Last week, The Raleigh News & Observer reported that Rev. Stephen Davey, a conservative evangelical pastor and founder of Colonial Baptist Church in Cary, NC, believes the church shouldn't engage in political action. "The mission, energy and investment of the church is not to clean up the evils of society," says Davey. "The mission of the church is to evangelize society."
Davey's position is similar to that of renowned Bible teacher, John MacArthur, who claims in his book, Why Government Can't Save You, that God has not commissioned His people to declare war on their culture, but instead to obey the government, whatever it demands. Evangelicals who hold this position often declare: "You don't see Jesus standing up to the evils of the government or the decadence of His day; neither should Christians do it today?"
The statement begs the question: Was Jesus political?
Certainly Jesus' ministry was not about establishing a political kingdom. Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). On one occasion, Jesus perceived that a group of people were going to try and make Him a King. So He hid from them on a mountain (John 6:15). "On the other hand," says Andrew Sandlin in Jesus and Politics, "it would be totally in error to hold that Jesus' life and teaching had nothing to do with politics. All to the contrary, a politics that does not issue from a proper understanding of Jesus' teaching will be a seriously misguided -- and ultimately dangerous -- politics."
The thrust of Christ's ministry was regeneration -- the saving of souls. His message was essentially a spiritual one. Nevertheless, when Jesus' message is applied to all of life as He intended, the results are nothing less than revolutionary. Indeed, Christ's kingdom is not of this world, but that doesn't mean it wasn't meant to pervade the world.
Much of what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount has considerable political ramifications.
Consider the Savior's words, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). The late great Bible teacher James Montgomery Boice, formerly the senior pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, notes the heart of Christ's statement in this text has to do with a sinner mourning over their transgressions against God. But he also rightly contends the text is "a call to involvement in the social arena -- in the struggle of blacks for true equality, the plight of underpaid workers, pollution of our natural resources, education, ethical problems in politics, medicine, and business, and other contemporary problems -- just as Christians were formerly active in the war against slavery, child labor, lack of freedom of the press, and immorality. We should mourn for such things. And we should mourn deeply enough to do something about them."
Jesus also said in this same sermon, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" (Matthew 5:6). Again, this text's primary application is about a person's yearning for salvation -- one's hunger for forgiveness -- thirsting to have the righteousness of Christ imputed to one's account as a free gift by faith. But as Tom Minnery contends in Why You Can't Stay Silent, "righteousness is more than that .... In the Hebrew culture, people thought far more about the community than they did about the individual. Righteousness was not primarily about one's personal relationship with God; it was the standard for right relationships between people ... this passion for a righteous society was a part of Jesus' meaning when He pronounced His blessing on those who hunger and thirst to see righteousness dominate the affairs of mankind. The Revised English Bible translates Matthew 5:6 this way: 'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; they shall be satisfied.'"
Furthermore, Jesus argued in the Sermon on the Mount that His followers were to be "salt" and "light" (Matthew 5:13, 14). "Salt" in Jesus' day was used as a preservative for food stuffs. "Light" dispels the darkness. John R.W. Stott, rector emeritus of All Souls Church in London says of this text: "The function of salt is largely negative: it prevents decay. The function of light is positive: it illumines the darkness. So Jesus calls his disciples to exert a double influence on the secular community, a negative influence by arresting its decay and a positive influence by bringing light into darkness. For it is one thing to stop the spread of evil; it is another to promote the spread of truth, beauty and goodness. Putting the two metaphors together, it seems legitimate to discern in them the proper relationship between evangelism and social action in the total mission of Christ in the world."
Civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount provided him with the foundation for his political protest of non-violent resistance. King's views were based in part on Matthew 5:39, where Jesus said: "But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." The consensus of both liberal and conservative scholars concerning this text is that Jesus was referring to a backhanded blow -- one of the worst indignities suffered by an oppressed people in the Roman culture. To turn the other cheek, however, is a clever way of preventing another backhand from one's persecutor. It forces the oppressor to make the next blow with his fist, which was the way equals would fight in that day. It's a way of saying, "I have dignity. I am your equal. I am your peer." Without question, Jesus is instructing God's people not to retaliate when persecuted for their faith. But His words also contain a political strategy for overcoming evil with good -- shaming and exposing the evil of oppression -- using the power of oppression against itself.
Consider Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Could there be a more sublime statement with greater political overtones? This parable crosses the divide between culture, race and creed. It talks about crime, racial discrimination, hatred, bigotry, and exploitation. It even indicts religious leaders who are unwilling to do anything about these problems.
And let's not forget that Jesus was most outspoken when it came to criticizing the cultural and religious authorities of His day. He told them: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are" (Matthew 23:15). Jesus once chased the moneychangers out of the Temple with a whip because He said they had corrupted it (Mark 11:15-17). He called Herod a "fox" (Luke 13:32). These remarks and actions by Christ were both spiritual and political in nature.
Lastly, the followers of Jesus perfectly understood the dual application of His preaching, that they were to be citizens of two worlds a heavenly kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. They understood what Jesus was talking about when He commanded in Matthew 22:21: "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesars; and unto God the things that are God's." They would not worship the Roman Emperor as a god, and, many therefore, paid with their lives. Yet the pressure and agitation they wielded on Roman culture did much to improve the plight of women and slaves, protect defenseless children, abolish the gladiatorial games, and provide humane treatment for prisoners and the poor.
Evangelist Billy Graham once described the early Christians in this way: "Christianity grew because its adherents were not silent. They said, 'We cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard.' Nor did they stop with expressing the great faith they had found. They stormed against the evils of their day until the very foundations of decadent Rome began to crumble."
So, was Jesus political? The fundamental nature of Jesus' message was unequivocally religious. Nonetheless, Christ's message had political corollaries.
Faithful Christians seek to both evangelize and bring a righteous influence to bear on the political process. Davey and other evangelicals who share his view imply the later is a futile and even worldly endeavor by the church. However, to paraphrase an argument once made by Sir Frederick Catherwood: To try to improve politics is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of politics is not love but worldliness.
This article originally appeared on March 13, 2006.
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.