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 like in simply 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

Can A Christian Seek Political Office?

This question is important. It must be carefully considered in light of several scriptural principles before we can determine if we, in good conscience, can faithfully serve Christ while seeking political office. If, after examining everything the Bible has to say about a Christian’s relationship to the world and to its governments, a Christian can still in good conscience, seek political office without compromising their commitment to Christ, then yes, a Christian may seek political office.

To ask such a question does carry certain risks. There is little doubt in my mind that rulers with godly values are better than rulers with wicked values. Political power requires popular support. To even raise questions Christian involvement in politics increases the risk of having wicked rulers in power. This would almost certainly have negative consequences.

Yet even at the risk of hurting the church’s political influence, we must be willing to consider the question. I am convinced the risk we face from wicked earthly rulers is far less dangerous than the risk we face if political involvement causes us to lose both our body and soul in hell (Mt. 10.28). If our devotion to politics is so strong that we can’t even entertain questions raised by our faith, we don’t have a devotion to politics, we have a religious devotion to politics. Jesus is Lord, and we must be willing to examine every aspect of our lives in light of that fact: the church, our families, our careers, and even our approach towards politics.

Two Reasons Why The Question Is Important

I believe that one of the reasons that questions of Christian political involvement are often overlooked is because two important Biblical themes are likewise overlooked or ignored. When we consider that the political realm is under demonic control, and the kingdoms of this world are in conflict with the kingdom of God, it should cause us to view politics in a much darker light. This, in turn, brings questions of Christian political involvement to a higher level of importance than they are typically given.

  1. The political realm is under demonic control

Biblically speaking, Satan is the “ruler of this world” (Jn. 12.31; 16.11). Paul describes Satan as the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4.1-4) and the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2.1-2). Paul understood that the non-Christian world was part of Satan’s “domain of darkness” (Col. 1.13). Satan’s influence is especially powerful in the political realm. The kingdoms of this world have been handed over to him, and he has the ability to offer those kingdoms to individuals to tempt them away from worshiping God (Lk. 4.5-8).

Yes, Satan is an unlawful ruler, with limited and temporary power. Yes, the Bible teaches that God can ordain even wicked rulers as His ministers and therefore they do not bear the sword in vain. But Satan’s power and influence is real. Due to misunderstandings of passages such as Luke 20.25 and Romans 13.1-4, many Christians remain ignorant of Satan’s rule and influence over worldly governments. Those who are ignorant of his power are the most susceptible to his influence.

See also: “The “God” of the World”

  1. The kingdoms of this world are in conflict with the kingdom of God

The kingdoms of this world were established by God as a result of the fall of man, and God’s kingdom was established for the purpose of confronting and ultimately destroying these kingdoms (Dan. 2.44; 1 Cor. 15.24-26). Throughout the Old Testament, God continually shows himself superior of the pagan rulers and authorities. The prophets continually showed God as more powerful than these political powers and promised to deliver His people from them. Jesus showed himself to be the fulfillment of the law and the prophets by announcing a “kingdom” to a world where Caesar thought of himself as the only “Lord” and “Savior.” In reflecting on the resurrection and reign of Jesus, Paul understood that the kingdoms of this world are among the enemies of the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15.24-26).

See also: “Kingdoms in Conflict: An Important, Yet Overlooked Theme in the Bible

The Importance of Wrestling With What Scripture Teaches

While it is true that there is no explicit command which forbids Christians from seeking political office, we must not ignore all that Scripture does say that could impact the question. There is likewise no explicit command which forbids Christians from owning a Casino, but we all understand that such a career would be wrong because it would obviously violate so many Biblical principles. We must not look to the absence of an explicit command as permission to ignore or disagree with what the Bible does teach on the subject.

If seeking political office causes one to compromise our commitment to Christ and to His kingdom, then no, that Christian may not seek political office.

It may be wrong to seek or obtain political office if:

  • It tempts someone to love their enemies less (Mt. 5.38-48)
  • It tempts one to have their heart focused on earthly things instead of heavenly things (Mt. 6.19-21)
  • The office requires one to act as a judge over those outside the church (Mt. 7.1-5; 1 Cor. 5.12)
  • It causes a Christian to “lord over” others like the gentiles did (Mt. 20.25-28)
  • It causes one to fail to render to God what is rightfully His (Mt. 22.15-22)
  • The office requires one to do harm to enemies if necessary rather than doing good to them (Lk. 6.27)
  • It causes a Christian to lose their distinction from the world (Jn. 15.18-19)
  • It leads one to fight like the world fights(Jn. 18.36-37)
  • It requires one to take vengeance on evildoers, something that Christians are forbidden from doing (Rom 12.19)
  • The office requires one to resist other earthly rulers (Rom 12.29-13.4)
  • It tempts one to think forget that God can even use their wicked political opponents for good if He so chooses (Rom. 13.4)
  • It causes division between Christians (1 Cor. 1.10)
  • It causes one to be yoked together with unbelievers in a way that gives them influence over them (2 Cor. 6.14-18)
  • The office’s duties include the use of earthly weapons instead of spiritual ones (2 Cor. 10.3-4)
  • It tempts one to treat as enemies those who have flesh and blood (Eph. 6.12)
  • It causes one to feel like earthly authorities have more power and influence than they actually do (Col. 2.15)
  • It distracts one from their Christian fight (2 Tim. 2.3-4)
  • It causes one to lose their distinction as a stranger and exile (1 Pet. 2.11-12)
  • One is motivated to do so out of the intimidation of wicked rulers (1 Pet. 3.13-17)
  • It keeps one from separating from Babylonian-like powers (Rev. 18.4)

Satan’s influence over the political realm is real. Earthly kingdoms are among God’s enemies who are destined to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15.24-25). No Christian should ever offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to Christ (Acts 5.29).

Being “Christian” means “Christ-like”. Even though Jesus did oppose ungodliness in His culture, Jesus never showed the slightest interest in politics, and resisted the temptation of earthly political power when it was offered to Him (Lk. 4.5-8).

Can it be wrong for a Christian to seek political office? It absolutely can be.

The Importance of Respecting Biblical Silence

In spite of all these principles which must be considered, I find it significant that no Biblical author ever sets forth a rule that forbids Christians from seeking political office. While it is true that Jesus never sought to use political means, neither did Jesus establish a law against it. We also have the example of men such as Joseph and Daniel, each of which held positions of authority in pagan kingdoms. In the New Testament we read about a Christian named Erastus, who was a city treasurer (Rom. 16.23), as well as saints who were in Caesar’s household (Phil. 4.22). And while scripture is silent about whether Cornelius the centurion or the Philippian jailor continued in their posts after becoming a Christians (Acts 10.1-7; 16.25-40), the Bible doesn’t rule out that possibility.

There are several Christians (myself included), who after meditating on all that the New Testament has to say about a Christian’s relationship to the world and to its governments, will conclude that it is inappropriate for Christians to seek positions of political power. But no matter how much wisdom there may be in such a conclusion, we must remember that there is only one lawgiver, and we are not Him.

Is it possible to consistently love your enemies, if your political position requires that you order the dropping of bombs against them if necessary? Is it possible to enforce even the best intended of laws without becoming a judge of those outside the church? Is it possible to spend years of your life dedicated to politics and to avoid Satan’s influence upon you? I personally don’t see how it can be done. But (and this is very important), no matter how firm one may be in that conviction, we cannot, and we must not, make a rule where God Himself has not spoken.

If another Christian wrestles with all of those same New Testament scriptures, and concludes that they, like Erastus, can faithfully follow Christ and hold political office at the same time, there is nothing in the New Testament that plainly says that seeking a political office is itself a sin.

If we attempt to elevate our personal convictions to the level of scripture, it is not our personal convictions that we have elevated, but rather scripture that we have brought low. If Satan tempts us to turn personal convictions into a rule for others, we have in practice jumped up into the judgment seat of God and proclaimed ourselves to be equal with God.

Can a Christian Seek Political Office?

If, after wrestling with all that the Holy Spirit has to say, a Christian concludes that they can, in good conscience, faithfully follow Christ and execute the demands of the office, then yes, a Christian may seek political office. If we cannot consistently and faithfully follow Christ while seeking political office, it would be wrong to do so.

As Christians, we must remember that hope for our world doesn’t hang on which people get in power. It hangs on Christians using the power God has given us. And this isn’t a power that we release by getting more godly people into positions of political power. It’s a power we release by how we unite together, as God’s kingdom, and show the world God’s love in how we live, in how we share, and how we sacrificially serve the needs of others. And when we, as the church, address the needs of the world, the glory goes to God and not some version of government.

Does Romans 13 Teach That Christians Have Permission to Kill For Their Government?

It is my conviction that since the fourth century AD, the frequent misinterpretation of Romans 13 has done more to harm the reputation of Christianity than perhaps any other misinterpreted scripture.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God , an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.1-4

This scripture is used to support the idea that Christians have a “dual citizenship.” That is, since God set up government, and since they do not bear the sword in vain, Christians have obligations both to God and to the government. These obligations do not conflict with one another since government authorities have different responsibilities than private individuals.

According to this view, when a Christian is acting as an agent of their government, they may bear the sword against their enemies, but when they act as individuals they are to love their enemies. Therefore a Christian may bear the sword against evildoers without sinning if they are doing so as an agent of the government.

This has been the dominant way of understanding Romans 13 ever since the Catholic Church came into political power in the late 4th century. But this is not what Romans 13 actually teaches. In fact, Romans 13 teaches nearly the opposite.

What is Wrong with the “Dual Citizenship” Idea?

Before looking at Romans 13, these three things should cause us to pause before accepting the dual citizenship interpretation.

  1. The way the New Testament describes Jesus

Jesus didn’t have divided loyalties. Rather, Jesus was executed by the Jewish and Roman authorities because they viewed Him as their enemy. Jesus did have lots to say that should impact the way a Christian approaches politics, but Jesus never sought a political office or political reform. Jesus served only one Master.

Also notice the language that the early Christians used to describe Jesus. In the early Roman Empire, the unifying slogan was “Caesar is Lord.” When Christians confessed “Jesus is Lord”, this not only made a statement about Jesus, it also made a statement about Caesar. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.  They didn’t have two sets of loyalties; they had one. This was the primary reason Christians were thrown into prison and persecuted by their government.

  1. What Jesus taught about love for enemies

Jesus’ teachings about love for enemies rule out any possibility of allowing that love to be qualified by anyone or anything.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. – Matthew 5.43-45

Christians are to love the way the Father loves, and the Father doesn’t pick and choose who He is going to send rain and sunshine to. Just as the Father has no exception clause when it comes to His love for enemies, likewise Jesus offered no exception clause for Christians when they love their enemies.

This rules out any possibility of Christians saying “I’m going to love this kind of enemy, but not that kind of enemy”, or “I’m going to love my enemies in these circumstances, but not in those circumstances.”  The command has nothing to do with the nature of our enemies or our circumstances.

This undermines the idea Christians must do good to their enemies, unless they are acting in the political realm, in which case they are allowed to bear the sword against them. Unqualified, enemy-love, is the identifying mark of those who are sons of their Father. As soon as we look for a time when it is “okay” to not love our enemies, we have ceased to love the way our Father loves.

  1. What Jesus taught about resisting evil

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. – Matthew 5.38-39

When Jesus said “Do not resist an evil person,” He didn’t mean Christians are to be passive and do nothing in response to evil.  The Greek word translated “resist” specifically refers to violent resistance. It means that Christians aren’t to respond with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a bullet for a bullet, or a bomb for a bomb. Christians can and should resist evil by getting involved and even laying down their lives if necessary, but they aren’t to respond to violence with violence.

Just retaliation was the principle upon which all the Old Testament scriptures about punishing violence were founded (Ex. 21.24), and it is likewise the principle of justice that underlies our modern social system. Jesus said, “You have heard” that principle of justice, and then immediately instructs his followers not to follow that principle. Disciples of Jesus cannot use the principle of justice to justify violence against enemies.

Supporters of the “dual citizenship” idea sometimes look to the Old Testament to defend their position. Jesus recognized that the Old Testament commanded just retaliation. But Jesus commanded His followers not to follow that principle, but rather to love the way the Father loves.

Does Romans 13 Make An Exception?

Romans 13 is often used to make two closely related points. 1) While God doesn’t approve of private retaliation, He does approve of governments when they bear the sword. 2) Therefore, when Christians bear the sword against evildoers as agents of the government, they are not sinning.

Next time you hear Romans 13 used in this way, consider these three points.

  1. “Institutes” does not mean “approved”

The Greek word translated as “institutes” is “Tasso”. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines Tasso as “to arrange in an orderly manner.” Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as “To place in a certain order, to arrange, to assign a place, to appoint.” “Tasso” cannot be translated as “created” or “approves of”.

When a librarian arranges books, it doesn’t matter whether the librarian likes a book or despises a book. To arrange those books in a certain order doesn’t infer that the librarian approves of what is written in those books.

Romans 13 builds on the Old Testament teachings about how God uses pagan governments to accomplish His will. God used nations such as the Assyrians and Babylonians as His ministers, but continually made it clear that He did not approve of the violence of those nations.

Romans 13 doesn’t teach that God “approves” of governments. Rather it teaches that God takes them as they are, whether good or evil, and arranges them in a way which serves His purposes. God arranges them to avenge the one who practices evil for the good of His children. Therefore governments do not bear the sword in vain.

  1. Not bearing the sword in vain is not the same as “not sinning”

In this context, when Paul writes that governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, this means that when governments wield the sword of violence, God arranges them to ensure that their violence is not without purpose.

God can make all things work together for the good of those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8.28). In the context of Romans 8, this includes persecution, distress, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword. No one would argue that persecution “is good” or “has God’s approval”, but God can use horrible things to work together for the good of His children. They are not in vain.

In the same way, governments do not bear the sword in vain. But there is not one word in Romans 13 that can be used to suggest that Christians have permission to bear the sword against their enemies without sinning.

  1. Context, Context, Context

If we read Romans 13 in context we can see that Paul is actually teaching something opposite of the “dual citizenship” idea.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse… Never pay back evil for evil to anyoneNever 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: 14, 17, 19-21

Like Jesus, Paul offers no qualifications to enemy-love. We are to love all of our enemies, all the time, without exception. Christians are to leave all vengeance to God. This is the same Greek word (ekdikeos) used in Romans 13.4 to describe what God uses governments to accomplish.

Never take your own revenge (ekdikeo), beloved. – Romans 12.19a

Why? Because…

Vengeance (ekdikos) is mine”… says the Lord.” – Romans 12.19b

How does God execute vengeance on our enemies?

[Government] is a minister of God, an avenger (ekdikos) who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. – Romans 13.4

God uses governments to do the very thing He forbids Christians from doing. Christians are never to execute vengeance. We aren’t allowed to do that.

Conclusion

Romans 13 must not be used to encourage Christians to bear the sword for their government against evildoers. First of all Romans 13 does not teach God’s approval of governments when they bear the sword. And even more importantly, no Christian should ever offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to Christ. As Christians, we have sworn off all vengeance against our enemies. Vengeance belongs to God, and God uses governments to bring it about.

Christians do not have dual citizenship with dual allegiances and dual sets of responsibilities. Yes, in a legal sense, we do have citizenship in an earthly country. But when it comes to our allegiance, we are to proclaim that Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not).

Come Out of Her My People… But Who Is She?

Christians must come out of “Babylon”, wherever Babylon-like powers may be found. Our allegiance should belong to Jesus alone. If we misplace our allegiance, we risk facing the same judgment that the wicked will eventually suffer.

And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality.” I heard another voice from heaven, saying, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.”– Revelation 18.2-5

We are clearly supposed to “come out of her”, but who is “Babylon the Great” in the book of Revelation? What are the different ways people have interpreted Revelation? How have these different interpretations impacted the way people read Revelation 18.2-5? With so many different interpretations of these verses, found within such a complex book, what application can the church draw from the command to “Come out of her”?

Context, Context, Context

As with studying any other Biblical text, our goal is to seek the author’s (and the Holy Spirit’s) original intent. The primary meaning of these verses is what John intended them to mean, which in turn must also have been something his readers could have understood.

Revelation is a difficult book, and it has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Before surveying the most popluar approaches to the book, it is helpful identify some contextual landmarks to guide us on our journey.

  • Revelation identifies itself as apocalyptic literature, which is highly symbolic in nature (1.1). Babylon the Great symbolizes something which necessarily must bear some resemblance and have some sort of similar qualities with the ancient Babylonian empire, otherwise the image wouldn’t make any sense.
  • The text identifies “Babylon the Great” as “the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” (17.18).
  • John says the book is a prophecy regarding things which “must soon take place” (1.3).
  • The book is addressed to the seven churches of Asia (1.4).
  • The church’s confrontation with persecution is clearly a major theme throughout the book.
  • This great city, Babylon, is presented to us in Revelation 17-18 as a contrast with the holy city, the New Jerusalem, described in Revelation 21-22. The former is described as a prostitute (17.1-13), thus forming a contrast with the pure and righteous marriage of the Lamb (19.7-10). The former city is judged (17-18), thus forming a contrast with the saints who are rewarded (21.22).

As we survey different approaches to Revelation we must continually ask if the path they suggest makes sense in light of these contextual landmarks.

Babylon The Great is Rome

This understanding comes from what is often called a “preterist” approach towards Revelation. The word “preterist” simply means “gone by”. The preterist view holds that the events referred to in Revelation were specifically fulfilled in the first century or shortly thereafter.

According to the most common version of the preterist approach, the book of Revelation was written to warn and encourage the church in light of Roman persecution. The book served to encourage Christians to persevere by reassuring them that God was in control, even over the Roman government. Babylon, “the great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” would therefore be Rome. The command to “come out of her” would thus be read a command to the church to withdraw their allegiance and trust from the Roman government. The church must not support the state, align with the state or seek to reform the state. They are to withdraw from the state, and maintain an attitude of submission to the state, even if that means death.

Those who suggest that the book should be read in this way point to several of the landmarks we identified earlier. They insist that we must attempt to read Revelation from the perspective of first-century Christians to whom it was originally written. Revelation was written to the “seven churches of Asia” (1.4), about “things which must soon take place” (1.1), because “the time is near” (1.3). Throughout the book there is an urgency for the readers to respond quickly (2.16; 3.10-11; 22.6, 7, 12, 20). These statements require that we look for fulfillments during the lifetime of the original audience.

However, according to this view, there are timeless lessons which Christians can take from Revelation. For example, from the passage we have just examined, Christians should continually view the state as a “Babylon,” a “prostitute” who is continually attempting to seduce Christians by the pleasures she offers. The state should be viewed in contrast to God’s kingdom. Since all earthly kingdoms will be destroyed just as Rome was (1 Cor. 15.24), Christians should continually “come out of her” lest they share in that destruction.

Babylon the Great is Jerusalem

This is a different variation of the “preterist” view and shares many of the same strengths. Those who hold this view contend that Revelation was written at a very early date, prior to the fall of Jerusalem, and was written with specific reference to that event. This view is based largely on the similarity of the vivid language used in Revelation with that used by Jesus in Matthew 24. Since Matthew 24 was almost certainly written with reference to the fall of Jerusalem, Revelation most likely refers to the same event. “The great city which reigns over the kings of the earth” was written in reference to the city of Jerusalem. Of course Jerusalem never actually reigned over the kings of the earth in the same way Rome did, but according to this view, that’s part of the point of the accusation. The Jewish authorities had come to think so highly of themselves that they had essentially become like the wicked Babylonians.

These verses would thus be understood as a call for Christians to flee the doomed city of Jerusalem before she was destroyed by the Romans, just as Jesus had commanded them to flee the sudden destruction of the city in Matthew 24.16-18.

This view is thus dependent on proving that Revelation was written at a very early date. Most scholars have concluded that the evidence for an early date of the book is lacking. This view is also called into question in that it was addressed to the seven churches in Asia rather than to Judean Christians. Asia Minor was a hot bed for emperor worship, which seems to me to support the Roman government view of Babylon. If, however, the “Jerusalem” view is correct, the modern applications would not be drastically different. Christians still must withdraw from aligning themselves with wicked Babylonian-like authorities, wherever and whenever they may be found.

Babylon the Great is a Spiritual Paradigm

Many Christians throughout history have held to what is referred to as the “spiritualist” view of Revelation (sometimes called the “idealist” view). This particular approach to Revelation denies that the events and figures found within the book have any direct correlation with actual events or figures, either in the past or in the future. To search for the specific fulfillment, they argue, is to misunderstand the apocalyptic genre of the book.

According to this view, “Babylon the Great” is just a spiritual paradigm that encourages Christians to withdraw from aligning themselves with wickedness, wherever and whenever it may be found. The verses were to be applied to Christians whenever they find themselves in spiritual conflict.

This perspective has some strengths. It strongly affirms the symbolic nature of Revelation (1.1), and with it, the absurdity of trying to interpret it literally (6.13; 8.12; 12.4). This view reminds its readers to maintain humility as they read the book. If the book doesn’t specifically tell us what it refers to, we can at best rely on human wisdom when we try to “interpret it.”

The weaknesses I see with this view is that the book itself claims that it contains actual prophecy (1.3; 22.7, 9-11), which referred to events which would soon take place (1.1). It was addressed to specific historical churches (1.4), and it doesn’t easily account for the repeated warned or readers to respond quickly (2.16; 3.10-11; 22.6, 7, 12, 20).

Babylon the Great was (and is?) a Future Empire

This futurist view contends that “Babylon the Great” referred to something well beyond the era of the Roman Empire. Some believe the events of Revelation have already begun to unfold, while others believe all the events remain in our future.

Many protestant reformers and also the early leaders of the restoration movement believed that Babylon the Great referred to the Catholic church, and the book prophecies the great reformation movement. Others have believed that Babylon the Great refers to Communist China, America, or some other empire that will yet arise one day in the future. According to the futurists approach, Christians are expected to somehow identify Babylon once it arises, and then withdraw from her.

A big problem I find with this view is that it seems to contradict the book’s own claim that it was written about “things which must soon take place” (1.1). If the futurist view is correct, it necessitates that we know later history to be able to understand the book. Therefore this approach wouldn’t have made any sense to John’s original readers.

Come Out of Her!

If we keep in mind the landmarks found in the historical and literary context, I am convinced that we can have a pretty good idea about how we should read and apply Revelation 18.2-5.

I personally find the “Babylon is Rome” view most compelling. The “Babylon is Jerusalem” view is also a possibility. I also believe that the vagueness of apocalyptic literature makes it easy to draw spiritual principles that can be applied to Christians in any era as the idealist suggest. The futurist view doesn’t impress me at all. In fact, it concerns me since it leads so many people to try to read the book as some sort of horoscope telling the future, an approach which becomes dangerously close to the sin of divination.

But regardless of what conclusions you draw from Revelation 18, the modern application remains essentially the same. It is the same basic admonition Paul made to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 6.14-18), encouraging them to cut all ties that would bind them to unbelievers.  Christians must not align themselves with wickedness.