Why the Church needs to elaborate on love

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jewish people’s relationship to the Law had grown complicated. Since they returned to their land from exile, they made such a concerted effort to avoid the lawlessness that had led to exile that they not only pledged to keep the Mosaic law, but they also erected additional traditions as a fence around the Law. As dedicated an effort it was intended to be, it ultimately resulted in a congestion that not only wound tightly around the neck of the people’s life of worship but also undermined it with hypocrisy. There was no clear line of sight into the heart of God.

So when he was eventually and, appropriately, asked by a lawyer which commandment of the law was the greatest, Jesus’ reply provided welcomed clarity. He answered “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt22:37-40).

So impactful was Jesus’ statement here that Paul echoed it in his own writings (Rom13:8-10, Gal5:14,). Jesus and Paul were both comfortable summarizing the Law as love because they knew their audience possessed an abundance of detailed knowledge of the Law; so much, in fact, that a summary was necessary. To this day, Jesus’ love summarization is one we have rightly come to rely on in our attempt to understand God’s demand on our lives.

A summary is only useful, however, as long as knowledge of what is being summarized is retained and appreciated. When the summarization becomes so constantly used that the specific details being summarized are no longer remembered or esteemed, it has become a generalization. Such is the situation I believe may be facing the Church today.

Many churches and ministers are so grateful for whatever attention span their congregations give that instead of spending it fixating on complex topics requiring explanation and nuance, they opt for simplicity, hence the appeal of the love summarization. Similarly, as Scripture’s complexities raise issues of holiness, communal obligations, or dealing with political ideologies and allegiances, the love summarization quickly provides much less tension and divide. Therefore, the desire of simplicity and the summarization of love are understandable avenues for maximizing one’s message in a short amount of time. Having said that, however, an over-reliance on the love summarization can inevitably lead to liabilities.

One, as Bible reading and literacy decreases, so does knowledge and understanding of its vast but critical narratives and theologies. Like a high-schooler’s preference for Wikipedia entries instead of reading the original material, the summarization of love becomes preferred to the appreciation of God’s Scriptural revelation.

Second, the love summarization, in and of its abstract self, carries no explicit moral impetus. During my freshmen year at a Christian college, I went to a store with another ministry student. He stole an item in front of me. When I objected, his response was that I needed to be more loving because God is love. When the concept of love becomes an enabler of lawlessness, what harmony or good does it or can it claim to represent or promote?

Finally, “Love” in its popular usage doesn’t necessarily require an acknowledging of the person and priorities of King Jesus. Consider the COEXIST bumper sticker; while every group featured there would uphold or celebrate “Love”, they are philosophically indifferent or opposed to King Jesus and what he demands. So, while in the Church “Jesus=Love” (maybe), outside of the Church, “Love” doesn’t carry the same gospel distinction, and is, therefore, insufficient as a tool in conveying the comprehensive reality of Jesus.

The summarization Jesus and Paul employed to demonstrate how love is the sum of the Law was a helpful and necessary one at the time. It provided much needed clarity into the heart of God. But if the Church’s use of that summarization begins to nurture an ignorance of Scriptural reality, or an indifference to its demands on our lives or to King Jesus himself, that summarization then requires a thorough unpacking. Churches and Christians would thus benefit greatly from education of a more developed quality. A kind that moves away from the inspirational pop theology characterizing many pulpits today, and instead digs into the texts, examines and discusses the hard topics, expanding upon the simplicities and the love summarizations to allow for an appreciation of the inherent details, complexities, and nuance to take root and flourish. Jesus and Paul’s love summary was a gift; it only remains a gift when there is an appreciation and allegiance to what it was summarizing.

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Does the old covenant nullify Jesus’ teachings?

Some time ago it was put to me that since Jesus’ teachings were delivered prior to his crucifixion, they fell under the old covenant and are, therefore, irrelevant.

Uncertain of the logic at work, I was unsure how to immediately respond. Perhaps it was a form of Marcionism applied to all events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Maybe it was an interpretation of Jesus’ last supper words “this is the new covenant in my blood” that presumed the whole of the new covenant’s reality exists only after his blood was shed. Whatever the case, if the statement is followed to its logical conclusion, it essentially discards everything Jesus said, did, and, ultimately, requires of us. Therefore, lest such a notion flourish within the Church community, I wish to share three brief thoughts on the establishing of the new covenant.

First, while the new covenant was certainly certified and initiated at the cross, the reality of the new covenant’s good news was initially established at the start of John the baptizer’s ministry. In Luke 16:16, Jesus says “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed”.

The law and the prophets constituted the reality of the old covenant. John’s message heralded the impending new covenant. Where the herald of the king is, there is the reality of the imminent king. How much more when the king actually appears?

Secondly, therefore, as God’s Spirit incarnate, Jesus’ arrival and ministry simultaneously fulfilled the righteous requirements of the old covenant while also transformatively establishing the reality and essence of the new covenant. In his earliest recorded sermon, Jesus began “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt5:17-19).

How is it that the old covenant passes away but its law does not? By becoming something else, what it was always meant to be—holiness distinguishing the heart of God in us. Not a system of works-righteousness, but worship lived in responsive conformity to the righteousness the King embodied on our behalf.

Finally, through Jesus’ death as the inaugural sacrifice, the new covenant is initiated as the living standard for all who would follow him. The old covenant followed the same pattern. Moses delivered the law to the Israelite people (Ex19-23), then the people pledged to obey it (Ex24:3). After Moses offered sacrifices (Ex24:4-6), he identified the blood as what notarized the covenant that then defined the relationship between God and his people (Ex24:7). Jesus mirrors this imagery at the last supper when he says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt26:28).

Having received forgiveness, we now answer God’s grace with a response of obedience proportionate to what his new covenant requires of us.

Why does this material matter?

John Bright writes “Repelled by all legalism, we have come close to the point of apologizing for any duty religion seems to involve, nay, have offered a religion almost without the demand of duty at all. Can it be that in casting off all religious duty, we have ended up admitting no duty—save to ourselves? It is time that we heeded the lesson of the Holy Commonwealth: that religion, aside from all that it does for man, lays before him a duty and demands that he do it. Christianity does involve duty. And that duty is to obey God, not in general and as it is convenient, but in every detail, and without exception.”

Brought to life as his Church, we are a covenant-people whose culture is to distinguish a holiness and worship that reveals in us the heart upon which God has said “I will put my law” (Jer31:33).

A Framework for Nurturing Faithfulness

In each of our lives there come moments we wish we had more faith. In such moments, it would be encouraging to know where and how faith may be found. For such an edifying process, I hope to offer the following framework.

In Matthew 8:5-13, Jesus encounters a Roman centurion whose display of faith amazes him, and, I believe, offers faith-forming wisdom for us to imitate. For sequential purposes, I will examine this passage backwards, beginning in vv8b-9.

The centurion had come to a certain realization about Jesus. In vv8b-9, he says “…only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 

The spreading news of Jesus’ powerful teachings and healings was forcing everyone to reconsider their concepts of reality. The centurion’s own contemplations led him to conclude Jesus was lord over reality. This is the foundation of the centurion’s faith-formation, and the impetus of everything that happened from there.

So, firstly, Faith is formed in the acknowledgment and appreciation of Jesus’ authority.

If faith is the “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see”, then the beholding, hearing, and believing of Jesus’ words and actions provides the sight that establishes such blessed assurance and erects confidence for continual hope. Acknowledging Jesus’ lordship over all reality brings our perceptions out from the shadows of our anxieties and ushers them into glorious dimensions made vibrant in the supremacy of Christ. But just as steel in a forge needs to be hammered and quenched, freshly formed faith needs regulating and stabilizing.

In v8a, the centurion’s initial objection to Jesus coming to his house was Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof”.

Having realized Jesus’ lordship, the centurion realized Jesus’ worth and value surpassed his own. While his own position commanded respect from his fellow soldiers and his words could issue military orders, he knew he had no ability to restore hope to the haggard soul or power to command healing over a body. In the presence of Jesus, he could only be in awe.

Secondly, therefore, Faith is tempered by humility and wonder.

If acknowledging Jesus’ lordship is what seats him upon the throne of our minds and hearts, wonder and humility is what both keeps him enthroned there and prevents us from trying to usurp him as sovereign over our lives. Wonder is the bliss that enables joy at Christ’s supremacy. Humility is the channel by which we receive the peace of his rule. With this posture both mind and heart can remain in a serenity that, as we shall see, overflows into bodily expression. 

So, for what purpose is faith formed and tempered? As a representative of Rome, the centurion had seen power leveraged for every self-aggrandizing agenda under the sun. He knew his small local band of occupying soldiers was, but a fraction of the empire determined to rule the world by any means necessary. If they didn’t, other kings and armies would. Power, they felt, existed to exalt those who held it, often through suppression. But whatever regard he may have still held for Caesar and for his own duty, the person and words of Jesus now held a regard of a far greater kind. This Jesus who wielded and weaved a power over and throughout reality used it to bring hope and healing to the people not even the greatest world superpower would bother to aid. This simple, but most powerful man in the world served the weakest among him. This completely transformed the centurion’s perception of the purpose of power, inspiring his own newly formed faith to serve.

Upon seeing his servants’ sickness, the centurion thus responds according to the character of Jesus, asking him in v6 Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” 

Faith is implemented by compassion.

There are times I find myself in existential queries, wonder what to do with my life. But if someone asks for my help, I know right what to do. Compassion gives definition to duty. It cuts away at all the banalities to let what is important emerge.  Compassion infuses the theoretical with opportunity. Compassion is the form allegiance to Christ takes. It is the quickening of obedience. Compassion tests out faith that has been forged to determine whether it is real or fake.

Just as compassion characterized Jesus’ ministry (Mt 9:35-38, 14:13-21), and directed the centurion’s faith, it will instruct us where, to whom, and how to apply this faith God has shaped in us.

To put this process into play in our own lives, I would advise a patient and prayerful reading and contemplation of Scripture, with attention paid to passages that explore the supremacy of Jesus Christ. Let the words transform your perception and weave wonderful worshipfulness into your rhythms. From there, look around and about you for those in need, consider how you might respond, and then go do so.

Faith is God’s gift to us. As with any precious valuable, faithfulness requires conservation. I hope this framework helps nurture in you a faithfulness that keeps your life allegiant to the King.

A Rite of Corpse and Covenant

In Luke’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the text says in chapter 22:19-20: 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Within Jesus’ words here is something of a twofold structure for how we might understand the salvation God is setting into us; specifically that we are saved from something and saved for something.

In v19, Jesus took the loaf and said “This is my body, which is given for you”. Many times in the New Testament Scriptures, the word “body” is used to describe, yes, our physical bodies, but also the arena in which our struggle with our sinful nature is the most intense. So by instating the bread, Jesus establishes it is by the holy nature of his own body that the fallen nature of our bodies is being redeemed. Thus we who are allegiant to him share in the freedom from sin’s enslaving dominion.

Being liberated from slavery, however, does not yet mean we are empowered for the life of freedom.

So in v20, Jesus then takes the cup and says “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”. Israel’s failure to keep the old covenant revealed the dominion of sinful nature at work in our fallen flesh. With Christ’s body having liberated us from our fallen nature’s dominion, we are now prepared to enter into a new covenant reality designed to reveal Christ’s holy nature. The institution of the cup, therefore, certifies that in Jesus’ blood is the initiation of that new reality. His blood brings to life the covenant reality those allegiant to him shall display by embodying the harmony of holiness Jesus himself personified and proclaimed.

This twofold structure sets Christ’s redemptive rhythms into our lives. The Communion rite reminds us of who we are in Christ and reinvigorates us for life in Christ. In taking the bread, let us do so remembering his body has saved us from the dominion of sin in our own bodies. As we take the cup, let us do so as committing our allegiance to the holy way of living for which Jesus’ life saves us.

A song lyric of mine goes “From out of the dark, into his kingdom of light, we are made new by his resurrection might”. Communion is not about staying stuck in the patterns of our sin-riddled corpses of yesterday, but embracing God’s covenanted freedom today for the future Christ’s life empowers and propels his people toward.

Christ, the Church, and the Powers

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!

CHRIST’S TRIUMPH

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).”

A post-election concern for the Church’s witness

As we come down to the end of what has been a very divisive election season, my concerns are focused primarily on the witness we as the Church are impressing upon the country and world around us.

As the field of candidates has gradually narrowed over the past year, many Christian believers have come to a “rock and a hard place” where it is supposed that desperate times call for desperate measures.  These desperate measures usually amount to what is resignedly referred to as “opting for the lesser of two evils”.

I understand the impulse within the rationale: “Do what you have to do”. “The ends will justify the means”. “It’s all for the greater good”.  Yet, after the impulse has passed, it still remains that we have aligned ourselves with a way that is contrary to the nature of the one to which we’ve been called.  The utilizing of this “lesser evil” logic makes little sense for a God-people who have been called to “be holy in all your behavior; because it is written ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1Pt1:15-16).

I understand that, in the minds of those who use such rationale, the assumed short-term consequences of the “lesser evil” pale in comparison to the assumed long term consequences of electing one who might be considered the “greater evil”.  Be that as it may, the logic seems quite comparable to that of the historical apostasy rationale to “convert now, repent later”.  The logic may seem practical, but it’s just not Christian.

My concern here is the long term impact of the corporate Church willfully falling short of God’s glory.  When that willful shortcoming is committed corporately on a national scale, that impact will be significant.

How so?

One period many Christians frequently forecast is the end times.  It’s an unavoidable, futuristic period during which, among other events, great persecution will break out against the Church.  It will be a time when the gospel is no longer tolerated and those who proclaim it will be met with retribution in the form of societal marginalization, imprisonments, and executions.  Most of the time these forecasts conclude with a rallying cry for Christians to not compromise the faith.

The problem is that choosing the lesser of two evils is just such a compromise.  Granted, it may seem a fairly small compromise; but isn’t that the nature of the “slippery slope” we have historically been so wary to avoid?  The great momentous compromise never just occurs; it is gradually predetermined by the compromising choices we make on the way to that moment.

It inevitably raises the question: Amidst these politically turbulent times, precisely what are we the Church pursuing?  Is it the holiness to which we are called to live out in witness to God’s Kingdom?  Or is it simply the favorable conditions that allow us to go on living comfortably while tending to our religious practices?

My concern is that if in order to retain such comfortable conditions we must compromise our holy character, even in the privacy of the voting booth, what exactly is so special about what we Christians proclaim in our witness?  How can we be seen as anything more than just another people-group with compromised morals?  How can the world hear the good news if we might have had a hand in creating evil news?  Why should they?

This is not a demand or insistence that Christians should not vote or be concerned with elections or civics, but a reminder that as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1Pt2:9), our devotion to Christ is not dictated by what the system and culture shaping elections and civics is demanding.  We need to be asking ourselves what the sum of our choices are saying about what it is and who it is we the Church are pursuing.  If the answer is anything or anyone that doesn’t look like Christ, we have positioned ourselves on that long slippery slope.

It’s a complex conundrum.  I do not expect or require that Christians can extricate themselves from this quandary cleanly.  I do, however, believe that choosing to “seek first the kingdom of heaven” in how we make our choices is a step in the direction that allows what is unique about Jesus and his Kingdom to marvelously emerge from among the mayhem.