As the time of Jesus’ state execution approached, he was engaged by agents of the scribes and chief priests. They asked him “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Luke 20:22). Their question was intended to force Jesus to draw a hard line of separation between the Jews and the Roman state, a choice with both legal and popularity ramifications. Asking them for a coin and then to identify Caesar’s image on it, Jesus replied “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). The answer Jesus gives makes no attempt to either completely isolate the entities from one another or to completely align their agendas.
Rather than drawing a solid line of separation between God’s people and the Roman state, he carefully crafts something of a dotted line between God and the powers that be, framing their relationship as one both taut with tension and set for the sifting of “the things that are Caesar’s” and “the things that are God’s”.
As seen in Jesus’ response, he had no intention to further elaborate here on the relationship between God and the powers. Nevertheless, the framework his words establish here raises questions: What is the precise nature of God’s relationship with the world powers? What is the church’s role within this relationship? Thankfully, the later writings of Jesus’ followers help many of these issues. This is the subject to be addressed here.
Before examining how the church should associate with the powers, however, we must first study who the powers are and what is their duty. Then we will turn to what Christ did to the powers and how the church must live in light of his actions.
IDENTIFYING THE POWERS
Normally when referring to the various powers, Paul discusses what Jesus has done or will do with the powers and how the church is supposed to live in light of his actions, but what did Paul specifically mean by the powers?
In Ephesians 2:1-2, Paul writes to the church about how they used to follow the “ruler of the power of the air”, an evil spirit that works in those who are disobedient. In the following chapter he writes about how, through the church, the wisdom of God is being revealed to the “rulers [arkae] and authorities [exousia] in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Here Paul mentions heavenly powers such as angels and demons—beings with which people of his culture were familiar. In fact, his was a culture that was highly interested in the supernatural as evident in Jewish apocalyptic literature.
The Pharisees, a group to which he formerly belonged, was a mainline Jewish sect that embraced a hierarchy of angels and demons. In Matthew 12:22-24 when Jesus drove demons out of a man, the Pharisees blasphemed the Spirit by asserting that it was by demons he performed the miracle. A belief in angels and demons would be necessary for this assertion. In chapter 10 of Daniel a conversation occurs between Daniel and an angel who was only able to reach him because Michael, the Prince of Israel, assisted him. The author of Jude also refers to Michael when he argued with the devil over the body of Moses. The Book of Revelation is filled with additional examples. So it is clear supernatural and apocalyptic terms and themes were not new to Paul’s readers.
His “powers” language, however, is not limited only to supernatural or heavenly forces. Paul uses the same terminology elsewhere to describe earthly powers that exercise authority on earth. In Romans 13:1-4, when he urges those in Rome to be subject to their authorities [exousia], it is the same words used to describe both earthly and heavenly rulers [arkae] and authorities [exousia]. This shows that to some degree, depending on the contexts, Paul defines the words inclusively by the same meaning. In 1 Corinthians 2:8, he writes, “None of the rulers of this age understood this [God’s wisdom]; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory”. Obviously the rulers of this age are meant to be understood as the members of the Sanhedrin and the Romans who were involved in plotting and carrying out the death of Jesus. When Paul refers to earthly powers, he is speaking about various parties with authority.
Lest we deduce these powers of heaven and earth belong to their own sphere and are unrelated to one another, there are verses in which Paul links the two. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul specifies that our struggle is against the rulers and authorities and against the cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. Our struggle is with the powers of both heaven and earth.
Paul also writes in Colossians 1:16, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him”. Here we see that Christ has created all things, specifically the heavenly and earthly powers, for himself. Having looked at just a few verses that deal with each category into which Paul seems to have classified the powers, we see a certain kind of commonality among both sets. As different as they are, something unifies them. The powers, whoever they are, were established by Christ for Christ. So though they be of different matter, realm, or use, their shared origin is God.
THE NEED FOR THE POWERS
The necessity of the powers’ existence, therefore, is rooted in God’s purposes for them. Those purposes are, in a word, good. This is demonstrated in God’s appointing of Adam as caretaker of the garden, conveying upon him an authority that was originally good and served purposes that were entirely good. The fall, however, thrust everything that is and will be into curse and chaos. The accounts of Cain, Lamech, and others in Genesis 6, demonstrate that chaos in very grim terms. Therefore God established kings, tribal leaders, and others as authorities on earth, using them to curb the chaos that has infiltrated His once good creation. Paul clarifies this in Romans 13:1-4:
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.
From out of his sovereign authority, God has established and appointed contextually relevant authorities, delegating to them the temporary responsibility to govern, legislate, protect, and discipline in accordance with God’s sovereign will for history and civilization. They are, in a sense, subconscious stewards, or unwitting workers of God’s sovereign will, appointed to regulate the fallen chaos that continues around us.
We still see these authorities demonstrating this regulation on a daily basis. Leaders propose and pass laws and policies to govern their nations, national militaries stand ready to enforce those policies and protect their nations, law enforcement still police their local communities, school districts are frequently determined to provide safe education for students, employers normally do want a positive working environment for employees, and parents really do want what’s best for their children. From the international to the local setting, God’s good will is being carried out by the established system of powers.
THE FALLEN POWERS
Despite being a system set up by God, however, it is also fallen. And as a fallen system, it is likely, at some point, to begin working for its own interests rather than God’s. Even though it still unsuspectingly works for God’s will, it also serves its own.
Adam and Eve’s authority over the garden came with the condition that they not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. When Eve took of its fruit, however, she took assuming equality with God was something to be grasped. This self-sovereignty not only comes to define the sinner, but the attitude of the powers as well when they secede from God’s lordship. They take the authority God has commissioned to them and they go places with it God never sanctioned, making themselves gods (Gal 4:8). For example, when northern Israel had continuously rebelled against the LORD, he sent Assyria against them to punish them. Assyria, however, went too far, inciting God to speak in Isaiah 10:5-7: “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger and the staff in whose hands is My indignation, I send it against a godless nation and commission it against the people of My fury to capture booty and to seize plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets. Yet it does not so intend, nor does it plan so in its heart, but rather it is its purpose to destroy and to cut off many nations.”
Having usurped God’s authority for their own, the powers lose no time in turning God’s appointed structure into their own system with themselves as the head of state. They also waste no time in enslaving others to their system, demanding their loyalty and allegiance.
We see throughout history how our daily lives have been dictated to us by paradigms, standards, customs, laws, and practices which stem from the system. Every couple of years, the paradigms and standards change, coaching us on how to comply this year, like some perpetual Big Brother. The powers also teach their subjects to reject those who reject the system they have set up. Anyone who does not adhere to their system of rules or thought must be written off as some fanatic or revolutionary who wishes to tear apart the system of which many subjects have grown fond.
In The Politics of Jesus, the author writes “These powers have rebelled and are fallen. They did not accept the modesty that would have permitted them to remain conformed to the creative purpose, but rather they claimed for themselves an absolute value. They thereby enslaved man and his history. Man is bound to them; “slavery” is in fact one of the fundamental terms used in the New Testament to describe the lost condition of man outside of Christ. To what is man subject? Precisely to those values and structures which are necessary to life and society, but which have claimed the status of idols and have succeeded in making men serve them as if they were of absolute value.”
We see now the good for which the powers were intended is limited by their own fallen nature and resulting actions, and are, therefore, insufficient for restoring us to the good for which God has destined us.
Is it possible to escape the system to which we have been enslaved? Who will set us free from this systematic yoke? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Jesus’ crucifixion did exactly this, “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (Col 2:14-15).
Christ’s death upon the cross deals not only with humanity’s slavery to the powers, but with the powers’ presumed sovereignty as well. Throughout the ordeal of Jesus’ arrest, trial, the behind-the-scenes politics, and his crucifixion, the powers believed they were besting and silencing this rabbi, showing him up to be the revolutionary they took him for. What they failed to see was throughout this process, Jesus was unmasking them.
Hendrick Berkhof writes “The scribes, representatives of the Jewish law, far from receiving gratefully Him who came in the name of the God of the law, crucified Him in the name of the law. The priests, servants of His temple, crucified Him in the name of the temple. The Pharisees, personifying piety, crucified Him in the name of piety. Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.”
The public display Jesus made of them is seen clearly in the irony of his body hanging on the cross beneath a sign reading “THE KING OF THE JEWS”, a scene of which a representative of the Roman powers eventually commented “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39). Self-proclaimed gods on the ground beholding God on the cross. The paradoxical picture pulls back the curtain and reveals the great powers of the world to be but fallen humans in need of the same salvation they profess to offer through their illusion of sovereign control.
The cross is not the only display Christ makes in deposing the powers. His triumph over the powers continues in his subsequent resurrection from the dead. His rising is the consolidation of his authority, distinguishing him as king, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:21).
In the turning of these spiritual and physical events, we are reminded of Jesus’ central message of the Kingdom of Heaven, and we begin to wonderfully realize his message was not metaphorical, but actual. As his God-incarnate person, power, and proclamations set the blessed realities of heaven into the realms of earth, the means through which humanity and all reality would be restored to perfect goodness were being gradually established. As Jesus’ ministry incrementally demonstrated how “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, it also grows clearer that the Kingdom of Heaven is not merely an eschatological reality, but a very current one as well. Though Christ’s kingship has already begun to subject and sum up all things in heaven and earth unto himself (Eph 1:10), the subjugation is not yet complete.
The current chaos rippling through the world is indicative of this. The chaos and fragmentation will indeed end upon King Jesus’ return and the consolidation of his reign. Until then, however, the world powers are authorized to maintain a semblance of order. Though Christ has made a public display of the powers, as to their fallenness and limitations, he does not do away with them because a world that is not submissive to God must still be governed; but not without a concurrent witness to God’s ever-expanding redemptive lordship, of which Paul comments “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22-23).
The Church is the most visible representation of God’s Kingdom on earth. As the community of the King, the Church embodies Jesus’ righteousness and mission. Until Jesus’ return, however, that mission must be lived concurrently alongside the powers.
THE CHURCH AND THE POWERS
In an attempt to clarify for the Church her role within this tense, nuanced relationship with the powers, the apostle Peter wrote to the Christian communities scattered throughout the Roman world. Addressing them as aliens and strangers, he writes “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God” (1 Peter 2:13-16).
The Roman world did not really know what to make of the early church. Their core message of the Kingdom of Heaven likely set them up to be summarily viewed and eventually treated like trouble-making anarchists. Peter’s statement here is meant to nurture the Kingdom community whose witness counters that perception; that by submitting to the powers, the Church demonstrates it is not her intention to overthrow or pattern them after her standards. In doing so, she might ease and earn the ears of the world so the good news her actions proclaim might be better understood. This submission is done primarily by adhering to the laws put in place to prevent evil and promote the common good. When the government sets a speed limit, it proclaims the Gospel when the police do not have to pull Christians over. When the boss acts like a jerk at work and yet we do as he or she says without making their job more miserable or bashing him or her behind their back, that preaches. When a Christian wife honors, loves, and prays for her unbelieving husband, it testifies to him of her devotion to the Lord. When the powers observe we are submissive to them as God called us to be, God is glorified.
Having said this, however, our submissiveness to the powers is not granted as an attempt to preserve their established system, but is more akin to tolerance for God’s temporary stewards. Peter continues “Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (1Peter 2:17).
Observe the distinctions Peter makes in the verbs he assigns to the nouns. Honor is what we give to people in general, for everyone deserves a starting minimum of respect. A sacrificial life of love, however, is reserved for Christian brethren. Fear of the LORD, that sacred awe and devotion, belongs to God alone. And honor is also given to the powers. This is perhaps best illustrated in Jesus’ interaction with the scribes and chief priests in Luke 20:19-25 where he muses that while the powers obsess over their pocket change worth of respect, God is taking ownership of everything else, including our lives. Since the powers, in their role and to the best of their ability, can only limit the world’s chaos, the justice, security, and freedom they believe they provide is always limited. A limited goodness is not a complete goodness. For all their pomp, campaign promises, policies, and propaganda, the powers can only ever offer a minimal good. As a people called to give witness to the God who is complete goodness, the Church’s obligations must be prioritized and directed towards that which will allow goodness to be completely realized—the reality of Christ’s redemptive Kingdom. Therefore, the Church is to give the powers genuine respect and submissiveness, but not our allegiance.
As this tension continues to define the Church’s relationship with the powers, at least two questions can be asked; firstly, what if the powers we submit to grow hostile? Peter may have anticipated this concern, for he continues to write “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God” (1 Peter 2:18-20).
Regarding submissiveness, Peter doesn’t discriminate between good or bad powers, because our submissiveness is not governed by circumstances but by the command. Whether “good and gentle”, or “unreasonable” or “harshly treated”, the circumstances are simply the conditions in which submissiveness is learned, practiced, and demonstrated, for it is in this we reveal God’s holy worth to the people and powers. Not just submitting to the good, then resisting the evil, but submitting to both so both may witness God’s redemptive work. Submitting to both despite the circumstances emphasizes the Church’s identity and mission revolves around the rule of King Jesus rather than whatever the circumstances might be or bring. Should the circumstances prove hostile, they are an opportunity to please God by persevering in submission, patiently enduring the conditions in order to give witness to what is right within those conditions. This, however, raises a subsequent question: is there ever a moment where the Church must stop submitting?
History and hypotheticals offer responses of every kind. Peter, however, continues to fix his focus on Christ. He continues “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed (1 Peter 2:11-24).”
Living Christianly will always mean actively engaging circumstances that are challenging, and sometimes hostile. Such circumstances will rarely offer clear wisdom for easy navigation. Peter’s words, therefore, position Christ, his character, teachings, and example as what needs to be the sum of our efforts. With Christ as our focal point, his singular pursuit of Kingdom reality becomes ours, regardless of the circumstances and the challenges they may present. Just as hostile circumstances are a reflection of the curse and chaos that pervades our world, should the Church choose to cease submission and respond to the hostility in kind, for all the good we presume it could do, it would also reinforce the curse and chaos our witness is called to counter. By choosing to imitate Christ in our endurance, however, not reviling in return or uttering threats, we give clarity into the one who heals humanity and is making all things new.
The uniqueness of the Church is rooted in the uniqueness of God. God’s holiness calls the Church to live out this uniqueness amidst the world and her powers all the while set apart from them, even as they try to redefine us in their image. The Church cannot fulfill God’s purpose for her by aligning herself with those who would usurp God’s authority for their own agenda. The life of the Church must always be characterized by the life and example of her King, even when that example is shaped like a cross. In the constant following of Jesus the Church continues to ever bear witness to redemption’s completed day when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, [wherein] he will reign forever and ever (Rev11:15).”