For two millennia, Christians have faced the question of how to engage in politics. Some Christians have advocated complete abstention from political discourse. Others have advocated full political participation. Still others have advocated only getting involved when absolutely necessary. Indeed, politics is one of the largest sources of contention for believers, causing church splits, anger, and divisiveness. I have seen this firsthand.
But we need not shy away from this proverbial “elephant in the room”, because the Bible tells us exactly how Jesus responded to politics in his day, and through his example, we can learn how to live in these troubled times.
SETTING THE SCENE
First, we must realize that Jesus was born into a time of intense political polarization.
The Pharisees were middle-class businessmen who were in touch with everyday people and disliked Roman rule. They were the minority party in the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling religious body), but they were very popular with the people. They emphasized oral tradition and rituals and held to the doctrines of free will, angels and demons, and the afterlife.
The Sadducees were a sect consisting of wealthy and aristocratic citizens who held the majority in the Sanhedrin and the priesthood. They were more willing to adhere to Roman rule and were constantly at odds with the Pharisees. They believed in keeping only the five books of Moses, and thus they rejected many of the supernatural doctrines of the Pharisees.
The Herodians were Jews who supported the rule of Herod Antipas, the King of the Jews appointed by the Senate of Rome. Obviously, this would have put them at odds with the Pharisees, who favored political independence.
The zealots were political extremists who were looking for a Messiah to liberate them from the rule of Rome. They hated Rome and were responsible for much of the violence and upheaval in first-century Judaea.
Other groups included the Essenes (an esoteric Jewish sect that believed in separation from the world), the scribes (who meticulously copied Scripture), and the priests (the religious leaders of the day). And these were just some of the main groups.
AT ODDS WITH MANY, BUT NOT OVER THEIR POLITICS
But it is worthy to note that Jesus endorsed none of these factions.
Time and time again, Jesus condemned the Pharisees. In a single speech, he declared seven woes upon them (Matthew 23). He called them out for their hypocritical laws regarding the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, Luke 6:1-11), for their distorted views on marriage (Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-8), and for their misguided spiritual leadership of the people (Matthew 15:12-14). He condemned both the Pharisees and scribes for disbelieving his miracles and for calling him a demon (Matthew 12:22-32, Mark 3:22-30, Luke 11:14-23).
He condemned both the Pharisees and Sadducees as “evil and adulterous” (Matthew 16:4) and told the people to beware of them (Matthew 16:6, Mark 8:15). He also said to beware of the scribes for their arrogance and maltreatment of widows (Mark 12:35-40, Luke 20:45-47).
At one point, the Pharisees and Herodians (two opposing parties) teamed up in an attempt to trick Jesus with a question about taxes, but he answered them with such wisdom that they were astonished (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:19-26). The same day, the Sadducees tried to trick him with a question about the afterlife, and he, too, answered and rebuked them (Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-40).
He knew that the chief priests, scribes, and elders hated him and would brutally murder him (Mark 10:32-34, Mark 14:1-2, Luke 9:21-22, Luke 22:1-2). He condemned these groups for challenging his divine authority (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8) and prohibiting legitimate worship of him (Matthew 21:14-16).
He called out the lawyers (Luke 11:45-54) for rejecting God’s messengers. He did not promote or mingle with the Essenes. He rejected the ambitions of the zealots (John 6:15). The Sanhedrin sought to kill him because he threatened their political power (John 11:45-54).
Indeed, Jesus condemned many of the political factions of his day, but not over their politics. Time and time again, regardless of who they were, he condemned them for their hypocrisy and lack of righteousness.
HOW JESUS FRAMED THINGS
Jesus ultimately viewed everything from the perspective of good versus evil, of justice versus injustice, of morality versus immorality, of light versus darkness, and of God’s kingdom versus Satan’s kingdom. He was neither partisan nor bipartisan, because he understood that this evil world is bound under the rulership of Satan (John 14:30) and will never experience a perfect government until the return of the true king.
Before his death, when Pontius Pilate asked him if he was a king, Jesus said, “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)
His kingdom transcended the vain earthly systems instituted by men. That is why he came not to contribute to the political arena, but to “seek and to save the lost” (Matthew 18:11, Luke 19:10). He eschewed conventional leadership and human political reform, because he knew that, one day, he will return and make all things new.
If this seems black-and-white, that’s because it is. Jesus himself said it best in Mark 9:40: “The one who is not against us is for us.” There may be a million shades in the political spectrum, but in God’s spectrum, there are only two: light and darkness.
HOW, THEN, SHALL WE LIVE?
Is this to say that we as Christians should not get involved in government and politics? Absolutely not. Governments are instituted by God (Romans 13:1), and Jesus himself taught his followers to pay their taxes and obey the ruling authorities (Matthew 17:24-27, Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:19-26). The apostle Peter would later tell his readers to “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17), even one so terrible as the emperor Nero. And in this divided world, we need more true Christians who are serving in government and standing for godly principles.
But we must ultimately remember that our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20), and that the litmus test for our salvation lies not in what party we register for, but in how we respond to the atoning work of Christ on our behalf. We ought never to lose focus of our ultimate goal of bringing honor and glory to God, and we ought never to put our trust in fallible men or women.
When we do engage in political discourse, we ought to do so in a spirit of respect and love, as Christ would have us do (John 13:34). When we do seek political reform, we should “do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, [and] plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17). And when we inevitably disagree with fellow believers on political issues, we must remember that Jesus once called Matthew (a tax collector) and Simon (a zealot) to be his disciples, and even these two men who once held radically different views were ultimately united in following their Lord to the end.
May we, through the grace and power of the Spirit, do the same.