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The Neutered Church

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I received a phone call from a friend who goes to a conservative Baptist church. She asked one of the assistant pastors to help promote Justice Sunday. The purpose of Justice Sunday is to involve Christians in the political process. The pastor argued that Christians should not be involved in politics or social issues because Jesus and the disciples did not vote, rally support for social issues, or argue for Christian involvement. Christians who view the New Testament as normative for Church life are committing a significant theological error.

In the New Testament era, Israel, and by extension the Church, was a captive nation under judgment with no voice in Roman affairs. The inscription on the tribute coin given to Jesus (Matt. 22:15–22) read: “‘TI[berius] CAESAR DIVI AUG[usti] F[ilius] AUGUSTUS,’ or, in translation, ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the deified Augustus.’ The inscription was virtually an ascription of deity to the reigning emperor. . . . The irritating presence of the coin was a constant reminder to the Jews of their subservient condition.”[1] The Jews showed their true allegiance and the reason for their foreign domination when they cried out in Pilate’s court when their Messiah was presented to them, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Not to be involved is neither religious nor political neutrality.

First-century Christianity developed in a time of political oppression, but this did not stop the church from making a religious-political statement that was perceived to be a threat to the status quo. The church was rightly accused of upsetting the world, “saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). As long as the churches were not viewed as a political threat, they were treated with indifference by the Roman government. Churches could talk about religion and its “spiritual dynamic” on the “soul,” but there could be no talk regarding who was god.

We should be reminded that the rallying cry of the early church was “Jesus is Lord” (Acts 16:31). This was a political statement. The Roman provincial authorities would not have been concerned with what they considered to be a Jewish sect (Acts 24:5, 14) as long as these “Christians” (Acts 11:26) had maintained that Jesus was a lord, subservient to the Roman Emperor and just one god among the many gods already part of the Roman pantheon. Of course, if Christians had “presented Jesus to the Greco-Roman world as ‘another’ God, their faith would long since have gone the way of Mithraism.”[2] The declaration was that there was only one God, and He’s not Caesar!

You cannot serve two masters. If Jesus is indeed Lord and King (Rev. 19:16), then even Caesar would have to bow before Him (Phil. 2:9–11; cf. Matt. 2:1–18). The Emperors saw the consistency in this view, many Christians do not.

As citizens of the United States, we do not live under Caesar! This may come as a shock to Christians, but it’s true. In principle we are to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar only when we define our “Caesar.” We live under the Constitution of the United States at the federal level in which we have multiple freedoms, including the right, according the First Amendment, “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution informs us that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

We are also under the constitutional jurisdiction of the state where we live. There may be additional laws at the county, borough, city, or parish level. These are our “Caesars.” As citizens, we can vote, express our political opinions, start political parties, support political candidates, campaign and lobby for the enactment of legislation, freedoms that did not exist in first-century Jerusalem or anywhere else in the Roman empire.

Endnotes:

[1] Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Times (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 152.
[2] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 1

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