Kingdom of God, Politics, and Romans 13

Kingdom of God, Politics, and Romans 13 January 28, 2015

KingdomConspiracyIn a recent blog post, Greg Boyd, who endorsed my Kingdom Conspiracy, weighs in on why we dare not let kingdom of God be connected to politics. He provides 12 reasons and I endorse the thrust of his post — yet over and over we see folks using the expression “kingdom of God” for political activism and social justice activism shaped by political alliances.

Kingdom of God, instead of aligning with already existing political powers, created a new kind of kingdom with a new king, a new rule and redemption, a new people, a new law and a new sense of place. The ethic of the kingdom is for those people living under that king not for the public sector living under other kings.

It violates the integrity of kingdom theology to impose that ethic or vision on others and turns kingdom theology into a secularized (I mean that term as “worldly” not as in “secular humanism”) alternative. One can’t enter into kingdom ethics apart from living under the king and participating in that king’s redemptive rule. One compromises that kingdom and that rule and that king when one softens or adjusts it all to fit under another empire’s orders and ways of being.

Greg Boyd rightly observes that when this happens we become complicit in evils and violence but we deconstruct mission.

A letter from a friend asks me then about Romans 13:

Romans 13 is a passage that you didn’t deal with and is one of the central passages many would cite in defense of a political theology. Could you give an interpretation of that passage in light of your argument about what Jesus meant when he talked about kingdom?

One cannot of course interpret Romans 13 in its entirety in a single blog post, but putting the whole text here gives us a chance to make a few observations:

Rom. 13:1   Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

Rom. 13:6   This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Rom. 13:8   Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Rom. 13:11   And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

The biggest mistake made in the Christian and politics discussion is to assume that what God has said to the covenant community (e.g., Israel, the church) is also for the non-covenanted people. To be sure, God’s will is God’s will and therefore God’s will for all, but the kingdom vision of Jesus is for kingdom people not for non-kingdom people. We are not called to impose kingdom ethics on the world but to call people into the kingdom.

Romans 13 is how a kingdom apostle, Paul, thought about how to deal with the Roman empire. He wasn’t telling Rome how to live. Rome didn’t care what Paul thought.

First, Paul believes God is sovereign and that all powers that exist are underneath God’s powers. This does not say all powers are good but it does say political power is designed by God to be good and just. Rome, for all its glories and all its evil, was under God’s power. Paul does not hereby sanctify Rome or all of Rome.

Second, Paul counsels disempowered and unempowered church people to adopt a strategy of being good. We constantly need to remind ourselves that Christians (and Jews) in Paul’s world were not empowered voters but mostly right-less folks living in the Roman empire. This is not advice for citizens who can vote directly. And, notably, this disempowered set of Christians in Rome were at that time not experiencing persecution. Paul is not talking here to the persecuted church but to a church that has no political power.

Part of being good and doing good (Jesus and Peter use this expression for what I’m talking about here in Paul) is paying taxes. Christians are not anarchists — but that is not a “principle” so much as a way of life that, under other circumstances would have to change. If persecution comes one follows Jesus.

The essence of being good is being people of love.

The expressions of being good in love is to cease from the ways of life they know in the Roman empire, not least among its empire leaders. That is, they were to be holy in their love.

Third, Paul would never endorse all powers as good and right and Paul would stand with Christians who suffered for doing what was right and good if Rome threatened to raise its mighty hand. Within Romans 13 we must see the standard early Christians respect for powers that was simultaneously a willingness to obey Jesus even if that meant what we today would call civil disobedience. In other words, endorsement of government as God-designed is not endorsement of all government does. The Left today and the Right today both agree that government is good (except when the other party is in control!) but can get out of control. So much more is the case for 1st Century Rome.

Perhaps to be observed for our context today, there is nothing here about activism in order to change the government. But we need to be careful: nor did they have the situation where they could do such. What our text says is that Christians are to be respectful of the powers — Nero is on the throne folks — and be good and be loving and be holy. There is not thought of taking over Rome to control the empire.

The politics of Paul then is goodness, love and holiness — formed in and among an alternative community (called “church”) that indwells this world, witnesses to this world, calls people from this world into the community of Jesus and while indwelling this world lives a commendable, loving life. The activism of Paul is to work for the good of all by being loving, compassionate and just. Will this mean, today, that we’d join in on just activisms? Of course, but not by aligning ourselves with the empire.

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  • Scot,

    Have you read Rowe, World Upside Down (Oxford) on the book of Acts? He says many of the same things you are saying.

    I didn’t see him listed in the index of Kingdom Conspiracy—and there isn’t a bibliography : (

  • scotmcknight

    Kingdom Conspiracy was very limited in footnotes and at one time I thought of having no footnotes. I have not read his book but I have dipped into it here and there.

  • Definitely a much needed articulation of good doctrine in a first world Christian climate that is often askew. Thanks, Scot.

  • Scot,

    I agree with what you say here and find it a helpful articulation of the basic issues.

    I agree that the New Testament intends the church to be an a community of faith that authentically articulates the good news of the reign of God in ways that are lived out in the world without trying to take over the state and certainly without being taken over by the state.

    But I have not yet come to terms with what you are saying in Kingdom Conspiracy about church. In my experience, institutional churches of all theological stripes tend to be organized centers of resistance against the reign of God being actualized in their lives and certainly in the social experience of their life together. Indeed, they seem to resist any teaching about what the reign of God is within New Testament teaching. My experience is of churches that are enculturated in American middle class values. Those values serve as the oil that causes their feathers to repel any kingdom of God values.

    I have tested whether they are even capable of remembering and repeating that the kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ ministry and that it involves our repenting of our culture’s ways of thinking and taking up the redemptive values of God’s reign. I have been stunned about how few church members under repeated teaching can or will repeat these basic truths. Even when a small group within the church begins to live for kingdom values and the vision of kingdom redemptive contact with broken people begins to emerge, the main body of the church tends to shut it down because it does not fit their middle class approach to life. “We’re not that kind of church. That’s not how we do things here.”

    I know that attempts to build less enculturated churches that are kingdom-based from the ground up have produced the best available alternatives I have seen, but such efforts seldom get much beyond the house church stage.

    Many of the best alternatives seem to grow up around centers of Christian higher education. I long to see them penetrating into ordinary communities and doing extraordinary things.

    I hope that there are some positive examples that you or readers of your blog can offer.

  • scotmcknight

    1. The word “institutional” is an automatic pejorative description. There is no non-institutional church, anywhere or at any time in history.
    2. They don’t tend to be organized centers of resistance… that’s a dramatic overstatement. No church is perfect because no Christian is perfect.
    3. To be sure, some churches are against what some of us think is the dead center issue and this gives us a major struggle, but we can talk about that instead of overstatements.
    4. All churches are enculturated expressions. The ones you perhaps want will reflect your enculturation.
    5. I, too, am disappointed how few even care to define kingdom as a term and see how important that term is to Jesus. Let me come back: how often did Paul talk about kingdom? John’s epistles? James? Peter? Maybe we should look for the substance of kingdom and see how it morphs into different linguistic expressions in the NT. That happens constantly. I believe what Jesus meant by “kingdom” is more or less what Paul meant — adapted to new situations for sure — by “church.”
    6. On centers of higher education… I’m in that world but it is a fundamental mistake to see ourselves as those who really get it while churches and pastors grub along on the ground level not getting it. I have been revolutionized by the NT to say it is the pastors and churches who are actually doing it.
    7. There are positive examples everywhere I go… and probably in your church among most.

  • Thanks for the lengthy response.

    I will consider finding better language for some of my points.

    I agree that all churches are in some sense institutional. I do use the term institutional perjoratively of those in which the financial and time needs of the building and inward program dominate and limit whatever else can happen, especially when the inward program runs primarily towards things that have little or nothing to do with the kingdom of God, but more to do with building up the sense of middle class identity, status, and privilege of the members.

    I will concede that most churches I have experienced have a few programs that involve providing a small number of volunteers for community food banks and the like. That’s good. Making room for the more expressive spirituality of the poor people they are serving would be better. Actually considering what might be done to alter the dynamics of poverty would be terrific.

    I have many years of experience trying to help church people move into kingdom perspectives. I have to confess that I have had few successes. My methods may have been faulty, but I simply do not have ideas for how I could have done better in the circumstances in which I ministered.

    I am searching for vision of a better way to do church, and I think that it must start from a founding commitment to prioritize the living, loving, reigning presence of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), to listen to the authority of Scripture, and to serve a gospel mission that cuts across social and cultural lines.

  • The statement that “Political power is designed by God to be good and just” does not make sense.

    If God is the source of goodness, how does political power get to be good without him.

    What is the standard of goodness for political government? Where is it found” Aristotle or Madison?

    If there is no Christ activism, political power will be worldly, not good

    Everything outside the Kingdom of God is the kingdom of darkness (the world). How can a government that is part of the kingdom of darkness be good. God can use evil for good, but that does not make it good.

    If the Kingdom of God is God’s perfect plan for goodness and
    justice, how can there be another system of government that is also good.

    We seem to want to have our cake and eat. We want to have this nice little kingdom on the side, where we can practice loving and caring in privacy our homes or churches, while having all the benefits of a good secular government.

    A kingdom cannot have two kings. A people cannot have two governments. We pretend that we can get round this by having both a king (Jesus) and a government.
    That is logically impossible.

    The prophets, gospels, Daniel and Revelation indicate that most
    human government is bad and will collapse and be swept away.

  • Dan Arnold


    I read Kingdom Conspiracy and now after reading this post, even though I have anabaptist leanings, I’m still left with a significant concern. So yes, I agree that the church, embodied in local ecclesial communities, is to be obedient and live out lives exemplified by, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. What I don’t get is if this is where the church is called to action, to mission, then how does the church join in activism to “work for the good of all by being loving, compassionate and just” without advocating for governmental structures that support, at least, justice? In Kingdom Conspiracy, you appeared to equate the advocacy of the church for any governmental structure with Constantinianism (appendix 1). In practical terms, how would such an approach to Kingdom and politics justify, say, the Civil Rights movement?

  • scotmcknight

    Dan, it’s a delicate move we are called to make here. Aligning with the political powers for me means joining the platform of a party and seeing our task to get the will of God done by political activism. We are always faced with the Constantinian temptation …
    On the civil rights movement. Advocate for justice, do works of mercy for the oppressed, embody that first of all in your church, etc. For me it’s not about aligning with a party but advocating for justice and against injustice.

  • Dan Arnold

    Thanks for your response Scot!

    In the 1960’s we saw a general alignment between political parties and positions on Civil Rights, which made that distinction rather difficult, a distinction that still lives on today, although in other arenas. One of the struggles that I see is defining what is justice and who determines it. I have friends who consider justice as equal outcomes while others consider it equal opportunity while others, something else entirely. It seems Christians don’t have a consensus on what is justice, much less those outside the church.

    As for acts of mercy for the oppressed, I’m reminded of Bishop Hélder Chimaera’s comment: When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist. Is the church only called to acts of mercy or are they also called to advocate for structural reform as an act of mercy in itself? It seems to me that things get very complicated very quickly and this is where I struggle seeing how to be a consistent with my Anabaptist political leanings.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “The prophets, gospels, Daniel and Revelation indicate that most
    human government is bad and will collapse and be swept away”

    The writers of those works knew of no government other than theocratic dictatorship and notably, being governed by an invader.

  • RustbeltRick

    Speaking personally, my Christianity motivates me to give money to soup kitchens, and to declare unequivocally that structural systems (such as a sub-poverty federal minimum wage that most large retailers strongly push to keep low) keeps people dependent on those soup kitchens, food stamps, etc. To emphasize mercy without preaching justice to powerful interests seems like a cowardly form of Christianity that refuses to upset the status quo.

  • Teresa Rincon

    It’s provocative to suggest that the American Revolution was founded on rebellion against the principles of Romans 13, but I’m increasingly leaning towards that position. If anyone can provide me a biblical counterpoint, I’d be interested in hearing it.

  • John O’Hara

    Could you elaborate on the difference between advocating and aligning? Is advocacy short term cooperation with a party? Alignment long term?

  • John O’Hara

    I would say that a political party aligned itself with the Civil Rights Movement, not the other way around.