Jesus and the State

Christians show a mixed bag of thinking about the church and the state or the Christian and the state. Most seek in some way to anchor their thoughts in what Jesus said. What did he say about the state? Political thinker Alan Storkey, in his Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers, proposes a four point summary of how Jesus challenged the state, and I wonder if it figures large enough in how Christians — both Left and Right — posture themselves toward the state.

If you had to summarize Jesus’ posture toward the state (Antipas, Pontius, Rome) in one word, what word would you choose? Why?

Jesus taught the rule of God, the kingdom of God, the government of God, a rule/kingdom/government that challenges the state in four areas:

First, it subordinates the state to God and to the law. “The principle of the rule of law properly understood requires ruler and ruled to submit to God’s precepts of justice, respect, and neighbor love” (127).

Second, the ruler-god is unacceptable. That is, the temptation to ruler-god by political leaders is idolatrous. Political rulers are officeholders.

Third, totalitarianism “involves the state pretending to possess powers it does not properly have” (127). That is, “We live before God, not the state…”.

Fourth, this kingdom vision of Jesus “makes a society pluralist, where family life, work, religion and church, education, the arts, community all have a place before God and are not to be controlled or swamped by the state” (127).

The politics of Jesus then counter the politics of the world. He does this theme really well.

Storkey leans toward the Reformed sphere sovereignty theory of Kuyper as the Christian perspective on the state. Family, church, state, economy and society each answers to the rule of God while in many frameworks family, church, economy and society answer to the state. This perhaps explains what happens when he turns to Jesus’ political principles, which are these, each defined with some finesse and alertness to bigger themes in Jesus, but one wonders if he’s not found modern themes of importance as found also in Jesus. So the issue is Where Storkey begins — with what we need to hear or with how Jesus framed politics? Anyway, here are his themes:

1. Equality of all
2. Peacemaking
3. Truth
4. Integrity vs. popularity
5. Power reshaped into freedom
6. Reconciliation
7. Stewardship
8. Compassion for the poor
9. Political toleration, and here Storkey shows that “toleration” was the challenge to “conformism” (and one form of conformism is Constantinianism).

But this is followed by a potent section on what ruling looks like after Jesus, and here the whole is turned upside down. Jesus’ statecraft begins with the Servant King, where the ruler is to serve the people, and by the Law of God not the law of man, where love is the central theme. Here is found the pre-political sense of what is right and wrong. Constitutionalism follows from this: rulers and people are under God’s law and no one is outside or above the law. Justice then is about being right with God, with self, with others and with the world.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jeff Y

    This would have resonated with me about 25 years ago when I was heavily immersed in politics and economics (Just received my M.A. in Econ) and deeply religious.

    Now, this seems to me to be so full of human theory – a kind of inappropriate syncretism of human political philosophy and understanding with some of Jesus thrown in. Far too westernized and platonized.

    I really don’t think Jesus cared much about political theory in such a direct sense (the leadership he addressed while on earth was still a theocracy – Israel under the Law of Moses – more or less). But, when His kingdom came after the resurrection, it became a kingdom that flowed throughout the world – under a multitude of human rule of all stripes. His rule transforms people. And, while Paul taught that governments are designed by God to bring justice (Rom. 13:1-7); there still isn’t much of a “theory” it seems to me; and it also seems to me that the Christian subjection to the rulers is the key point of Paul in Rom. 13 (flowing out of the transformed life of living sacrifice – begun in 12:1-2; cf. Titus 3:1, 1Pet. 2:13-15). Ironically, Nero was the emperor at the time of Paul’s writing, most likely. So much for good government. But, these texts seem to me to be primarily subversive when framed in the big picture of discipleship: as living sacrifices, transformed into the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29), they submit to the powers and ultimately defeat evil just as Jesus did on the cross (1Pet. 2:21-25; Eph. 1:20-22). In an ironic, subversive and counter-intutive way, laying down their lives, loving not their lives to death (Rev. 12:11) they reign victorious with the eternal king (Rev. 19:11-16); and this sacrificial offering brings victory not only for themselves, but as the kingdom becomes Christ-to-the-world through loving the world sacrificially as Jesus did – the world is drawn to God (Jn. 12:32 – if I be lifted up I will draw all men to myself; Col. 1:13 – transferred out of the domain of Satan and into the kingdom of the Son). This sacrificial love to the death or to radical servanthood by communities of faith – for both God and neighbor (bringing justice and love to even enemies – and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of God in Jesus) is the sign of the rule of God on earth in Jesus. And, it is the ultimate defeat of the powers, through apparent loss. As was the cross, so the cruciform people of the cross.

    That, it seems to me, is Jesus’ foundational Political Theory. The one that matters to Him and His kingdom. And this “political theory” is victorious regardless of the nature of the human rule/empire under which it exists.

  • dopderbeck

    My one word: ambivalent.

    This sounds like a good book. I’ve found it interesting and challenging that in contemporary theology, the entire notion of the “state” is problematized. In Jesus’ time, there was no “state” as we think of it. The “nation-state” is an invention of modernity. It’s therefore more than a bit anachronistic to project ideas like sphere sovereignty and the nation-state back onto scripture.

  • http://www.timgombis.com Tim Gombis

    I read this book a few years back and I thought his reading of Jesus in his political context was brilliant.

  • Diane

    I agree that this book sounds good. I would answer the question about what, in one word, comprised Jesus’s attitude to the state as– indifferent. He was building a new way of seeing and being from the ground up. He didn’t care what the state thought. He didn’t idolize government or run after power, though he would, at times, speak truth to power. He didn’t try to change the state directly or get hold of the levers of state power. In fact, the temptations show he rejected that path.

  • http://www.krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    I echo dopederbeck at #2. Concepts like “state” and “economy” have evolved considerably since biblical times. I think you could make the case that modern ideas of democracy and human equality owe much to Judeo-Christian influence. If Jesus had lived in our context, would he have taken a different course of action? Said differently, are we to take Jesus’s response to the particularities of the context into which he was born and absolutize that response to all other contexts for now and evermore? I don’t think so and that it was what makes translating the biblical teaching into practical application.

    I purchased Storkey’s book awhile back. I’m thinking I may need to move it up my reading list.

  • T

    I think I’d have to go with “subversive.”

    I used to think that Jesus didn’t care a lick about the governments of the world, and that’s true to some extent, especially in the notion that he didn’t need their power so that he would be forced to negotiate with them, which is part of what I think his silence before Herod and his refusal to defend himself before Pilate was about. They thought they could deal with him as if he needed them and he would not feed that, even if it cost him his life–temporarily. But Jesus was pointedly political in two very central ways: (i) he proclaimed the reign of God as his main message, and took up the mantle as the Messiah, the son of David to lead that reign of God come to earth, inviting people to follow him above all, (ii) he didn’t die in a vacuum or even by Jewish stoning, but rather, the plan of God was that he would die on a Roman cross, and be resurrected from it. This pagan instrument of intimidation and propaganda for the power of Caesar and Rome became the symbol of Jesus’ power over all. The resurrection from the Roman Cross served as a statement of supremacy.

    I thought seriously of choosing “stepping stone” or “megaphone” as my one word or phrase that summarized how Jesus saw Rome, because I think God had in mind the same kind of thing he had in mind for Pharaoh and Egypt, which is fitting for the second and true exodus: “I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth, but I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” God spares even wicked kings out of compassionate patience and out of a plan to call Rome and all rulers and all people to their true place: as servants to the one true God and his Son, the king over all kings.

  • Marshall

    Prophetic? I suppose that begs the question. He challenged the state at the root, but he also submitted to its temporal operation … in not resisting, even verbally, the passion, also in paying his taxes: which he did without being drawn into the secular economy. What Diane said, but maybe “ironic” rather than “indifferent”.

  • Jeff Hyatt

    I think that the word “subversive” is the new sexy term tossed around in the post-evangelical sub-culture. Jesus was certainly perceived as a subversive threat to the “rulers.” However, the only real subversion that I am seeing/hearing is in the movement from the evangelical ‘religious right’ towards the post-evangelical ‘liberal.’ Much is expressed in subversion of the republican party right now while moving towards an embrace of the democratic party. Where is the critique of both parties, any parties?

    I think that the best word to describe Jesus’ posture towards the body politic is ‘King.’ He was neither threatened by, nor in need of the political systems and rulers of this world because he knew that he was/is the rightful King.

    What might it look like to live as the children/friends/followers of the true King? I’m just not sure that ‘subversive’ would make the list.

  • ao

    I totally agree with, T (#6). Similarly, my one word would’ve been “power-under” as opposed to “power over the government”. Same idea as subversion. Greg Boyd uses the power-over vs. power-under distinction in “Myth of a Christian Nation”, and I loved it there. N T Wright’s “How God Became King” convinced me that it’s not really fair to say that Jesus’ attitude towards Rome was indifferent or ambivalent. I think the Biblical narrative sets the kingdom of God against the kingdoms of the world.

    I agree with some of Jesus’ critics when they appealed to Pilate, “Anyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). =)

  • Diane

    I would say that Jesus’s indifference to the state was at the core of his subversion. He showed how hollow state power really is when he treated it with indifference.

  • http://amusemademedoit.blogspot.com Anne Bosworth

    Service.

    To my mind, particularly if I am understanding the above correctly, government has a two-fold role as a provider of organizing services to the people, but this organization is rightly done within the constraints of God’s laws. The government of the people becomes part and parcel to the overall governance of God—i.e., “and the government shall be upon his shoulders.” Christ’s government is the ultimate executor of righteousness, justice, service, and judgment. A good/right government is grounded in His commandments…the law in which love of God and love of neighbor & enemy alike are held up as the two greatest commands that should necessarily help in the carrying out of the other 8.


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