should be able to “sing with the mind” (1 Cor. 14.15).

Every Sunday, our worship is filled with wonderful, beautiful, theologically rich hymns which remind us of biblical truths.  But growing up in the church, there was one song that we didn’t sing. In fact, we avoided it. We never sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It’s not that we didn’t know the song (if you know the tune of “Booster”, you know the song). But rather, we avoided it because of its anti-Christian message.

Of course, there are some who remain ignorant of the song’s history and its anti-Christian theology. There have been rare occasions (usually near a patriotic holiday) where I’ve heard this song led in worship. But those occasions are rare. And even when the song is led, there are usually at least a handful of Christians throughout the auditorium standing there in awkward silence.

It is important to pay attention to the message we teach with our songs. That’s why many Christians don’t sing the “Battle Hymn.”

The Origins of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

(Source: Chapter 8 of Julia Ward Howe’s biography. You can read it here.)

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in 1861 by a northern political activist, Julia Ward Howe. As an abolitionist, she was convinced that the Union cause was moral and righteous, and thus felt justified in supporting the destruction of her southern neighbors.

Returning from a visit to Washington in 1861, her carriage was delayed by marching regiments of Union soldiers. To pass the time, she and her companions sang several war songs which were popular at the time. Among them was a song called “John Brown’s Body”.

John Brown’s body lied a-moulding in the grave,
His soul is marching on!

The tune was catchy, and it wasn’t long until the marching soldiers joined in singing with her. One of her friends then suggested to her, “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?”

Early the following morning the following lyrics came to her:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

After the song was published in 1862, it quickly found its way into military camps, and was frequently sung in exhortation before battles, and was sung joyously upon the news of military victories. In describing why she had written the song, Howe said:

Something seems to say to me, “You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.” Yet, because of my sincere desire, a word was given to me to say, which did strengthen the hearts of those who fought in the field and of those who languished in the prison.

Despite originating during the war, it is important to realize that opposition to singing this “hymn” has nothing to do with who we think was right or wrong during the war. It has everything to do with the anti-Christian message of the song.

The Theology of the “Battle Hymn”

Like many who lived in the 19th century, Howe was very familiar with the Bible. Therefore the song is filled with language and imagery from Scripture. The song certainly has a spiritual message, but the message is not a Christian message.

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is religious war propaganda. It twists and turns the biblical imagery for the purpose of “strengthening the hearts” of union soldiers as they fought and killed their southern neighbors. Far from being a Christian hymn, the “Battle Hymn” is anti-Christian to the core.

Revelation 19 and the Coming of the Lord

The phrase “coming of the Lord” is understood to refer to the 2nd coming of Christ (1 Thess. 4.15; Jas. 5.7-8). Despite the fact that the phrase “coming of the Lord” never appears in the book of Revelation, most of the songs images are drawn from Revelation 19.

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which not one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “King of kings, and Lord of lords.” – Rev. 19.11-16

In this passage, violence, war, and judgment seem to accompany the appearance of Christ, who arrives on a white horse (a common image used for Roman military conquerors). The passage describes Jesus in a blood-drenched robe treading out the “wine press of the fierce wrath of God.” Howe poetically uses the image to describe the Lord “Trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

The problem is that Howe wrote this lyric, not for the purpose of trusting in the Lord’s judgment, but rather for the purpose of giving Union troops license to kill their southern enemies. Americans have continually heard this popular patriotic song exactly as it was intended by Howe to be understood – as a validation for Americans to destroy enemies whom they judge as being immoral.

As Howe wrote the following verses with Union soldiers in mind, seeking to “offer service to their cause”, even the triumph of the gospel and the birth of Christ and twisted into justification for war.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on!

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat,
O be swift, my soul, to answer Him, Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on!

In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on!

John’s Use of Military Imagery

The Bible is no stranger to using military imagery (1 Tim. 1.18; 2 Tim. 2.3), and Revelation 19 is no exception. But Julia Ward Howe and John of Patmos use military imagery to opposite ends.

Howe used the military imagery of Revelation 19 to “strengthen the hearts” of union soldiers as they marched into battle against their enemies. John used Roman military imagery to show that Christ (as opposed to Roman military leaders) will ultimately win the day. If we are looking for a heroic conqueror on a white horse to ride in and save the day, John doesn’t want for us to look for a Roman military leader, a Union General, or any other military hero. He wants us to look to Christ.

By the time Revelation was written, the “sword” was already commonly understood by Christians as a figure of the word of God (Eph. 6.17; Heb. 4.12). Earlier in the book of Revelation, Christ is described as having a sword coming out of his mouth, strongly reinforcing this image (Rev. 1.16). The fact that Revelation 19 describes the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth indicates that the “weapon” John envisions is not the “burnished rows of steel”, but rather the God’s word.

John then describes how the sword is used to strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron. This is quite the opposite of Howe’s usage of Revelation’s imagery to “strengthen the hearts of those who fought” for her nation. In Revelation 19, the nations are not the victors. Rather the nations, having been deceived by Babylon (Rev. 18.23), are the ones who are defeated by the triumphant word of God.

The Victory of the Lamb

The book of Revelation not only assures us of Christ’s victory, it also gives us understanding as to how God destroys evil.

Amid all the violence and evil in the world, Revelation 5 gives good news. The victorious Lion of Judah is here to fight for us! But the surprising thing is that when John turns around to see the Lion, He looks like a slain Lamb.

“And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain.” (Rev. 5.6)

Significantly, a similar surprise is seen in the Revelation 19 battle scene. A close reading will show that the blood on Christ’s garment was not that of his enemies. Christ is described as being covered in blood (v. 13) before the enemies are struck down (v. 15). The blood is not that of His enemies. It is His own blood.

At the conclusion of Jesus’s conquest, He bears a new title: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16). Jesus replaces every other king, lord, or other political power which may demand our allegiance. Immediately after the conquest, the kings, the military commanders, the mighty men, the horses are their riders are all defeated (vs. 17-18).

Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn to strengthen others in their allegiance to the Union. Revelation 19 challenges us to give our allegiance to Him who is Faithful and True as opposed to giving our allegiance to the nations of this earth with their kings and military conquerors. The “Battle Hymn” uses the same images, but to a completely opposite end.

Choose Your Side

Though the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is filled with scriptural images, it has nothing to do with following Jesus. This is why many Christians don’t sing the “Battle Hymn”. We don’t sing the “Battle Hymn”, because we have decided to give our allegiance and worship to Christ alone, rejecting allegiance to any other defeated king, lord, or political entity.

Breaking the Pagan Paradigm

Do Christians Have a Responsibility to Influence Our Culture for Good?

In recent years, I have written several articles to discourage Christians from getting involved in the pursuit of political power. (For example, read here, here, or find a full list of articles here).

In response to these articles, one objection is continually raised: Christians have a responsibility to be salt and light to influence our world for good. Therefore, when it comes to social and/or moral issues, Christians have an obligation to be politically involved.

In response to this objection, let us first consider the question, “Do Christians have a moral obligation to be salt and light, influencing culture for good?” I believe scripture makes the answer clear.

  • Disciples of Jesus have a responsibility to be the “salt of the earth“, and to be the ‘light of the world” (Mt. 5.13-14)
  • The church has the responsibility to “expose” the “unfruitful deeds of darkness” (Eph. 5.11)
  • Christians should encourage the surrounding culture to glorify God (1 Pet. 2.12)
  • Peter instructs the church to “silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Pet. 2.15)

Other scriptures could be cited to this same end. I’ve never questioned whether or not Christians should strive to influence our culture for good. Although I have tried to discourage Christians being politically active, I’ve never believed that Christians should do nothing.

So why does the objection continue to come up? I don’t think anybody is intentionally trying to misrepresent my position. Why is the objection so common? Why do so many Christians feel they have a moral obligation to be involved politically?

The answer is found when we realize that many Christians continue to be trapped in a pagan paradigm. Once we recognize this pagan paradigm, these objections begin to make a lot of sense.

Trapped In a Pagan Paradigm

For a vast majority of people in our world “influencing culture for good” is basically equated with “using political power for good.” This shouldn’t surprise us. If someone doesn’t believe in the power of the gospel, they will naturally believe that power lies elsewhere. From a worldly perspective, nobody has more power, more influence, or more capacity to do more good than those who wield political power. Therefore, according to this paradigm, if we have an opportunity to influence political powers for good, and we refuse that opportunity, we have forsaken the opportunity to influence our society for good.

Unfortunately many Christians struggle to break free from this paradigm. For them, whenever they read someone suggesting that Christians should not be politically active, it is assumed that they are suggesting that Christians should not influence culture for good. For those trapped in this paradigm, to withdraw from political involvement is to withdraw from being “salt” and “light”.

The problem with this paradigm is that it does not recognize the conceptual possibility that Christians could be socially active, engage moral issues in society, and influence society for good while at the same time separating the gospel from political involvement. Yet this is precisely what I understand that Christians should do.

At this point I anticipate another objection to be raised. “You’ve over simplified the matter. I don’t ‘equate’ being salt and light with being politically active. I recognize that there are other non-political ways a person could positively impact culture. But still, political influence is one of several methods a person may use to confront social and/or moral issues.”

Perhaps this is true. But if we really believe this counter-objection is true, why continue to raise the initial objection to Christians who withdraw from political powers? If we recognize that Christians can be “salt” and “light” in non-political ways, then why suggest that someone is forsaking their Christian responsibility by not being politically active? Either we don’t actually believe that Christians have a responsibility to be politically active or we don’t actually believe that Christians can influence culture for good while not being politically active. We can’t consistently hold to both at the same time.

I suspect the reality is that these Christians recognize that we can influence culture for good without being politically active, but view non-political methods as less influential than political methods. In other words, they don’t believe in the effectiveness of non-political methods in comparison to political methods. Thus they continue to essentially equate the responsibility to “influence culture for good” with the responsibility to “be politically involved.” They continue to be trapped in a pagan paradigm.

Where Does This Pagan Paradigm Come From?

It is important to recognize that this way of viewing the world did not originate with Jesus. Jesus never so much as commented on the hot political issues of his day. Whenever Jesus was asked directly about sensitive political issues, he used these questions as opportunities to point people to the kingdom of God (Mt. 22.15-22; Lk 12.13-15). On multiple occasions, Jesus had the opportunity to gain political power (power He most certainly would have used for good) yet He continually refused that power (Jn. 6.15). This was precisely the kind of power Jesus rejected as a temptation from Satan (Lk. 4.5-7).

Would we suggest that Jesus was failing to be salt of the earth? Was Jesus forsaking an opportunity to be the light of the world? Does this mean that Jesus had forsaken the opportunity to be socially active? Does this mean Jesus didn’t care about the moral issues in His society? Did Jesus thereby fail to influence His culture for good? Of course not!

(For more on Jesus, read here.)

We should also recognize that this paradigm did not originate with the New Testament church. The only things the New Testament commands Christians to do in relation to political powers is to submit to them (Rom. 13.1-4; 1 Pet. 2.13-14), to strive to obey them (Tit. 3.1), to pay taxes (Rom. 13.7), to honor them (Rom. 13.7; 1 Pet. 2.17), and to pray for them (1 Tim. 2.1-2). More significantly, Christians are commanded not to act as judges over non-Christians (1 Cor. 5.12-13; 1 Pet. 4.17; Mt. 7.1-5). And yet, the early church was credited with “turning the world upside down” (NKJV), not because of the way they influenced Caesar for good, but rather because they claimed “there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17.6-7).

(For more on how the early church approached politics, read here, here, and here.)

So where does this paradigm come from? The answer can be seen in Matthew 20.25-28:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your salve; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

According to Jesus, the pagan world is characterized by their quest for power and ruling authority. The quest to influence the world for good by the means of political power is a pagan strategy resulting from a pagan paradigm. And it is precisely at this point that Jesus challenges His disciples to differentiate themselves from the world. The greatest in the kingdom of Christ do not rule; they serve. If Christians are to be “salt” and “light” in the world, we must be “salt” and “light” in the same way Jesus was salt and light; through self-sacrificial love. Christians should have absolutely no desire to take part in the pursuit of ruling power.

Jesus reinforced this point in John 18.36-37:

Jesus answer, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

The way Jesus’ disciples are differentiated from the world is in their refusal to fight for power the way that kingdoms of this world fight for power.

Christians aren’t distinguished from pagans simply in that we want to influence the world for good (Christians and non-Christians both want to influence the world for good, though they may disagree what “good” should look like). Christians are to be “salt” and “light” by being poor in spirit; by being gentle; by being peacemakers; by allowing themselves to be persecuted by their enemies (Mt. 5.1-12). We must not lose this key distinction.

But if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to the thrown out and trampled under foot by men. – Matthew 5.13

“But the Church Doesn’t Have Enough Resources”

“But the church doesn’t have enough resources. We can do far more good by influencing political powers than we could ever achieve by ourselves.”

I disagree.

If only a small fraction of Christians worked together and sacrificed to help the poor, to support adoption, to support struggling mothers who might otherwise consider abortion, or to lead the fight against racism, they could make an incredible difference.

Can the church do more? Absolutely. But the reason the church is not currently having a bigger influence in the world is because we’re too busy fighting over what Caesar should do about social and moral issues instead of actually doing what Jesus has called us to do. Too many Christians feel like they are doing their part by simply visiting the voting booth once every couple of years. “I voted against abortion, so I did my part” or “I voted to help the poor, so I did my part”. I’m not suggesting that Christians cannot vote, or that every voter fits this description, but we must never be deceived into thinking that political involvement excuses us from sacrificially serving.

The Power of the Gospel

Ultimately, hope for our society (and for our world) doesn’t depend on which party gets in power or which bills get passed into law. Hope for the world depends on Christians using the power God has given us. Hope for the world depends on Christians being distinctive from the world as salt and light.

The power to influence the world for good isn’t a power that gets released when we wrestle ruling authority away from our opponents. The power of the gospel is the power of the cross; the power we have even when our enemies are the ones sitting as rulers, as judges, and as executioners; the power we have when we are nailed into a completely “powerless” position.

The pagan paradigm was put to the ultimate test when Jesus was nailed to the cross. And the pagan paradigm was shattered when Jesus rose from the dead.

It’s time to break free from the pagan paradigm.

Does God Expect Governments to Love Their Enemies?

Must governments love their enemies? Are militaries required “turn the other cheek”? Does “do not resist an evil person” apply to police forces? In light of all that the Bible teaches about how to treat enemies, should nations have militaries at all?

Was The New Testament Written to Reform Governments?

The New Testament was not written as a moral code to reform all the disorders and evils of the political powers. The New Testament was not written to fill the world with so-called “Christian nations.”

Matthew 4.17 identifies the theme of Jesus’ teaching as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus’ hearers knew what the word “kingdom” meant. They were familiar with the Egypitians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and now the Romans. But the Kingdom preached by Jesus was to be distinguished from any of these earthly kingdoms. The kingdom preached by Jesus was the “kingdom of heaven.” That is, it was a kingdom from heaven. In other places it is described as the “kingdom of God.” In John 18.36, Jesus made the nature of his kingdom clear. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this world.” Yes, Jesus came to establish His kingdom in the world, but his kingdom is not of this world.

There is an important distinction made between the kingdoms of this earth and the kingdoms of this world. Earthly kingdoms are under the authority of earthly rulers. The heavenly kingdom is under the authority of the heavenly Father. Earthly kingdoms fight. Those in Jesus’ kingdom do not fight.

The teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount (and throughout the whole New Testament) are the teachings of the kingdom of heaven, not the teachings of any earthly kingdom. Their purpose is not to reform the world by making earthly kingdoms moral, but rather to set apart the disciples of Jesus as “salt” and “light” to be distinguished from the rest of the world.

Paul understood that “loving your enemies” is an essential requirement for those who follow Jesus (Rom. 12.14-13.2). But Paul also understood that we cannot please God unless we have the Spirit of God (Rom. 8.5-16). We cannot love our enemies unless we first present our bodies as living sacrifices and are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12.1-2).

Paul recognized that those who are outside of Christ are in darkness (Eph. 2.1-3). Therefore Paul appealed to Christians not to judge those who are outside the church, but rather to leave their judgment to God (1 Cor. 5.11-12).

The New Testament Is Silent on How Earthly Rulers Should Govern

God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1.2-3), but the New Testament is silent when it comes to how earthly rulers are to govern others. Christians are commanded to submit to earthly rulers (Rom. 13.1-4, 2 Pet. 2.13-18), pray for earthly rulers (1 Tim. 2.1-2), and pay taxes to them (Mt. 22.15-22; Rom 13.7), but nowhere are we given instructions to seek to reform or rule over the nations of this world.

In fact, Jesus taught nearly the opposite.

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. – Matthew 28.25-28

When Jesus was approached with political questions, he used these as opportunities to advance the Kingdom of God (Mt. 22.15-22; Lk. 12.13-15). The point of His teaching was never to rule over others with more godly principles than other men. The point of his teaching was to establish a separate kingdom, founded on entirely different principles.

Paul encouraged Christians not to yoke themselves with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6.14-18), not to fight with earthly weapons (2 Cor. 10.3-4), and not to fight against flesh and blood (Eph. 6.12). He encouraged Christians to remember that earthly rulers and authorities have been disarmed (Col. 2.15). Therefore, Christians should not feel compelled to rule over earthly authorities, but rather they should submit to them (Rom 13.1-4).

The mission of the early church was not to solve the problems of the world by making Rome great, but rather to proclaim the Kingdom of God as the place where those problems will be solved. When disciples of Jesus display the peaceful principles of God’s kingdom, they will draw men out of the kingdoms of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Should Governments Turn the Other Cheek?

Sure, it would be great if every nation on earth followed the golden rule. It would be great if every military on earth acted with love towards their enemies. If every nation on earth were to turn the other cheek, there would probably be a lot less evil and war.

Yet for Christians, this is asking the wrong question. Governments don’t spread the kingdom of God. No military, no violence, and no sword can ever spread the gospel of the Prince of Peace. Neither do governments stop the spread of the kingdom of God. The New Testament is not concerned with reforming the Roman Empire into a Christian nation.

The New Testament never commands Rome, America, or any other nation to have a military. Neither does the New Testament command nations to get rid of their militaries.

The Bible does continually teach that nations will be held accountable for the wicked things they do. But when Paul wrote to the church in Rome, where wicked Nero reigned on the throne, Paul did not charge the church with disarming Nero and his forces. Rather Paul encouraged the church to remember that God can use even those who bear the sword for wicked Nero to accomplish good. Therefore, rather than seeking to disarm Nero, Christians should submit to him, recognizing that God uses earthly governments for the necessary work of executing wrath on evildoers (Rom. 13.1-4).

Rather than resisting the desires of evil earthly rulers, the duty of the Christian is to refuse to take vengeance against their enemies (Rom. 12.14-21). When Christians love their enemies and convert them from their evil, they reform society by removing the necessary reason for the existence of earthly governments and their militaries.

Does This Imply a Double Standard?

Some will object that this implies a double standard. That is, some will argue that if something is a sin for one person, it must be a sin for all people. And if something is right for one person, it must be right for all people. Interestingly, this same objection is raised by two different groups, each raising the objection with very different intentions.

On one hand, sometimes pacifists will argue since it would be wrong for Christians to violently resist evil, it would be wrong for anyone to resist evil. Therefore, Christians should actively call their governments to account whenever their government fails to love their enemies.

On the other hand, others will argue that since governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, and since God must be consistent, Christians must not be sinning when they bear the sword against their enemies. This objection argues that since God allows the world to use violence for a necessary purpose of executing wrath on evildoers, God must also be pleased when Christians when they use violence for the same purpose.

In response to this objection it should be noted that God has always held His people to a higher standard. For example, in the Old Testament, God always held priests to higher standards of holiness than other Israelites. When God commanded the Israelites to go to war, the priests were not to be numbered among those who would fight (Num. 1.47-54). This doesn’t make God inconsistent. Rather, because we know that God does not change (Mal. 3.6), we should come to the New Testament, expecting that God would hold the church, His holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2.5) to a higher standard.

The entire Sermon on the Mount is founded upon the idea that Christians are to be salt and light. Paul’s commands about loving enemies in Romans 12 are founded upon the idea that Christians are not to be conformed to this world (Rom. 12.1-2). Yes, God may use those in the world to bear the sword, but it is not be problematic to think that God holds Christians to a higher standard. It should be expected!

Hope for the world doesn’t rely on reforming the governments and militaries of this world with Christian ethics.  The command, “love your enemies”, is directly connected to the work and teaching of Jesus, who turned the other cheek when he was crucified by the Roman government.

If we were to succeed in infusing every earthly kingdom with godly principles, but we failed to spread the gospel of the kingdom of God, we will have failed. We cannot expect the world to conform to Jesus’s teachings without first being transformed by the work of Jesus. The answer to wars and violence does not lie in political reform of earthly kingdoms. The answer is found in following the Prince of Peace and inviting the world into His kingdom.

How the Early Church Approached Politics

In the early church there was widespread agreement that it was inappropriate for Christians to seek political power. These early Christians believed that their separation from the state was an important part of following the example of Jesus. By “early church” I mean the church prior to the year 313, the year Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christianity. When Christianity transitioned from a persecuted religion to a government-endorsed religion, this led to a rapid change of perspective and practice on many issues.

Why Care What the Early Church Did?

The early Christians were fallible human beings. They wrote uninspired words. They were just as capable of error as men in any other generation. Although the early church’s practices and teachings did correspond to the New Testament in many ways, they made errors as well. We shouldn’t just agree with everything the early church said or did. The Bible is our authority, and where the early church departed from Scripture, we are always to go with Scripture.

These early Christian writers were not inspired, and they are not authoritative. But they were dedicated disciples of Jesus, and they were knowledgeable students of Scripture with very strong convictions (convictions they were often willing to die for). They also lived in a time and culture not far removed from the New Testament itself.

Their opinions aren’t authoritative, but we should still pay attention to what they had to say, and carefully consider their words. This is especially true in those areas where we find all of the early Christians speaking on a subject unified in agreement with one another.

Polycarp (69-155, Smyrna)

Perhaps the earliest post-New Testament indication of the church’s relationship to government from The Martyrdom of Polycarp (read chapters 9 and 10 here). Polycarp was personally taught by the Apostle John, and was an elder at the church in Smyrna. As he faced martyrdom, he was given a simple request,

Swear by the fortune of Caesar… Swear, and I will set thee at liberty!

Polycarp responded to this request in the following words:

Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: How then can I blaspheme by King and Savior?

According to John’s disciple, Polycarp, to swear an oath of allegiance to the fortune of Caesar was to blaspheme against King Jesus. Yet even while facing death, Polycarp went on to respond further:

To thee have I thought it right to offer and account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honor (which entails no injury to ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God.

Even though Polycarp refused to swear his allegiance to Caesar, he was committed to continually showing honor to governing powers and authorities.

Justin Martyr (100-165, Rome)

Justin Martyr wrote a defense of Christianity to the emperor , explaining that while Christians do not encourage open rebellion against the emperor, there are limitations to what services they can offer. (Read “First Apology” chapter 17 here)

And everywhere, we more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him… Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you…

But if you pay no regard to our prayers and frank explanations, we shall suffer no loss, since we believe (or rather, indeed, are persuaded) that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merit of his deed.

From Justin Martyr’s apology, we observe:

  • When Christians are unhappy with the unsound judgments of their rulers, they are not to rebel against them. Rather they are to continue to gladly serve them.
  • If Christians want to positively influence their rulers towards sound judgment, they may offer prayers and “frank explanations”
  • If these prayers and explanations are not sufficient to bring about positive change, they are to have confidence that God will hold their rulers accountable with the punishment of eternal fire.

Tertullian (160-220, Carthage)

Tertullian was one of the most prolific and well respected early Christian writers. In His treatise “On Idolatry” (Read chapter 18 here) Tertullian wrote:

He [Jesus] exercised no right of power even over His own followers, to whom He discharged menial ministry; if, in short, though conscious of His own kingdom, He shrank back from being made a king. He in the fullest manner gave His own an example for turning coldly from all the pride and garb, as well of dignity as of power. For if they were to be used, who would rather have used them than the Son of God? What kind and what number of fasces would escort Him? What kind of purple would bloom from His shoulders? What kind of gold would beam from His head, had He not judged the glory of the world to be alien both to Himself and to His disciples.

According to Tertullian:

  • If Jesus had wanted to hold earthly political office, He would have achieved the greatest honors any king has ever known.
  • Yet Jesus rejected the opportunity to become an earthly king.
  • In so doing, Jesus set an example that all Christians should follow.

Tertullian went on in the same chapter to describe political power as an enemy of God.

Therefore what He was unwilling to accept, He has rejected; what He rejected, He has condemned; what He condemned, He has counted as part of the devil’s pomp. For He would not have condemned things, except such as were not His; but things which are not God’s, can be no other’s but the devil’s. If you have forsworn the devil’s pomp, know that whatever you touch is idolatry. Let even this fact help to remind you that all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of God.

In another place, as Tertullian was writing a defense of Christianity, Tertullian observed that the testimony of Jesus was so convincing that even the Caesar’s themselves would have believed. The Caesars, however, were prevented from accepting Christianity because they understood that Christians cannot be Caesars. (Read Apology, chapter 21 here)

The Caesars too would have believed on Christ, if either the Caesars had not been necessary for the world, or if Christians could have been Caesars.

Origen (184-253, Alexandria)

The most complete discussion of Christianity and politics in the early church can be found in the discussion between Celsus and Origen”. Celsus was a pagan philosopher who wrote a serious attack against Christianity in his book “True Doctrine”. Although his book has not been preserved in its entirety, a good portion of it is preserved through Origen’s response, “Against Celsus”. Origen was one of the greatest scholars and most prolific writers in the early church.

Celsus’ Attack

One of Celsus’ primary attacks against Christianity was the way they separated themselves from the state. He viewed Christianity as a “new state of things” that was caused by “rebellion against the state” (3.5). Celsus believed that each nation’s form of government had been preserved for the public advantage.  Therefore, “it would be an act of impiety to get rid of the institutions established from the beginning in various places” (5.25).

At the heart of Celsus’ concern was his understanding that when one becomes a Christian, they withdrew themselves from participating in political powers.

If everyone should do the same as you, nothing would prevent the emperor from being left alone and deserted, and the affairs of the earth would come into the hands of the most lawless and the wildest barbarians; and then there would no longer remain among men any of the glory of your religion or of the true wisdom. (8.68)

Celsus was certainly prejudiced against the Christians, but he was well informed of their way of life. And it is apparent that Celsus did not know of any Christians who had become involved politics, and viewed the rejection of political powers as a matter of principle among them.

Origien’s Response to Celsus

It is interesting to note that Origen did not respond to Celsus’ attack by saying “You are wrong. Look, here are lots of Christians who have sought to reform, strengthen, and support the Roman Empire.” Rather Origen accepted the accuracy of Celsus’ claim, and sought to justify Christians in their separation from the state. Origen pointed out that as a matter of principle, the talent of the church should be devoted to the service of building up the church, rather than to be involved in politics.

“Celsus also urges us to take office in the government of the county, if that is required for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion. But we recognize that in each state the existence of another national organization, founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over Churches… And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God – for the salvation of men. (8.75)

Origen encouraged Celsus to think through his accusation to its logical conclusion. What would really happen if everyone became a Christian, and thus withdrew themselves from the political powers?

For if, as Celsus says, “everyone should do the same” as I, it is evident that even the barbarians, having come to the word of God, will be most law abiding and civilized, and every religion will be destroyed except that of the Christians, which will prevail. (8.68)

According to Origen it was a “religious act” of Christians to turn people away from the customs of the Romans and to turn them to the better laws enacted by Jesus (5.32). Origin’s understanding of the Christian’s relationship with the state in the early church could be summed up in these words:

We are to despise integrating ourselves with kings or any other men. (8.65)

What Can We Take Away From These Early Christians?

From the preserved writings of early Christian authors, it appears that the early church believed that there were two kingdoms: the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of God. Since Christians are committed to imitating the example of Jesus, it would be inappropriate for Christians to seek political power.

And the church grew. Without any Christians in positions of political power, the church increased. Without any “religious freedom” or “Christian principles” in government, the church triumphed.

These early Christians aren’t authoritative. Only the Bible is. Perhaps these Christians were wrong, but their convictions should cause us to think about, and perhaps question, why we believe it is so important for Christians to get involved in politics.

An early Christian named Speratus wrote:

The empire of this world I know not; but rather I serve God… Because I know my Lord, the King of kings and Emperor of all nations.

Speratus refused to give his allegiance to Rome. Speratus went on to defeat the Roman Empire. He was martyred in 180 for his faith. (Read “The Passion of Sciliitian Martyrs” here)

A Letter To Christian Youth Considering Military Service

Dear Brother or Sister,

At some point you will be faced with the choice of whether or not to join the military. Throughout history, Christians have wrestled with, and often disagreed about, the appropriateness of military service for a Christian. Only you can decide for yourself whether or not you should join the military. I write this letter, not to tell you what decision to make, but to hopefully bring clarity to some of the questions you may be wrestling with (or perhaps to introduce some questions you have not yet considered).

As you consider your decision, I encourage you to think about two different, but related sets of questions.

Firstly, can you, as a Christian, kill your enemies? You need to know what the Bible says about how Christians should treat their enemies and consider the implications of these commands upon your role in the military.

Secondly, there are several instances where Jesus and his disciples interacted with members of the military. What can be learned from these interactions? How should they impact your decision?

Ultimately you must draw your own conclusions from your own study. It would be wise for you to think about these questions prior to putting yourself in a position where you may be called upon to compromise your conscience.

Can Christians Kill Their Enemies?

The New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat their enemies. We must love them (Lk. 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44), bless them (Lk. 6.28; Rom. 12.14), do good to them (Lk. 6.27; 34-35), turn the other cheek (Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.29), and we must not resist those who do evil.

But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5.39

We are never to return evil for evil (Rom. 12.17, 19; 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 3.9). Rather we are to give food to our enemies when they are hungry, and we are to give them drink when they are thirsty.

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12.17-21

Ultimately, we are called to follow Jesus’s example, who was willing to suffer unjustly, even when he had the power to destroy his enemies (Eph. 5.1-2; Phil. 2.4-8; 1 Pet. 2.21-23).

And here’s the thing: there’s never an exception clause. There’s never any kind of statement such as “Love your enemies, except when they present a threat to others” or “Love your enemies, unless your role in the military requires that you kill them.” We’re just supposed to love our enemies. Period. We are to do good to them. Period. We are not to resist evil doers. Period.

We don’t get to say “Yeah, but this doesn’t count when it comes to really bad enemies, such as terrorists.” In fact, those are exactly the kind of enemies Jesus and his disciples had in mind. They weren’t only threatened by a foreign nation; they were already conquered by them. The Romans were known to put dozens, even thousands of Jews to death by crucifixion just to keep them living in fear. If you can imagine an America that has already been conquered by our worst enemies, then perhaps you can start to grasp the kind of enemies Jesus had in mind when He commanded his followers to love their enemies.

So the challenging question you must wrestle with is this: in light of all that the New Testament says about how Christians are to treat their enemies, can we, as followers of Jesus, justify killing our enemies?

Jesus Never Denounced Military Service

In light of all that the New Testament says about how to treat our enemies, we might expect to find Jesus denouncing military service all together. However, this isn’t what we find. Although He had numerous opportunities, Jesus never denounced military service. Not even once.

When soldiers asked John the Baptist what they needed to do to repent, John told them “do not exhort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk. 3.14). But he didn’t tell them to leave the military.

In Matthew 8.5-13, a Centurion approached Jesus asking him to heal his servant. In response, Jesus praised the Centurion’s faith without adding a single word about his role in the wicked and idolatrous Roman army.

In Mark 15.39, Mark records that a Centurion who was assisting in the crucifixion of Jesus confessed “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Other than simply mentioning this confession, Mark didn’t add any other comment, expressing neither approval nor disapproval of the centurion’s role in the military.

In Acts 10, Cornelius, a centurion, was described as an “upright and God-fearing man who is spoken well of by the whole Jewish nationbefore he became a Christian. In the account of his conversion, he was commanded to be baptized. But not one word was spoken about his role as a centurion. He was not asked to leave the military.

In all of these accounts, no military person was ever asked to leave their positions. For many, this settles the question of military service. Many will cite these passages to defend the position that Christians can fight in the military without having any reservations about being called upon to kill their enemies.

However, I caution you not to argue for more than what these scriptures teach. Although none of these passages instruct military personnel to leave their positions, none of them express words of approval of their positions in the military either.

To argue that these passages give Christians full approval for military service is an argument from silence. Arguing from silence is what many will do with the account of the Philippian jailer to argue for infant baptism. Acts 16.33 tells us that the jailer and his whole family were baptized. Some will point and say “see, there’s infant baptism.” But the text doesn’t say that infants were baptized. That’s an argument from silence.We can only infer from what the text says, not from what the text doesn’t say. 

Jesus frequently interacted with sinners without commenting on whether or not he approved of their sin. In John 4.16-18, Jesus spoke with a Samaritans woman who had been divorced five times and was living with a woman she wasn’t married to. Jesus never rebuked her or told her to leave the man she was living with. Does this mean that Jesus approved of her marriages, divorces, and cohabitation? Certainly not!

Luke 5.29-30 describes how Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. And yet there’s not one work from Jesus rebuking them. This doesn’t mean that Jesus approved of their sin. It means that Jesus was willing to meet them where they were in life, and start working with them at that point.

We can only argue from what the Bible actually says, not from what it doesn’t say. We can say that Jesus didn’t rebuke soldiers for their military service or require them to step down. We cannot say that Jesus therefore approved (or disapproved) of them in these positions.

It is safe to assume that if each of these soldiers continued to follow Jesus, they would eventually be confronted with the same “love your enemy” commands mentioned above. They would have to work out the implications of those commands in their own lives. Did they leave their military posts? Did they stay and try their best to serve Jesus and love their enemies from within the military? We simply don’t know. The text doesn’t tell us.

The Decision is Yours

The Bible never gives a clear command about whether or not a Christian can join the military. So the question comes down to you. In light of all that Jesus commanded about how Christians are to treat their enemies, can you put yourself in a position where you may be called on to kill your enemies?

If you decide you cannot join the military without compromising your conscience, then don’t join. But, don’t turn your conviction into a formula that you can apply to other Christians who decide to join the military. Although we must clearly teach what Jesus teaches about how Christians are to treat their enemies, we must never draw a line that Scripture doesn’t draw. If Jesus never felt compelled to condemn military service, we shouldn’t either.

No Christian has any business questioning the authenticity of another Christian’s faith, regardless of whether they are in the US military or in a military that opposes the US. In the New Testament, military persons were met with the gospel wherever they were, and were left to work out the difficult implications on their own. We should do the same.

If it seems to us that someone’s position in the military makes them a sinner, let us remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 7.1-3:

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?

If you do choose to join the military, nothing in scripture forbids you from making that choice. But never stop wrestling with what it means to “love your enemies”, to “do good to them” and to “leave vengeance to God”.

Make a practice of loving your enemies in small everyday ways. Be kind to your grumpy neighbor. Buy supper for the rude, arrogant, self-centered person in your unit. Pray for the lives and families of enemy soldiers that they will be blessed with the gospel. Train your heart to respond in love to the people who deserve it the least. And then, when you come face to face with your enemy, with your finger on the trigger, have the courage to love them even in that crucial moment.

Never stop following Jesus. Never stop loving your enemies.

In Him,

Your Loving Brother